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France 2 micro-dosing experiment

13th June 2015

Syringe

On 3rd May 2015, France 2 broadcast a documentary about a micro-dosing experiment it carried out. Eight athletes took part in a 29-day trial, in which they took micro-doses of EPO and Human Growth Hormone (HGH), as well as re-injecting their own blood, and taking cortico-steroids. This resulted in significant performance improvements in power tests, a time trial, and a 3000m run. This is journalist Pierre-Etienne Léonard's report (in French):

It took 18 months to get all the necessary authorisations for the experiment. The athletes agreed not to compete for two months, so that they wouldn't get any performance benefits from the drugs in races. One of the athletes, Cedric Fleureton (silver medallist at the triathlon European Championships in 2005 and 2006), said that his motivation for participating was to contribute to the fight against doping

The first stage of the experiment was to measure the natural performances of the athletes. There were three tests - a power test on a bike, and a 14km time trial (both of these indoors in the lab); then an indoor 3000m run. The tests were all indoors so as to eliminate variables due to external factors, such as wind and weather. The athletes were asked to push themselves to the limit.

250ml of blood was taken from the athletes at the start, with a view to re-injecting it later. The injections of EPO and HGH, every three days, were a minimum dose, designed to be enough to have a performance effect, but little enough to avoid detection. With these injections, the athletes took iron and vitamin B12, to help absorption and metabolism of the drugs. It was the first time in their lives they had doped.

The doping products didn't affect everyone in the same way. Interviewed eight days after the start of the experiment, Cedric Fleureton said that when he was training, he had the same sensations as usual, and didn't feel a boost. Another participating athlete, Guillaume Antonietti, was interviewed running at 16kmh, and explained that he was able to chat, which wasn't normal, so there must be something going on. He had feelings of euphoria and great energy. On his 24km training run, he had gained 10 minutes 'easily', and felt he could go faster, and never stop.

The drugs also had an effect in Antonietti's daily life. He owns a marketing business, and his behaviour towards his colleagues had changed. He said that at 4.30 or 5am, he was already full of energy. When he arrived at work, his colleagues wondered if he had arrived ready for a fight, even though he thought he was smiling. He had, however, noticed an aggressive side which he didn't have before, and which he found very surprising.

After 20 days, the blood was re-injected. The purpose of a transfusion is to give the athlete more blood, and so more red blood cells, taking more oxygen to the tissues, and allowing the person to pedal or do their sport for longer with better performance. The programme emphasised that it can be risky, and one of the athletes, Emmanuel Duranton, felt unwell during the transfusion, with his head spinning, and feeling very hot.

On the last of the 29 days, the athletes repeated the initial tests. In all the tests, all the athletes improved their performances. The Director of the research programme, Pierre Sallet, said that was not surprising, because it was the aim of the protocol, but given that they were only using micro-dosing, and the athletes were in a 'de-training' period, it was surprising that they improved so much.

In the power test, the average improvement was 6.1%. One athlete went from 420W maximum aerobic power to 445W.

In the time trial, the average improvement was 2.3%, and the best increase was 5%. A 5% improvement would have been enough for the 22nd placed rider in the last World Championships to come first.

In the 3000m run, the average improvement was 2.8%. One athlete knocked 31 seconds off his time, an improvement of 3.9% - enough for the athlete with the 41st best time in the world in 2014 to do the best time.

Commenting after the 3000m, Guillaume Antonietti said, 'I started fast, and I never had a dip. We're changing planets...at my level, 26 seconds [improvement] in three weeks for the 3000m isn't human. There's a real problem.'

Duranton commented, 'I had the same feelings as before, but with a higher speed. It's worrying to see such a level of improvement with so little work - it's a shortcut, of course, and so easy.'

Fleureton, who only improved his 3000m time by 10 seconds, pointed out that the micro-doses they had taken were only 10% of what someone could take if they were going all out to improve their performance with drugs.

Pierre Sallet, who also took part as an athlete, said that the values on his biological passport didn't change enough for there to be an anomaly which would be investigated. The parameters on the passport haven't changed since 2012, and this has given cheats enough time to work out how to beat the system with micro-dosing. His conclusion is that the parameters of the biological passport need to change, or cheats will continue to prosper.

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