James Corrigan: Wada's bigwigs need to get off their high horses

The Way I See It: Altitude training is not a health risk – so how then could it possibly be against the spirit of sport?

James Corrigan
Monday 06 February 2012 01:00
Djokovic’s altitude training has helped him to reach peak fitness
Djokovic’s altitude training has helped him to reach peak fitness

As you gaze in admiration at those Very Indulgent People zipping past your traffic jam in their dedicated lane, be sure to tip a most respectful cap to those on the trusty white steeds. They will be the righteous officials of the World Anti-Doping Agency and they will be galloping around London's Olympic venus exposing the cheats who dare to sully the sanctity of our spectacular. Yes, shout "tally ho" and "God speed", but don't engage them in debate. Because their reasoning may leave you so muddled as to doubt their saintlyhood.

It's not Wada's fault; not totally. When Planet Earth was triggered into hysteria following Ben Johnson's juice-charged victory at the 1988 Olympics, the agency was charged with cleaning up sport. The crusade would be as thorough as it would be merciless. But then, reality struck. Wada was forced into a frantic game of catch-up.

The poor agency soon found itself in a moral maze, obliged on almost a monthly basis to declare what was and was not permittable. Nose sprays, diet pills, cough-curse, sirloin steaks... the extenuating factors dropped on their desks like mud-bombs in a pond. What had once been clear, suddenly wasn't. One headline's cheat was another headline's victim. So what did Wada do? Keep its head down and try to achieve what it could in these impossible blurred parameters. Nope. It became more sanctimonious, accusing individual sports of this and that, targeting practices which had nothing to do with its original remit.

So we had pubescent teenagers banned for innocently taking supplements, so many careers ruined over sniffles, reports informing us that golfers would be banned for smoking cigars. And those of us who raised a query as to the frenzy of the witch-hunt were asked, "Whose side are you on?". Yet the question won't go away: where will Wada draw the line? The answer is wrapped up in the latest farcical rumblings from its offices.

Wada has long believed its mission shouldn't only focus on the injected or swallowed. Its code contains three criteria to determine whether to ban a training "method". 1/ It enhances performance; 2/ it's a health risk; 3/ it violates the "spirit of sport." If a method ticks the boxes of two of these, Wada moves to stamp it "BANNED!"

Altitude training was bound to appear on the Wada radar. Research now shows that the "high-low" technique (live in high altitude, train in low altitude) certainly enhances performance. The more red blood cells, the easier it is to carry oxygen to the lungs, the greater the aerobic capacity, the longer the endurance. Blood doping does the same, you know. Yet altitude training isn't a health risk and who can say, when so many across the world regard it as a geographically normal way of life, could it be against the spirit of sport?

But then,artificial altitude training arrived on the scene. It costs the likes of Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe to gain the benefits of "high-low". The hypobaric chambers allowed the less privileged athlete to reap the gains of high altitude by using a machine. Wada wasn't impressed, thinking it unnatural and "passive". It was no different to high altitude apart from it was a replication. Think of the difference between a sunbed and the beach.

In its wisdom, Wada stated it "violated the spirit of sport". It never did produce a convincing argument why, but, all the same, so many athletes were tainted. Wada didn't ban the method because there was no effective test. "It doesn't mean we approve it," said Dick Pound, the then head of Wada. Thus a moral minefield was left. The matter lay dormant, until Novak Djokovic admitted using an egg-shaped device two years ago. The Cyclical Variations in Adaptive Conditioning System didn't only emulate high altitude, it bettered it, cycling through different altitudes which, for reasons I don't understand, provides benefits that not only outweigh traditional altitude training, but require significantly less time spent in the chamber. Indeed, it's more effective than blood doping. Allen Ruszkowski, the chief executive of CVAC Systems, claims the technology's results as "double what is seen with doping."

That is staggering, but what can Wada do? Ban it? How? It's undetectable. And why? It has no health risks. Wada is considering banning the method because of its pig-headed assertion that it "violates the spirit of sport". It is heading into an area where it possibly cannot win. It threatens to explode, both ethically, biologically and legally. So why is Wada having the discussion again? Because it feels it has to, as if it is the conscience of sport. With that attitude the lines inevitably become blurred to absurdity. There are heroes and villains, sure, but there isn't only black and white. There is so much grey and so little recognition of the fact.

It may be time to scream at those Wada bigwigs to come down from them their high horses.

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