Altitude Simulation: Legit Training Tool or Doping?
Editor: The following is translated and summarized material originally appearing in Norways Aftenposten newspaper in Summer, 2001. Many thanks to Inge Scheve for providing this translated material. The focus in this article is the ongoing debate throughout the XC world regarding the ethics of altitude houses and tents in endurance sport.
Opinions expressed by all parties are exclusively their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the American Cross Country Skiers, directors, members, or sponsors.
For more editorial perspective on this debate, please visit the Editor's Column sub-section installment entitled "Doping vs. Himalaya Hotels".
Kjell Kran...president in the Norwegian sports governing body, the highest governing body within Norwegian sports, overseeing all sport...has recently come under fire for not dealing with the altitude house ethical debate in connection with the doping scandal in Finland. Whereas no one debates the current legality of using artificial means to simulate altitude while training and racing, a growing voice in and out of the XC world is beginning to be heard questioning the safety and ethics of the practice.
"I'll engage in an ethical debate about altitude houses, but this has nothing to do with the Finnish doping scandal," Kran recently said in an interview covering all aspects of "performance enhancements"...legal and otherwise.
The sports president dislikes the comparison between the 2001 Finnish cheaters (the infamous "Lahti Six") and the Norwegians who dwell in altitude houses. On March 2, 2001, world champion Tor Arne Hetland joined the debate announcing that he'll drop the altitude house to re-establish cross-country's credibility.
Cross-country technical director Terje Langli agrees: "This is my personal opinion [to drop using altitude simulation] and by the way, only 3-4 elite skiers use the altitude houses." (Editor: Actually, here Langli greatly underestimates...or downplays...the use of altitude simulation on the World Cup as even top North American athletes are utilizing the same technology widely in use by nearly all European teams.)
"When people start to talk about Norwegian altitude houses in connection with the Finish scandal, that's besides the point of the debate," Kran says. "Altitude houses create an ethical dilemma, but they have nothing to do with doping. Furthermore, they constitute no medical harm. We can't go straight from the Finnish doping scandal to altitude houses. Altitude houses are an alternative to travel and they are a more family friendly because athletes don't have to leave their families constantly to travel. And finally, altitude houses are legal which the Finnish doping situation clearly was not."
Kran goes on to say, "The battle against doping is extremely important for sports and can potentially give elite sports enormous problems. We have to put everything into resolving the EPO problem. To do that, we'll have to conduct unannounced doping tests throughout the season. Last year, we conducted more than 2400 tests. Thomas Alsgaard has been tested 16 times over the past two years. Somewhere, the impression has been established that Norwegian altitude houses are some sort of an equivalent to the Finnish doping scandal. Can't we concentrate on the main challenge here?" Kran asks.
Whereas few argue with Kran's position on doping, opponents do argue against his stance with altitude simulation. One of the loudest current critics is Ola Joesendal, team physician with the Norwegian speedwalking team. "Whether athletes manipulate their bodies with doping - be it pills, gases (as with altitude houses and tents) or IV solutions as in the Finnish case - should be completely irrelevant. Altitude houses are doping no better or worse than blood doping. Whether EPO, altitude houses or even training at altitude to increase the blood oxygen concentration, it's extremely easy to exceed the blood concentration levels decided by FIS. When athletes then try to dilute their blood, they'll reach for the medication the Fins were using. If the top dog in Norwegian sports can't see that connection, he'll need to educate himself better about the subject," says Joesendal.
However, Joesendal has no problem with altitude training. "In this situation, athletes travel to a natural environment where people live and go about their everyday lives. Many athletes travel to high altitude areas where the altitude itself delivers a marginal benefit, but the main reasons for going up are good training conditions, natural beauty and a peaceful environment," he says.
As early as in 1996, Joesendal attacked the Norwegian sports governing body and the Norwegian Olympic Committee during a seminar on sports and ethics. Joesendal claims that altitude houses are doping.
Joesendal has been a track and field coach since 1984, and with his back ground in elite sports maintains there is reason to believe that doping, and in particular EPO, is more widespread than the late revelations in Finland suggest.
"Cycling is uncovered, cross-country skiing is obviously infected as well, and within the power disciplines in track and field anabolic steroids are fairly common," he says. "Despite the lack of official doping cases, I find the trend in long distance running concerning, with the race times in 5,000 meters struggling slowly towards 13 minutes, then suddenly plummeted to about 12 minutes and 30 seconds. This must either be a result of highly effective training methods...or a new form of doping, such as EPO."
In the late 1980s, Joesendal was appalled during a conference in Davos of more than 300 sports physicians, mainly from Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Italy. "These doctors said they would actively assist athletes in doping because they considered the dangers of athletes experimenting with doping on their own much more dangerous than if they received medical supervision and advice in that process." At that time, athletes were walking around with yellowed eyes due to liver damage. These were apparently victims of unsupervised experiments with substances their livers could not handle. I assume these substances were EPO forerunners prior to when side effects and correct doses were established," Joesendal says.
Regardless of the current debate and comments by Langli and Hetland, the Norwegian team seems poised to go ahead with an ambitious plan to use altitude simulation throughout the coming training year...and even during the 2002 Winter Games themselves.
The Norwegian Olympic hopefuls will stay at the same Utah hotel (Inn on the Creek) when they arrive at the 2002 Olympic venue next winter, but can individually choose their altitude. Athletes who dislike the elevation at Midway, Utah (roughly 5500 feet) can stay in special rooms where the altitude is cambered to sea level. "We have all the options, have discussed most of them, and are currently not ruling anything out," says Rolf Saetesdal of the Norwegian Olympic delegation "Olympiatoppen".
The elevation expert Saetesdal returned from a three-week trip to Utah in early March. Before the trip he was fairly sure the Norwegian concept was doable. Now he is certain. "We have the technology to do everything," he says of the Norwegians' possibilities. The price tag reads between $4,000 and $6,000. "This is extremely simple technology," says Saetesdal.
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