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Blood Doping - The Lance Armstrong Secret

Updated on September 13, 2019
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Lela is a certified medical laboratory scientist (ASCP) with 38 years of experience in the medical industry and blood banking.

Lance Armstrong Mural at the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin

This mural was a tribute to the legend that is Lance Armstrong, an Austin hero.
This mural was a tribute to the legend that is Lance Armstrong, an Austin hero. | Source

About Blood Doping

Donating blood is good for you! Yes, athletes all over the world have discovered how donating blood builds new and powerful red blood cells. Every time someone donates a unit of blood, about 450 ml., the body works hard to replace that blood. The bone marrow of the donor is stimulated to make fresh red cells. These fresh cells have higher oxygen carrying capacity.

Each red blood cell has an average life span of 120 days. The older a red cell gets, the weaker it becomes until finally, the used cell is consumed by white cell macrophages and is filtered out of the blood stream by the liver. The oxygen carrying component of red blood cells is inside of the cytoplasm which contains hemoglobin (haemoglobin). The cytoplasm instructs the hemoglobin to take in oxygen from the lungs and release oxygen into the muscle cells when and where it is needed.

There are three main ways to use blood doping as an athletic enhancement:

  1. Donate your own blood and either use the donation to stimulate the build up of fresh cells, or give your own blood back to yourself as a "boost". This is known as autologous donation and cannot normally be tracked as an illicit means of enhancement because there is no foreign substance to detect during testing. Receiving compatible blood from another donor (homologous donor) can be detected in certain sophisticated tests.
  2. Injections of EPO or erythropoietin, which is a hormone used to stimulate the bone marrow in kidney disease. High levels of EPO can be detected in blood doping cases.
  3. Synthetic oxygen carriers are short lived artificial chemicals. Examples of these chemicals are PFC's (perfluorocarbons) and HBOC's (hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers).

How Blood Doping Works in an Athlete.

How blood doping works.
How blood doping works. | Source

Donating Your Own Blood (Autologous Donations)

Before a major surgery, many people visit a blood bank and donate blood for their own use. Should they have a need for a blood transfusion after surgery, they will automatically have good, compatible blood that requires abbreviated testing. The blood is specifically reserved for the donor's use and no other person may receive that blood.

The athlete that donates blood for his or her own use must go through a physician to get a prescription for autologous blood donations and receive an order from a physician to transfuse it back into the person who donated the blood. This is usually the way the blood doping "secret" leaks out. Only trained medical personnel can withdraw, store and re-infuse blood in a safe manner.

Freezing your own blood requires even more sophisticated methods and equipment. Frozen blood must be mixed with a stabilizer called glycerine and stored in a constantly monitored freezer that keeps the blood at minus 65° Celsius. Thawing and washing the blood requires very intense methodologies that are rarely performed outside of a national blood bank.

To say that Lance Armstrong (or any other athlete) donated and stored his own blood for re-infusion is to say that he had plenty of help along the way. As a Medical Laboratory Scientist specialising in blood banking, I have doubts on the truth of the story that Lance stored blood in his refrigerator and or freezer and used it for the purposes of athletic blood doping.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has devised an "Athlete Passport" to try to catch autologous blood doping practitioners. The passport keeps a record of blood tests on each athlete over time which will profile the parameters of the athlete's blood tests. Significant changes in testing over time may indicate blood doping.

Erythropoietin - Blood Production Stimulation

EPO is a very powerful bone marrow stimulating hormone that until recently was difficult to detect as a blood doping agent for athletes. During the 2000 Summer Olympics, a test to detect EPO was used on athletes. This test was implemented by the International Olympic Committee and then later adopted by WADA.

Athletes have used EPO to enhance their blood count, thereby increasing their oxygen carrying capacity. EPO is extremely effective in treating anemia and can drastically increase the hematocrit levels of recipients.

Aside from being very noticeable on the Athlete Passport which records hematocrit levels, EPO has some really nasty side effects for athletes.

  • EPO can and does increase the blood hematocrit (thickness of the blood). A normal hematocrit level is approximately 40% of the total volume of blood. When the range gets up into the 50-60% range, dehydration or blood doping may be suspected.
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Increased risk of embolism
  • Increased risk of auto immune diseases

For athletes willing to risk blood doping, EPO and related substances can increase performance, but the risk is high. Now that every athlete is usually tested for EPO, the risk is no longer worth the advantage of using it.

Synthetic Oxygen Carriers

Artificial blood has been around for several years now. It is used mainly in emergency situations when safe human blood is either inadequate or unavailable. Research on artificial blood is the focus of many scientists because of the value it has in life saving situations. In most crisis requiring blood, the trick is to keep the body supplied with oxygen. In athletes, the goal is to gain an edge by having adequate or superior supplies of oxygen carrying capacity.

Hemoglobin bases oxygen carriers (HBOC's) and perflurocarbons (PFC's) are artificial chemicals and proteins used to carry oxygen to tissues without the use of donated human blood. A test to detect these substances in athletes was instituted in 2004.

Side effects for human blood doping and artificial blood doping are somewhat the same. Human blood carries more chance of infection from viruses and bacteria. Artificial blood is purified and therefore sterile. Both types of 'blood' can and do cause some unwanted side effects.

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Embolism
  • Kidney Impairment
  • Allergic reactions

Synthetic blood is no real substitute for human blood at the present time. There are many other factors present in human blood that are not present in artificial blood. Artificial blood's place in the medical community is for emergencies only and it is never used for therapeutic benefit except in the illicit use by athletes.

Blood Doping Opinions

Do you think it is right for athletes to use blood doping to encrease athletic performance?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2013 Lela


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