Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Oh No, Not Vino!

Today being a rest day, I wasn't paying much attention to the Tour de France. Then an e-mail from VeloNews arrived with shocking news: Alexandre Vinokourov, the man favored to win this year's Tour de France before it began, has tested positive for a homologous blood transfusion (meaning a transfusion from a person with a compatible blood type). Consequently, he and his team -- which included the fifth and eighth-placed riders and led the teams classification -- have withdrawn from the race.

Vino, who won the Vuelta a Espana (another three-week tour) last fall, has always been a fighter, an attacker, the sort of guy who makes a race exciting and unpredictable. I have always admired his determination and panache. His victory in Stage 15 of the Tour yesterday was a prime example.

I suppose it all adds up. Vinokourov suffered injuries to both knees in Stage 5 of the Tour and lost a fair amount of blood. Then he came back to win the Stage 13 time trial as well as yesterday's mountain stage. One cannot win a time trial, which depends on a body running at its best, with a short supply of blood, particularly the red cells that transport oxygen to the muscles. I'm not a doctor, but perhaps Vino's body was unable to naturally replace all the red blood cells he lost in Stage 5 so quickly, particularly since his body was under the extreme stress of racing the Tour. So Vino got an extra boost, and he got caught.

Damn it, there's just no one to believe in anymore. I thought Tyler Hamilton was the kind of guy who just worked hard and would never dope. Then when he got busted, I latched onto Roberto Heras. When he got suspended, I turned to Floyd Landis, and we all know what happened to him. Now Vinokourov, the pride of Kazakhstan, the man who gave that country a chance to be known for something better than Borat, has let me down, too.


Jennifer said...

I started reading that article on blood transfusions but soon had to stop. Something about doping yourself with someone else's blood! eew! seems really creepy. Pro athletes are actually doing this? And it actually works? Are there even creepier ways to cheat out there?

David Johnsen said...

It's not really any different from getting a transfusion when you're in an accident, except that the athletes don't need it to live. It works because it packs more oxygen-carrying red blood cells into the athlete's body, though the effect only lasts until the those cells die (and the body returns to its natural equilibrium).

If you read about pro cycling for a while, you will be amazed by what goes on. They get all sorts of injections which they say are vitamins although that's usually seen as a euphemism for something else. Sometimes they use drugs approved for use in animals but not people! They get their blood tested all the time, like weekly or even daily. Each team has its own doctors who do all sorts of testing (and allegedly administer doping products) in addition to the testing carried out by the UCI (cycling's worldwide governing body), WADA (World Anti-Doping Assoc.) and national groups (Olympic committees, USA Cycling, etc.). Cyclists must provide schedules so they can be found anytime anywhere for random testing. It's insane.

Before a test was developed for EPO (a drug used in cancer patients to boost their red blood cells), cyclists would use just enough to come in below the 50% hematocrit test limit. Before hematocrit testing, sometimes they used too much EPO and their blood got too thick -- several seemingly healthy young athletes died suddenly in those days.

It's all pretty creepy, really. I don't know of any other sport that involves so much blood testing and manipulation. I suspect that the constant bloodwork desensitizes the athletes to the point where homologous transfusions don't seem like any big deal. You or I might say, "Hey, what are you doing with that needle?" but a guy who gets stuck several times a week won't worry about it so much.

David Johnsen said...

P.S. The only way I can enjoy the sport is by trying not to think about all that stuff I mentioned above!