Fairer than the evening air?
Dwain Chambers' Faustian pact with Victor Conte continues.
Just as Christopher Marlowe's magician sought knowledge and power, so Chambers is using Conte to educate him in the dark ways of the hypoxicator.
Well, perhaps that's an analogy too far, but hypoxicators, hypo/hyperbaric chambers and their ilk are at the contentious end of the scale of legal aids to performance.
On a basic biological level, humans are rather clever at adapting to altitude over time: the body compensates for the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere at higher altitudes by increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, This, (as far as I recall from Mrs Birkin's O-level biology classes,) stems from the increased production of haemoglobin. When you return to a lower altitude, there's a residual benefit.
Distance runners particularly notice this in terms of increased stamina. Paula Radcliffe for instance is a regular altitude trainer. There was a school of thought that artificially manipulating oxygen levels would only benefit endurance athletes, but that's changing.
Wayne Rooney used an oxygen chamber to try to speed up his return to fitness from a broken metatarsal a couple of years ago. The English Institute for Sport has a full-scale acclimatisation chamber at Bisham Abbey in Berkshire, which was used by the Comic Relief Kilimanjaro team to give them a taste of walking at altitude before they set off.
It's used by athletes from all sorts of sports for all sorts of reasons... So what's the problem? Why did the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) spend so long considering whether to outlaw their use in 2006? Why are they banned for use in Italy, and not permitted by the International Olympic Committee during the Olympics in the athletes' village? It's a question of ethics. Wada's anti-doping code has three tests for a substance or method before it can be considered to be doping:
1) Does it chemically enhance performance?
2) Is it potentially injurious to health?
3) Does its use contravene the spirit of sport?
Anything that fails two of those three tests is banned. It's the third of those tests which causes the most problems in the case of the use of hypoxicators and acclimatisation chambers.
Athletes in developing countries are unlikely to have easy access to them on cost grounds, so they tend to make the playing field less even. You could argue that sport is already skewed to the more developed nations because advances in sports science happen first among the usual suspects in Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan, and you'd be right, but the more sophisticated of these machines are particularly cost prohibitive.
For Wada there was also the issue of whether the illegal use of synthetic erythropoietin (EPO) was being masked by the use of hypoxicators, as they encourage the natural production of EPO in the body, making the detection of the lab produced kind more difficult. Wada had not ruled out making the use of these devices illegal in the future.
So where does that leave us? Dwain Chambers isn't doing anything wrong. In fact one expert I spoke to said he doubted there'd be much benefit at all to a sprinter in using Chambers' type of hypoxicator. Yet somehow, all of this sits uncomfortably with me at least.
"Tis magic, magic, that hath ravish'd me," as Dr Faustus declared. No-one told him it's all smoke and mirrors.