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 http://lifeinthevertical.co.uk/blogs/blog/2009/01/citius-altius-fortius-a-brief-overview-of-ergogenic-aids/
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)