Who would have thought that xenon, a rare and relatively inert gas, might boost athletic performance?  The Russians, for one.  Apparently they used xenon to improve the performances of some of their athletes in the 2004 and 2006 Olympic Games, according to an article in The Economist this month.   And for now, it’s perfectly legal under the current rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

How does xenon gas exert its effect on athletic performance?  It turns out that xenon boosts the body’s production of a protein called Hif-1 alpha, which in turn boosts the body’s natural production of erythropoietin, the hormone that regulates the body’s production of red blood cells.  More red blood cells means more oxygen-carrying capacity and a better athletic performance, particularly in endurance sports.   Cyclists have known about the endurance-enhancing effects of erythropoietin for years; witness the widespread use of injectable erythropoietin and ultimately the ensuing doping scandals (and the downfall of Lance Armstrong) in that sport.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibits the use of injectable erythropoietin to boost athletic performance.  But it is perfectly permissible to train at high altitude or to breathe a gas mixture low in oxygen to stimulate natural erythropoietin production.   That did not go unnoticed by the Russians, who apparently developed guidelines for adding xenon to gas mixtures breathed by some of its athletes.

It’ll be interesting to see what position WADA takes on xenon gas, and whether or not it can prevent its use even if it wants to.  Even a short exposure to xenon gas produces an elevation of erythropoietin concentration that remains long after the gas is gone.   That would make enforcement of a ban difficult.

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