Surely it’s only a matter of time before the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) bans the use of inhaled Xenon gas for Track and Field Training and Competition.
According to various sources (for example, this article from The Economist), inhalation of Xenon gas has the effect of activating a protein in the body that stimulates production of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that encourages the formation of red blood cells. While taking synthetic EPO and taking other drugs that promote natural EPO production are illegal under WADA’s current regulations, inhaling Xenon is not.
This issue got some press during the Sochi Olympic games, since Russia has been at the forefront of research on the effect of inhaling Xenon on red blood cell production and improved performance in endurance events. As the Economist points out, the Russians have been using Xenon to prepare athletes for the Olympics since at least 2004.
The fact that Xenon is not illegal is a kind of litmus test for attitudes toward chemical cheating. It’s a variation of the standard social science survey question, “If you knew you would not get caught would you… cheat on your spouse, cheat on your income taxes, take a shortcut in a race, etc., etc. That’s kind of where we are with Xenon now. If someone offered to let you inhale this perfectly legal substance for a few minutes, and it would improve the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood for a few days, would you do it? What if you knew or suspected that the guy on the starting line next to you was doing it — after all, it’s perfectly legal! — would that change your mind?
I’ll admit that when I first started thinking about this blog post, I thought it was a humorous topic, and I was thinking of clever titles like
- The Ignoble Gas
- Better Running through Chemistry
- The Xe Factor
- Waiting to Inhale
But the more I think about it, the less humorous and the more creepy it becomes.