still at large:
xenon, the wonder weapon for dopers
Von Shea Westhoff und Hajo Seppelt
Five years after investigations by the ARD doping editorial team uncovered a systematic xenon programme in Russia, the noble gas has disappeared from the scene. No strange findings in athletes have been detected for xenon. But this could be more due to a shortage of testing than a lack of performance-enhancing potential.
At the moment, there are no problems with the noble gas xenon – at least it appears that way. “There are no Atypical Findings (ATFs) or Adverse Analytical Findings (AAFs) for Xenon in [the doping control database] ADAMS,” stated the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in response to an enquiry by the ARD doping editorial team. In 2014, this team investigated a tip-off about Russian athletes inhaling xenon routinely to systematically enhance their performance.
Five years later, the number of athletes who tested positive for xenon remains zero. Two things can be inferred from this: Either all athletes have resisted the temptation to use xenon to flood their blood with oxygen – or anti-doping tests are inadequate.
For a long time, xenon only meant anything to car tuners, given it was a filling gas for upmarket automotive lamps, injected into head lamps. The chemical element gained notoriety in 2014, when the British Economist magazine released the details about an explosive study by the Atom Medical Centre research institute, which worked under the authority of Russia’s Ministry of Defence. The document set out guidelines for the administration of the gas: athletes who inhaled a 50:50 mixture of oxygen and xenon were said to sleep more soundly and to recover more effectively, for example; the oxygen cocktail could also combat listlessness. Nervous athletes were advised to take a shot immediately before competing.
“Russian research is decades ahead of us”
In documents, the Ministries of Sport and Defence explicitly mentioned the goal of “enhancing athletes’ performances.” It was “not on the Prohibited List” and “not under the WADA radar”. The ARD doping editorial team had received information that Russian athletes had attempted to enhance their performance using xenon for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and the 2006 Winter Games in Torino. Investigations into xenon led to additional information from Russia being channelled to ARD – also by the couple Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov, who later blew the whistle on systematic doping practices in their country. In a nutshell: the follow-up investigations into xenon opened the door for the exposure of Russia’s state-sponsored doping system.
WADA responded swiftly to the xenon publications, and soon banned the noble gas “in-and out-of-competition”. One explanation for the haste: findings from animal experiments. In trials, the noble gas was shown to release erythropoietin – EPO, a key hormone in endurance sports and a doping classic, given that it stimulates the production of red blood cells, improving oxygen transport, which can make all the difference in competition.
Xenon appears to have enormous potential. And yet not a single athlete has been found making illicit use of xenon since 2014. That is remarkable to say the least: immediately after the revelations, Igor Roshchin, Director of Atom Medical Centre, was still making lame excuses, as evidenced in an interview with ARD: “You know, after all, what doping is,” he said: “It is when traces of biochemical reactions remain. If no traces remain, how can it be doping?”
Christian Stoppe can provide clarification on the matter. The anaesthetist and his research colleagues from Uniklinik Aachen were particularly interested in the revelations about xenon because the rare element is also used as a narcotic. Little notice was taken of the gas in Germany until 2014, partly because the purchase price for xenon is many times higher than that of the anaesthetics normally used in this country.
“We undertook research to find out whether it can be used at all as a doping substance,” stated Stoppe. In a clinical study involving healthy test persons, the group of researchers demonstrated two things. First, inhaling xenon does in fact increase the number of red blood cells, enhancing performance. Second, their experiments confirmed the release of a number of growth substances, which may result in improved blood circulation. “When it comes to xenon, research in Russia is decades ahead of us,” remarked Stoppe. There is already a “frighteningly large body of literature – albeit mainly in Russian.”
Mario Thevis, Head of the WADA-accredited anti-doping laboratory in Cologne, pioneered the rapid development of a reliable test for xenon in 2014. Thevis explained: “Before the revelations, xenon was not explicitly on our radar as a doping substance.” But when it came to developing an appropriate method of detection, he used a tried-and-tested analytical technique: the method involves half-filling a tiny hermetically sealed container, smaller than a shot glass, with the blood or urine sample. Once the fluid is heated, the rising gases can be collected in a needle and tested for xenon.
Xenon can be detected for 48 hours, but has a much longer effect
The method of detection is actually quite simple, all control labs have the necessary equipment, Thevis said. However, the detection of xenon involves an additional test procedure that is only applied on special demand.
In other words, inspectors must explicitly test for xenon. The question is whether this is done regularly. WADA is unable to provide an exact number, as stated in a response to an enquiry, “as xenon tests are not specifically tracked as part of our Testing Figures Reports.” And yet the German Anti-Doping Agency stated that it has “occasionally analysed samples for xenon” since the ban in 2014. In addition, several urine samples have been stored that are to be tested collectively for xenon. It seems there have been no systematic investigations into xenon.
Another problem is the volatility of the gas. It can only be detected up to 24 to 48 hours after inhalation. However, the effect is likely to last much longer – for several days, possibly even weeks. This has an impact on endurance as well as on the muscular system, which experiences better blood flow, stated Stoppe: “And how can you accuse someone of having muscles with a rich blood supply, let alone attribute this to xenon?” Xenon is also able to enhance psychological fitness, without this ever being traced back to the gas.
The fact is: the interest in the doping substance xenon resembled the properties of the gas – it fades quickly. It may be that all athletes really do resist the temptation of using xenon. And yet the opportunity appears to be almost too good.
Stand: 27.03.2019, 17:08