We’re a week into the Vancouver Olympics, and if you haven’t had your fill of world-class athletes frolicking on the ice in frilly clothing, playing ice shuffleboard with 4o-plus-pound stones, or hurtling downhill at terrifying speed, don’t worry: There’s more than a week left to go. And there will be feats of dizzying daring and velocity, since Olympians don’t settle for just terrifying speed when there’s a chance to attain ridiculous speed, or even ludicrous speed. Thankfully, the Olympics are a bastion of technology, not just sport.
Take bobsledding. Team USA has been working with the Exa Corporation to develop the most aerodynamic sled possible, by computationally mapping fluid dynamics of air rushing past the sled. Says Exa’s Brad Duncan, “We’ve heard that some other countries are using more traditional processes where they do testing in wind tunnels…. That’s where the U.S. team was able to leapfrog the competition, was to do digital testing” [LiveScience]. The sleds could reach up to 95 miles an hour in the race, and designer Bob Cuneo says the sled design is a huge factor. Ultimately, Cuneo estimates that about a third of the team’s success in Vancouver comes down to engineering [Popular Mechanics].
We’re only a week away from the 2010 Winter Olympics opening in Vancouver, and the return of the games brings with it the return of crazy stories about how far world-class athletes will go to get even the tiniest edge, legal or illegal. In the journal Science this week, researchers led by geneticist Theodore Friedmann take the opportunity to warn about gene doping, the next looming crisis in cheating at high-stakes athletics.
Genetic doping isn’t new to the headlines—the International Olympic Committee banned it in 2003. But its prevalence is growing, especially since improving testing is starting to weed out more standard forms of cheating like steroids and EPO, a hormone that boosts red blood cell production. Three years ago, German track coach Thomas Springstein was busted after unsuccessfully trying to score Repoxygen, an experimental gene therapy drug that boosts red blood cell production, for his runners. At the Olympics in Beijing, an unidentified Chinese doctor offered stem cell injections to a German journalist posing as a swim coach [Wired.com].
In the first major doping scandal of the Beijing Olympics, a North Korean pistol shooter has been stripped of his silver and bronze medals after testing positive for the drug propranolol. The drug, which belongs to a class called beta-blockers, would not be considered a performance-enhancing drug in most sports; it works by blocking the action of adrenaline, and therefore lowers blood pressure and heart rate.
Cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar explains that while propranolol is used to treat high blood pressure, it has additional uses: “It’s also used to treat other conditions that are mediated by high adrenaline levels, such as tremor and performance anxiety. Beta blockers don’t lower the anxiety level, but they lower manifestations of the anxiety, such as fast heart rate, sweating, and tremor” [Scientific American]. Anti-doping officials from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) believe that the shooter, Kim Jong Su, used the drug to keep his hands from shaking during the competition.
When athletes throw a touchdown, hit a home run, or win a race, they often raise their arms straight up to celebrate. A new study suggests that these kinds of gestures are deeply rooted in our minds, and not just force of habit.
Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University looked at pictures of judo competitors from both the 2004 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, trying to see if blind and sighted people reacted differently to victory, since the blind could not have learned victory gestures socially by watching others. In their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [subscription required], they found that blind athletes who have never seen such a display make similar gestures of pride as sighted athletes when they win, and also slump their shoulders and narrow their chests in shame when they lose [LiveScience].
Researchers have developed two drugs that mimic some of the effects of exercise in mice, leading to rampant speculation that people may soon be able to take a dose of “exercise in a pill.” The dramatic study showed that the drugs built fat-burning muscles in mice and increased their endurance on an exercise wheel. Four years ago researchers bred genetically engineered mice that could run much further than normal, but this is the first test to prove that drugs can have the same effect [Telegraph].
“It’s tricking the muscle into ‘believing’ it’s been exercised daily,” said the study’s lead researcher, Ronald Evans…. “It’s basically the couch potato experiment, and it proves you can have a pharmacologic equivalent to exercise” [Wired News]. One drug proved effective for mice that were already exercising regularly, increasing their running time by 68 percent and distance by 70 percent. The other drug worked on mice that hadn’t been trained to exercise; that compound increased their running time by 23 percent and distance by 44 percent.
A bronze and iron “computer” that the ancient Greeks used to keep track of astronomical phenomena was also a sophisticated calendar that set the dates for the Olympic games, researchers say. The ancient Olympic Games, which marked the start of a four-year timespan called an Olympiad, began on the full moon closest to the summer solstice, which meant calculating the timing required expertise in astronomy [Reuters].
The device is named the Antikythera Mechanism; it was discovered over a century ago in a Roman shipwreck off the tiny island of Antikythera, north of Crete. The mechanism, which was built around 100 B.C., had been reduced to a collection of bronze fragments and gears by its long immersion, but a new analysis has revealed inscriptions beneath the corrosion that name the games of the Olympiad cycle, including “Olympia.”
Despite the International Olympic Committee’s vow to vigilantly test for performance enhancing drugs at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, some scientists and sports doctors say that athletes are likely to cheat at the games, and get away with it.
The focus is on erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone naturally produced by the kidneys which regulates red blood cell production. When extra EPO is injected before a competition, it boosts performance by increasing the amount of red blood cells in an athlete’s body; those blood cells then carry more oxygen to the hard-working muscles.
Anti-doping agencies regularly test athletes for EPO, but some researchers say the agencies can’t develop tests fast enough to keep up with new “copycat” versions of EPO, often produced by pharmaceutical companies in India, Cuba, and China. These cheap versions of EPO, often called biosimilars, can be easily bought over the internet…. Some scientists who track and monitor the development of copycat EPO drugs say there could be up to 80 different versions now being manufactured in different parts of the world [BBC News].
With less than a month to go before the opening ceremony for the summer Olympics in Beijing, athletes are still worrying about what effect the city’s famously polluted air will have on their performances. Doctors say that endurance athletes, such as marathon runners and long-distance cyclers, will be most at risk if they compete on smoggy days.
“Marathon runners take about 40 to 50 breaths per minute and there is a real need for oxygen to be transported to the muscles. In normal conditions oxygen makes up about 21% of the air, if that’s compromised, because the very complex transport process in the lungs is compromised, there will be less oxygen getting to the muscles. Add in the heat and the humidity and there could be some major implications,” says [sports doctor John] Brewer [BBC News].
At the sailing venue for this summer’s Olympic Games, a vast algae bloom has covered the coastal waters with a bright green slime. The Chinese government is scrambling to clean up the mess before the games begin in early August, and more than 1,000 fishing boats have already been mobilized. “We can only haul the blue-green algae manually and we’re doing all we can with our arms full and by the boat-load,” said Wang [Haitao], a sailing spokesman for the Beijing Games organizing committee. “All you can see is fishing boats along the coast” [Bloomberg].
Besides being a concern to the sailors who plan to compete in the Olympic regattas, the algae explosion is also another instance of bad publicity highlighting China’s polluted environment. The country’s three-decade economic boom has left its waterways and coastlines severely polluted by industrial and farm chemicals and domestic sewage [AP], which contain high levels of nitrogen that nourish the algae blooms.