Mark Sisson Talks About Doping In Elite Sport (With Comments From Brad About Doping In Real Life)
You’re going to love this rebroadcast of a discussion Mark Sisson and I had about the very complex issue of doping in sports.
You won’t find a more knowledgeable and free-thinking expert than Mark—he served for a long time as the Chair of the Anti-Doping commission for the sport of triathlon and this issue has continued to pervade sports till this day. It’s such a controversial subject, one that is largely misunderstood by the public, and you’ll hear us talk about major doping cases and the details of the different cases, if sports are still clean, and why the problem is more nuanced than people realize.
We also talk about the danger of taking shortcuts, how neglecting to optimize lifestyle factors can lead to your body easily converting excess testosterone into estrogen through a process called aromatization, and Mark explains the inconsistencies that exist in the testing procedures and random demarcation lines for what constitutes a performance enhancing substance (e.g., Gatorade enhances performance when you are thirsty!). We also discuss how the public perception that certain athletes cheat to gain an advantage is actually a more complex cultural issue than a true morality weakness.
Mark offers an interesting perspective—that we might view modern pro sports as theater—a theatrical event in which athletes perform for the pleasure of fans, with big money on the line, and this is why we will always be fighting a battle (perhaps a losing one) against dopers who may remain a step ahead of the testing efforts. We also talk about the hypocrisy of a society where the use of “performance enhancing” substances (like caffeine or prescription drugs to treat ADHD) is viewed differently than an athlete trying to recover faster.
Mark Sisson talks about doping in this rebroadcast. Mark was the Chair of the Anti-doping Commission for International Triathlon Union. [00:01]
Many experts contend that you get a 6% performance advantage from consuming EPO. If the athletes are clean now, are they as good or better today without doping? [04:06]
Many people are going for hormone replacement therapy. It works fine unless you are not leading an optimal lifestyle. [06:19]
Testing is more difficult than you think. There are many errors. [12:35]
Mark was involved in putting together anti-doping rules that became worldwide. [13:40]
Gatorade and caffeine are performance-enhancing drugs. Where do we draw the line? [15:47]
Training to be an elite athlete is not a healthy undertaking. [16:55]
It is a gray issue. There are coaches pushing for better performance and there is such a fine line for what should be allowed. [19:32]
The public perception that it is a black and white issue. The athlete is clean or dirty! Armstrong’s biggest failing was just not admitting it when he wasn’t the only one. [22:30]
Sports today is theater. [24:12]
With EPO you are artificially increasing the number of red blood cells increasing your hematocrit. What happens to someone whose hematocrit is already high because of where he lives and trains? [28:27]
Laboratory tests are not exact either. The drugs are not enhancing your overall health. [31:53]
Where does Tiger Woods’ having Lasik surgery to improve his vision fit into this discussion? [35:09]
Athletes are always looking for an edge. Some events can be won or lost based on nutrition. [38:44]
Floyd Landis had a hearing because he tested for elevated testosterone. There is a lot more to the testing than one would think. [40:15]
Welcome to the Return of the Primal Endurance Podcast. This is your host, Brad Kearns, and we are going on a journey to a kinder, gentler, smarter, more fun, more effective way to train for ambitious endurance goals. Visit Primal endurance.fit to join the community and enroll in our free video course. Hey, listeners, you’re going to love this re-broadcast of a discussion Mark Sisson and I had about the very complex issue of doping in sports. And you’re not gonna find a more knowledgeable or free thinking expert than Mark. He served for a long time as the chair of the anti-doping Commission for the sport of triathlon. And my gosh, this stuff continues to pervade sports to this day. And everything so controversial, I think often misunderstood by the public. So Mark and I are gonna talk about that, and I set the stage with my previous intro, but here we are in 2022, with the smoke still clearing on these major doping cases,./ against the prominent American distance running coach Alberto Salazar, who was himself an elite athlete back in his day, world record in the marathon and coaching Olympic gold medalists and American and world record holders.
He was banned for life for his messing around on the edges of the, uh, doping, uh, effort in, uh, the sport of running. And then the really upsetting case of leading American female distance runner, Shelby Holihan, who was banned for four years after a doping violation in 2021. And the case probably caught your eye because she mounted a defense that she was tested positive for this prominent anabolic steroid called NR alone. And she claimed that she contracted it from eating a tainted burrito from a, uh, burrito truck after practice one day up in Portland, Oregon. And the case was interesting. You can read tons of details about it on the internet because her defense was so impassioned, and she had many leading runners come to her defense that she’s a clean athlete, she works hard, she would never, ever dream of getting an unfair advantage.
