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Pregnant for Gold

With all the talk lately about doping, I’ve naturally been thinking about female athletes and performance enhancers. Ladies want to win just as much as men do, so it should be no surprise that women’s sports are replete with doping scandals. So, I decided to bring GladiatHers back with a series about just that. “The Lady Cheaters” is what I’ll call it…don’t hold me to that, I have a tendency to change my mind. Anyway, the first scandal on deck is actually a rumored scandal because no one has ever been able to definitively say that they witnessed athletes using this method, but it’s a scandal nonetheless. Meet abortion doping.

Abortion doping is the process by which women induce pregnancy for its athletic performance-enhancing benefits, and then abort the unwanted pregnancy when the athlete no longer needs the positive effects and before the pregnancy limits the athletes’ ability to perform.  Yes, you read that correctly…aborted pregnancies in exchange for better performance.  Shocking, I know, but keep reading.

At least one study has shown that during the first three months of pregnancy there is a 60% increase in blood volume.  This increase in blood volume (the number of blood cells in the bloodstream), which occurs naturally so that the fetus can be properly oxygenated, can improve the body’s ability to carry oxygen to muscles by up to 30%.  So why is blood volume such a big deal?  Red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, so a higher concentration of red blood cells in the bloodstream can improve an athlete’s aerobic capacity (the maximum amount of oxygen that the body can utilize during an exercise session) and endurance.  Essentially, the increased blood volume gives the athletes’ bodies access to more oxygen during aerobic activity, allowing them to go harder for longer.  Is it me or is pregnancy is starting to look a lot like blood doping?

The physiological benefits don’t stop there.  In addition to the increase in blood volume, pregnancy also increases certain hormone levels in the athlete’s body.  Specifically, pregnancy increases the levels of progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone, which have the potential to increase muscle strength.  Increases in other hormones, like relaxin, which loosens the hip joints to prepare a woman for birth, could also improve joint mobility to the benefit of the athlete.  Picture it, stronger, more limber, pregnant athletes.

So the science pretty clearly shows that pregnancy has the potential to improve one’s athletic ability.  The question is, have athletes manipulated and aborted pregnancies to reap those physiological benefits?  According to some, they have.  In the 1970s and 1980s it is rumored that doctors artificially inseminated East German athletes and that those pregnancies were aborted after about three months so that the athletes could benefit from the physiological changes brought on by pregnancy.*  East German athletes had a long history of employing suspect and outright illegal practices in efforts to dominate in their respective sports, but would they do something so extreme?  Some say yes, but I keep hearing Jay-Z say, “We don’t believe you, you need more people.” And here’s why:

First, while members of the International Olympic Committee and the World Conference on Anti-Doping supported allegations of abortion doping, no names of specific athletes or doctors were ever named.  So who are these East German athletes that they speak of?  The sports world is notorious for pointing the finger, in the most direct way possible, at athletes who cheat and fall off the pedestal of glory.  Think Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong.  If there had been hard evidence that athletes and doctors were involved in abortion doping, somebody, somewhere would have brought it forward. 

Secondly, false rumors usually start from a few truthful facts.  Maybe that’s the case here.  So here are some known facts: 

·         1) East German female athletes, detested by most of the noncommunist world, were steroid crazed in the mid- to late- 20th century. 

·         2) Some of those women got pregnant and gave birth to seriously deformed children

·         3) After learning of the effects of steroids on children, the athletes were heavily pressured into having abortions. 

It seems quite plausible to me, that the story that East Germans were having abortions because of steroid usage could easily get twisted into the story that the cheating East Germans were inducing pregnancies and abortions to improve their athletic abilities. 

On the flip side, because you have to consider the flip side, if athletes and doctors were so unscrupulous to participate in abortion doping, it would be one of the most difficult forms of cheating to prove.  Sounds like it’s right up the East Germans’ alleys.  Without an athlete or doctor outright saying that they got pregnant solely to improve their athleticism, who’s to say the pregnancy was not an accident or that when the athlete got pregnant she did not intend to abort the pregnancy.  Additionally, (although it has been done before) there would be the whole issue of penalizing a natural physiological occurrence.  To reap the benefits of pregnancy, the athletes would not have introduced any unnatural substance into their bodies.  Would it be right to penalize an athlete for a God-given trait?  Ethics and morals aside, which the East Germans proved time and time again that they had neither, abortion doping would be the perfect performance enhancing scheme. 

The optimist in me wants to believe that the will to win has boundaries; in this instance, unnecessarily aborting pregnancies.  But the will to win never does really cease to amaze me.  Winning at all costs is a real mantra for some.  Some are born and bred to be champions and will stop a nothing until they are.  I’d like to think that life is too precious to take away for the chance at a gold medal, but what do I know. 

*See Harvey, Randy, “East Germans Credit Success to Application of Knowledge.” Los Angeles Times, 30 August 1988, (p. C1).  See also Ormsby, Mary, “Abortion Part of Training Regimen?” The Toronto Star, 29 June 1988, (p. C3).  


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