It was just one line buried in the tenth paragraph of a very minor story, but for me, it suddenly changed everything.
The headline was that the Orica GreenEdge rider from South Africa, Daryl Impey, could return to racing because the UCI had waived its right to appeal against the earlier decision of the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (SAID) to permit the cyclist to return to competition. Both agencies had essentially accepted the evidence for his contention that a positive test for the banned diuretic Probenicid had been entirely accidental and the result of contamination with no intent to use the substance.
What had occurred, apparently, was that Impey had gone to a Durban pharmacy to buy some empty gelatin capsules ahead of the national time trial championship last February. The pharmacist testified that the same pill counter that was used to dispense Impey’s capsules had been used earlier for another’s customer’s prescription, which contained Probenicid and may have left a residue that then contaminated Impey’s purchase.
The SAID and UCI accepted this explanation, and I have absolutely no reason to dispute it; Impey has returned to competition and there is no taint of doping against his name.
Daryl Impey: contaminated capsules
But what did he want those capsules for? The answer, in that tenth paragraph, is that he planned to pack them with bicarbonate of soda. Bicarb is, of course, a common household substance, an ingredient of baking soda, and likely to be found in practically everyone’s kitchen cupboard. It is definitely not a banned substance.
It might be used dissolved in water to settle an acid stomach, but it’s not very pleasant to taste on its own, and taken in any concentration can also cause gastric distress. Which is a polite way of saying that it can give you gas.
But there is evidence that if you can ingest enough of it without feeling nauseous, it does have the benefit of improving the lactic acid buffering capacity of an athlete’s muscles. In other words, it is considered by some an ergogenic aid. Which is a polite way of saying that it is a performance-enhancing substance.
I have no idea why it’s not banned, but I would assume that it’s because the science on whether bicarb-loading works is fuzzy and inconclusive. Obviously, that is the type of judgment call taken all the time by the relevant advisory committee of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
My point is not to accuse Daryl Impey of any wrongdoing. Given his probable gastric issues, I’m not sure I’d want to room with him, but I’m sure he’s a great guy and he’s definitely no cheat. Unless, that is, we all are.
And that is my point. I know about bicarbonate because I’ve thought about trying it. I never did because it seemed like more trouble than it was worth, and unlike Impey, I couldn’t think of a non-vomit-inducing way of ingesting enough of the stuff to make any conceivable difference.
But a few years ago, I did try using a bovine colostrum product — as advertised in cycling magazines and even endorsed by a former pro I knew. This “first milk” product, stolen from cows presumably before the calves can get it, is supposed to contain antibodies and immune system-boosting properties. The idea is that taking the substance, which is not banned, aids recovery and thus enables you to train harder, longer. Does it work? I couldn’t tell. The science, again, is fuzzy, but you can find a couple of journal articles that support the idea that it enhances performance.
Beetroot by the bucketload
And these days, at every race I go to, there seems to be someone knocking back a shot of beetroot concentrate. While perfectly legal in such amounts, there is evidence that the nitrites in beetroot enhance the body’s oxygen transport system — which is pretty much the Holy Grail for an endurance athlete. Does it work? Search me, but I could show you an awful lot of expensive purple urine being passed that says many people believe it does.
So what am I saying — that we’re all closet dopers and cheats, and worse, hypocrites? No, nothing so crude, though I think many of us, myself included here, could all do with a dose of honesty about the ethical grey area in which many of us compete, even as we decry the egregious dope-cheats who’ve repeatedly tainted our sport.
Let’s look at what the WADA Code says in its fundamental protocol on doping: “A substance shall be considered for inclusion on the Prohibited List if the substance is a masking agent or meets two of the following three criteria: (1) it has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance; (2) it represents a potential or actual health risk; or (3) it is contrary to the spirit of sport.”
Colostrum, beetroot, bicarbonate and other such ergogenic aids are not prohibited because they’re not adjudged to enhance performance, but do they check the box of being “contrary to the spirit of sport”? You could argue that taking substances that just barely fall short of actual doping is not contrary to the spirit of sport, but seriously?
The bottom line is that nobody goes to the trouble of taking these substances except in the sincere hope that they’re gaining a competitive edge by artificial means. That is clearly in contravention of clause (3), but I think we can go further and say that it also contravenes clause (1). If the athlete takes a substance that has the “potential” to enhance performance, in the evident belief or hope that it will, then that, too, should be a violation of the Code.
A lot of people talk about a zero tolerance of doping, but a lot of us in the sport are kidding ourselves about what that really means — or should really mean. WADA’s motto is “play true”. Are we there yet? Not by a long way. If we really believe in the spirit of sport, the next step in the program should be to say, “I’m a dope cheat,” and then make amends.
This column first appeared in issue 51