And it’s so compelling to hear the athletes stories, and I’m still not jaded. I believe her story. It’s, you know, it is tremendously tragic that she’s being, uh, pushed to the sidelines in the peak of her career. Very difficult to come back from a four year ban. But then as you get into the details of the case and the experts that the anti-doping, uh, side brought forward, it’s like, man, this is almost impossible. Her claim is completely unsubstantiated by science. There’s almost no chance that this could have happened. And so then you left shaking your head like who to believe, I don’t think this girl and all her friends are lying to the public. I think something terrible happened here. And then we have to open our lens to wonder how perfect and how precise are these doping tests?
And is it pos`sible to somehow implicate someone who’s truly innocent and ban them for four years? And boy, what a horrible price to pay in an attempt to keep the sport clean. And then in a bigger picture, are these sports still clean or not? We know from, uh, the cycling world that the sport was absolutely awash and tainted with doping, uh, during the great reign of Lance Armstrong. That’s why I make the point of pointing out to a jaded public that he’s still the greatest cyclist of all time of his generation. And, the fact that he was dope and beat a bunch of other doped up athletes, um, speaks to, uh, the idea that he probably would’ve won his Tour de France races by a greater margin, had the sport actually been cleaned. But anyway, I bring that up because now we have a widespread belief that cycling has cleaned up its act.
The riders are tested more frequently. There’s none of this conspiracy going on where everyone knows that all the top rider are doping. However, the times up these great, uh, mountains on the Tour de France are as fast or faster, if I’m not mistaken. So today’s champions are, um, still up there at the superhuman level. Knowing that the performance advantage afforded by especially the red blood cell drug EPO is extraordinary. Many experts contend you get a 6% performance advantage from consuming EPO. So if today’s athletes are clean, like we are led to believe, it’s pretty ridiculous to assume that they are as good or even better without that 6% advantage, because we had some pretty fantastic athletes, uh, back during the era of doping. And then it comes to sports like track and field that have long been awash and doping.
Now we have the perception that they are largely clean, and they’re certainly much cleaner than the wild west era of the sixties, seventies, eighties, and perhaps up into the nineties where the doping, the testing wasn’t very sophisticated. But you know what to think now when these epic world records are being approached or broken, uh, that were known to be set by doped athletes. I have this idealistic view that I think athletes are training much more intelligently now. A lot of people point to the improved footwear as offering an actual advantage, especially in the distance events. I don’t know what to think about that. But I’d like to think that if you’re doing everything right in training and lifestyle, that you can approximate the advantage or the shortcut provided by doping. Uh, this is an important topic to mention. When we have a large segment of the population considering or already immersed in hormone replacement therapy, especially for the aging male. The dudes in my age group are left and right taking that turn, that fork in the road and going over to hormone replacement.
And yes, the benefits are right there to be had. This stuff works, it’s no joke. However, um, if you are not leading an optimal lifestyle in conjunction with your hormone replacement regimen, it is known that the extra testosterone that you receive through injection will be aromatized. That is the process of aromatization. It will be converted into estrogen because, for example, you are carrying excess visceral fat, which has inflammatory properties and participates in this conversion of testosterone into estrogen. So there’s no free lunch where you can needle your way to a six pack or to vibrant health and high libido, and all those promised benefits of the anti-aging regimen without optimizing your diet, exercise, lifestyle. I’m open-minded about all these topics, and I am certainly not opposed to, um, using modern science to optimize health and promote longevity. But I’m pretty much in that camp of trying to do the best you can with the natural processes of your body and not reaching for shortcuts or thinking that there’s a magic bullet.
And so I’ve tried to live my adult life on the absolute bare minimum of medication of any kind. And this has now lasted for decades, where I will barely take an ibuprofen. Uh, I will not take any prescription medication unless absolutely necessary, such as an antibiotic after surgery or what have you. And I am not at all interested in hormone replacement until that day comes where I can report that I am doing everything to my very best effort, my sleep, my diet, my exercise habits, and I’m going to the blood lab, and I’m testing in the low range for things like testosterone. And in fact, uh, as I’ve published on Instagram, my testosterone levels are ranging from very good to exceptional. I had a serum blood result last year of 1,006 for serum testosterone, and that is in the 99th percentile even for males in the peak age of 20 to 29.
