Lance Armstrong in the scientific literature: A “reconsideration”
In January, as Lance Armstrong was performing the 21st century version of a confessional — appearing on Oprah — we wrote about a 2005 paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology about a “bicyclist who has now become the six-time consecutive Grand Champion of the Tour de France.”
That paper was, of course, about Armstrong, and in the months since our post, according to a just-published editorial, the editors of the journal asked author Edward Coyle of the University of Texas, Austin
to write about how his 2005 paper should be interpreted in light of recent admissions to doping.
In 2005, this author published a paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology that described physiological changes that occurred in a Tour de France cyclist as he matured from 21 to 28 years of age during the period of 1992 to 1999 (2). This cyclist has recently admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. That leads us to wonder if any of the physiological changes reported in the 2005 paper might have been influenced by his drug use. The author’s only knowledge of his use of drugs or performance enhancing procedures comes from a televised interview when he reported using erythropoietin, red blood cell reinfusion, testosterone, cortisone and human growth hormone (Oprah Winfrey Network; January 17 and 18, 2013). In the televised interview this cyclist stated that use of some drugs began in the mid- 1990’s. The main physiological improvements he displayed over this seven-year period during which the author was testing him were an improved gross mechanical efficiency and a reduced body weight. It is also worth noting that four of the five laboratory based physiological testing sessions were performed in the pre-competitive season or with reduced training while one session was conducted at the end of the competitive season.
So what should happen to Coyle’s paper? Editor Peter Wagner:
Should Coyle’s paper therefore be retracted? We do not think so; the data are the data, free of author-related ethical concerns. His editorial seems to be the best solution, especially because there can be no definitive answer. How much of the subject’s performance was attributable to his genetics and training, compared to how much was contributed by possible doping, may never be known, but that does not constitute grounds for retraction.
Give the whole exchange a read before judging for yourself, of course. The original paper, as we reported in January, has been cited 62 times.
The discussion of Coyle’s paper does not address other questions that had earlier been raised about the paper, probably because there is nothing new on that front. But one of the authors of the letter critical of Coyle’s study has also co-authored a letter raising questions about two other papers — neither by Coyle — and the
ethics of studying athletes—exceptional enough to be subject to WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) oversight—using manipulations of blood volume and hemoglobin concentration that would be banned in competition.
That letter earned a response from WADA, and the whole package seems worth reading, but isn’t online yet.