The rules of sport exist for very legitimate reasons, in some cases those rules inadvertently aid those willing to push the boundaries, by providing a line in the sand. Step over this line & you can be accused of being a cheat, but stay right on the limit & you can proclaim yourself working within the rules, never failed a test, an ethical athlete & so on.
I think it was Chris Boardman who I first heard mention ‘bumping up to the rules’ in relation to bike position. The UCI has essentially provided a template for a fast time trial or pursuit position by creating a set of rules that were designed to stop riders getting into an Obree Superman position. So by setting up the most extreme position allowed by the rules, then bringing it back to a position you can actually ride & develop power in, it’s possible you’ll have a reasonably good aerodynamic position as close to rule breaking as possible, i.e. fast. This method is open to everybody, regardless of resources (besides adjustable stems & headset spacers), it holds little shock value in the ethics department. What it demonstrates is that the other areas of our sport which are governed by rules can also be manipulated. The WADA rules can also be ‘bumped up to’ if you have the resources, lack of respect for your sport & competitors, an ability to cause yourself harm for financial gain & a character type that permits prolonged unethical behaviour.
Openly Used Treatments
Lets look at one of a couple of different treatments highlighted by a news article I read featuring Rafael Nadal this morning. He felt the need to proclaim he’s “a completely clean guy”, he probably is working (just) within the current rules, we don’t know any different, which is legal in sport. The methods he’s outlined do have an element of ‘bumping up to the rules’, using procedures that you wouldn’t be surprised if they were banned at some point in the future.
Lets take Platelet Rich Plasma treatment (PRP for short), or ‘blood spinning‘ as they like to call it in football. This involves taking blood from the athlete, adding an anticoagulant & ‘spinning’ it through two stages of centrifugation. This separates the PRP aliquot from the plasma & red blood cells, then the platelets are activated by adding thrombin & calcium chloride, and it’s injected locally to treat the injury. Hardly a protein shake.
I’ve referenced a study ‘The systemic effects of platelet-rich plasma injection’ by the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Stanford University. I’d recommend reading it, if you’re interested in the ongoing research into whether or not this treatment is performance enhancing.
“This is the first and only adequately powered study of the systemic effects of PRP. We present evidence that PRP contains and may trigger systemic increases in substances currently banned in competitive athletes”
The IGF-1 serum levels are shown to be elevated, which is defined as an insulin-like growth factor, which in turn can increase muscle mass & strength with its anabolic effects. While there’s been little clinical research on these effects, (which means that WADA downgraded it) it’s very likely that it will be banned in the future based on the information in the linked study. We have no idea if athletes are using this for injury treatment or for the additional effects that are starting to emerge, it’s certainly a case of ‘bumping up to the rules’, while they’re still in place.
The other treatment he mentions is stem cell therapy, this requires a much more complex blog, I really need to get my head around that & I’ll save it for another day.
The Gist Of It
Is Nadal cheating? Potentially not, if you take the current rules as your benchmark. Is he bumping up to the rules, almost certainly, but this is within the rules & like him or not, it does legitimately allow him to proclaim to be clean. Whether we consider athletes treatments to be ethical, or whether we believe they’re taking them for the ‘stated’ reasons or for potential performance enhancing side-effects of treatments, that’s not how they see it.
Professional sport now medically ‘bumps up to the rules’, using legal methods of replicating the effects of performance enhancing drugs. The less well-funded athletes may have to take the risk of using substances that can fail a test, while the better funded ones have other options for performance enhancement that give a similar effect, but are legal. It’s up to us how we judge that, is altitude training that increases red blood cell count legitimate, or are treatments on the edge of the WADA rulebook also legitimate. Food for thought.
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