So I’m doing something right, and I have no interest in interfering with that because once you go onto hormone replacement therapy, you pretty much can never turn back because you’re turning down your natural production of these hormones. So you’re basically gonna be reliant upon them for life. I’m mentioning my, my highest result, but I also have tremendous fluctuation to where the next result will be, uh, a 700 something. I’ve been down to 560, back up to 840, down to 662, up to 900, and I’m all over the map in that case. But all of those are in satisfactory, satisfactory to optimal to exceptional range. So, it’s just important to note that if you’re really into this stuff, you should test frequently and, uh, look at all these lifestyle parameters. I’m particularly sensitive to overly stressful training patterns or workouts that can tank my testosterone because it is a very sensitive male hormone status is very sensitive to life stressors.
And we know that cortisol, the prominent stress hormone, antagonizes testosterone, and the other adaptive hormones. So if you’re under too much stress, you’re going to tank your adaptive hormones. And that’s a really good vote for keeping things under control, which I believe, is still one of my struggles where I can overdo it in my exuberance to perform, especially here in my age group. And then I’ll pay the price later. And so that’s why I’m in the blood lab all the time, so much so that they know my name. But that’s a little aside to the overall concept of doping and sports. And let’s hear what Mark has to say about what’s going on at the elite athletic level.
Performance enhancing drugs in professional sports with none other than Mark Sisson, who’s, if you’re not aware, you might know him as the primal guy, but he’s also an expert on the topic of drug testing and doping. And for many years, over a decade, he was the lead, uh, doping officer for the International Triathlon Union. So he was in charge of drafting up the very first, uh, drug testing and penalty protocol, and presiding over, uh, positive doping tests and cases that ran through the sport over the years, attending the Olympic Games as the I T U anti-doping representative. So he has a long history, uh, in this,, in this game and in this topic, and dealing with this incredibly complex and difficult challenge that is the role and the presence of performance enhancing drugs in modern professional sports.
And I think you’ll enjoy this conversation. It’s gonna go in directions that you probably, wouldn’t predict because it’s not a simple open and shut case that you get an athlete, you get ’em caught, and you ban ’em for life, which seems to me to be the general public perception, uh, about the topic. Secondly, the general public and flawed perception is that those who are caught are disgraceful cheaters, and then all the other people that are performing that haven’t been caught are assumed to be clean and honorable and all that nonsense. And what we, instead, rather have, if you look deeper, is pretty much of a level playing field in most every sport. So when we had the outrage over Lance Armstrong and his longtime deception of the public with the systematic doping in professional cycling. You know, people directed this outrage at Lance for so long, and it almost blinded them to the reality that the sport of professional cycling during the Lance era and well before that, and continuing on after the Lance era, I’m sorry to say, is riddled with performance enhancing drugs. Because they’re very difficult to detect. They deliver a phenomenal advantage, and it’s very difficult to eradicate them.
It’s much more difficult than you think. And Mark offers some comments about, oh my goodness, the splitting hairs of positive tests and what, what level is allowable? What level is positive? What are the testing errors? And look at how much is at stake. You’re talking about an athlete’s reputation in their career going down the tubes because they, took a cold medicine or because they, uh, were subject to an imperfect testing system. So see what you think. Everyone’s got strong opinions about this. I could go on and on, and I tried to let Mark talk as much as I could, <laugh> during episode 18, but it’s Mark and I going at it on the role of performance enhancing drugs in. Professional sports enjoy and don’t do drugs.
I thought we’d pick up that topic on kind of a hot topic in today’s athletic world, and that’s the effect of doping on peak performance. And the reason I thought I’d chat with you about this, it’s an interesting topic, but also you have a long history in the doping game. Can you tell us about that? Yeah.
Well, actually, my history is in the anti-doping game. Let’s be clear about that.
Excuse me. Excuse me. Yes, <laugh>.
Based on my, um, experience as a, as a elite athlete in the seventies and early eighties, and then as a coach of an elite team of triathletes, I was co-opted onto a committee to help write the first set of anti-doping rules for the sport of triathlon in 87 and 88. And based on my presentation of that set of rules at a, at a board meeting of the, of Trife,d which is the, uh, national Federation in the US for the sport of triathlon, I got invited to be the executive director of the entire US Federation in Colorado Springs. So from 89 to 91, I ran what is known, what was known then as Trifed USA, the US Triathlon Federation. It’s today’s called Triathlon USA. And in that capacity, I then got again elected to serve, uh, on a small group to write the antidoping rules for the sport of triathlon worldwide.
