A startling revelation in the world of professional cycling points towards an unconventional source for potential doping: the blood of lugworms, or sandworms, typically used as fishing bait. According to an investigative report by L’Équipe, the hemoglobin from these worms, known for its exceptional oxygen-carrying capabilities, is being eyed as a new performance-enhancing substance in cycling.
The Discovery of Lugworm Hemoglobin in Sports
The Exceptional Properties of Lugworm Hemoglobin
Dr. Franck Zal, the founder of Hemarina, has utilized lugworm blood to create a “universal blood substitute.” This substitute boasts the ability to carry 40 times more oxygen than human hemoglobin, primarily due to its smaller red blood cells. It can be stored at room temperature, making it convenient for transport. Its compatibility with all blood types and lack of adverse effects like elevated hematocrit levels or high blood pressure sets it apart from bovine or human hemoglobin.
The Doping Potential Recognized Early
Dr. Zal acknowledged the potential for misuse in sports: “I understood very early on that it could be diverted. We had several direct requests from athletes… I also learned of its possible administration to racehorses.” In July 2020, a prominent Tour de France cyclist approached him, seeking to use the product for the COVID-19 shortened season. Dr. Zal, alarmed, reached out to French authorities for guidance.
The Challenge for Anti-Doping Agencies
AFLD and WADA’s Stance
Adeline Molina of the L’Agence française de lutte contre le dopage (AFLD) commented on the characteristics of lugworm hemoglobin, noting its rapid action and short lifespan in the body. She emphasized that while the substance is detectable in blood tests, its legal usage as a graft preservative in transplant procedures (M101) in Europe could make it accessible for cheating athletes.
Professor Olivier Rabin, scientific director of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), acknowledged the substance’s potential for doping. He noted that WADA had procured the product for study and that it would be publicized if detected in athletes. “I can’t guarantee that this hasn’t happened somewhere in the world. But to my knowledge, this is not the case,” he said.
The Implications for Professional Cycling
The Dilemma of Emerging Doping Methods
The emergence of lugworm hemoglobin as a potential doping agent underscores the ongoing battle against performance-enhancing methods in sports. It presents a new challenge for anti-doping agencies, which must stay ahead of such innovative and potentially undetectable methods.
Ethical and Health Concerns
Beyond the unfair advantage, the use of such substances raises significant ethical and health concerns. The long-term effects of using lugworm hemoglobin in humans are unknown, posing potential health risks to athletes.
Steps Being Taken to Combat This Threat
Research and Monitoring
Anti-doping agencies like AFLD and WADA are conducting research and monitoring developments. They are working to ensure that testing methods can detect this substance and others like it.
Collaboration with Scientific Community
Collaboration with scientists and researchers like Dr. Zal is crucial. Their expertise and early detection of potential misuse can help in preemptive action against doping.
Education and Awareness
Raising awareness among athletes, coaches, and the broader sports community about the risks and ethical implications of such doping methods is essential.
The potential use of lugworm hemoglobin in cycling doping represents a new frontier in the ongoing struggle to maintain fairness and integrity in sports. While no confirmed cases have surfaced, the readiness of anti-doping agencies and the scientific community to address this threat is a positive step towards safeguarding the sport’s integrity.