Sunday, February 17, 2008

Victor Conte and Dwain Chambers' secrets

It appears that Dwain Chambers is the latest athlete to fall foul of the temptation to take an undetectable performance enhancement drug.

This drug - THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) - has been found to be more potent than the most powerful natural androgen (anabolic steroid), dihydrotestosterone, which - like high doses of any form of testosterone - has been linked to aggression in males.

It wasn't a test that rumbled Chambers, it was the desperate manipulations of his candyman, Victor Conte, to minimise sanctions after he'd been exposed. In other words, he squealed on his clients to epic proportions, which was perhaps not the best business move for somebody selling illegal substances. As the Express reports,

"Today Conte...sell[s] legal performance-enhancing vitamins and minerals while the young athletes to whom he supplied his sinister offerings are left trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered careers."

"Sinister offerings" is the right phrase. Although ingestion of substances which the athlete believed would lead to enhanced performance has been known since the original Olympic Games began in 776BC, athletes now take more steroids in one cycle than athletes in the 1960's would take throughout their careers. It's about being in first place, and if I may be a little cynical, it's about pulling an ambitious athlete's strings to get the shirt emblazoned with sponsors' insignias on the world's sports pages breaching the finishing line.

There are several versions of the history of the phrase,"There's no such thing as a free lunch". Whoever said it, it's true. Anabolic steroids can give gains in strength, muscle mass, stamina or adonisation - but at a price. Steroids, if they are anabolic, share one characteristic: they are analogues of testosterone, but much stronger. It is not unknown for the male body to cope with massive amounts of exogenous testosterone by converting the excess to oestrogen, the female sex-hormone, a process called aromatisation. Most needle-exchanges worth their salt will inform body builders that, should they ever need the service, Marks & Sparks provides free bra-fittings.

A very popular performance-enhancing drug that is not a steroid is HGH, or human growth hormone. The problem is, a lot of the people who take it assume that it does what it says on the tin, is makes your muscles grow. That it does, but not directly. It causes various tissues in the body, but predominantly in the liver, to secrete insulin-like growth factor (IGF1). The science regarding the effect of IGF1 on the body isn't all in yet. One way to inject (pun unintended) cognitive dissonance into an HGH-user's mind is to ask him if he's sure his supply was made in a laboratory. Then to explain that some of us remember how HGH used to be obtained, ie drilling through the back of a corpse's head and harvesting it from the pituitary gland, and the subsequent relation to the risk of cjd-like viruses which might be present in the "donor" brain. If I want to have to twist sideways to get through a doorway I'll go to a car boot sale and buy shoulderpads left over from the 1980's - compared with the prospect of a lingering descent into dementia and paralysis, looking like a cross between Joan Collins and Margaret Thatcher suddenly doesn't seem that unattractive. Besides, although I don't generally howl about animal rights (although I like cats), the way anabolic steroids' effects are quantified leaves me cold.

The standard argument in favour of steroids has been that there has only been one known death, an Italian footballer in the 1960's. However, an Italian judge is now investigating the death of around 70 football stars from the steroids their football clubs gave them. Perhaps, after a nasty tackle, a player should choose to change places with a substitute rather than submit to the tender mercies of the magic sponge.

Steroids - or "roids" are, in the US, the drug of choice in the youngest and the oldest groups of drug users. Drugs worker Pat Lenahan, head of the drug and sport advisory service at John Moores University, Liverpool, whose book Anabolic Steroids is the most recent authoritative study of British steroid use, once did an exercise in a British primary school where children were shown an archetypal picture of a burglar carrying his "swag" bag, telling the children to write down what was in the bag. Beside the usual suspects of videos, DVD's, laptops, etc, a significant minority of the children wrote "steroids".

Steroids have been known to be used by doormen in clubs. A subset of these also use cocaine to stay awake. This is alarming, as cocaine can sensitise the heart to the effects of adrenalin for up to an hour after administration, possibly leading to a heart attack after the surge of adrenalin related to roid rage; and of course, if the paramedics don't know that the casualty's taken cocaine, it's not impossible that should the cardiac arrest be unresponsive to defibrillation, adrenaline will be administered, although cocaine involvement in cardiac arrest, possibly with steroid use, is becoming so common that medical teams are now becoming reticent as regards the administration of adrenaline.

Perhaps the villain here is not steroids or any other drug, but the notion that it is acceptable to stretch human performance by introducing exogenous factors to the human body, ie enhancements, a favourite concept of Professor John Harris, whose aquarian theories I've sat in the draughty old fen and chewed over before. I can envisage a world within my crusty old lifetime where athletes who do not partake of performance enhancing substances will be banned from the contest not because they will lose, but because if they win the purveyors of dangerous dreams will have a lot of questions to face.

Related post: The real predator hides behind the Tiger

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