Enhancing Your Performance The Unnatural Way

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A Look At the Banned Substance EPO

By Chris Tull
B.T.com contributing writer

Everyone’s talking about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) now thanks to Congressional hearings held this past March, highlighting steroid use in Major League Baseball.

No sport is immune from this inquiry’s hot seat. Even the sport of triathlon, a competitive, yet under-the-radar sport for years, has the bright lights of shame shining on it.

The biggest PED story in triathlon broke last fall when Nina Kraft won the 2004 Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii, yet tested positive for the banned substance —EPO or Erythropoietin.

So what exactly is EPO? What does it do? Why is it banned? And why would someone as talented as Nina Kraft use it in the biggest triathlon competition in the world?

The Miracle Drug
EPO first appeared on the market as a medical drug. The drug, when injected into the body, increased production of the oxygen-carrying red blood cells. It’s still used today to treat several medical conditions.

EPO benefits cancer patients with blood weakened by chemotherapy treatments. It’s also given to patients suffering kidney disease, and helps repair blood damaged by kidney dialysis. EPO, when provided under strict medical supervision, can be given safely.

But the trouble for EPO started in the late 1980’swhen the sports community discovered EPO heightens athletic performance significantly.


Magic Shoes
In 1989, seven athletes underwent an EPO experiment in Sweden. Swedish scientist, Dr. Bjorn Ekblom of the Stockholm Institute of Gymnastics and Sports, injected the athletes with EPO and then measured their endurance levels on a treadmill.

All subjects outperformed their previous endurance levels after injecting with EPO. Dr. Ekblom reported that, on average, EPO cut up to 30 seconds off a 20-minute running time. In world-class events, where fractions of a second sometimes separate winners from losers, the benefits of EPO for athletes are huge.

So why does EPO work so well for endurance athletes?

Muscles need oxygen to perform. Red blood cells in the blood carry this oxygen to the muscles. The more red blood cells in one’s blood, the more oxygen that can be carried to the muscles.

This continual boost of oxygen allows muscles to perform longer. Thus, for endurance athletes, more oxygen in their blood is like growing wings their feet. A typically grueling, uphill marathon suddenly feels like a cakewalk with EPO.

Of course, there’s a catch. A medical doctor can safely supply EPO to patients. However, an EPO overdose (a big problem with athletes and their “more is better” attitudes) results in thickened blood. When a person who’s overdosed on EPO rests, their slowing heart tries to pump this thickened blood through their body.

The result is heart failure, and usually death - hence, one of the major reasons for banning EPO from professional sports competition.

Many athletes found this out the hard way.

The Lore of Athletic Glory
In February 1990, 27-year old Dutch professional cyclist Johannes Draaijer’s died suddenly of a heart attack. This occurred roughly six months after he placed 20th in the month-long, 3,500-km Tour de France.

At the time, cycling authorities credited his death to ‘cardiovascular abnormalities’ – agitated by the rigors of his sport. However, Draaijer’s wife later told the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, that her husband became sick after using EPO.1

Overall, doctors credit EPO overdose to the deaths of over 20 professional cyclists from Europe to Central America during the late 1980’s to early 1990’s.

Of course, the lore of athletic glory isn’t only limited to cyclists. In his book, Drugs in Sports, Edward F. Dolan recounts a survey where 100 runners were asked if they’d take a drug that would make them Olympic champions, but kill them in a year.2

More than one half the runners surveyed replied yes.

I don’t think many would disagree that athletics have become competitive in all the wrong ways. I’m not sure when the change happened. I’m guessing sometime within the second half of the 20th century, when commercials and television started blending with sports.

Sporting participants are obsessed with victory. And I’m not just talking about sports on the professional levels. Amateur and masters athletes are just as crazy-competitive as the pros.

With athletics and its ‘victory at any cost’ mindset, it’s easy to see how getting any edge (even if it means using an illegal PED) is tempting. Meanwhile, PED-free athletes watch in frustration as their competitors illegally achieve record performances in competition.

So What’s a Beginning Triathlete To Do?
If you are competing, check the rules of your sport. If the sport considers a substance illegal, don’t use it. Chances are the substance is banned for a reason.

As of this writing, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee have begun toughening testing standards. The National Football League and other professional leagues have proposed toughening the same testing standards. In other words, it’s only going to be harder to get away with using banned substances in sports. Don’t take a chance. Besides, there’s no victory worth a health ruined by drugs.

And what to do with those caught using illegal-substances? Should you ban them from the sport for life? Should you take away their records? I have no idea. But feel free to voice your opinions on the www.beginnertriathlete.com  forum.

Consider this, though: As Nina Kraft cycled to the finish of her bike leg in the 2004 Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii, she hung her head low. In first place, observers thought she was either being modest, or focused.

Kraft said she was simply ashamed. She knew she cheated. Maybe for someone as talented as Nina Kraft that’s punishment enough.

About the Author: Chris Tull is a writer based out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Once upon a time, he was a ‘burgers-and-beer-only’ kind of guy. Chris has since lightened up on the diet and added yoga, weight lifting, and (of course) triathlon training to the mix. You can contact him at [email protected] or visit his online journal at http://ctull.blogspot.com/

1Deacon, James, “A phantom killer: doctors target a new performance-enhancing drug,”
Maclean's, 1995.

2Dolan, Edward, F. Drugs in Sports. London: Franklin Watts, 1986.



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date: April 10, 2005


Chris Tull is a writer based out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Once upon a time, he was a ‘burgers-and-beer-only’ kind of guy. Chris has since lightened up on the diet and added yoga, weight lifting, and (of course) triathlon training to the mix.


Chris Tull is a writer based out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Once upon a time, he was a ‘burgers-and-beer-only’ kind of guy. Chris has since lightened up on the diet and added yoga, weight lifting, and (of course) triathlon training to the mix.

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