So we, with, in conjunction with Frank Craig Masback, who was then head of, um, u s a track and field, and who had been a longtime buddy of mine, and he was a lawyer, had we, we put together a set of anti-doping rules that became the worldwide set of anti-doping rules for the sport of triathlon until the advent of the world Anti-doping agency several years later. And in that capacity, I was in charge of administering those rules. So I had to oversee every hearing where there was a positive test and, and get involved in adjudication of the outcomes of these, and in some cases, enforcing the penalties. So I got a really good look at the world of sports performance, peak performance, the intention of athletes in terms of what they were trying to accomplish through performance enhancing drugs. And it was all it did was sort of open my eyes to how difficult it would be to actually write these rules, enforce ’em fairly, adjudicate them fairly, and what a gray area that sports doping became in those days and has become since.
Because when we look at performance enhancing substances, Gatorade is a performance-enhancing substance in some regards. The fact that you could take sugar and salt in the middle of a race and replace what you’d lost naturally enhances your performance. Caffeine, a cup of coffee the morning of a race, or two cups of coffee before a cycling event has an ergogenic effect. It actually improves fat mobilization. It has a central nervous stimulant effect. So, you know, some of these things that we would consider harmless day-to-day food groups or vitamin mineral preparations or, or substances or supplements, actually have an effect. The question then becomes, where do you draw the line? And that was really the, the essence of the early days of anti-doping in the sport of not just triathlon, but in track and field and everything else.
And unfortunately, in the public’s perception, they’re seeing a giant line that many, many athletes are crossing to the extent that we really don’t know what’s authentic and what’s superhuman these days.
Correct. And you sort of have to take a step back and you go, okay, what does it mean to be an elite athlete? You know, here you have the I O C with its Olympic games, or you have the federations or the leagues, major league baseball, soccer federations, basketball, and so and so forth, holding out this carrot to young athletes with, you know, who are genetically gifted in the first place to say, look, if you work really, really hard, like harder than anybody else, and you do really, really well, and we choose you, you have a chance to make millions of dollars one day. But what they don’t tell you is that there are gonna be 150,000 kids around the country, or a million kids around the world who have been given that same potential opportunity, and they’re gonna train really, really hard. Well, training for an elite sport to be an elite athlete in a, in a top sport is not a healthy undertaking.
In fact, it’s antithetical to health, and particularly with endurance athletics, with triathlon, with marathoning, uh, 10 Ks, cycling, Tour de France cycling and so forth, even swimming to a certain extent, the more you train, the more you compromise your health. And so here we are with this theory that, okay, these athletes are training really, really hard. They must be healthy. They’re training to be Olympic athletes, when in fact, the more training they’re doing, the less healthier they’re becoming. They may be fit and they may be performing well, but their health is declining. And at some point, at the highest elite ranks, your immune system starts to shut down. You know, you’ve got all sorts of issues with inflammation. Uh, you’ve got, uh, may, you may have some digestive issues, which is what one of the things I had. Uh, there are a lot of things that can go wrong at the elite level because of the amount of high intensity training that you’re doing.
So as an athlete, you’re always looking for a recovery advantage, because really training is about not the work that you do to build to tear yourself down, but the recovery that happens as a result of the hard work you did, so that you build yourself back even stronger. And theoretically over time, if you build yourself back strong enough, you can be, you can be in a position to win a gold medal or a world championship or set a world record. So we have all these young people who are, who get involved in athletic endeavors and attempting to be the best in the world. Um, we’ve told them, if you train as hard as humanly possible, and in some cases inhumanly possible, one or two of you might make the grade, but the other 150,000 or 2 million of you are not gonna make it, and then we can’t help you.
There’s nothing we can do for you. So it’s kind of a one-sided lopsided perception on the, on the part of the federations who want these superstars who are encouraging these people to be superstars. On the other hand, you have all these people who are going, look, if I’ve got, if I’m gonna compete, I’ve gotta find an edge. I gotta find the secret. I’ve gotta either, either find the right coach, or I’ve gotta find the right supplements, or I’ve gotta find a way to recover from my sports performance. And that’s where this whole issue of PEDs come into play. That’s where this whole gray area of what is a sports enhancing, a performance enhancing substance and what isn’t, starts to come into play, and it becomes difficult to draw where that line is. In some cases. Now, you might say, well, okay, people who are using growth hormone or steroids, that’s just absolutely unconscionable.
