The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has, as of today, banned athletes from using noble gases argon and xenon – even though an approved test to detect their use has yet to be formulated.
It is believed that some athletes are using the gases, mixed with oxygen, to boost the production of red blood cells through raising the production of natural erythropoietin (EPO).
fThat in turn leads to increased stamina, enhancing the performance of those participating in endurance sports such as cycling, which has been blighted by the use of artificial EPO over the past two decades.
As with the two gases that have now been added to WADA’s prohibited list, artificial EPO was banned before a test was devised for it. In an attempt at harm minimisation, the UCI ruled in 1997 that riders with a haematocrit level above 50 per cent would not be allowed to race.
A test would finally be devised in 2000. Last year, a report following an investigation into doping by the French Senate revealed that when samples from the 1998 Tour de France – the year of the Festina scandal – were retested in 2004, the samples from 18 riders were found to be positive for EPO.
Those included overall champion, the late Marco Pantani, and points classification winner Stuart O’Grady, who subsequently confessed to doping. Other riders testing positive included Mario Cipollini, Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel.
In February this year, The Economist reported that xenon was being administered to athletes in Russia more than a decade ago as part of preparations for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, and in 2010 the country’s State Research Institute of the Ministry of Defence published a manual setting out guidelines for its use among sportsmen and women.
It is concerns that athletes across a range of sport, not just in Russia but elsewhere, have been using xenon to gain an unfair advantage over their rivals that has prompted WADA to investigate it and now ban its use.
WADA’s science director, Dr Olivier Rabin, told Matt McGrath, environment correspondent at BBC News: "We had serious information that xenon was being used. We believe it has been used in the preparation for some major events."
He added that the agency is working towards devising a direct test for xenon, saying: "We had some preliminary pilot results that do indicate that detection is not too much of an issue but we just need to make it solid and robust in the anti-doping context and make sure that any result in the future will be accepted by a court."
However, Dr Rabin could not confirm when such a test might be validated. He said: "I cannot give you a specific date, we usually do not, what I can tell you is that the science is very solid and certainly we will do our best, now that the gases are on the prohibited lists to make sure there are detection methods available as soon as possible."
Former elite athlete Dr Ben Koh, an expert on sports medicine and anti-doping, was doubtful that a an approved test will come any time soon, and also questioned why xenon and argon should be banned but athletes could still use oxygen tents and hypoxic chambers, which he said produced a similar effect in boosting red blood cells.
He told BBC News: "Their whole argument is based on false grounds. What is happening among elite athletes is a very artificial process, involving hypoxic chambers before competitions. This is artificial, and it is no different from the artificiality of xenon."
Besides performance-enhancing benefits, WADA also said that it was banning the gases due to the health risk to athletes, but again Dr Koh disagreed with the agency’s view.
"I would argue that xenon is actually safer than hypoxic tents, in terms of heart failure, trauma to the ear and to the lungs, the risks are very well documented from hypoxic tents, on the other hand, xenon gas from the published literature seems to be quite safe," he added.
The inclusion of the gases on WADA’s prohibited list comes four months to the day before the coming into effect of the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code, which replaces the existing 2009 version.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.