One minute, highly influential people, deeply involved in the NBA, with lots of money are calling for more research into synthetic human growth hormone use to assess its usefulness with respect to injury recovery. The next minute, the NFL is being governmentally railroaded into conducting random HGH testing on its players.
Some ex-sportsmen say as little as 10% of their colleagues are shooting growth hormone on a regular basis. Others have since admitted it’s more like half the roster. Old skeletons are coming out of the closet for certain baseball players; they say they ‘used’ in order to recover from injury faster, to get back on the field and get the hounds off their back, not to mention being back to doing what they love to do the most.
Allegations of cheating have been made against the same people. Performance Enhancing Drugs – peds – is a pervasive term that get thrown around pretty carelessly these days. Ask some scientists/doctors and they will tell you there isn’t much going to happen in the way of performance enhancement if you inject HGH. Others disagree.
And so the circus continues, ignorance being the major driving force unfortunately.
Players who are sidelined due to injury are a massive money drain for teams. Coaches, general managers, owners and even the players themselves are under a mountain of pressure to get back in the game before they become too much of a burden. So of course, if a substance is perceived to help you achieve that, surely the benefit outweighs the risk. Or perhaps the player doesn’t even get a choice in the matter. Who knows what goes on behind the closed doors of a pro-sports organization?
Andy Pettitte – recently retired pitcher for the NY Yankees – may have hung up the #46 jersey for the last time, but the legacy of HGH use won’t be so quickly laid to rest. He maintains that all he was doing back in 2002 was desperately trying to get back from an elbow injury; something that regularly takes down the top pitchers – the forces acting on that joint, so repetitively, day after day, are remarkable. It’s a wonder Major League pitchers aren’t boosting buckets of growth hormone every day if you think about it.
So why can’t this guy be left alone? All he cared about was getting back on the mound and doing his thing, or so he says. Others are calling it cheating.
Certainly the Senator John McCain thought so when he wrote to the NFL, expressing his disappointment that they had yet to commence their random HGH testing.
Human Growth Hormone Testing
It’s easy, right? Take some blood, urine, whatever, run it through some scientific looking machine and you get a green or red light or something.
From the 15,000 or so tests that have been conducted since the inception of HGH testing in sports, only about 10 people have been suspended from it. Out of those ten, two people were let off the charge because they appealed the science. Ergo, the science is fallible by a massive 20%. Reasonable doubt from that alone might get you off with a good lawyer.
Nevertheless, the tests are going ahead now. The guys using the stuff have a bit of a headstart coupled with an advantage though. For starters, they’ve been injecting HGH on the down-low for nearly 4 decades now, which means they have gotten really good at knowing when they can and when they can’t. Also, the science has been so dodgy that the tests can be beaten – if not completely then enough that it gets a court rejection.
Even Olympic athletes were riddled with recombinant human growth hormone in the late ‘80s. Back then there was a way to stack testosterone with rhGH and go undetected. NFL players were also beating the relatively useless steroid testing procedures with the same combination method, and that stayed rife all the way through to 2005 when the DEA stepped in and found evidence that convicted drug dealers were supplying the demand!
But that wasn’t testing that caught them out, just classic investigative work. Standard isomer blood testing for growth hormone has too many holes in it.
The Science Bit
We actually have different ‘isoforms’ of growth hormone, which can show up in a blood test as being out of balance. The synthetic type – rhGH – is a different atomic weight, so if the test comes back with way more of that in ratio to the endogenous (natural) growth hormone then it’s deemed a positive result.
The Flawed Science Bit
So what’s the problem? Remember that in the thousands of tests, only ten have come back positive, which is pretty weird considering the use of rhGH is meant to be so staggeringly pervasive. The first problem is that the isomer testing is only valid if the test is carried out after 10 hours and before 20 hours following the person injecting it.
That’s a pretty tight window when you think about it. Even more so when the NFL tests have to come with 24 hours notice. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out you can still inject most of the time, and simply stop for the pre-warned tests.
Another flaw in the test goes like this: now, players can get hold of BOTH isoforms synthetically. So they can inject both at the correct ratio and the test is good for nothing.
The isomer test also yields false positives, where people who aren’t even taking growth hormone in any form can fail. There’s no real baseline for what our endogenous levels should be when factoring age, genetics, health and so on, therefore how can a test be accurate?
When the isomer test was finally put to the test itself, it failed.
So what next?
The Biomarker Test
Other ‘biomarkers’ can show that the levels of growth hormone are not natural. Insulin activity for example, or levels of collagen in the subject’s connective tissues. Taking these into account with the biomarker test seems to have made a big difference. The science world is much more positive with this test.
Unfortunately, for the anti-doping agencies looking for an infallible test, the biomarker can also be broken. Much like the steroid stacks of old, the user can add all the biomarkers in small and varying amounts to account for the differences, and so get away with it again.
The biomarker test may still be better than the isomer test. That’s because the two athletes who have since been caught using synthetic growth hormone with the biomarker test were not tested positive with the isomer test. Some experts say neither test has passed the usual statistical stringencies that hard science requires.
Until anti-doping agencies and scientists can agree there is a statistically infallible method of testing for synthetic growth hormone, it may be impossible to be catch the sneakiest of sportsmen.
Cheating or Healing?
Back to the original point though. Is the use of synthetic human growth hormone in order to speed up the healing of an injury necessarily cheating, or can it be viewed – as Pettitte would say – purely as a recovery aid?
Who cares – is a standard response from sports fans. As long as they (players) get on with the sport!
For those who do care, and don’t want to see professional sport become a ban-free circus, it’s an important question.
Let’s ask the question this way: if you use drugs to recover quicker from injury, isn’t the fact that you are ready and able faster than the ordinary healing process would allow, itself performance enhancement?
Or how about this way: if you can recover faster with the use of drugs, then perhaps you can risk injury by throwing, running and tackling faster and harder than you otherwise would.