Thursday, October 11, 2012

Update on the Lance Armstrong debacle

H/T to the Bayly Brothers.  USA Today links the USADA report, and more details can be found from the USADA. 

Now a layman's explanation.  The main drugs taken appear to be EPO, which enhances red blood cell formation, blood doping (re-infusion of one's own red blood) to achieve a higher hematocrit, cortisone and testosterone.  The steroids are helpful in building and repairing muscle.

I'll illustrate the significance with a personal story.  In college, I walked on to the track team as a distance runner, and found after a spring of 70-90 miles per week, accompanied by a generally unappealing variety of iron-rich foods at the dorm cafeteria, the local Red Cross blood center refused me.  Why?  My hematocrit was too low to give blood--below 40, if I remember correctly.  The nurse informed me that the combination of endurance sport and low iron diets was linked to this.  This corrected, my hematocrit returned to a "high normal" range of 45-47, and I started running faster, too.

Now look at the report; Armstrong, with a far rougher training regimen than mine, was concerned when his hematocrit got down to 41.  The cycling federation limits cyclists to a hematocrit of 50--just like the FDA for blood donors, for what it's worth.  So what's going on with EPO is that the athlete gets the chance to train much harder, followed by higher capacity to transfer oxygen to the muscles during competition--translating to a 10-20% advantage, or more, in terms of the energy that an athlete can expend without "going anaerobic", which is a 5-8% advantage in peak speed.  Blood doping will do much the same thing, except without helping the athlete in training as much--the body only makes so many red blood cells, after all.

Now there are of course limits to what can be done--the body can only process so much sugar and recover muscles so quickly, so it's not quite as big as that.  That said, the data presented indicate that Armstrong did indeed have a fairly significant advantage over non-doping participants.  How many there were is uncertain, as the cycling federation notes that 20 of 21 podium participants in the Tour de France since 1999 are implicated in doping.  Finding a non-doping cyclist could be like finding a Mr. Olympia participant not taking steroids, or a Miss America participant who doesn't know any plastic surgeons.

So the data do indeed bear out the cycling federation.  What's to be done?  Again, I have to suggest that cycling needs to police itself if it wants to be taken seriously.  I'll be waiting for that announcement.


tobin said...

So the "witch hunt" Armstrong has accused the USADA of being on isn't so much him being without guilt, but more of them singling him out. I'd be ticked too.

Until they release evidence that all the people Armstrong beat were not doping, it kinda means nothing.

Bike Bubba said...

Even if he's the one singled out, he's still a guy who traded his integrity for his profession--along with a lot of cyclists and most politicians, I reckon.

Mark said...

Apologies to Groucho Marx, but "Who are you going to believe? Me or my doping friends?"

At least Lance has been consistent... If they could prove that his samples are doped, they wouldn't need testimony. Hasn't science gotten good enough to catch him after a dozen years?

Bike Bubba said...

Mark; see my earlier comment on this one. There is a method by which blood parameters are essentially put on a control chart, and this new method flags Armstrong pretty clearly as "beyond unlikely this could have happened naturally"--about a million to one odds.

Now I think that cycling needs to admit their drug control strategy's been a farce to recover this--hopefully we'll see that.

Mark said...

A co-worker of mine worked for USA Cycling here in CoSpgs and hasn't said anything about damning evidence. USADA isn't trumpeting any evidence beyond the (other) dopers testimonies.

One in a million? That's not even close to the odds that one man would win so many Tours... Wait. That's not helping my argument, is it? ;^)

Bike Bubba said...

Mark: :^). Seriously, the blood evidence is not presented properly in the document, but it is about page 140. Also, given that 19 other Tour placers have been found to have doped, it's also implausible that a winner would not have. It's that much of an advantage in terms of maximum energy expenditure.