Citius, Altius, Fortius – A brief overview of Ergogenic Aids

With the news this weekend of the Mountaineering Council for Ireland (MCI) having its anti-doping policy banded about the papers and internet forums. When a member of the committee that arranges the Irish Bouldering League (IBL) tipped off climbers on a forum about possible tests, because the MCI ask that they have the paperwork in place for random drugs tests. (see the IBL/MCI anti-doping policy)

This testing seems to have been almost sprung on the competitors in the IBL, and there are many questions that need answering and asking. Whilst the MCI have had the anti-doping policy since 2003, it appears as yet they have been able to implement any testing, especially and this ‘local’ level of competition, where many climbers are there simply for the crack[sic!]. 

In sport taking an substances that can positively affect physical or mental performance, including pharmacological, physiological, nutritional, mechanical or psychological aid, are commonly referred to as ergogenic aids. Arguably even water is ergogenic aid by this definition, however more often the public think of anabolic steroids when performance enhancement and doping is mentioned. 
Whilst Ben Johnson was famously caught and banned for doping in the 1988 Olympics, the dopers until then had manage to stay one step ahead of the enforcers. It wasn’t until the death of three competitive cyclists in 1998 whilst using ergogenic that the International Olympic Committee started to consider the issue widely and the independent World anti-doping Agency (WADA) was set up in 1999. This organisation set up a policy that rules which substances are banned for ethical and medical reasons and was first applied at Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

With the recent recognition of the International Federation of Sport Climbing, by the International Olympic Committee has lead to the situation that we are seeing in Ireland, whereby it seems that the MCI under the guidance of the Irish Sport Council anti-doping rules have suddenly started to implemented the WADA policy that has the ethos removing an unfair advantage and levelling the playing field, for those athletes who didn’t want to win at any cost.

Despite WADA’s efforts to stem their use of anabolic steroids a 2003 study by Boyce into sport in the US estimated that there was 1 to 3 million users, that 67% of Elite Athletes where on the ‘juice’ and more concerning was the result that 1-12% of males in High School were users. An explanation offered is the pressure of gaining an Football scholarship at University is so great that they will go to any length to beef out.

One of the reasons for using ergogenic aids comes from old research carried out behind the iron curtain much of which was destroyed during the fall of the Berlin Wall, which showed that a female shot putter given several months of Anabolic Steroids could throw three metres further, and that by removing the drug before the competition the effects would last whilst the evidence would not.

If you think it was only a minority of competitive athletes then if you saw the drop off in distance attained in the strength dependent female throwing events after doping controls became more effective due to better testing in 1988; where both the world record thrown that year and the average distance attained by the top ten athletes takes a dramatic drop, after that landmark date.

Steroids which famously can have some androgenic (male building effects) with certain types of steroid there is greater or lesser amounts of male building to muscle building (anabolic), the safest one being Nandrolone that Lindford Christie was banned for in 1999. The Earlier anabolic steroids had greater male building effects and lesser anabolic effect. Leading to the concern over these drugs was the questionable sex of female athletes, Jackie Joyner Kearsy and Florence Griffith were described as a gorilla and a man respectively during the 1988 Olympics.

In terms of climbing the use of anabolic steroids may well benefit bouldering, however since until now we haven’t been tested, there has been no way of telling whose doped up and who’s natural. Indeed the problem of enhanced physique became so problematic in bodybuilding that there is now natural bodybuilding federations, allowing those that don’t want ‘roid rage’ to compete amongst equals.

Now with our shift towards the Olympic movement although small may potentially mean that climbers will need a growing understanding of the WADA code. As there are many supplements that we can use legally, that may enhance a climbers performance. However there are some more everyday substances like various cold and flu medicine that are on the banned list. Caffeine for instance has been shown to have a 3% increase in short and intense activities, however it is banned substance if there is more than a certain level in your urine.

At present few if any supplements have been tested specifically looking at climbing, meaning that whilst they might aid running, weight lifting or cycling performance, due to the complexities with the all important power to weight ratio they might not be as beneficial as you would hope to a climber. Creatine for instance is a legal muscle/strength building supplement, that is often mentioned on climbing internet forums, however it increases water retention, so despite making you stronger, might lead to added unwanted weight gain. A second supplement a posh amino acid, HMB offers a similar level of weekly increase in muscle mass to Creatine that may be better for bouldering performance?

