New research suggests athletes who dope even for a short period could benefit for “up to ten years”, whereas for more “committed” cheats, the benefits “could be lifelong”.
Kristen Gunderson, Professor of Physiology at the University of Oslo, ran new research into steroid use and told BBC Sport, “I think it is likely that effects could be lifelong or at least lasting decades in humans.
“Our data indicates the exclusion time of two years is far too short. Even four years is too short.”
Gunderson’s team drew its data from tests on mice, but their findings suggest these drugs have the same effect on humans.
“I was excited by the clarity of the findings. It’s very rare, at least in my experience, that the data are so clear cut; there is usually some disturbing factor. But in this case it was extremely clear. If you exercise, or take anabolic steroids, you get more nuclei and you get bigger muscles. If you take away the steroids, you lose the muscle mass, but the nuclei remain inside the muscle fibres.
“They are like temporarily closed factories, ready to start producing protein again when you start exercising again.”
People who have exercised to a significant level, stopped, then resumed training months or even years later are often surprised by how quickly everything comes back – the ‘feel’, the movement, but also the muscle mass and the definition, and the ability to perform near or at the same level they had before.
Scientists put this down to something called ‘muscle memory’, which Wikipedia says may have implications “for exclusion times after doping offences”.
Muscle memory has been used to describe the observation that various muscle-related tasks seem to be easier to perform after previous practice, even if the task has not been performed for a while. It is as if the muscles ‘remember’. The term could relate to tasks as disparate as playing the clarinet and weight-lifting, i.e., the observation that strength trained athletes experience a rapid return of muscle mass and strength even after long periods of inactivity. Until recently, such effects were attributed solely to motor learning occurring in the central nervous system. Long term effects of previous training on the muscle fibres themselves, however, have recently also been observed related to strength training.
It therefore follows, logically, that if an athlete takes drugs to enhance his system, the benefits accrued from this (which, in the case of steroids, allows for increased muscle mass, among other benefits) will also remain with him or her years later.
One athlete discussed in the Radio 5 program is Justin Gatlin, who has twice been banned for doping and who has spent five of the past thirteen years suspended. Gatlin, 32, has come back from his four-year ban that spanned 2006-2010. Gatlin had originally accepted an eight-year ban, and cooperated with the anti-doping authorities to avoid a lifetime ban.
Maybe if he’d been really nasty, like Lance Armstrong say, he’d have been banned for life…
Tom Fordyce, BBC Sport’s chief sports writer, said of the sprinter, “This is a man who has twice been banned for doping and who has come back to do extraordinary things. He’s unbeaten over 100 and 200 metres this year, he’s run six of the seven fastest times over 100 metres, and he is running times never run by a man of his age before.
“If this evidence [collected in the study] is right, then it raises question about how athletes like Gatlin are managing to record such extraordinary performances.”
Incredibly, Gatlin has been selected by the world athletics governing body to be included in the poll for World Athlete of the Year.
“In a situation like this where it is a simple poll and the nominations are out forward by the governing body,” said sports writer Mike Costello, “it is just beyond belief that they would choose someone like Gatlin.”
And so we come to cycling.
Let’s consider the statements of confessed dopers such as George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer, and indeed that of Stuart O’Grady. Each admitted to having doped in the past, yet each also claimed that there was a specific time at which the abuse ceased, after which they rode clean and still recorded significant results.
Many scoffed at these claims, as these riders continued to ride at or near their previous (doped) levels, yet this new research strongly suggests that they may have been clean but that they were in fact still cheating anyway.
One of the driving factors behind the existent two-year ban for taking banned substances is the notion of redemption. We expect, in an ideal world (and is this not what the world of sports aspires to be?), that the athlete found to be cheating will be adequately punished, see the folly of their ways, and return to compete once again, sufficiently chastised by the experience so as to never cheat again.
This is why rides like Alejandro Valverde, Alexandre Vinokourov and especially Riccardo Ricco so anger people, because there is no doffing of the cap, no contriteness. But what difference is a tearful apology to an adamant refusal to apologise, when the effect of the original action is everlasting?
This research shows that that notion of redemption is fundamentally and absolutely redundant. It does not matter if a caught athlete is truly sorry for having cheated nor if they vow both publicly and to themselves never to cheat again, because the effect of their cheating physically is – if this research is proven to be true in humans – never-ending.
Perhaps the next step will be to test this research carried out by Oslo University in humans. Among the body-building fraternity, where steroid use is widely accepted, researchers could surely find enough willing subjects to pump full of the juice. Then similar research should be conducted on blood doping and EPO and the other doping practices and products used by endurance athletes.
Or they could just go speak to former professional riders from the late 80s and 90s. There is enough anecdotal evidence that a large number of them are still feeling effects brought on from massive exposure to banned substances, most being negative in the extreme.
Over the years I’ve gone from believing that a four-year ban for first-time doping was needed, to an eight-year ban, and now to a lifetime ban. One strike and you are out.
The individual athlete has to be responsible for everything that enters their system, and though, yes, there may be some innocent people that get busted – possibly from being spiked – that price is worth paying.
Listen to the original BBC Radio 5 program here.