Saturday, August 25, 2012

Doping in Climbing: Some Thoughts after Lance Armstrong

The world of sports media is being deluged with stories about Lance Armstrong's battle with USADA, a battle that came to an ignominious close with his announcement that he would no longer contest the doping charges pursued by the Javert-like Travis Tygart. Whatever the actual facts of the case against Armstrong, it is a sad epilogue to what was once one of the greatest stories in sports. Rarely has there been such a fall from so spectacular a height of achievement.

This led me to think whether such an episode has occurred in the world of climbing. There have been scandals to be sure, whether the contested first ascent claim of Cerro Torre by Cesare Maestri or Rich Simpson's meteoric rise and fall as a pro rock climber. Tomo Cesen and a number of others have been accused of faking ascents of routes and peaks and have seen their claims rejected by the climbing community. Only in the relatively remote settings of high alpine mountaineering are such fraudulent assertions even remotely plausible. In the world of mainstream sports, which are witnessed, broadcast and recorded, such claims have no place. But in the world of climbing, it is still possible to claim an unrecorded ascent and depending on one's status within the community, have that ascent accepted. But I feel that changes are on the horizon, especially as more concerted efforts are made by large outdoor industry companies to market climbing on a broader basis. That is, the climbs themselves will be recorded but the story behind them will not be fully told.

In other words, what will happen in the world of sport and competition climbing if it actually becomes "professional," as many seem to want climbing to do, regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs? Looking at how doping seems to be evolving, I am more confident that there are ways in which climbers can adapt current technologies, especially to increase their capacity for training through faster recovery and it seems inevitable given the current fascination with speed records that endurance-focused doping such as EPO is on the horizon. Given the intensifying competition for attention and sponsorship, is it that fantastic to imagine that already climbers are experimenting with this and other means of gaining advantage?

The current fascination with climbing as an Olympic sport has mostly overlooked this likely turn. Climbing is unlikely to remain in a state of informal friendly competition if the stakes become even higher. How long will it be before a top-ranked climber is accused of doping, either officially or in the media, and what will be the fallout? How stringent are organizations such as the UIAA, ISCF or other national climbing governing bodies in researching possible ways in which doping could benefit climbers and creating tests to counter them? Are sponsors concerned about the ways in which their athletes are training and have made testing part of their athlete agreements? If they aren't now, which is mostly the case, I am sure that will not be the case for much longer.

I would like to see a serious survey that tries to ascertain what, if anything, is being used by top climbers to improve their performance and how many are trying to do so. Given the small numbers of climbers that call themselves "professional" I doubt such an initiative is likely in the short term but given the trend, such information is not only desirable but necessary. Looking at the fate of sports such as cycling with its almost endless run of bad publicity, climbing would do well to head off even the possibility of allowing a doping culture to emerge.

(UPDATE: Here is a good survey of what might be used in climbing

Another good survey is in the AAJ 2001 "Mountain Medicine: Performance-enhancing drugs and Climbing." I found it via Google Books

I will post other links as I find them)


Doug Lipinski said...

I think another question is "When should we start caring?". Personally, I'm so far from being a top level climber that all I can do is look on in awe. To me it doesn't really matter if a climber is doping unless they're competing. If you're gaining a competitive advantage, that's not fair. If you're climbing outside, trying to send a hard route/boulder isn't the competition supposed to be with yourself? Can you gain an unfair advantage in a battle with yourself and the rock? I'm sure people at that level would probably object to their peers doping while they're not, but I just couldn't get worked up about it.

On another note, I'd be very surprised if there wasn't already some PED/doping going on in climbing, I'm just not sure how much. After all, even amateur cyclists have been caught doping, and this wasn't even a race:

Peter Beal said...

Hi Doug,
The reason it may be time to start caring is that top level ascents are always to some degree competitive about sponsor resources/media attention if nothing else. I know that I would feel uneasy about a doped ascent of a hard (for me) project, the same as if I chipped a hold. The difference is that everyone could see the chipped hold but not the drugs.
Thanks for the link!

Mark Reeves said...

Hi Pete

Nice piece, glad you like my lifeinthevertical peice. I once gave a talk on why under World Anti Doping Association rules Everest would have only seen very few ascents.

With regards the rock climbing becoming professional. In my mind it already has, not to the extent as many other sports as their simply isn't the money in it. But many more climbers now are on retainers for various companies.

I also heard John Dunne talk once about all his ascents. It seemed to me that where some climbers have been very lucky in the legendary stories that have circulated about them, others have been not so luck. I don't doubt that there are more people out there who have told a white lie or two about there climbing.

Keep up the good work.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks Mark! I like the idea about Everest ascents not meeting WADA standards. I think one big problem is finding someone who will talk, even off the record, about doping in climbing, especially they are on retainer with a company.

Duncan Idaho said...

This is an interesting question. It seems that really only climbers entering high level competitions would be easy game for doping tests unless these tests, as you (Peter) stated, also became part of sponsorship contracts. It would also be easier to standardize the approach to deciding which drugs were interdicted since many elite (climbing) athletes perform similar training regimes.

In the broader spectrum of 'amateur' climbers, the task becomes much more convoluted. It would make sense that in the world of 'informal competition' this lens need only be focused on climbers who are pushing the limits of the sport and/or who appear in media for their exploits. How would we even approach vetting every feat performed by less well-known climbers? The alpine world in particular seems like ripe ground for this particular controversy simply because those climbing V15 and 5.15 are pretty solidly on the radar compared to a lot of those completing fast and/or significant alpine ascents. I could be wrong about that.