Another legal aid is Sodium Bicarbonate, aka baking powder, what this does, other than make you sick, is help buffer against blood lactate accumulation. Through a process that is carried out in the kidneys. This might help improve performance in power endurance, however the sickness effect will make it far from pleasant to use. However given the lengths some athletes have gone to, who knows?

The final physiological drug/method I am going to talk about is EPO and Blood doping, both are virtually undetectable in urine. Simply because Blood doping relies of transfusing out your own blood whilst training at altitude and then re-transfusing it in just before a competition. Therefore the only thing your adding is your own blood that is fortified with red blood cells from being at altitude.

Some clever boffin realised the process that altitude causes and synthesised the bodies natural trigger for producing red blood cells, EPO, as such it is virtually impossible to trace this kind of doping. The only way is literally to catch someone red handed like in the Tour De France a few years back where hundreds of doses where found or through testing the heamocrit level in the blood, which if above 50% is deemed an unnatural level. As higher levels of red blood cells thicken the blood and increase the risk of stokes and heart attacks the phrase ‘Better Dead than second’ was coin about EPO doping by Eichner in 1992.

A psychological active drug that I have seen mentioned on UKC forum are Beta-Blockers, these are often cited as being misused in ‘control’ sports like archery, shoot etc… In climbing the concept is that they may well help you remain calm and focused by essentially switching of your bodies reaction to adrenalin, by blocking the beta-adrenal receptor in the heart. Again like EPO and Blood this method is illegal.

Alarmingly the notion of performance enhancing drugs and therapies is virtually at the cutting edge of medicine, in fact a representative of WADA said “The same kinds of people who cheat in sport today will probably try to find ways to misuse genetics tomorrow”. There are three possible futures that sport scientists are keeping an eye on one is a genetic disorder in humans that leads to myostatin suppression that in turn results in increased muscle growth. Other experiments with mice has lead to what on You Tube has been dubbed Supermouse. Further research might well come from the new altitude research into the mounting evidence that suggests that some people are better at transporting oxygen there red blood cells than others.

Now for most sports that is where the WADA anti-doping policy effectively finishes, you aren’t going to get Chris Hoy smoking a fat one. However climbing is more anarchic, take Chris Sharma who was found positive for cannabis in 2001 and stripped of his world championship medal and winning. This problem of recreational drugs will be an issue for climbers and boulderers. I am not saying that everybody who climbs hard uses illegal recreational drugs, but I would hazard a guess that there are more than a handful.

Indeed research into the types of people who engage in risk-taking behaviour shows that they are statistically more likely to do things like take drugs, drive recklessly as well as pursue a hobby that can result in serious injury or death. We are naturally predisposed to engage in those type of activity, as such we have run a mock for a long time now, and the announcement albeit through what many sporting circles will see as an unsporting whistle blower, that urine tests are starting to be carried out has knock some of the competitors for 6.

Rock Star enjoying a Spliff

Whilst I agree that having an anti-doping policy is important for our sport if we want to be taken seriously by the IOC, I do feel that since these appear to be the first tests, and there appears to have been little to no guidance from the MCI into what is and isn’t allow. That they need to be thoughtful with the punishment, which can be anything from banning an individual from competing for life, to never being allowed to hold a position with the MCI or just a simple reprimanded.

It seems that whilst MCI adopted the Irish sports councils policy in 2003 along with there testing regime they have done very little to police it in the intervening 5 years. Whilst in the short-term this could potentially lead to a drop in participation as climber ‘stay away’ in fear that their until now private life’s become a potentially public and personally damaging story. Although having met the odd Irish boulder I think possibly they are a few more likely to wear a positive test as a badge of honor or kudos, like ASBO’s in inner cities. Unfortunately, the papers are already onto this and I can almost fear the headline ‘Irish Rock Climber: Stoned!’ I guess that if you are going to introduce drug testing to a sport like climbing then you have to expect some kind of teething problems

The BMC is in the middle of trying to decide whether to get fully behind the Olympic bid from the IFSC. As well as develop a new coaching structure to the instructional qualifications. At present there is no information of the BMC website about doping, so for the time being there appears to be a big difference between Ireland and the Britain. The BMC gets a lot of funding from the English Sports Council, and I wonder how long it might be before they are force to implement drug testing at events like the BMC Leading Ladder?


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