Wednesday, March 08, 2006

This is me and my energy

Wherein this more of a collection of data points floating around in my head, rather than a coherent article. Because if this was coherent, you would be on another webpage.

New book coming out about Barry Bonds using steroids and other performance enhancing substances. Yawn. So this is not about Barry, who is one of the greatest players in the history of the game and probably ranks just as highly in the annals of jerkdom. Just so you don't think this is done under the guise of a Barry Bonds apologist.

My position: legalize and un-ban performance enhancing drugs, therapies, whatever; I don't care. Steroids? I'm fine. Human Growth Hormone? Sure. Blood Doping? If you think it will help. EPO? Can I get that on my corn flakes? Surgery? Yep.

Just to clarify a bit more, I'm also of the opinion that the war on drugs is a farce and that pretty much everything from marijuana, to cocaine to heroin to toad-licking should also be legal. Do with that what you will.

Now, if a sport or organization wants to ban a substance - for example, steroids - that's fine. That's their perogative. My problem is that much of the testing is ineffective in finding cheaters and too prone to labeling innocent athletes. Take Tyler Hamilton. I don't know whether he's guilty, or not. I do know that the test they've used isn't as fool-proof as has been offered. I've read too much from too many independent scientists who have faults with the reliability of the testing - and many of them seem to have a better grasp of the science than the guys that developed the test (NY Times, May 10, 2005).

EPO raises hematocrit levels. The problem is, everyone has different levels. And levels can change based on altitude, training, and even stress. So a level of 50 percent level of hematocrit is usually set and if the athlete is over that, they're suspected of EPO usage. Even though it hasn't been proven and there are many natural reasons for a "high" level. The athlete is left trying to disprove a negative.

Arguments against performance enhancing drugs generally fall under three categories: it's illegal, it's dangerous, and it's unfair competition.

Illegal and banned
Some of what we're talking about is illegal. Some require a doctor's prescription, some are banned by an organization - not all organizations use the same lists, and some are in the gray areas.

Obviously I think a person should be responsible for their own body and I'd prefer to do away the illegality.

The problem with many banned substances is that many of these are also available as over the counter drugs. An Olympic athlete has to be extremely careful what he takes when he has a cold. The wrong medicine can get him banned for life. Then there's the case of French cyclist, Franck Bouyer. He suffers from narcolepsy and without his medication will fall asleep on the bike. The Anti-Doping Agency has cleared his banned medication (modafinil), but the International Cycling Union has not. Without his drugs he is incapable of competing and a danger to others.

A common asthma medication is a frequently banned substance because it can give you an unnatural advantage by increasing your lung capacity (relaxing the muscles that surround the airway and opening up the air passages). Banned, unless you get an exemption because you actually have asthma. Did you ever notice the number of world class athletes with asthma?

Then there's Mark McGuire and androstene. At the time, it was a perfectly legal drug (still is), banned on the Olympic level, but not Major League Baseball. Doesn't it seem silly to ban something that anyone, of any age, can buy at practically any nutritional supplement store?

And many of these banned substances and practices have legitimate medical uses.

They're dangerous, Mmmmkay?
Bah, let the user decide. Besides, under proper supervision by a trained physician, many of these items are not dangerous and do not have long term effects.

EPO kept Lance Armstrong alive as part of his cancer treatment, but is a bannable item in practically every sport. Blood doping, HGH, hormones, testosterone, even steroids, all have a proper medical use. So why not let athletes use them to fine tune their performances. Mark McGuire wasn't using androstene just for strength and to bulk up, he was injury prone and hoped it would help him recover and perform better. That's a worthy goal.

Baseball and basketball are daily grinds that wear out the athlete. We have enhanced training and nutrition, why not a little medication to help the muscles heal a little faster? It will keep them healthier and let them provide a better game.

Read this article from Outside Magazine. The author underwent an 8-month "anti-aging" regimen. These drugs are not illegal, but likely banned by most sports organizations. Excerpted:
My plan was simple. I would train as I always do—about 15 to 20 hours a week—while taking various supplements under Dr. Jones's supervision.

After a few weeks of the HGH, I began to notice subtle changes. My skin started getting... better. Sun blotches that I'd had on my arms for a year faded away. One morning I woke up and a scar on my forehead—which I'd gotten from a mountain-bike endo two years earlier—was more or less gone. Even though I was training like a madman, I looked more rested. Younger. A little fresher.

After the HGH, he added testosterone, giving me a 200-milligram injection and a pump vial full of Testocream, white stuff that I rubbed on the sides of my stomach.

IT WASN'T UNTIL I ADDED EPO to my diet, two weeks later, that I began to notice serious differences.

When I checked in with the good doctor soon after the race, he wasn't surprised about what I'd experienced. "With your hematocrit levels higher, you don't produce as much lactic acid, which means you can ride harder, longer, with less stress. The growth hormone and testosterone help you recover faster, since you're stronger to start with and recover more quickly. All those little muscle tears repair much more quickly."

A MONTH LATER, when I added a basic anabolic steroid to the mix, I felt like I'd grabbed on to a car moving at 60 miles an hour. The effect was powerful, fast, and difficult to modulate.

