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Short answers to snappy questions about sports doping

The world famous Edinburgh International Festival has kicked off, beginning three weeks of the best the arts world has to offer. The Fringe Festival has countless alternative, weird, and wacky events happening all over the city, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival is underway. Throughout the Book Festival we’ll be bringing you sneak peeks of our authors’ talks and backstage debriefs so that, even if you can’t make it to Edinburgh this year, you won’t miss out on all the action.

By Chris Cooper


Largely because of the furore about the Chinese swimmer, Ye Shewin, I have spent a lot of time in TV and radio studios recently. My book, Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat is really about the science of doping now and what could happen in the future. But of course I get asked a lot of more general questions as well:

1. What drugs do athletes use and do they work?

I usually answer this with the unholy trinity: anabolic steroids for power events like sprinting, blood doping for endurance events, and amphetamines (or similar) to prevent fatigue. If pressed I say that the strongest evidence for benefit is using blood doping (whether transfusions or EPO injections) and anabolic steroids, especially in female athletes.

2. How many athletes dope?

Always a tricky one: the number that test positive is around 0.5 – 1%. Although this could be an overestimation, as testers target the more suspicious athletes, I think it is more likely to be an underestimation. It would be safe to say that somewhere between 1 and 10% have tried doping in their career at any time. Of course, this number varies dramatically between sport and country. But I don’t think it is a majority and we need to recognize that.

3. Who is winning the war on doping?

I always say this is impossible to answer; how would we know if the dopers were using an undetectable compound? But it is likely the dopers and testers are on top at different times. Given the identity of all elite athletes is known — and their number is relatively small compared to all criminals in the world — if enough money and police intelligence was thrown at the problem it would make it very hard for the dopers to succeed routinely. But maybe this money is better spent on building a new hospital or improving our schools instead?

4. Are athletes gene doping?

Although theoretically possible, like most scientists I think it very unlikely this is successfully being used at present. There are likely more effective, and cheaper, ways to cheat anyway.

5. Why not stop spending all this money in an unwinnable anti-doping war and let athletes do whatever they want to succeed?

I answer this, by saying, that we should be careful what we wish for. The best example is anabolic steroid use in female athletes. Unrestricted use led to the health problems we saw in East German athletes. We may not like the look of the competition we create. If we allow steroid use under controlled medical supervision we may have healthier competition for those obeying the rules. But there will still be a few who want to go further. How can we check this without an effective anti-doping regime? The same system needs to be in place, just working with a different set of goalposts.

6. Why not have an Olympics competition for “normal” athletes and another for those using whatever they can to be the best that they can be?

This is an easy answer. Some of the methods tried in the “doping” games would involve illegal drugs. Many of the athletes would live shortened lives in the pursuit of victory. Which competition do you think Coca-Cola or McDonalds would sponsor? Which would the BBC or US networks cover? This kind of question is philosophically valid to ask, but practically a waste of time to think about. It ain’t going to happen.

I will be talking about this, and more, including my demonstration of blood doping using red wine, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 27.

Chris Cooper is Head of Research, Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Essex and the author of Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport. He is a distinguished biochemist with over 20 years research and teaching experience. He was awarded a PhD in 1989, a Medical Research Council Fellowship in 1992, and a Wellcome Trust University Award in 1995. In 1997 he was awarded the Melvin H. Knisely Award for ‘Outstanding international achievements in research related to oxygen transport to tissue’ and in 1999 he was promoted to a Professorship in the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Essex. His research interests explore the interface of scientific disciplines. His current biochemical interests include developing artificial blood to replace red cell transfusions. His biophysics and engineering skills are being used in designing and testing new portable oxygen monitoring devices to aid UK athletes in their training for the London 2012 Olympics. In 1997 he edited a book entitled Drugs and Ergogenic Aids to Improve Sport Performance.

Chris Cooper on: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport. See also this quiz: Test Your Smarts on Dope.

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