I suspect you're right that this will emerge as more of an issue as climbing becomes more and more mainstream. I was reminded instantly of the incident in Munich where Chris Sharma was disqualified from the bouldering world cup for a positive marijuana blood test, ironic as that may seem.

It seems like it might be harder to apply such rules to climbing than say, to cycling, as the former sport has generally defined itself by working against the grain of 'rules'. That has changed quite a bit over the last 30 years, however, so perhaps it's a moot point.

Good, relevant topic.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy your writing, but using the Javert epithet implies that Armstrong's sin was minor - akin to stealing a loaf of bread. From all appearances, it was not.

Matt S said...

The one incongruity I can think of in doping in climbing is that climbing, at its heart, is such a "natural" and personal sport. It's an escape from society, from rules, into the hills and what makes it most interesting is that really the only competition is all internal—you versus your fear and physical boundaries. I'm sure there's a fair bit of pressure to perform in the world of 5.15 redpointers and World Cup competition, but to think that someone would put results before process to the extent that they'd alter their body with chemicals seems antithetical to the spirit of the sport. That said, everyone climbs for different reasons. I could never imagine doping or taking andro or creatine or any of that crap just to get better at climbing. I'd rather just go climbing, and improve through trying to master movement and my own psychological limitations.

Anonymous said...

The fact that the pro climbers see MJ and cocaine as "performance enhancing drugs" tells you just how ignorant most climbers are about what might improve their abilities.

And the EPO assertions - truly laughable. If you understood the physiology, cardiology or expenditure you'd realize that's so far out of a climbers reach. I'm sure there are climbers out there that are willing to go the steroid route but most wouldn't know that there is even a difference between the cortisone injection steroid and Test. And for all those out there thinking "oh, steroids are so bad for you!!" take a look at your IBU and alcohol consumption and their effects before you come to a quick judgment.

Overall, even if climbers did start attempting to use performance enhancing drugs, they'd have to actually figure out which those drugs were, how to acquire them, and then figure out how to use them so that they are actually beneficial. The actual pro's without day jobs couldn't afford them even if they could figure out the rest.

Now I fully believe the the pro-wanna-be's would have a much better chance of acquisition and proper use but it still wouldn't change the one thing that makes a difference in climbing performance - genetics. Either you have 'em or you don't.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. I wanted to address the last comment in particular, which, though anonymous, makes some interesting points.

I am not sure that the EPO issue is that far-fetched given the trend towards speed. Maybe you can provide something besides a blanket dismissal to argue against it?

I think there are plenty of climbers who are intelligent enough to figure out which steroids will work and which will not. Again just a matter of time.

The point about genetics is well taken but is beside the point at the top of a sport when genetics is already sorted for.

PEDs are very expensive for sure but people, and not just pros, might take them for lots of reasons as shown by a number of recent scandals involving masters bike racing. Would I use them if it meant I could climb V14? Don't ask :)

Brent Apgar DC said...

You sucked me in w/ this topic, interesting to me for sure.

My take, for the time being, is that doping in climbing is not widely practiced or likely to be. I believe that someone else pointed to the obvious reason; there's simply not enough monetary incentive at this point in "professional" climbing to make doping worth it.

If climbing does ever cross that threshold I would assume that the IFSC and other governing bodies will simply adopt the testing and practices that the IOC and WADA are already refining, such as the biological passport system.

I could see things like HGH, Testosterone, and a whole myriad of the legal supplements already in use in the bodybuilding and endurance sports arenas being employed but I'm going to have to agree w/ anon on the EPO. To run an effective cycle of EPO the drugs alone are going to cost anywhere from 3-5K and that's if you're going to go the do-it-yourself route. Given how sketchy it is to use EPO, running a cycle of it w/ out the supervision of a cardiologist would probably be considered suicidal behavior.

It would be super cool to hear Mark's talk about how there would be fewer Everest ascents if the climbers had to adhere to WADA rules. (by the way he isn't entirely correct on EPO being virtually undetectable one of the WADA labs has a test in the works, athlete's hematocrit levels are tested and for transfusions at least a few cyclists were caught because polymers from the chemicals used in storage and stabilization of the blood were found in their blood streams during testing.)

Here's a fact that I think begs a more interesting question about doping in sports in general.
Mark mentions in his blog that the IOC lists caffeine as a controlled substance that has an upper allowable limit in an athlete's blood.(12mg/L of urine)
It's been well established in the literature that caffeine does enhance athletic performance. A quick search of medical journals returns studies that show performance enhancement w/ caffeine usage that is below the limit established by the IOC. So my question is this: since it would appear that some "drugs" are labeled acceptable and others not, where do we draw the line in the sand?

Anonymous said...

PED's are being used in climbing, primarily steroids in bouldering. Go look at results in the recent ABS nationals, and look at the physique of certain athletes, mainly females.It is so obvious because of (1) the look of steroids, (2) the performance increase of certain female athletes that should be past their prime. You have to be blind or stupid to not see it from an analytical view. It is alive and well in climbing...

Peter Beal said...

Anon., I am not sure that the female athletes in the ABS are the issue. I would be interested to know specifically who you think would would using PEDs. Feel free to email me.