Lance Armstrong in the scientific literature: Questions abound
We’ve had plenty of big stories here at Retraction Watch this week, but even we must admit that the world’s biggest retractions — by press attention, anyway — have been in sports: Lance Armstrong (thanks, Oprah!) and Manti Te’o (thanks, Deadspin!).
We don’t have anything to add to the Te’o story, but a reader reminded us that there was a 2005 paper about Armstrong in the Journal of Applied Physiology that was vigorously questioned in the years following. Here’s the abstract of “Improved muscular efficiency displayed as Tour de France champion matures:”
This case describes the physiological maturation from ages 21 to 28 yr of the bicyclist who has now become the six-time consecutive Grand Champion of the Tour de France, at ages 27–32 yr. Maximal oxygen uptake (V̇o2 max) in the trained state remained at ∼6 l/min, lean body weight remained at ∼70 kg, and maximal heart rate declined from 207 to 200 beats/min. Blood lactate threshold was typical of competitive cyclists in that it occurred at 76–85% V̇o2 max, yet maximal blood lactate concentration was remarkably low in the trained state. It appears that an 8% improvement in muscular efficiency and thus power production when cycling at a given oxygen uptake (V̇o2) is the characteristic that improved most as this athlete matured from ages 21 to 28 yr. It is noteworthy that at age 25 yr, this champion developed advanced cancer, requiring surgeries and chemotherapy. During the months leading up to each of his Tour de France victories, he reduced body weight and body fat by 4–7 kg (i.e., ∼7%). Therefore, over the 7-yr period, an improvement in muscular efficiency and reduced body fat contributed equally to a remarkable 18% improvement in his steady-state power per kilogram body weight when cycling at a given V̇o2 (e.g., 5 l/min). It is hypothesized that the improved muscular efficiency probably reflects changes in muscle myosin type stimulated from years of training intensely for 3–6 h on most days.
What does all of this mean in English? In a 2008 story about the ensuing debate over the paper, The New York Times wrote that the study by Edward Coyle of the University of Texas, Austin
has been repeatedly used by Armstrong and his lawyers to fend off allegations that his cycling success came in part through doping.
Oops. Scientists have paid attention, too: The paper has been cited 62 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
In a 2005 letter to the editor, a group of Australian exercise physiologists questioned one of the calculations in Coyle’s paper. They concluded:
In summary, although great insight into human physiology can be gained from carefully controlled examinations of elite athletes, poor experimental design and methodology can lead to inappropriate conclusions, which in the case of a sporting hero can quickly become more hype than fact. Coyle’s data supporting the assumption that training can improve cycling efficiency in an elite cyclist are not compelling. It appears that other more conventional explanations describing why Armstrong is such a successful cyclist may be equally tenable.
Coyle responded, and also later provided original data on which his conclusions were based. In a new letter, the same authors — plus one member of the Science and Industry Against Blood-Doping (SIAB) Research Consortium, Michael Ashenden — reiterated that their new analysis of Coyle’s data demonstrated significant flaws.
You can read more about the errors at The Science of Sport.
We should note that the conflicts of interest in this story seem to balance one another out: As the Times notes, Coyle was a paid consultant for Armstrong in a dispute with SCA Promotions, a
company that had insured Armstrong’s team against paying a $5 million bonus if he won the 2004 Tour. After Armstrong’s victory, SCA refused to honor the team’s claim, arguing that it suspected drug use by Armstrong.
Ashenden was a consultant for SCA.
The Australian group was concerned enough about the errors that they lodged a formal scientific misconduct complaint against Coyle, the Times reported:
Robert Peterson, the vice president for research at the university, investigated the complaint with three scientists. He wrote in an e-mail message Wednesday that their inquiry found that “there do appear to be ‘deficiencies’ in Professor Coyle’s research, and there does appear to be a need to clarify the research record.” He added, “However, there is no hard or firm evidence that the deficiencies rise to the level of scientific misconduct.”
We contacted Coyle today to ask if he was planning to retract the paper, in light of this week’s developments, and will update with anything we learn. In the meantime, it’s jarring, if not eerie, to read the paper’s acknowledgements:
The author very much appreciates the respectful cooperation and positive attitude of Lance Armstrong over the years and through it all.
Coyle was a bit less awestruck in comments to the Times:
“People are drawing their opinions essentially on whether or not they believe Lance cheated or not,” he said. “I don’t know what the truth is about that, but I don’t really care.”