They shouldn’t be doing that. And, and the rule says they should not. And that’s, you know, I, I helped write the rule. So I agree with that. On the other hand, if you’ve got, uh, some guy who’s, who’s trying to do the Tour de France and who’s racing as hard as he can, 140 miles a day for 20 days in a row and is gonna get up every morning and have to do it again, the temptation to use whatever he can get his hands on to, um, to recover and to be able to, to get back in, in the saddle and do it again today, it’s a pretty compelling temptation. So it’s, um, it’s not really a, a black and white issue, and it gets, it gets really involved when you start looking at some of these other so-called banned substances. I remember I had to take a kid who won a top event in the US
He was the Canadian national champion, and he had a cold. And so the night before the race, his father went to a US drugstore and got him some Sudafed so the kid could breathe. The next morning, the kid won the race, tested positive for pseudo ephedrine, and I had to ban him for 90 days. And he almost didn’t make it to the world championships because his federation had to honor that, that 90 day ban. Now you argue, okay, well, here’s a kid who had a cold, who couldn’t sleep, who couldn’t breathe, went to the store, got an over-the-counter medication tested positive for pseudoephedrine, which is a mild stimulant, and in a hour and a half, two hour race, doesn’t really have that great an effect. And you could argue that he only by virtue of being able to breathe a little bit that night and get up the next morning and, and race, he was maybe at a baseline equal to everybody else. But because of the rules, I had to, um, I had to disqualify him for the event and ban him from the sport for 90 days. And the number of times that happened was pretty, it was, it was scary the number of times these sort of innocuous uses appeared, and, but we had no choice. It’s a, what we call a strict liability guilty until proven innocent.
Yeah, it’s a tough battle to fight, to try to keep a sport clean. And I think you’ve, you touched on a few things I wanna reflect because especially when it comes to public perception of this problem, I think there’s a ton of misconceptions. And when you said it’s not black and white, I think generally the average sports enthusiast sees this as an extremely black and white issue when it’s not. And in particular, um, I think we look at these athletes and demand that they are exasperated when we find out that someone’s been, been caught cheating, and we forget sort of the main deterrence or are kind of flimsy. And, and one of them is like, you know, the morality of asking them to have a, a high moral standard. Of course, they, they exhibit high moral standards in many ways. However, when you enter a dirty sport such as cycling, the morality question becomes very muddled. Because when, when it’s clear that everyone’s doing it, and it’s the only way to remain competitive, it’s a big challenge to, uh, stand on a high moral ground, the only thing you can do is quit, which is not an attractive option.
Yeah. And that, that’s the unfortunate story of pro cycling, is that in order to be competitive, you had to do what everyone else was doing. And, you know, so, so Armstrong’s biggest failing was just not admitting it earlier and just, you know, kind of continually taking people down with him. It wasn’t in my eyes so much that he, that he used, it was just the failure to admit that, that he did it when everyone else is doing it. But the concept that sports is somehow obligated to put forth a morality play for the rest of the world, the, the idea that these are supposed to be role models, I think that went out the window years and years ago.
Sports today is theater, especially at the elite level, at the level of the NFL or Major League baseball or the Olympic Games. This is about people watching television and buying the products that are advertised. This is about high level athletes being paid millions of dollars because they’re entertainers, not because they’re outstanding moralists, or that they have some ethical story to unfold in front of the younger people. The papers are full of elite level, particularly professional athletes who have completely gone off track with their place in society and getting into fights and abusing, you know, whatever privilege they might have had. So to think that this is a morality play is just, it’s kind of ridiculous. This is really theater. And if you recognize that it’s theater and you recognize it, the person who’s consuming this theater is the person sitting at home watching the TV show or buying the tickets to the game. They just wanna see blood. They just wanna see hitting.
They want to see world records broken. And, you know, again, not assessing a good or bad a judgment to any of this. I ask you if do you think Major League Baseball would sell one fewer ticket ticket this year if Barry Bonds were still playing? I think the public wants to see records set. They wanna see more home runs hit, they wanna see. So it’s really not, we’re athletes aren’t doing this as a morality play. They’re just doing it to be able to, to stay in the game longer. And again, not suggesting that this is the way you ought to do it, but if you’re a NFL football player and you’ve been beat up so many times, I would imagine the temptation to use the very same medicines that any poor schlub who walked into an emergency room on a Monday morning and said, geez, I just, I overdid it this weekend. I, what do you got for me to get me back to work? It’s, it’s a little hypocritical to think that we would deny those very same medicines to elite athletes who are punishing their bodies on a regular basis.
