Growing richer blood by Les Earnest

Recently discovered hormones offer the possibility of increasing athletes' red cell count without resorting to transfusions


Originally published in the January 1989 issue of Cyclops USA

{Comments in braces, such as this, have been added in June 2006}


{In late 1988 when it became evident that Amgen would soon release EPO as a prescription drug and I was about to begin my second decade as a director of the United States Cycling Federation (USCF), I wrote a letter to USCF Executive Director Jerry Lace pointing out that this hormone would likely come into use among cyclists. I advocated that a study be undertaken to determine if this could be done safely, with the idea that it might supplant the messier blood boosting procedures that were then in use. Mr. Lace subsequently confirmed that he had passed this advice along to U.S. Olympic Committee medical control authorities and that a study was underway. Based on that, I naively wrote the following article.}


Now that blood boosting has been banned, a new technology has appeared that may offer the same benefits to athletic performance with less mess and, perhaps, fewer risks. If it works out, this method might effectively circumvent the potential advantages of traditional blood boosting and thus eliminate it as an enforcement problem.


The blood boosting scandal that stemmed from the 1984 Olympics provided a remarkable example of unethical conduct by the USCF national coach, staff physiologist, two team physicians and First Vice President. The scheming in back of that sorry incident and the political machinations that followed are adequately documented in earlier articles [1-3] and are also discussed in a recent book [4] that is reviewed below.


Disclosures of this incident brought to the public's attention the fact that international competition in endurance events was becoming a bloody mess. It also tarnished the public image of the USCF and led to reforms in Federation regulations that were subsequently adopted by most other national and international athletic governing bodies.


A process has recently been developed for making hematopoietic hormones, which can selectively stimulate either erythrocyte (red cell) or leukocyte (white cell) development. A recent article [5] discusses the use of these hormones for treating anemia and other disorders, but the possibility of using them to elevate the red cell count of normal individuals in order to enhance athletic performance has apparently not been tested so far.


There is evidence that having a high red cell count, brought about either through high altitude training or by blood boosting, can improve athletic performance. It seems plausible that the same effect could also be brought about by the use of the new hormones. If these hormones enhance red cell count in normal individuals and have no nasty side effects, they would appear to be of potential value not only to cyclists but to some other athletes as well.


If this scheme works and is not banned by international athletic bodies, it would have the likely beneficial effect of eliminating traditional blood boosting by providing a better alternative. More research is called for to determine potential benefits and side effects. Assessment projects are underway in the USCF and USOC.


{Unfortunately, the final statement above that “Assessment projects are underway in the USCF and USOC”, which was based on assurances from USCF CEO Jerry Lace, turned out to be false.  I believe that if the USOC or other national or international sports organizations had investigated EPO in a timely manner and had warned athletes of likely side effects, a number of cyclists and others who used it to boost performance would not have died prematurely.}




[1] Les Earnest, “Cardiovascular capers,” Cyclops USA, Jan. 1985.


[2] Wink Andanod, “Blood bath,” Cyclops USA, Jan. 1985.


[3] Les Earnest, “Coors is safer than tea,” Cyclops USA, Aug. 1988.


[4] David Prouty, In spite of us, Velo-news, Brattleboro, VT, 1988.


[5] D.W. Golde & J.C. Gasson, “Hormones that Stimulate the Growth of Blood Cells,” Scientific American, July 1988.



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