Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Innovation, Doping and Dollars

I want to use this post to present an off-beat assessment on some of the lesser discussed implications stemming from the “decline and fall” of Lance Armstrong who was stripped of his seven Tour de France wins earlier in the week.   Here are some thoughts:

First, Lance had a history of using what might be described as strong arm or aggressive tactics with his perceived “enemies” and subordinates.   So, as more people started to come forward there were all sorts of people willing to share their stories.   A number of years ago I commented in a story on doping in baseball that many hyper competitive elite athletes were a bit sociopathic and that certainly appears to apply to Lance if half of what we are hearing is true.

Second, it has been known for some time by the scientific community that there were a lot of technical holes in the drug testing protocols.   When my colleague Carsten Lundby pointed that the EPO test was “beatable” in 2008 he was vilified by the doping control establishment.   It turns out Carsten was right and he has issued new warnings about the biological passport approach.   I wonder if the authorities will listen to him this time.  He has some good ideas about what to do next.

Third, I had the chance to work with the late Dr. Jim Lipsky who was a leader in Clinical Pharmacology.   Jim could be critical of the pharmaceutical industry, but always pointed out that there was a lot more innovation and development of new compounds via capitalism in comparison to what came from communist countries behind the old Iron Curtain.   I think this also applies to sports doping.   The state sponsored program in East Germany was thorough and comprehensive but it was mostly the same old drugs given to large number of unsuspecting athletes (many of them very young) in a highly organized way.    By contrast, team Lance appears to have developed a number of novel ways to administer low dose EPO to avoid detection and use combinations of autologous transfusions (blood doping) and EPO to avoid detection.   They also seemed to have pretty good ideas about how long they would test positive after taking EPO or steroids and developed clever dosing schemes and other ways to avoid testing.    Designer steroids that are difficult to detect are also products of black or perhaps grey market capitalism associated with sports doping and creative but rogue chemists like Patrick Arnold.   The fact that there is serious money in sports doping is demonstrated by allegations of about 30 million dollars of money laundering that center around Michele Ferrari, the physician in the middle of the Armstrong scandal.  All of this suggests there is a pretty strong link between dollars and innovation in sports doping.

In summary, the ethical issues aside and ignoring the idea that perhaps there is a level playing field because “everyone is doping”, it is pretty clear that the people involved in sports doping are plenty smart and creative.  One of the sad side stories in all of this is that people like Patrick Arnold could have been devising novel drugs to treat patients and alleviate suffering vs. creating designer steroids.    Likewise, Michele Ferrari could have used his intellect and organizational skills to help the world get fitter instead of going to the dark side of professional sport.


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