Well, speaking of the fans buying tickets, I think that’s important to reflect on because it’s possible or I would argue that we have blood on our hands and we’re contributing to this problem because it’s true. We wanna see home runs, we wanna see world records. I sat in the stands during the 1984 Olympics and listened to 90,000 people, boo Carl Lewis, because he only took long two long jumps and assured himself of a gold medal with an incredible 28 foot jump. But they wanted to see him jump more and more because they’d paid for their ticket while they also wanted to see him win four gold medals. And so the athletes are in this impossible situation where, and in the N F L example, yes, we wanna see blood, we wanna see hard hits, we don’t really care. We’re starting to care a little bit about how their brains get mashed up during their careers. But the doping thing just goes hand-in-hand with the theater and with the continued escalation of the money involved for the, the actual athlete and also for the owner and for the fans buying the tickets. Yeah.
And the, the other interesting thing, or many interesting aspects of this, but one of those is the hypocrisy that a lawyer who is prosecuting a doping case will, will take Adderall to be able to argue the case with sufficient attention to detail and concentration, and he’ll be arguing, okay? And these are like literally true stories where a, a lawyer will take a performance enhancing substance for his brain in order to prosecute an athlete who has, been charged with using anti, you know, uh, a for violating the anti-doping rules. That kind of hypocrisy goes, you know, just beyond the pale. So there are lots of different levels to this. You know, the, the, in the, in the cycling world, EPO was a good example of, uh, a drug that was developed to increase red blood cells in patients with anemia or chemo, uh, patients. It got quickly, uh, subsumed into the endurance community, uh, initially of all things in the orientation community, which is sort of hiking, oh,
The orienteering folks
Orienteering. Yeah. Yeah. And, um, and, but cycling soon followed, and it became a pretty compelling reason to, to use this stuff, to increase the amount of red blood cells, to carry oxygen to the muscles and help you burn fat and do all the things that you could, that you could do. But you know, you, so you say, well, that’s really unfair. And I, and I agree that’s unfair. You shouldn’t be injecting this hormone that causes you to create more red blood cells. That just doesn’t seem to be the right thing to do. And yet, what was legal was to spend $20,000 on an altitude chamber so that you could train at sea level all day long and then sleep in a bedroom that had been acclimated to 14,000 feet altitude in which environment your body produces more EPO and hence more red blood cells.
So the effect is the same. You’re artificially increasing the number of red blood cells, but you’re doing it now, you’re doing it through a, a loophole in the rule that says, well, yes, you can do it by artificially raising the altitude of your, of your sleeping habitat, but you can’t do it through injecting EPO. With that initial, with the, in the initial years of, of the abuse of EPO., one of the things that the, uh, UCI recognized was that, that, uh, there was a, a strong likelihood of death if the hematocrit rose above, say 55 or 60, basically your blood would become sludge and you could, and you could, and it could clot, and that would be the end of it. So they set a level of they started testing athletes because they didn’t have a test for EPO..
So they started testing athletes, and they would say, okay, if your hematocrit is above 51% today, you can’t race. We’re not gonna call you a bad guy. We’re not gonna blame you for anything. We’re not gonna accuse you of anything, but you can’t race. Well, you know, what happens is the poor Colombians who train at, or the, you know, the guys li in the Andes who train at 14,000 feet, some of the best climbers in the world whose normal hematocrit is 51 degrees are 51%. So now here’s some guys who came by, uh, hematocrit normally because of their genes and because of their training environment, now they get pulled out of a race that they could have won because of some arbitrary level that had been set that accounted for everybody’s involvement in, in, um, at their EPO level. So it became such a mishmash of rules and regulations and this works, but that doesn’t, and literally, there was a time at which six cups of coffee was okay, but eight cups put you on the, on the list of having abused the substance.
We had one of our top triathletes who tested positive for opiates one day, and opiates were, were banned from competition. Although there was no real reason to do that in endurance competition, cuz it certainly doesn’t help you. And yet we had to, we had to investigate further found out she had, she had three poppy seed muffins the morning of a race because she was carbohydrate loading and poppy seeds are the source of opium. So those metabolites showed up as, as opium in her, in her bloodstream. So it really, the number of times that we had to look at a case and go, okay, this guy, this guy tested positive for metabolites of nander alone, and the cutoff was three nanograms, 3 billion parts per billions of a gram per milliliter or per deciliter actually. And, and he tested at four. So if he’d tested at 2.5, he would’ve been clean.
