Sunday, March 29, 2009

What's wrong with EPO

Michele Ferrari, Lance's former trainer, is quoted in Daniel Coyle's awesome book Lance Armstrong's War, describing cheese and naps as performance enhancers that should be banned. He is obviously kidding but uses the humor to make the point that there are no black and white lines in the performance enhancer discussion. God did not proclaim from Mt. Sinai that EPO is bad, Power Bar good. These decisions have been made by human organizations based on some arbitrary set of guidelines, yet they are treated as scripture.

To support banning substances like EPO and steroids, there are a number of arguments that are used.

The Unfair Advantage

EPO gives a grossly unfair advantage to those who take it, destroying the competitive playing field.

There are a lot substances and tools that give its users an unfair advantage, and all can be acquired if you have lots of $$. Using a $5,000 Trek Madone rather than a $1,300 Biachi Imola creates as much advantage as EPO or not EPO. Hiring a coach like Mark Allen or Chris Carmichael for big bucks provides significant advantage over self coached athletes. Training at altitude versus sea level? Huge. None of these are banned. And competitive athletes don't share training principles. The whole point is to discover the best secrets - the shit that kills - and exploit them to the max until the competition finds them. EPO is no different.

Health Risks

We must protect the athletes from hurting themselves.

It can't be disputed that while EPO improves endurance athletes' ability to process oxygen and perform at a higher level, it also comes with long term health risks. But bombing down a slick Pyrenean road on ultathin tires at 60 mph is no picnic. Every year one or more cyclists dies in a crash and the only move that cycling authorities have made to address the issue is requiring plastic helmets. Running 100+ miles a week isn't good for you. A muscle biopsy on a 25-year old competitor after the 100 mile Western States race revealed the typical profile of a 75-year old. Female endurance athletes stop menustrating because they lack a healthy level of body fat. A growing number of people are dying of heart attacks during the swim portion of triathlons. Clearly, even without EPO, endurance sports at extreme levels aren't good for your health but noone is advocating banning them or their $500 entry fees.

Save the Kids

If we don't ban performance enhancers, little Johnny and Jane will take them so they too can excel at sports.

The CW is that if we don't ban EPO and steroids, American kids will all be inspired to to take them just like their heroes. Is this the exact behavior that needs to be controlled and influenced - a desire to do well in sports? The two top problems affecting America's youth are obesity and flopping in the classroom. We are producing stupid, fat kids. Steroids usage is becoming more prevalent in middle an high schools but not as much as twinkies and X-Boxes
and we aren't trying to ban them. Are we really worried that Arod is the bad influence, not our fat and lazy parents?

The point is not to legalize EPO and steroids today; it's to examine what we really want in our sports, whether as competitor or observe. If the whole point is to push the barriers of human performance, why does the line we won't cross have to be at EPO? Are these arcane rules similar to the Cambridge Deans in Chariots of Fire who objected to a paid coach?