The Chemistry of a 7-time liar…
“This is my body and I can do whatever I want to it: Everybody wants to know what I am on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?” – Lance Armstrong
That was a line spoken by Armstrong on a Nike advert shown on American TV in 2001. It wa screated in answer to his critics who believed that all of his successes in cycling had been due to doping and not, as he claimed, due to hard work and dogged determination after his recovery from cancer.
As it would turn out, Lance lied. A lot.
Of course, you don’t become 7 times Tour De France champion by drugs alone. Armstrong did spend innumerable hours in the saddle and was undoubtably a great cyclist. However, how much performance enhancing drugs helped to make him into the sporting superstar is hard to determine.
Armstrong had always denied the allegations, calling it a witch hunt, but finally gave up the fight earlier this year in a way that screamed “guilty”.
There was enough evidence against Armstrong for the USADA to produce a 202 page book about it. A lot of which came directly from 11 of his former team-mates and its pretty damning stuff. Not only had he been doping himself, but was the ringleader of one of the most sophisticated team wide doping operations in the history of sport. Armstrong became such a massively powerful figure in the cycling world that he bullied and threatened any who stood against him.
In truth on a personal level I’m not sure what to make of this whole debacle because that whole era of cycling had already become so tainted for me (an avid cycling fan since childhood) by the use of doping, that the fact Lance Armstrong won by the same method hasn’t come as a huge surprise. Watching him perform those audacious feats of “human endurance” on the TV screen and by the road side I always had my suspicions about the Texan. However that doesn’t mean I didn’t hope, for the sake of cycling as a sport, that the allegations weren’t true.
I think what is so disheartening, is that this should come out now, in the year that Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to pull on the maillot jaune in Paris. I had started to feel so much more positive about the future of this great endurance sport, but yet again the past must rear its ugly head. No doubt there are those casting suspcious eyes upon Bradley and the whole of the Sky and GB cycling teams that have done Britain proud in 2012.
I was going to write a more jovial blog post about Star Trek, but this doping subject has been eating at me since it came out, so here is this one instead. It’s about the chemistry that can help a man lie his way to the top of a professional sport.
Chemistry for dope(r)s
Below is a selection of performance enhancing drugs that were reportedly used by Lance Armstrong, other members of the US Postal Service team and throughout cycling and other sports in general. It’s going to get a bit “horny” from here if you pardon the pun.
EPO is a naturally occurring glycoprotein hormone that controls red blood cell production. Essentially it acts as a signalling agent that tells the bone marrow to produce new blood cells. It is a highly complex compound with a molecular weight around 34,000 and is largely secreted by the kidneys.
There are legitimate medical uses for EPO particularly in the treatment of anemia, however since the 1980s EPO has become a widespread blood doping agent, as quicker and less messy alternative to blood transfusions.
Its primary benefit is its ability to improve the hematocrit level of the blood, thus increasing blood capacity for carrying oxygen, increasing the volume of a heartbeat, and improving lung function. All the things you need for improving your performance in endurance sports such as cycling (also horse racing, boxing, rowing, distance running, skiing and triathlons.
Testing for EPO only became viable in 2000 when the French national anti-doping laboratory (LNDD) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) introduced a test that could detect pharmaceutical EPO and distinguish it from the natural version of the hormone normally present in an athlete’s urine.
The most well known hormone in the world thanks to its near ubiquitous usage when referring to anything particularly manly that happens (i.e. testosterone fuelled antics). While both sexes possess testosterone, men have about 7-8 times more of this sex hormone in their blood than women do.
While nearly everyone has heard about testosterone, a considerable amount less know what it looks like. It is a member of the steroid family, which all contain four cycloalkane rings joined together in the same arrangement (highlighted in blue) as shown above. Other examples of natural steroids include cholesterol (dietary fat) and the estrogens (female sex hormones).
So how can testosterone help you cheat your way to seven Tour De France titles?
The reason for use of testosterone is due to its anabolic (“building up”) effects that promote the growth of muscle mass, increase strength, improve recovery and endurance. The level of testosterone varies day by day, so it’s difficult to test for when synthetic testosterone is added and has to be based on evidence over the longer term. The natural variation means that testers often allow up to four times the normal baseline level of an athlete before alarm bells start ringing.
It should be noted that like all the drugs mentioned here there are many serious (and common) side effects from misuse of anabolic steroids. To know more, talk to Frank.
The USADA have alleged that Armstrong and the US Post team used a low-dose testosterone regime that allowed them to get through undetected. This was helped by doctors creating a new method of delivery for the steroid, via an olive oil formulation that riders dribbled under the tongue.
Corticosteroids are another series of hormones from the steroid family with the same general structural motif seen above in testosterone. Shown below is cortisone, which was named in the USADA report as a substance, seen to be taken by Armstrong.
They have a wide range of effects as they regulate many physiological processes including stress and immune response, metabolism for carbohydrate and proteins and the regulation of inflammation.
Application of the correct corticosteroid by injection can therefore be highly beneficial for an athlete’s performance, assisting in recovery, providing energy boosts and generally making you feel rather tip-top. Instead of the horrid gut wrenching guilt that you should be feeling about cheating against your fellow sportsmen.
Human Growth Hormone (hGH)
This is a peptide hormone that does what it says in the unimaginatively given name it possesses. hGH stimulates growth and the reproduction and regeneration of cells in humans. It’s generally used to treat growth disorders in children, but is highly complex (containing 191 amino acids with a molecular weight of 22,214 daltons) and most of its functions remain a bit…hand wavy.
Suffice to say it has anabolic properties that are ripe for abuse in the hands of the sports cheat. Detection wasn’t possible until the 2000s when blood tests were developed that allowed WADA to distinguish between natural and artificial hGH.
It was used to increase strength and lean muscle mass, to assist in weight loss and also promote recovery. Most of the riders from the US Postal team have admitted to taking hGH, which they were given by team doctors.
So what should be done now the truth is out? I think the answer for me that they should draw a line under what happened in the past and start cycling anew again.
We should leave those years blank as Chris Prudhomme (race director for the Tour De France) has suggested. It would be near impossible to just hand the victories of Armstrong to someone else further down the roster (especially when many of them also doped as well).
What of Armstrong himself? Despite all of this he has done a lot of positive work to raise money and awareness in the area of cancer research via his foundation and Livestrong. Should he be prosecuted for his crimes against sportsmanship? Or should they be largely overlooked because of the charitable works that he has done?
This unfortunate situation is not all that far removed from the recent allegations surrounding the late Jimmy Saville, although in that case the crimes are far more serious. Unfortunately, Saville can never answer for them.
Armstrong has many years ahead of him and will no doubt be hounded to give full disclosure on his cheating ways. Lance has already resigned as head of the Livestrong foundation and been dropped by sponsors left, right and centre. The damage to his reputation is now irrepairable and who knows what effect this will have upon his family. I feel the punishment has only just begun.
-Doctor Galactc & The Lab Coat Cowboy-