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Doping Versus Blood, Sweat And Tears: What Makes A Champion?

LAUSANNE - Inevitably, any question on the importance of science in sports brings up the topic of doping. “We tend to focus on the cheaters and not enough on clean athletes,” says Swiss judo champion Sergei Aschwanden, bronze medalist in Beijing. “What message do we want to send to young athletes? That doping is required to succeed as an athlete? This will kill the next generation.”

Gregoire Millet, Director of the Sport Sciences Institute at Lausanne University, believes that the new biological-based methods that employ genetic features have changed the calculus: “We’re no longer in a purely pharma-biological approach, which requires detecting the substance. We’re moving towards an approach where any anomaly triggers suspicion and calls for a more specific control."

The practice of keeping samples for eight years is a lingering threat for athletes. For Millet, genetic doping isn’t necessarily more effective: “We don’t really know to what extent it works. Pushing one component would probably break another, but an athlete is a whole.”

The role of psychology

That’s why other methods -- legal ones -- could be taking over. Sky, the cycling team who helped Bradley Wiggins win the Tour de France, is surrounded by scientists. “Science can help establish a strength profile,” says Millet. “It can help the athlete recover better and faster, like with cryotherapy, or training more efficiently by establishing the usefulness of altitude training or a specific diet. And in a few years, miniaturization will make it possible to put captors on athletes’ bodies and know how the body reacts during competitions.”

Still, all sports aren’t equal in the face of science. Aschwanden admits that in judo, the influence of technology on performance is very limited. For him, it’s all about mental strength -- although he admits that what in sports we simply call “experience” can indeed only arrive after a certain age. “Neuroscience tells us that it takes time -- years, up to 10,000 hours of training for pianists for example -- before changes can be observed,” says Michiel Van Elk of the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne.

Specific capabilities are developed according to different activities. Abasketball player will be more capable of determining the trajectory of the ball, a striker in soccer will perceive the goal wider than it actually is -- a bad scorer will conversely see it smaller.

Despite all the innovations, Van Elk doesn’t think science makes champions. “In theory, we could believe that science alone could determine, according to the qualities detected, toward which sport a young athlete should turn,” says Van Elk. “But it’s just theory.”

For Millet, training remains the most efficient way of improving performance, and a pill will never replace the maximum oxygen intake. “Science will never replace blood, sweat and tears,” he says. “Science can improve aspects of training, but training cannot be in itself purely scientific. Science, by definition, must be refutable and reproducible. Training is not.” 

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