February 22, 2024

Paralympic cheats: is pain a drug?

In a practice called boosting, paralympic athletes subject their body to extreme pain to raise their blood pressure and heart beat.

The former captain of Scotland’s Scottish wheelchair basketball team captain wrote in the UK Independent about the Paralympic Games that they “will only add to the perception that there aren’t Paralympic athletes and able-bodied athletes – there are just athletes.”

One problematic inference from this is that paralympic athletes will cheat.

Everyone knows that some able-bodied athletes cheat. Last week Lance Armstrong, departed from cycling for ever, in disgrace. He forfeits everything he won since August 1, 1998 — including seven consecutive Tours de France and a bronze in the 2000 Olympics — after declining to defend himself against doping charges. Worse than breaking the rules were the lies told during years of allegations. He even used rumours to inflate his reputation. A famous Nike advertisement  — “what am I on? I’m on my bike…” — makes sad viewing.

Drug doping is opposed not only because it gives competitors who use drugs an unfair advantage, but also because it can be dangerous. But cheating by paraplegic or quadriplegic athletes can be so dangerous that it puts Lance Armstrong’s activities in the shade, according to a disturbing report in the BBC.

In a practice called boosting, athletes subject their body to extreme pain to raise their blood pressure and heart beat. This happens spontaneously in able-bodied athletes, but not in athletes with spinal injuries. So players do things like sit on a sharp object, strangulate testicles, retain urine or even break toes with a hammer. They can’t feel the pain, but their bodies do react. The technical term for it is “induced autonomic dysreflexia”. 

Boosting is extremely dangerous and has been banned since 1994 at the Paralympics. The high blood pressure could burst blood vessels in the eye or cause a stroke.

How many athletes engage in boosting? A survey at the Beijing Olympics found that 17% admitted that they had done it. Dr Andrei Krassioukov, a professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and a specialist in spinal injuries, believes that the figure at the London Games must be more like 30%. No one knows for sure. “What’s going to happen one day is that someone is going to have a stroke right on the court and then they are going to have to talk about it,” says Dr Krassioukov.

The disturbing anecdotes about boosting add a new dimension to the bioethics debate about whether sportsmen should be allowed to take performance-enhancing drugs. Can pain and mutilation really be regarded as performance-enhancing drugs?

Michael Cook
Creative commons
drugs in sport