A BAD BOOST
SI's Albert Kim recently attended a symposium in New York City on the use by athletes of a synthetic hormone called rEPO. He reports:
As their widespread use of anabolic steroids suggests, athletes are always seeking ways, even risky ones, to boost performance. Yet steroids, which athletes have now been using for at least 30 years, are no longer on the cutting edge of cheating technology. Some athletes are turning their attention to a genetically engineered version of a substance known as erythropoietin, or EPO, which is potentially even more dangerous than steroids.
EPO is a naturally occurring hormone, produced by the kidneys, that stimulates the production of red blood cells. The advent of recombinant DNA technology, commonly referred to as cloning, has made it possible to produce EPO in the laboratory. Recombinant EPO, or rEPO, is virtually identical to the natural hormone, and current drug tests cannot distinguish it from the real thing, making it appealing to athletes who want to cheat.
Like steroids, rEPO has legitimate medical uses. When a person's kidneys become damaged, EPO levels fall and he or she becomes anemic. In the past, acute-anemia patients have required regular blood transfusions. The development of rEPO has been a breakthrough therapy for the more than 100,000 Americans with anemia.
It didn't take endurance athletes long to recognize the theoretical benefits of using rEPO. Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body. The more red blood cells an athlete's blood contains, the more oxygen it will carry, thereby improving performance.
So far, only one study has been done to measure the benefits of rEPO on athletes. Bj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árn Ekblom, a Swedish exercise physiologist who pioneered blood doping—the injection of stored blood to improve performance—tested the effects of rEPO on 15 Swedish athletes. He concluded that an elite athlete could cut as much as 30 seconds off a 20-minute racing time. Because Ekblom's research hasn't been published and there is some controversy over his methods, his numbers may prove to be unreliable.
However, what no one seems to doubt is that boosting a person's red blood cell count to unnatural levels through the use of rEPO is dangerous. The higher the percentage of red blood cells, the thicker the blood. And the thicker the blood, the greater the chance of developing blood clots and therefore of suffering a stroke or a heart attack. When the red blood cell count gets too high, says Dr. Randy Eichner, a hematologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, "the blood becomes mud."
No one is sure how widespread the use of rEPO is in sports. According to ABC's World News Tonight, in the past two years as many as 16 Dutch cyclists have died under mysterious circumstances. Some sports-medicine experts blame the deaths on rEPO abuse, and although doctors for the Dutch cyclists acknowledge that the cyclists died from "some kind of heart failure," they deny any connection with rEPO. Says Eichner, "Athletes who abuse rEPO are playing with fire. At some point we need to ask, 'What price glory?' "
BUT THE CANDLES WORK FINE
On Sept. 18, when the International Olympic Committee chose Atlanta to host the 1996 Summer Games, Athens, long the sentimental favorite, finished second in the voting. An Atlanta couple visiting Athens at the time believe they know why. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the hotel in which the couple was staying distributed to guests a notice that read, in part:
The hotel will suffer from periodic power cuts. Should you need candles, ask housekeeping. National and private banks in Athens are not in operation. You will be experiencing difficulties when you dial due to the Greek Telephone Co. not operating. Any mail will be delayed reaching its destination until the Greek Post Office strike is over. We have no way of knowing in advance which flights will actually materialize, international or domestic.
The Ivy League's three-year contract with ESPN ended on Nov. 10 with the telecast of the Princeton-Yale game. The cable company, which had paid the league $175,000 for broadcasting five games this year, said last week that, while it might air two or three Ivy League games next season, it will give priority to the Big Ten.
One reason for the switch no doubt was that the Ivy games drew just 25% of the viewers that the Big Ten games did this season. But Loren Matthews, ESPN's senior vice-president of programming, also cited the Ivy League's reluctance to adjust kickoff times to suit the network's programming needs. Indeed, ESPN had previously said it would continue to broadcast Ivy games if the league would play some games on Thursday nights. Ivy officials refused.
