Jacob Zinn :: journalist + photographer

Natural doping at the Paralympics

Kwantlen ChroniclePrint Edition: Friday, March 12, 2010

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The International Paralympic Committee is getting stricter on boosting, a prohibited doping technique which is life-threatening for athletes with spinal cord injuries.

Dr. Andrei Krassioukov, who specializes in spinal cord injuries and is a clinical associate professor at UBC, lobbied for better regulation of this hard-to-detect performance-enhancing method last year.

Paraplegics have normal blood pressure when lying down, but when they sit up, the blood rushes to their lower bodies. The decrease in blood pressure, medically known as orthostatic hypotension, can cause fatigue and dizziness.

To feel less tired and more energetic, some Paralympic athletes with spinal cord injuries use boosting, medically known as self-induced autonomic dysreflexia. They purposely injure themselves by, for instance, breaking their big toe to increase their blood pressure.

Because they are paralyzed from the waist down, they don’t feel any pain and their bodies don’t know how to respond to the stimulation. This can cause a sharp increase in blood pressure, allowing Paralympic athletes to exude short bursts of energy during competition, which can improve their performance by up to 15 per cent.

“It is the reality of the spinal cord injury, people doing it because there is nothing else,” said Krassioukov, who added that some paraplegics who aren’t athletes boost just to feel better.

“It’s tough to judge people when they’re trying to do their best in their lives. In my eyes, every single patient or person with a spinal cord injury who survives a horrific experience are already winners.”

Paraplegics can have problems with their nervous and digestive systems, which can add to their discomfort and prompt them even more to boost. Spinal cord injuries prevent the nervous system from providing involuntary control of some organs, which causes fatigue and faintness.

Digestive problems such as constipation have an adverse effect and increase blood pressure involuntarily: some people are boosting without knowing it.

Boosting is extremely dangerous for people with spinal cord injuries and can cause seizures, strokes and even death, according to the International Collaboration On Repair Discoveries.

The first Paralympic drug tests were implemented at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. But while athletes who test positive for substances are disqualified, it’s harder to enforce regulations against boosting.

Though boosting was banned by the IPC in 1994, it doesn’t test for signs of it, such as a slow heart rate and increase in blood pressure.

Krassioukov said boosting is more common than most people think. According to a 2009 study, roughly 30 per cent of those with cervical spinal cord injuries–injuries to the neck–have used boosting.

At the 2010 Winter Paralympics, Krassioukov and a team of volunteers will assess sledge hockey and wheelchair curling athletes at the Athletes Village. Competitors will be checked for boosting and classified into a more even sports environment, meaning athletes won’t need to boost to keep up with the competition.

According to VANOC, paralympic athletes are first divided into categories based on disabilities, which determines who they will compete against and what sports they can participate in. They are further divided by the severity of their injuries and placed into an event with similarily-challenged competitors.

Depending on the sport, some athletes with different disabilities can compete in the same event, but sports such as wheelchair curling and ice sledge hockey have limited eligibility.

While the current classification system only checks motor and sensory functions, Krassioukov hopes that through his tests of heart rate and blood pressure, Paralympic athletes won’t feel the need to boost.

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