Road To The Olympic Games

Blog

'Pharmaceutical arms race' approach to sport condemned

Trent Stellingwerff, a sport scientist who works with top Canadian athletes, supports the science behind WADA, and believes the organization delivers a strong benefit to the athlete.

Doping causes harm, leading Canadian sport scientist says

Trent Stellingwerff is a sport physiologist, who works with some of Canada's top athletes. (Emma Allen/Canadian Sport Institute)

Trent Stellingwerff gets straight to the point.

"Pseudoscience kills people," said Stellingwerff, a Canadian sport physiologist with a keen interest in performance nutrition. He's responding to an article I wrote about a viewpoint that suggests doping should be allowed in sport.

"There is a lot of pseudoscience studying only one athlete. It seems every week some marketing guy emails me some N=1 exercise study."  

Stellingwerff supports the science behind WADA, and believes the organization delivers a strong benefit to the athlete. "I don't want sport to become a pharmaceutical arms race," he said before referring to all the early deaths of known dopers in track and field. "I can start to name the people who [only] lived to the age of 60."

Asprey counterpoint

Stellingwerff offers some valuable criticism to balance my coverage of David Asprey, a biohacker whose ideas push the limits of the doping debate.

I received comments on social media where some readers suggested that I was promoting dirty sport by covering a person fascinated with human enhancement. This is not true. My aim is to cover the entire landscape of clean sport and doping to push our collective conversation forward.

I agree wholeheartedly that all athletes must follow the rules of WADA, just like they follow the rules of their international sports federation – just like I did during my athletic career. That said, clean sport authorities must continue to improve the system. They must continue to move closer to their original goal of athlete health and well-being, in spite of their role as enforcers.

Clean sport landscape

"Ninety-nine per cent of the population is going to put dopers into one of two camps," said Stellingwerff. "[Either] you're a jerk for doing that, because it was purposeful or you're an idiot for taking that supplement because it was inadvertent. But there's this huge grey area in the middle."

"As a professional, I will work 100 per cent within the rules," Stellingwerff said in response to Asprey. "I'm all for progress. My job is progress. But I have to put my experiments in front of an ethics committee."  

When I asked him about opening the door to all drugs when your brain is fully developed, Trent laughed. "Something 'magically' doesn't happen on your 25th birthday... Some of the risk assessments on WADA's [banned] list are from scientists, who have worked for decades to fully understand a supplement's short-term/long-term health outcomes."

Grey area

Legal supplements can also push the boundaries of human physiology. "It needs to be something that could be reasonably obtained in the environment, like through food," Stellingwerff said, in stating the ethical case.

He works with Canada's rowing team whose supplements can include beetroot juice, coffee, baking soda, branch chain amino acids, creatine and beta alanine. The last three are amino acids that increase muscle function and power and can be found from natural sources in meat. It is well known that different athletes react differently to each of these supplements.

Pharmaceutical arms race

Thyroid medication is legal, but Stellingworth thinks it should be controlled. "Sport should be about your intelligence around training and recovery and your body's natural ability." He references Alberto Salazar, who was accused of pushing thyroid drugs onto athletes at his Nike Running training group in Oregon. "Some people say, 'I was just doping back to normal,' but some people don't drop off like that. Now, you're cheating up... There has to be a line in the sand where natural physiology needs to come out."

Stellingwerff also frowns upon the sunshine drugs that are regularly prescribed in high doses to cycling teams in Europe. He understands the concerns about mental illness, having provided support for Clara Hughes' Big Ride. "Some of our best athletes deal with clinical depression and mental illness. 

"The risk appears higher in endurance athletes," he added.

But Stellingwerff thinks some psychiatrists are crossing the line. Antidepressants can act to increase pain tolerance, and theoretically improve performance. So there is potential for abuse.

"No one has ever asked, 'What caused Lance Armstrong's cancer?' Ask him that!" Stellingwerff said. If doping caused Armstrong's cancer in the first place, he would have to be in a crazy mental space to keep damaging his body with banned substances.

What's it all for?

Stellingwerff refers to the final breaths of any athlete. And hopefully it's far away – long after they have created families and established post-sport careers. There are too many cases of early deaths attributed to doping abuse within the sporting system.


What do you think of the rules around doping in sport? Tweet Adam Kreek @adamkreek and let him know. 

About the Author

Adam Kreek

Olympic rower

Adam Kreek was towed to gold in men's eights rowing at the Beijing Olympics mostly due to his incredible teammates. Now a father and working stiff, he aims to inspire adult men to take small measures to improve their health every day. He's a corporate speaker and trainer as well as a champion for the Canadian Men's Health Foundation.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.