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Why Blood Doping is a Good Thing: the Ethics of Athletics vs. the Ethics of Overmatch

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Two years ago while visiting the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) at Ft. Benning, I attended a briefing on “squad overmatch;” a term I was unfamiliar with at the time. Before entering the briefing, I asked the Lt. Col., who I was with, “what exactly is overmatch?” His response was very succinct and easy to understand – “If four of our guys come up against four of our adversaries, we want to have an overwhelming advantage…we don’t want it to be even close.” He went on to say, “think about the Dallas Cowboys playing a pop-warner football team…we’re talking a complete rout – that’s overmatch!”

My reply, “got it.”

It was at this very moment I realized the danger of sports ethics infiltrating the military setting. Sports are always seeking to provide a “level playing field” and to instill some type of fairness in the game – this is not the case with war.

This got me thinking about the implementation of methods that are used to enhance performance in sport and considered illicit by the sports world but would be above board in the military setting – take blood doping for example.

If you’re not familiar with the process of blood doping, it dates back well over 50 years, and it refers to artificially boosting the ability of the blood to transport more oxygen to the muscles. This boost is a result of an increased number of red blood cells (RBCs), which increases the amount of hemoglobin – the oxygen-carrying protein in blood.

This increase of hemoglobin enhances the performance of athletes (specifically endurance athletes) significantly by allowing greater amounts of oxygen to reach the muscle.

Generally speaking, there are three widely used methods to blood dope.

  1. Blood transfusions (autologous & homologous)

  2. Injections of erythropoietin (EPO)

  3. Injections of synthetic oxygen carriers

Blood transfusionsincrease the amount of RBCs and are common medical practice for those with certain injuries, conditions, and diseases. Illicit transfusions (see pic below) are a result of an athlete undergoing a transfusion of his/her own blood (autologous), or someone else with similar blood type (homologous). This addition of RBCs takes an athlete far above “normal” levels resulting in performance enhancement.

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EPO injectionsare also common in the medical community to increase the amount of RBCs. This injection of the hormone EPO stimulates RBC production increasing levels.

Synthetic oxygen carriersare typically used in emergency medicine and use chemicals that possess the ability to carry oxygen in the blood.

The downside to these methods is that athletes were dying because they would elevate their RBC count so high that it would result in very thick or viscous blood (more RBC = thicker blood). This made it very difficult for the heart to pump this sludge, and athletes were losing their lives.

This is exactly the reason athletes live at high attitudes. The stimulus of living at higher altitudes (over one mile) stimulates the body to produce greater amounts of RBCs. This type of performance enhancement isn’t frowned upon by athletic federations as there is a limit to this enhancement (athletes won’t lose their lives), and also because it’s done “organically” as opposed to pharmaceutically.

In sport, blood doping is illegal, unethical, and considered cheating. Every sport federation and Olympic committee bans it. There is even an organization called WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), which is an international independent agency composed and funded equally by the sport movement and governments of the world. Themission of WADA is to lead a collaborative worldwide movement for doping-free sport.

While I agree with the stance of doping in sport, I contend that a number of our Soldiers, Warfighters, Operators, etc. would benefit from doping, and should be doing so.

I recently published an article regarding the moniker “tactical athlete,” and that perhaps the usage of this term should be rethought.

This article touched upon the influx of the sports community (strength and conditioning coaches, sports psychologists, performance nutritionists, and the likes) moving their way into the military realm to train and enhance the performance of our troops. While on the surface this might sound very applicable – and in most cases it is - there is a danger – ethics. For when those in the sports world bring their expertise to the military, they tend to also bring their ethics.

The ethics of sport are not (and should not be) equivalent to those of the military. Let me explain…

If we are truly seeking overmatch, and not a level playing field, then it is my contention that our Operators should be engaging in the use of PEDs. Our high-altitude jumpers for example, could benefit immensely from increased levels of RBCs. Perhaps some of them are doing this on their own, but that’s when it becomes dangerous and life threatening.

So I suggest that these methods of performance enhancement be initiated and supervised by MEDCOM (medical command). There are safe and effective methods to blood dope, and with zero detrimental side effects, but only if these individuals are properly monitored by qualified medical professionals. This is just one example, but there are a number of other substances which I think would benefit our Operators without harm.

What’s interesting, is when I bring up this topic to those in the sports field, they look at me as if I lack ethics, and that what I’m proposing is illegal. To be clear, I don’t lack ethics, and it’s not illegal. This isn’t about creating a level playing field, and this isn’t about achieving parity. We are not seeking anything less than overmatch.

It is my hope that as the sports performance world continues to cross over to the military, that they bring their experience with them but leave their version of ethics at the main gate.

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