Viagra as a performance enhancer … in sports.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 25 2008 7:54 AM

Running Hard

Viagra as a performance enhancer … in sports.

In its 10 years on the market, Viagra has earned a reputation for enhancing performance. "When it comes to hardness, Viagra delivers," says the pill's Web site. Thanks to the drug, the site boasts, many previously flaccid men have "achieved grade 3 or 4erections."

Now Viagra may be in trouble for delivering a different kind of achievement. The World Anti-Doping Agency is funding studies to detect whether the drug gives athletes an aerobic advantage. If it does, it could be banned from future Olympics.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

How could a drug for sex boost performance in sports? Simple. As the video on its Web site explains, "Viagra works by increasing blood flow to the penis." It's not a penis drug. It's a blood-flow drug. By dilating vessels and increasing oxygenation, it can improve athletic performance. Two studies have already verified this effect in cycling and mountaineering. "It clearly provides an unfair advantage, at least at altitude," an expert leading WADA's research  tells the New York Times. "I couldn't imagine it not going down on the [prohibited drugs] list."

Note the caveat: at altitude. Only the cycling study tested Viagra at sea level, and there, the drug made no difference. Even at altitude, it improved performance only to standards normally seen at sea level. In other words, it erased an externally induced deficit. Was that an unfair advantage? Or was it just the correction of a disadvantage?

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It's true that in any given race, contestants share the same altitude. But the world's best athletes don't just compete against their immediate rivals. In pursuing world records, they compete against the greats of previous years, some of whom ran at higher or lower altitudes. That's why the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, held at an elevation of 7,500 feet, produced world records in some events and debacles in others. According to the International Olympic Committee, "The altitude was an advantage in the events which needed a brief but intense effort … but a handicap for efforts lasting longer than two minutes." Advantage. Handicap. The unfairness, from a record seeker's standpoint, could hardly be clearer.

Altitude hasn't been an issue lately, since the summer Olympics have stayed closer to sea level. Pollution, however, has become a serious problem, especially this year in Beijing. That's where WADA's studies raise an interesting possibility. One of them, according to the Times, "is measuring the potential effects of Viagra as an antidote to air pollution," with 30 athletes assigned to "ride exercise bikes in clean air and in a room with the air polluted by the exhaust of leaf blowers and lawnmowers." The hypothesis seems to be that air pollution, like altitude, can constrict oxygen flow—and that Viagra might restore it.

If that proves true, it further complicates the debate. The top finisher in the Olympic men's marathon in Beijing didn't set a world record. He wasn't even close. Six of the fastest times in marathon history were recorded this year, but they didn't happen in Beijing. They happened in London and Berlin, which have hosted the world's eight fastest marathon performances and, in separate years,  five of the last six record-breaking runs.

What do London and Berlin have that Beijing lacks? Clean air. According to a 2006 World Bank study  based on 1999 data, Beijing's air had an estimated 106 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter. Of the 200 American cities tested, none reached even 50 micrograms. Los Angeles, the host of the 1984 Olympics, registered 38. Berlin had 25; London had 23. In a Beijing marathon, you have to breathe air four times as polluted as the air in London or Berlin. What chance do you have of breaking the world record?

Suppose the new studies find that Viagra cancels out pollution just as it cancels out altitude. Suppose long-distance runners in Beijing and other bad-air venues pop the little blue pill to give themselves an even chance at beating records set in London or Berlin. Are they tilting the playing field? Or are they leveling it?

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