02/27/05 Altitude trick making for Joey Cheek

Bill Briggs
Denver Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005

Original Article

It took a night or two for Joey Cheek to breathe easily. Not because the thin air in the room snuffed his slumber. It was all that clunky buzzing in the darkness.

"Oh, it's easy to sleep," he said, "if you're used to bulldozers in your room all night."

But an Olympian gladly will sacrifice deeper rest to shave a few hundredths of a second off his time. And Cheek is seeing a payoff from spending 12 hours a day in a high-altitude chamber: The speed skater scored gold and bronze medals at international races last month.

Live high, train low. That's the rare-aired motto for a rising number of elite athletes, from skiers to skaters. They snooze in oxygen-deprived tents and sealed rooms that mimic the air at 9,000 feet above sea level, then exercise at lower altitudes.

The up-and-down lifestyle, they say, pumps up their red blood cells and revs their endurance. But is it cheating? The World Anti-Doping Agency is interviewing doctors and poring through reams of research to decide whether fake altitude is just another form of illegal blood boosting - and whether it should be banned, as have steroids and EPO. They plan to have an answer in September.

But WADA's chief, Dick Pound, may have tipped his hand when he recently said: "If you live in the mountains, it happens naturally. If you live at sea level, it doesn't. I mean, it's pretty easy. I mean, you know, there'll be people who can rationalize practically anything."

About a dozen U.S. speed skaters - who normally train in Salt Lake City (4,330 feet) and usually live a half mile higher in Park City - have become a test case for artificial elevation and a focus of the ethical debate swirling around the science.

The U.S. Olympic Committee paid Boulder company Colorado Altitude Training $155,000 to build six "mountain rooms" in Milwaukee to house about a dozen skaters as they ready their legs and lungs for the 2006 Turin Games.

In short, they're mashing technology with geography. At 672 feet, Milwaukee's climate and damper ice give the skaters a taste of Turin, which is nestled at 784 feet. They must drive harder to extend their glide and slice through the denser air. And to recreate the natural high-low edge they enjoy in Utah, Cheek and his teammates spend their off hours in rooms pumped with low-oxygen air.

Controlling oxygen level

Dials resembling wall thermostats allow the skaters to adjust the man-made altitude to as high as 15,000 feet, although they usually keep it at about 7,500. Two athletes are typically assigned to each dorm-like room, where doors, windows and vents are sealed. The skaters try to spend 12 hours a day in the 20-by-30-foot chambers where they watch TV, tap on computers, read and sleep.

At higher altitudes, the concentration of oxygen in the air is the same as at sea level but the pressure is lower, so the atmosphere doesn't push as much oxygen into the lungs. To compensate, the body creates more red blood cells - the tiny engines that deliver oxygen to the muscles. And there, it's burned as energy. The more red blood cells, the more oxygen you jam into your muscles. Studies have shown athletes see a 1 percent to 5 percent jump in their performance after altitude training.

"We found if you train and live at altitude, you still get that boost if you go down to sea level," said Cheek, who won a bronze medal at the Salt Lake Games. "It hurts to race anywhere. But at sea level, you can just hang on a little longer."

The speed skaters, whose red-cell counts are naturally beefy because of their time in Park City, simply want to hold onto that body chemistry in Milwaukee, then take that invisible edge to Turin, says Randy Wilbur, a USOC staff physiologist and altitude-training expert.

"We never went into that thinking we were going to get a nice change in their red blood cell profiles on the basis of living in the altitude rooms," Wilbur said. "It's an attempt to maintain their altitude-training effects. ... And we hope to do the same thing in (Turin) by having a simulated-altitude dorm in place there."

Boulder-based boost

But Wilbur offers a consumer warning on the "mountain rooms" purchased by the USOC: No one knows if they can transform a flatlander into a thin air-fueled gold medalist, he said. "That's never been documented. There's a lack of scientific research," he said. "We've had several sports come to us and ask, 'Do we spend $7,000 to $8,000 to buy one of these devices? If they do work, is it worth the cost?' So we have to be very meticulous and very careful in what we tell them in return."

Exactly 100 miles north of Wilbur's office on the USOC campus, Colorado Altitude Training is selling its tent and room systems. The Boulder company promises its technology will give athletes increased power, greater endurance and faster recovery. In addition to the U.S. speed skaters, CAT lists more than 30 other elite athletes as clients including cyclist and three-time Olympian George Hincapie, pro hockey player Eric Desjardins and NFL linebacker Brian Urlacher.

"Right now, it's just gaining momentum as more and more people are using" the products, CAT executive Dede Willis said. "It's no longer just world- class athletes that use altitude in their training."

Questions remain

Willis' company has been talking with the investigators at WADA as the group builds its case to either ban low-oxygen chambers in sports or give the technology its blessing. A WADA subcommittee must answer three questions about fake altitude: Does it have the potential to enhance performance; is it detrimental to health; and does it violate the spirit of sport?

"So they have to meet two out of three of those criteria before we decide whether we need to include them on our banned list," said Oliver Rabin, WADA's scientific director. "We're looking at all the scientific evidence. We've asked the top experts in the world to provide us with opinion papers. We've got a panel of ethicists and we'll ask them to forge a position."

And the discussion within WADA's ranks will include how it can police a potential ban of altitude chambers - how anyone can detect the difference between an athlete who sleeps in the room and an athlete who trains on the side of a mountain.

Enforcing a ban "is certainly an element that will be taken into account," Rabin said.

But at the core of the debate, the 2-out-of-3 rule probably will break down this way:

Do the altitude houses enhance performance? Current research is sketchy, but that's the sales pitch made by CAT.

Are they detrimental to health? The USOC says it has found the chambers to be safe.

Do they violate the spirit of sport? There's the rub.

Cheating's fine line

Pound has hinted in recent comments he sees low-oxygen chambers as another way to cheat. But Willis argues, "There is no ethical difference" between an altitude room and an athlete who uses artificial heat or cold in their training.

"What makes something natural and unnatural? Heat and cold both create physiological changes that affect athletic performance. Both are often simulated to prepare for race conditions. Should they be illegal?" says a CAT position paper. "Are treadmills that simulate hill training an unnatural and unsafe simulation of hills? Should runners be required to run only on real hills?"

"People have looked at this repeatedly, every Olympics that comes up," Willis adds. "Why it is being looked at now is because everybody is looking at everything related to doping.

"What we're doing is the equivalent of sleeping in Summit County, 9,000 feet. We just enable people to do it in their own bedrooms."

Staff writer Bill Briggs can be reached at 303-820-1720 or bbriggs@denverpost.com.