Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Female athletes competing at the Olympics are getting pregnant just so they can abort the baby and by so doing enhance their performance through hormone doping.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2002]
Origins: The Olympics are plagued by the persistent spectre of cheating. Athletes look to gain an edge wherever they can, and the ethics of sport often come in a limping second to the desire to win. Those who have devoted their lives to becoming the best often have to face a hard choice
Many of the cheating methods are undetectable, which makes the choice to remain free of such tampering even more difficult. It would be so easy for athletes to remain pure if they knew that they would be caught if they did otherwise and that their strongest rivals would likewise have to foreswear performance enhancers or else be turfed out too. But that is far from the case
Blood doping is such a procedure. The red oxygen-carrying blood cells are drawn from the body several weeks or months before a competition with the plan of reintroducing them at a key moment, thereby super-enriching the blood in time for a particular event. Because the body has replaced the missing blood in the interim, the reintroduction of the stored blood saturates or "dopes" the bloodstream, elevating performance. Its greatest benefits accrue to those in endurance sports such as cycling or cross-country skiing. There's nothing to test for because the super-enriched blood is entirely the athlete's own
All this brings us to the question of abortion doping, the notion that female athletes can supercharge their bodies through aborting a fetus just before competition and reabsorbing into their own systems the additional hormones the pregnancy produced. Akin to blood doping, the object is to increase the presence of a natural substance in the athlete, but in this case, it's hormone levels that are being boosted, not the red blood count.
As gruesomely unbelievable as this must sound, there is some reason to believe such a procedure might exist.
Abortion doping was the topic of debate at the First Permanent World Conference on Anti-Doping in Sport held in Ottawa in 1988. According to delegates' statements from that conference, some Eastern European female athletes were having themselves artificially inseminated, then aborting the fetuses two or three months later to take advantage of a perceived hormone boost. Names were not named and specifics were not given, but this was one of the topics under discussion.
Is it lore, or is it real? At this point, it's impossible to make a definitive call. The delegates could have been repeating baseless scuttlebutt they'd heard from others
Yet it is also true that one of those making the claims was then-International Olympic Committee vice-president Prince Alexandre
It's possible one grain of truth might have been converted by gossip into a false tale. Underage East German athletes were pressured in the 1970s and 1980s to abort, not because anyone was trying to supercharge them with hormones, but because these unfortunate girls had been subjected to heavy regimes of steroids and other harmful drugs. Had they carried to full term, they likely would have delivered malformed or otherwise handicapped children. One former national back stroke swim champion gave birth to a son who had a clubfoot, and another produced a blind daughter.
Doctors who were part of the East German sports machine of those days have since been tried and found guilty of having aided and abetted actual bodily harm against the youngsters in their care. For the most part, their punishment has amounted to being assessed a fine.
Could it be that the reality of East German coaches' forcing their charges to have abortions rather than carry to full term children likely to be born afflicted has been changed through the process of gossip into Svengalis arranging the pregnancies and abortions as part and parcel of an intentional plan to increase hormone levels in those girls? We do have examples of coaches ordering their athletes to abort, although the reason for that command is different; thus one key element of the rumor is in place. It's a theory worth considering, especially in light of the lack of women we can point to who were supposedly killing off their unborn children just to get an undetectable hormone boost.
In any event, unless and until someone with a checkable medical history steps forward and says, "Yes, this happened to me," it's all unproven speculation, no matter how many sources repeat the tale. It's thus premature to mourn for the unborn babies that were conceived solely to enhance their mothers' athletic performance, because there might not have been any.
Barbara "straight dope" Mikkelson
Last updated: 8 September 2007
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