Blood doping, an illegal practice in endurance sports, involves collecting an athlete’s blood, processing it to create a concentration of red blood cells, and transfusing it back into the athlete before competition. This increases the athlete’s endurance by delivering more oxygen to their muscles. While standard blood doping has fallen out of favor, athletes now use synthetic erythropoietin (EPO) to increase their red blood cell count. Blood doping allegations can be difficult to prove, but more accurate tests are under development.
Endurance sports, such as cycling or distance running, place strain on an athlete’s entire system, from the lungs to the bloodstream to the muscles. To maintain endurance, an athlete’s muscles require constant supplies of oxygen contained in red blood cells. In theory, more red blood cells should give an athlete a natural edge during competition. This questionable training philosophy is behind an illegal practice called “blood doping,” also known as “drawing blood.”
Blood doping involves the collection of an athlete’s blood before a competition or the search for a matching blood donor. This blood is usually processed to create a concentration of red blood cells, then frozen until it is transfused into the athlete shortly before the event.
The belief behind this practice is that the extra red blood cells will deliver more oxygen and other essential elements to the athlete’s muscle tissues, which means more endurance and endurance. In a competitive sport like cycling, the difference between winning and losing can often come down to improved physical condition, not skill or strategy.
There are a number of drawbacks in practice. If the athlete donates his own blood, a process called autologous transfusion, he may become anemic and unable to train competitively. Blood from a matched donor, called a homologous transfusion, could contain a blood-borne disease or infection. However, an athlete who plans to receive a homologous transfusion can continue to train hard up until the day of the procedure.
Standard blood doping fell out of favor after a series of scandals exposed the practice to sports officials and sponsors. While the tests have never proved particularly accurate, many elite athletes and their coaches have voluntarily given up the practice. The practice of storing and processing red blood cells for later use has become increasingly difficult to hide from the sporting community at large.
However, a new form of blood doping has largely replaced the direct blood transfusion method. A growth hormone called erythropoietin (EPO), originally used to stimulate the growth of red blood cells in kidney patients, has become the newest way for some athletes to increase their red blood cell count before competition. Synthetic EPO can be injected into an athlete’s body, where it stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. Only a very sophisticated drug test can distinguish between legal natural EPO from illegal synthetic.
Numerous sporting events have been marred by the practice, or at least the suspicion, of blood doping. Random drug tests have uncovered the illicit use of performance-enhancing substances such as anabolic steroids, but blood doping allegations can be notoriously difficult to prove. A blood test can show elevated red blood cell levels, but many athletes have naturally higher levels due to legitimate training regimens and diets. More accurate tests are under development, but currently the practice is more often demonstrated through circumstantial evidence or eyewitness testimony from those who actually gave the transfusions or administered the synthetic EPO to an already suspected athlete.