Blood Doping Gains Expert Backing


By Maci Weeks

What if I told you one of the most controversial debates in sports-related drug use is about an enhancement that is not even a drug. It’s not a herbal supplement, a drink, a shot, or anything of the sort. It’s blood.


Blood doping, or EPO, was first brought to the forefront when Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner, was stripped of his titles after being found guilty of using blood doping to enhance his performance. His case stirred controversy because this enhancement used his own blood, not anything unnatural. While the common opinion is that blood doping is wrong, you’d be surprised at how many experts actually support blood doping.


Doping 101

One method of blood doping that is most commonly used by athletes is the transfusion of their own blood. Athletes have their own blood removed, store it, and after six weeks the pint that was removed is regenerated. Athletes and doctors then put the pint that was removed and stored back into the body, and the level of red blood cells and hemoglobin is significantly increased, which gives athletes an increase in energy and endurance as more oxygen travels through the body.


While this process is no doubt controversial and can be dangerous, some argue that athletes use diets, unnatural machines, supplements, and legal drugs to enhance performance, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to use their own blood? If the illegality of blood doping lies in the fact that it enhances, then all enhancements should be illegal.


Many Risks for Athletes

The WADA, or the World Anti-Doping Agency, notes that EPO has huge benefits when used in therapy related to kidney disease and anemia. However, if used improperly (for athletic enhancement) it can cause serious health risks, such as thickening blood, increased risk for several deadly diseases, heart disease, stroke, and cerebral or pulmonary embolism. Some autoimmune diseases have even been linked to the misuse of EPO.   


The Expert Opinion

Of course, people still argue that this is immoral. If not everyone is comfortable blood doping, the increase in red blood cells undoubtedly gives the individual an advantage due to increased oxygen.


The American College of Sports Medicine states that blood doping procedures attempting to improve athletic performance is unethical, unfair, and exposes the athlete to unwanted and potentially serious health risks:


“All blood doping procedures have attendant medical risks that can be serious and reduce athletic performance. These known risks are amplified by improper medical controls, as well as the interaction between dehydration with exercise and environmental stress. Finally, the medical risks associated with blood doping have been estimated from carefully controlled research studies and medically unsupervised use of blood doping will increase these risks.”


The Benefits for Athletes

Sam Hoerdemann, who runs a personal fitness training blog says that “With more red blood cells, the athlete’s circulatory system can carry an increased amount of oxygen to their skeletal muscles. This gives the athlete a significant advantage when competing in long distance, endurance sports that utilize their oxidative metabolism.”


The extra blood carries more oxygen to the muscles, allowing them to generate more energy for longer.  Also, the oxygen helps the athlete’s muscles avoid fatiguing for an increased amount of time, enabling them to have a better performance in the competition.


The Expert Opinion

Norman Fost, MD, MPH, professor, and director of the Medical Ethics Program at the University of Wisconsin, says that enhancing human bodily function is the most common health care practice in human history. Vaccines are used, pacemakers are put in, legal drugs are prescribed.


He argues that athletes use many different forms to enhance their performance, such as unnatural machines, different diets, supplements, and other legal drugs. To Fost, the increase in hemoglobin that the athlete receives when is simply an enhancement, and a natural one at that, and therefore should not harm the player’s eligibility.  


Yet another pro-dope opinion, researchers in the Harold T. Shapiro Postdoctoral Fellowship for Bioethics at Princeton University, and Julian Savulescu, Ph.D., Professor and Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, wrote in their article titled “Ethics of Performance Enhancement in Sport: Drugs and Gene Doping,”


“ Even at very high dosages, and even if we take into account the poorly-substantiated rumors of EPO-related deaths, EPO does not present any risks that cannot be found from just over-training or especially from hypoxic training. If you have a low hematocrit for genetic or dietary reasons, EPO could actually improve your health.”


While there is surprising support from experts, the argument still remains that some athletes would not be comfortable blood doping, and would be at a disadvantage because of something that most people view morally wrong. Do non-doping athletes support the legalization of this method? Or are most opposed?


Competitor Opinion

Bode Miller, professional alpine skier, and five-time Olympic medalist has been noted multiple times for his quotes on this issue. According to Outside Online, Bode Miller has been clocked at 12 Gs on certain turns on the course. In 2008, Bode Miller stated that PEDs like erythropoietin (EPO) would prevent skiers from becoming fatigued toward the end of the course, and therefore reduce the risk of injury. In an Oct. 16, 2005 interview, Times Online article titled “War On Drugs Must Continue,” was quoted as having said the following:


“I’m surprised [EPO is] illegal, because, in our sport, it would be pretty minimal health risks, and it would actually make it safer for the athletes because you’d have less chance of making a mistake at the bottom and killing yourself.”


Miller goes on to talk about the fatigue that athletes face towards the end of the race, and if doping was made legal, it could be safer overall for athletes in distance sports, as accidents tend to happen at the end of a race. While Bode Miller seems to support the legalization of blood doping in this quote, a later quote sings a different tune.  In a piece written by DW, Miller discusses the doping scandal in the 2016 Olympics.


Miller describes the evidence of Russian  state-sponsored doping contained in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-commissioned reports of 2016 as a “disgrace”.”The IOC (International Olympic Committee)  has finally shown that it has the guts to impose sanctions,” Miller said. “Systematic doping must be penalized.”


Miller is a perfect example of the confusion that blood doping brings. Miller himself faces clear conflict in his feelings about doping. While it may help athletes perform in a “natural” way, most still view it as unethical. Again, while the pros might outweigh the cons, some argue that there is a clear danger with this enhancement. While blood doping may never be legal, there is no doubt that athletes will continue to sneak around regulations in order to become the best player they can be.