Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The science behind performance-enhancing drugs

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (23/06/12)

The Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games in London are around the corner. Athletes from around the world are gearing up for the chance to turn the past four years of preparation into gold, silver or bronze. But scientists have also been working hard, behind the scenes, to catch those who may not be playing fair. In his new book, Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat, Dr. Chris Cooper, a biochemist and the head of research at the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Essex in England, explores the science behind drugs in sport, including banned performance-enhancing drugs like EPO (a "blood booster" that cyclist Lance Armstrong was recently accused of using to win the Tour de France), human growth hormone (HGH) and steroids. The book also looks at legitimate means of enhancing performance, such as carbo-loading, training at altitude and the latest craze, beetroot juice.

Cooper recently spoke with Bob McDonald on Quirks & Quarks about his book and the science behind cheating in sports. First, he explained how certain performance-enhancing drugs work. "EPO is what's called a blood booster. It essentially increases the number of red blood cells in your blood. Red blood cells carry more oxygen, and the more oxygen you've got in your blood, the higher your performance in an aerobic event like the Tour de France," said Cooper. HGH, on the other hand, is supposed to be a version of anabolic steroids (the drug that got Canadian Olympic runner Ben Johnson in trouble all those years ago) with fewer side effects. "The intention is to increase strength, but the science indicates that what you're getting is increased water retention."

EPO tends to be used for endurance, allowing users to go farther, faster. Steroids and HGH tend to be used for shorter bursts of power and strength.

There's an interesting dividing line when it comes to cheating. Why is taking a pill or an injection considered reprehensible while carbo-loading or beetroot juice, for example, is fine? "[As a biologist] I think it's arbitrary," said Cooper. "A molecule is a molecule is a molecule. But historically, judges have been very concerned with pills and injections...they have a view that it's against the spirit of sport if you take something in a pill rather than something 'natural.'"

Speaking of natural enhancements, what's this talk of beetroot juice? "It contains nitrate," said Cooper. "When you get a high dose of nitrate, you can increase the amount of nitric oxide in your body." Scientists aren't sure why or how it works yet, but an increased level of nitric oxide does seem to improve performance. So when this year's batch of Olympians go to give urine samples to be tested this year, the judges shouldn't be surprised if a lot of the pee they test is purple from all the beets!