But now because he’s at 2.5 billions, he would’ve been clean, but at four billions, he was dirty. That’s a rounding error in the laboratory. And I started to look at some of the, what happened at the, at to the, to the tests in the laboratory. And you think, well, the guy tests positive, that must be a black or white case. No, these laboratory tests are literally, they’re wavy lines on a sheet of graph paper that has to be interpreted by people with varying degrees of expertise. So it’s not like, oh yes, it’s a positive, or oh no, it’s a negative. It’s like, well, based on where this mass spectrometer showed up, it looks like it should be positive for this particular substance. It it became very complex.
Yeah. And I think for the average, uh, fitness enthusiast or athlete, it, it seems so, uh, ridiculous to even imagine putting some drug into your body just to go faster if you’re not interested in elite performance and all the, um, conundrums that you face as an elite. Uh, but it should be also noted that, and and you mentioned this with, um, example of football and cycling. This stuff is so unhealthy for your body to perform at the elite level, that actually taking the steroids as an N F L player or taking the EPO to super oxygenate your blood as a Tour de France cyclist could arguably be considered less destructive for your health performing doped up rather than trying to perform clean.
Absolutely. And that’s the nature of particularly endurance events or, or in the NFL, those, I mean, John, John Madden had a comment one time a while back that just stuck with me for, he said, he said, you have no idea of a level of destruction that goes on in that field. He said, you, you play one down in the NFL, you will never walk the same. And that really hit home with me. And if you’ve, you’ve watched these guys play, it’s, it’s a brutal game. And so to think that you’ve got, as a team, you’ve got $50 million invested in a player over the next several years, are, are you not gonna want to take advantage of every possible way to get, not only to get him up and and functioning from one Sunday to the next, but to improve his longevity from maybe three years to seven years by virtue of what we would call modern medicine.
So, you know, I don’t want the audience to get the wrong idea. I’m not for cheating in sports, but I am have and have been for the longest time in favor of looking at what we’re doing to these athletes and suggesting that, okay, if this is a professional sport and they, they know what they’re doing and they’re working with a physician and they’re trying to preserve their health and to improve their longevity in the sport, maybe it makes sense to revisit some of these things and set some level that would allow them to access some of the substances that modern medicine has determined actually can help improve recovery, rebuild from injury and, and have a lot of these other maybe beneficial effects in the face of all the destruction that’s going on.
Oh, you know what just came to mind, like, I’m gonna give you another example. The fact that Tiger Woods would have LASIK surgery to improve his distance vision, you know, is that, where does that fall on the spectrum of performance enhancement? You know, think about it, the fact that some guy could have an artificial ligament installed that would make his throwing arm that much better. Where, again, where do you draw the line between what is allowed in modern science and what is perceived by not even so much the public, but by the press as being ethically wrong, morally wrong, you know, salacious and worth writing about.
Right. And speaking of the press, I think, lately everyone’s done a good job spinning the concept that doping is being eradicated. You know, baseball is, it was ridiculous for a while. They didn’t even have any doping penalties prior to 2002, which was about 20 years too late for when we saw the effects of doping first appear in the Olympics with the East Germans. But right now there is sort of a sense that things are slowing down and cleaning up, and I’m not sure if that’s accurate. What do you think?
Well, one of the issues with, um, doping in sports is that the tests for some of these new substances are always a year or two behind the actual invention of the substances themselves. So when the Balco Scandal erupted,
That was when Barry Bonds and several other elite athletes in other sports were all traced back to this backwoods laboratory in the Bay Area, where this guy had come upon with the help of inventors, knew steroids that were undetectable and mysterious in the, in the doping testing protocol.
Correct. So they, these guys invented a new steroid that the standard testing protocol couldn’t identify. Well, unless you knew or were aware of the existence of this substance, and then decided to, to, um, to create a test for it, it was undetected for a couple of years. And it wasn’t until somebody sent a syringe to my friend Don Catlin at the UCLA lab and said, look, uh, test this because it’s a new substance. So somebody basically busted them by sending a used syringe. And then that was when the, when the test was finally developed. So the, you know, the bad guys are always gonna stay one step ahead of the good guys. Athletes are always gonna look for the edge. That’s just, that’s the nature of being an athlete. Why, if you could, if you as an athlete with lots of money at stake and a and a and a lifetime of competition and, and adulation at stake, why would you not wanna take advantage of every method?
