The Wrong Road to the Top?

July 22, 2014 at 9:27 am 1 comment

A recent casual conversation with an elite Australian athlete can only be classified as “Naive.” The question as I walked way was whether I was the one who was naive, or were they?

The issue that had me questioning was one of “vitamins.” The athlete in question explained how they were given a number of vitamins to be taken every day, to ensure that they stayed at peak levels of fitness. Now we are not saying that there is anything untoward in relation to the vitamins being given to the athlete, and others in the same program, but it did make one wonder what would happen if one athlete refused to take the vitamins. Would they be thrown off of the program?

There is no way that this assistance, to see an athlete reach peak performance, is going to ever be as bad as some of the programs established by the East Germans, but surely athletes should not be put in a position where there is pressure to take such vitamins. Who can forget East German shot putt champion Heidi Krieger, who was so masculinized by the drugs her coaches gave her that she later chose to become a man, undergoing a sex-change operation to become Andreas Krieger. However Kreiger was among thousands of young East German athletes who ended up scarred by an East German government plan to dominate Olympic sports through chemistry. In the investigation into the programs it was revealed that in most cases the athletes were told the pills and shots were vitamins and natural supplements.

This has a very familiar ring to it. Funding for various sports is as we have seen based on success or expected success, that success guarantees jobs.Suddenly the price of an athlete’s or a team’s success has far bigger ramifications.

What is being taken now may well be legal, but what may be the effects later?

In 2005 the New Scientist magazine revealed that professional footballers appeared to be at increased risk of a nerve disorder that causes paralysis and death. It is the same type of motor neurone disease that physicist Steven Hawking has, and is called ALS. A study of 7,000 Italian players showed the condition was five times more common than expected.

The study was carried out by Dr Adriano Chiò and colleagues at the University of Turin who looked back at the medical records of footballers who had played in Italy’s first or second division between 1970 and 2001. Normally the incidence of ALS, would be expected to be that one or fewer of the players had ALS. It was found that five had developed the condition. Apart from the higher incidence rate the players with ALS had developed it at a much earlier age than is typical for the disorder, at around 40 rather than 60 years of age.

At that time the researchers suggested “that the high risk might be linked to sports injuries, performance-enhancing drugs or exposure to environmental toxins such as fertilizers or herbicides used on football fields, as well as genetic factors.” The truth is the doctors do not know why this is the case, as Dr Brian Dickie of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, was quoted at the time as saying “We still don’t know what causes this link, or whether it would be reflected in other groups of footballers and sportspeople.There is some anecdotal evidence of a link between high levels of physical exercise and an increased risk of developing motor neurone disease. However, much more research needs to be carried out before we can draw definite conclusions.”

Some would say though that more caution should be taken by athletes before taking vitamins supplied by team doctors. One former Australian footballer who played in Italy, advised that vitamins were commonplace and brought around the night before a game. He advised that he would place them under his tongue and then spit them out once the doctor had left, as how could he be 100% sure what he was being given?

Today such tools as vitamins are called ergogenic aids and they are a legal way of enhancing performance.

A recent article by the BBC saw Spanish professional cyclist Fran Medina reveal the cocktail of multivitamins taken every morning. These consisted of “folic acid, iron, vitamin C – that helps absorb all the vitamins.” he was quoted as saying. He then said that he also takes B6 and B12 which he believed were good for “Oxidative stress.” This is a theory where the cells in the body are believed to experience molecular damage caused by reactive forms of oxygen, called free radicals; all very scientific!

After two hours of training the same article revealed that Fran then takes L-arginine which is also for oxidative stress. Other supplements on the market that do the same thing are apparently Bovine Colostrum, caffeine, sodium bicarbonate and nicotine. This last one is apparently under surveillance at the moment by the World Anti Doping Agency.

The same article from the BBC quoted Dr Mikel Zabala from the Sports Science Faculty at Granada University in Spain as saying that “while nicotine and caffeine help an athlete to be more alert, other substances are used to build muscle strength.”

The article went on to explain all manner of other supplements that are currently legal for athletes to use, but no one can confirm if there are long term effects to absorbing more than is natural. For example Creatine, plays an important role in the production of energy in the body, but how much is too much? Beetroot juice, helps increase the levels of nitric oxide in the body and could help a swimmer reduce the number of breaths they need in a short distance race. Are there long term side affects to this?

Another new and legal addition to an athlete’s preparation are Oxygen tents. Here athletes can sit inside the tent and simulate an environment of over 13,000 feet. Olympic Gold medallist in the 10,000m and 5000m at the London Olympic Games is believed to have slept in one such tent up until the last day before his race . This is called Hypoxic training -essential in endurance sports – and there is a big push by some nations to see it banned as it is classed as performance enhancing; in Italy it is already banned. Mind you it is not cheap, the cost is estimated to be USD5000. However when you weigh it up against the marketability of international sporting success it is a small price to pay.

Just because something is not illegal does not mean that it is fair, or in fact good for you.

The fact is none of this is new. From 776 BC athletes routinely boosted performance with hallucinogenic mushrooms, plants and mixtures of wine and herbs, and the winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon, 110 years ago, Tommy Hicks was given a cocktail of a one-milligram grain of strychnine and some brandy. The effect was it gave him a temporary boost until another was administered. He won the gold but it damn near killed him when he finished.

I guess people will do whatever it takes to strive for athletic glory, but hopefully some athletes will ask more questions today than they did in days gone by. Certainly no athlete should be forced to take something they do not wish to take, or have their place on an elite program or on a team put in jeopardy by refusing to do so.

As for who is naive? Still trying to work that one out…



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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Ryan  |  July 23, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Vitamin cocktails have been in pro sport a long time. Yes, it can be a very grey area depending on the programme, the supplements, and the people involved. As all things.

    $5k for a Hypoxic Tent or $10k+ to go travel to Utah/Europe/Mexico to get the same end results?


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