Blood boosting in sport was all but unheard of until 1972, when Dr. Bj√∂rn Ekblom of Stockholm's Institute of Gymnastics and Sports announced that tests of the procedure revealed a 25% increase in endurance. Approximately a quart of blood had been taken from each of four subjects, and the red cells had been removed and put in cold storage. A month later, the cells were reinfused, and the subjects' increased oxygen-carrying capacity allowed them to run longer on a treadmill before reaching exhaustion, or so Ekblom said.
The theory is simple: Muscles require oxygen, which is carried by red blood cells. The more red cells, the more oxygen, and the longer muscles can go on exerting after they reach the normal point of exhaustion.
In tests conducted in 1980 at Old Dominion University's Human Performance Laboratory in Norfolk, Va., 11 of 12 runners bettered their performances after blood-boosting. Also, in '80, research by Dr. Norman Gledhill, exercise physiologist at York University in Toronto, tended to remove a fear that muscles performing beyond normal limits would force the heart to pump too hard or cause "a decrease in cardiac output because of an increase in viscosity." However, says Gledhill, "if anything, there was an increase in cardiac output. The extra oxygen to the myocardium, the muscle of the heart itself, made the heart keep up. There was no increase in blood pressure."
Of transfusion rather than reinfusion, as used by the U.S. cyclists who boosted at L.A., Dr. Melvin Williams, who conducted the Old Dominion study, says, "The cross-matching [attempting to match the blood of another] is a little more risky, possibly causing illness or even death." The consequences can include fever and flu-like symptoms as well as contraction of such diseases as hepatitis, mononucleosis or even AIDS. Gledhill adds, "Even for research purposes, it's completely unethical to use someone else's blood."
Ekblom disassociated himself from the current controversy, saying that his work was done in the spirit of basic research and that he couldn't help it if others used the results to improve the performance of athletes. That is unethical, he said. He added that a testing procedure to expose such doping perhaps could be devised within a year.
Sweden's Ekblom did the pioneering research.