Unless you’re a bit of a chemistry geek, you’ve probably never heard of xenon. That’s about to change as the gas is being reported as the Next Big Thing in (possibly) legal performance enhancement.
Xenon is one of the noble gases, the group of chemically unreactive elements that hang out on the far right of the periodic table, largely minding their own business. The group includes balloon-filling gas helium and neon, used to make glowing signs.
While it’s hard to get xenon to react chemically, it turns out to have some biological uses. It’s an anaesthetic, and thanks to recent improvements in its extraction from the atmosphere, xenon-based anaesthetic machines are beginning to appear.
It also turns out to stimulate the body to produce a hormone everyone in cycling has heard of: erythropoietin, or EPO.
EPO in turn triggers the creation of red blood cells, increasing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and therefore improving performance in aerobic sports such as cycling, cross-country skiing and running.
According to an article in The Economist, Russia has been using xenon as a performance-enhancer for a few years now. A 2010 document produced by the State Research Institute of the Ministry of Defence advises on how to use the gas. Before competition it can help with listlessness and sleep disruption, and afterwards it can improve recovery.
The manual recommends a 50:50 mixture of xenon and oxygen, inhaled for a few minutes, ideally before going to bed. The gas’s action continues for 48 to 72 hours, so it should be repeated every few days.
Xenon doesn’t just stimulate EPO production. Because it works by activating production of a protein called Hif-1 alpha, which in turn causes production of other hormones as well as EPO, the manual claims its benefits include increasing heart and lung capacity, preventing muscle fatigue, boosting testosterone and improving an athlete’s mood.
There are as yet no studies in humans measuring xenon’s effect on EPO production, so it’s possible this is all placebo effect. But a 2009 study in mice by Mervyn Maze at Imperial College, London, found that exposing the animals to a mixture of 70% xenon and 30% oxygen for two hours more than doubled the animals’ EPO levels a day later.
That’s a much longer-lasting effect than traditional legal methods of stimulating EPO production such as sleeping in a hypoxic ‘altitude’ tent, where the effect vanishes after a few hours.
If xenon use becomes more widespread, the question will be, is it allowed under World Anti-Doping Agency rules?
The Russians clearly think so. The country has honoured Atom Medical Centre, a medical xenon producer, for its help preparing athletes for the 2004 summer Olympics and the 2006 winter games.
Under ‘Prohibited methods’, WADA’s Prohibited List says this about messing about with your blood to increase its ability to carry oxygen:
M1. Manipulation Of Blood And Blood Components
The following are prohibited:
1. The administration or reintroduction of any quantity of autologous, allogenic (homologous) or heterologous blood or red blood cell products of any origin into the circulatory system.
2. Artificially enhancing the uptake, transport or delivery of oxygen, including,but not limited to, perfluorochemicals, efaproxiral (RSR13) and modified haemoglobin products (e.g. haemoglobin-based blood substitutes, microencapsulated haemoglobin products), excluding supplemental oxygen.
3. Any form of intravascular manipulation of the blood or blood components by physical or chemical means.
It could be argued that paragraph 3 would cover xenon use, though you could also argue that it’s so broadly worded that it could cover just about anything an athlete does that might affect the blood, including training and racing.
WADA’s prohibited list is underpinned by the WADA Code, which says that to be considered doping a substance or method has to meet two out of three criteria. It has to enhance performance, it has to present a health risk or it has to violate the spirit of sport.
If inhaling an obscure gas turns out to be provably performance-enhancing but not harmful, WADA could be in the interesting position of deciding to invoke the ‘spirit of sport’ rule if it wanted to ban the use of xenon.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.