Now certainly all the legal methods, I mean, athletes are always looking for the next big thing in training, and in diet, and certainly always have been in supplementation. That’s how I got into supplements as an athlete in the, in the seventies and eighties. I was looking to ways for ways to be able to come back from a 20 mile run one day and go and repeat it again the next day. And I started looking at supplementation. You know, I looked in those days it was, you know, 20 grams of vitamin C and, and vitamin E. And if there were not that many variations available quite yet, but over thet, over time, it became drinks like Erg and, um, uh, some of the sports performance drinks that, that emerged, I w I helped develop, uh, a product called Carbo Concentrate in the mid eighties that became a source of carbohydrate in long events like Iron Man.
So we’re always, we are, athletes are always looking for that edge. And in endurance events, and particularly triathlon, it, it does come in the form of, of nutrition. So most Ironman triathlons are won or lost based on one’s particular attention to nutrition. And if you don’t get your nutrition right in that race, then somebody who did is going to outperform in the last hour or two of that race and eventually beat you. And this is what happened to Paul Newby Fraser, one of her more famous meltdowns happen because she missed an aid station late in the race. And it was that simple. So, so here’s an example of an Erogenic aid. Taking something that’s made of carbohydrate or electrolytes on a race course is enough to enhance your performance. And that’s really, you know, that’s the, that’s the nature of, of where we’re at with sports performance these days.
Okay. Well, it’s a pretty complex issue as you’ve as you’ve laid out nicely before we, before we break on this topic you actually right there in your home in Malibu, were witness to one of the most notorious drug trials that we’ve seen, and that was on disgrace Tour de France champion Floyd Landis, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong, who went out and won the tour in his own right after being Lance’s protege for a while, and then was subsequently found to have an elevated testosterone level in the middle of the race, which is kind of curious. And what went down at that trial mark?
Well, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s called a hearing, not a trial. Um, it’s typically the, at that level, the court of arbitration, which is an international court empowered by the I O C, has three judges, uh, three panelists who will hear the case, uh, which is argued by lawyers on both sides. And in this case, it was an eight day hearing. Floyd had tested for an exogenous form of testosterone. And it was really interesting to watch the, the, their hearing, hearing from a number of different vantage points. One of which was that his defense attorney, I gave him his first three hearings. He was hired by me to, to, uh, as sort of a prosecutor in triathlon hearings. That’s Howard Jacobs. And then the chairman of the panel was a friend of mine that I’d, uh, worked a lot with at triathlon.
And of course, a lot of the people who were participating in the hearing itself were from the various labs and so on. But one of the interesting things that came outta that was that the amount of testosterone that Floyd had in his system wasn’t particularly high. It was just the fact that he was using testosterone to literally recover from one day to the next. So when some of the initial headlines said, well, he had more testosterone than had ever been seen in a person, or, you know, he had enough testosterone to take care of a whole harem. It was, that was sort of headlines that, that were salacious enough to make people read the article. But the bottom line was his testosterone epi testosterone ratio was out of whack. And that was a simple test that we did in those days that allowed a more expensive test to happen that would identify what we call exogenous testosterone.
So it wasn’t that his levels were really, really high, it’s that he just had opened the door to examining the source of the testosterone that was in the sample that he gave that day. And it appeared that the source was exogenous, was from an outside source, and that was done through this laboratory testing. So it was really, it’s, it’s always, there’s a lot more going on in each of these tests than than you read about in the headlines. And it’s, again, it’s, it’s, there’s no black or white here, there’s no real answer to this. It’s an ongoing issue, kind of a fight between what is it gonna take to allow these athletes to participate at the highest level and to take care of them versus what does it take to give every athlete a level playing field and to be able to compete against each other knowing that there hasn’t been a tremendously unfair advantaged, uh, bestowed upon one athlete and not another.
Well, that’s a lot of fun talk about possibly an unpleasant subject of doping in sports. And, uh, at one point you mentioned how society at large is possibly guilty of a lot of different abuse and the lawyer taking Adderall to prepare his case in the, uh, anti-doping commission. Thanks for today, Mark. That was a fun little diversion from our usual primal topic.
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