Three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador is now facing the possible loss of his 2010 title after two suspicious substances turned up in his system. One is a banned muscle-builder and metabolism-accelerator whose presence he attributes to "the consumption of tainted beef." The other substance: plastic. Detected by a brand-new test awaiting validation, traces of a chemical known as a plasticizer suggest he may have stored his own blood in plastic IV bags before it was transfused, mid-Tour, back into his body.* They also suggest the nebulous, ever-evolving art of blood doping is returning, full-circle, to its rudimentary inception in the early-1970s.
The etymology of "doping" is as hazy as its origins; the name may have been derived from "dop," the Afrikaans term for a stimulating beverage of fermented grape skins drank pre-battle by Zulu warriors. In its modern form, however, the practice doesn't necessarily involve any foreign substances. The World Anti-Doping Agency defines it as "the use of products that enhance the uptake, transport, or delivery of oxygen to the blood." The best such product is the red blood cell, which carries the oxygen that converts glucose to energy. In the most elemental form of doping, athletes boost their energy-efficiency by withdrawing up to two quarts of blood, allowing the body to replenish what it lost, and then, in the week of competition, re-injecting their stored RBCs. Essentially, these dopers gain the benefits of rigorous training at altitude--where oxygen-thin air prompts the body to make more red blood cells--with less of the rigor.