This year a number of schools have shown themselves to be all too ready to adjust kickoff times at the 11th hour if it means getting on TV. Late switches for the Auburn-Tennessee game, which was originally scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. but actually began at 6:30, and the Texas-Houston game (switched from 1:00 to 6:30) are just two recent examples. Making concessions to the tube may boost TV revenues, but it also inconveniences fans who have made plans based on announced kickoff times. The Ivy League is to be congratulated on its refusal to compromise.
'TIS THE SEASON
In a recent pace at New Jersey's Freehold Raceway, Chanuka finished third, a neck ahead of Thenitebeforexmas.
AND TWO JUGS OF SNAKE OIL
On page 94 of the new Street & Smith's College/Prep Basketball guide is an ad for two products: one called Body Ammo Super Juice and another referred to as both Male testosterone 1000 and Testerone Plus. The ad boasts that these "powerful anabolic" products increase strength and endurance. Given the claims and the placing of the ad in a magazine that will be read by many young athletes, it might seem that the ad is pitching anabolic steroids to impressionable young hoops players and fans.
But no, the distributors aren't selling steroids—or much of anything else. The main ingredient in Super Juice is Smilax, a genus of plants that is the source for sarsaparilla, and the two in Testerone Plus are Urtica dioica, a nettle with mild stimulant properties, and Avena sativa, a cereal. These miracle ingredients aren't totally useless: They'll add bulk, all right, but to your diet more than to your body.
TWO BRIGHT FLAMES EXTINGUISHED
Horsemen learn very early that tragedy is an unavoidable part of racing. Thoroughbreds are especially prone to injury, carrying, as they do, as much as 1,200 pounds on stemlike legs. Yet never has racing had a year quite like the one that began last fall, when Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner and the most beloved horse in racing history, contracted laminitis, an incurable hoof disease that forced his handlers at Claiborne Farm, near Paris, Ky., to put him down. Since then, so many of racing's brightest stars have been destroyed, sidelined or prematurely retired that even the most optimistic fan must feel shaken.
Last week, two dominant breeding stallions, Alydar and Northern Dancer, died within 24 hours of each other. Alydar, runner-up to Affirmed in each of the 1978 Triple Crown races and the sire of such outstanding runners as Alysheba, Easy Goer and Criminal Type, had to be destroyed at Calumet Farm in Lexington, Ky., after breaking his right rear leg.
At 15, Alydar was still at the height of his breeding prowess. His death will hurt the industry more than the loss of Northern Dancer, who was retired from the breeding shed in 1987 after a career in which his progeny smashed sales records. The Dancer, who won the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was an ancient 29 when he became so ill that he had to be put down at Northview Stallion Station, in Chesapeake City, Md.
Racing was still mourning the tragic deaths in the past month of the brilliant filly Go for Wand and the tough gelding Great Communicator, who each broke down in races. Racing also was cheated out of what might have been one of its greatest matchups, when Easy Goer, Sunday Silence and Criminal Type were sidelined by injury before they could meet in the world's richest race, the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, on Oct. 27 at Belmont Park. All have now been prematurely retired to stud.
In alarm and frustration, leaders of the horse racing industry no doubt will call for studies to see if everything possible is being done to protect the horses and prolong their careers. But there may turn out to be no good answer to that question, other than that horses often are victims of their uncommon desire, bred into them over generations, to run and try too hard. In other words, the very trait that causes them to come to grief is the reason horse people love and admire them so much.
The late racing writer Joe Palmer wrote that Man o' War "was as near to a living flame as horses ever get, and horses get closer to this than anything else." The pity is that so many flames have been extinguished in the past year.
—WILLIAM F. REED
Race fans mourned the deaths of Northern Dancer and Alydar (above) less than 24 hours apart.
THEY SAID IT
•Gregg Jefferies, Mets second baseman, on why he never tells the press what pitch he hit: "I might want to hit it again."