"What you want is something that doesn't give you a lot of mass but adds strength," he said. "I'd start with Deca. It has almost no liver toxicity and has the nice benefit of helping joint pain. In Europe, it's used for arthritis. There's only one reason everybody doesn't use Deca."

"Deca's not so harmful to your liver," he went on, "but most steroids can knock the hell out of it. You can get huge mood swings. Anger, irritability. Sex is a mess. There's a surge in libido, then it falls off a cliff and you don't even want to think about sex. Then, when you stop your dosage, you start to shrink. Depression can set in. Your body starts to slide back to what it was, and most people don't like that. People forget that it's the drugs and not them. It's like when you take Viagra and you think that's how you'll always perform. No, no, no."

"Don't give me this you're-getting-fat crap," he said in an exasperated tone. "You sound like some teenage girl. You've lost six pounds of fat and gained 12 of muscle. That's why you're heavier. And like I told you, the Deca supersaturates the muscle cells with fluid. That's one of the reasons your joints feel better."

When I got back from France, I immediately quit everything: no HGH, no testosterone, no EPO, and, God knows, no steroids. It was wonderfully liberating to be freed from a routine that had started out feeling illicit and interesting but had become just an annoying daily chore, like taking vitamins.

Since then, I haven't had my hematocrit level checked, nor my body fat, HGH, or testosterone. But already my eyesight is starting to slip a bit and I find myself squinting to read small type. I'm sure my recovery times from a hard workout have increased. Even if I keep training as hard, my endurance will drop. LOOKING BACK On the whole saga, I find myself wondering whether I'd keep taking these drugs if I could afford them.

After reading this, it convinced me that under the right conditions performance enhancing can be done relatively safely and pushed me over the edge towards total legalization. For the record, the author disagrees with me: Like a lot of powerfully bad ideas, that one has a certain mad logic. But it would turn every sport into a test of how much damage an athlete was willing to risk to improve performance, and would basically force every serious athlete to cheat and risk his or her health.

Sure, but performing on a world class level is inherently unsafe as it is. Is it safe for men to bulk up to 350-400 pounds to slam into each other? The average NFL career is about 4-5 years long and many live the rest of their lives in pain. Women athletes train so hard they stop menstruating from low body fat. Have you looked at what is done to teenage gymnasts? Pitching a baseball is an unnatural motion that destroys arms and elbows.

I think we should be looking for ways to expand human performance without forcing the athlete to physically destroy his body.

The "it's unfair" whine and cheese
Performance enhancing is not a substitute for training and natural ability. It enhances. Barry Bonds is not a great hitter because he may have taken steroids, though it probably made him a little better. Many suspect Lance Armstrong of using banned substances. I don't know and if true wouldn't completely shock me, but what is a given is that no one has trained and prepared better than he for the Tour De France.

And where do we draw the line with what's unfair. Anyone involved in distance events is probably familiar with "Vitamin I." Ibuprofen is swallowed like M&Ms to reduce pain and joint swelling. That's one chemical process, so why is that more wrong than another laboratory produced pill?

Athletes with 20/20 vision are having Lasik surgery for that slight improvement to 20/10 or 20/15. Isn't that an unfair advantage? Don't athletes who train at high altitudes have an advantage?

Pitchers blow out an arm and after Tommy John surgery seem to come back better and faster. Why wait until the injury? Take a year off when you're twenty and have your tendons and ligaments reworked in a more suitable fashion.

There's a big debate about feeding Ritalin and other psychostimulants to children. This is appropriate, because while sometimes appropriate many times these are being prescribed to children who are bored and just need a better environment. Still, in colleges many students pass out extra pills to friends to help study. Many adults are also doping up. Could you be a better batter or golfer with a little chemically assisted attention? If you had two equally matched chess players and one was on Ritalin would they still be equally matched?

Maybe all this is unfair, but sports are inherently unfair. Some athletes naturally gifted and waste their talent. Some are gym rats that persevere against all odds. Some have intangibles that make them more valuable to a team than as an individual. In the end, it takes a different type of person - both mentally and physically - to become a professional and world class athlete. If we can safely enhance that ability, or be willing to let the athlete assume any risk, I'm ok with that.

Update: A bit more at Drug cops are playing catch-up.

Also not worked up over steroids


Blogger Pooh said...

Fan-freaking-tastic post. If I was into the whole 'carnival' thing, I'd submit it to everyone I could find.

3/08/2006 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger bill said...

thanks! Just trying to stem the tide of FUD and hysteria.

3/08/2006 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger amba said...

he was injury prone and hoped it would help him recover and perform better. That's a worthy goal.

Yes, and for the record, he should have tried the Feldenkrais Method.

3/11/2006 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger amba said...

I think we should be looking for ways to expand human performance without forcing the athlete to physically destroy his body

May I say that again? The Feldenkrais Method shaves minutes off runners' times. I don't know if a baseball player has ever used it. You expend less effort and are less injury-prone because you use your body more efficiently and in line with its structural dynamics.

3/11/2006 01:24:00 PM  

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