All athletes dream of reaching great heights - but in a minivan?
Top US mountain biker Carl Wecker says his first mentor used to drive up to the top of a nearby mountain every night and sleep in his car to get the endurance benefits associated with high altitude.
"It's not too big a price to pay when you're training hard," says the Oregon native and four-time participant in the mountain biking world championships. "It just sounds weird."
Today, Mr. Wecker has a more convenient solution: an altitude tent, which simulates thin mountain air right in his bedroom.
But a meeting this weekend in Montreal could change all that. The World Anti- Doping Agency (WADA), which has standardized the bans on performance-enhancing drugs in sports, will take on the trickier issue of artificially induced altitude conditions - used by elite and amateur athletes in everything from running and cycling to skiing. The crux of the issue: If the effects of an illegal drug can be simu-lated in a natural environment, is it ethical to use artificial means to reproduce that environment?
Unlike most such controversies, where athletes have borrowed medical substances to enhance their performance, the battle over the altitude tent stems from technology built specifically for elite competition.
Many high-profile athletes have used the tents, such as miler Suzy Favor Hamilton, swimmer Ed Moses, and, reportedly, cyclist Lance Armstrong.
The tents and similar technologies, such as nitrogen houses, either remove oxygen or decrease the concentration of oxygen. Like thin mountain air, the gaseous concoction can induce physiological changes that increase an athlete's endurance, experts say. However, there is no scientific consensus on the cause of the extent of the benefits.
For the optimal benefit, athletes have to "live high and train low," they add. So sleeping in an altitude tent allows them to live high and train near sea level - without the minivan commute.
Critics oppose the technology because its effects are very similar to those obtained by using the banned substance EPO. A naturally occurring hormone, EPO is sometimes injected to boost performance in endurance sports. At an altitude of about 8,000 feet or higher, an athlete's body will start to release more EPO, creating the same effect.
Supporters of altitude simulation contend it is just the latest instance of using technology to improve performance - and without the negative side effects of drugs.
"From almost the Greek Olympiad, humans have been using their minds to try to figure out a better way to perform," says Jim Stray-Gundersen, a physician and leading expert on the altitude issue. "It hasn't just been about physical gifts. You have to train those gifts."
After publishing a key study in 1997 on the benefits of live high/train low, Mr. Stray-Gundersen served as medical director for a Norwegian Olympic Committee project to use altitude chambers in preparation for the 2000 and 2002 Olympics.
Word of the project got out and created a stir among Norwegians. The Norwegian Olympic Committee eventually dropped the idea, citing ethical considerations. But Stray-Gundersen says he has yet to receive a clear explanation. "The arguments are not logical, they are emotional, and they are very intuitive - you either feel it or you don't," he says in a telephone interview from Park City, Utah.
A WADA official and an athlete participating in the upcoming meeting declined comment, saying that no statements could be made before the weekend.
One of the leading manufacturers of altitude tents - New York-based Hypoxico - says they have the potential to surpass the usual 1 to 3 percent improvement in performance associated with live high/train low. The tents, together with the generators that alter the makeup of the air inside them, sell for $4,000 to $7,000, while chambers - designed mainly for health clubs, which put exercise machines in them - start at about $20,000.
The company declined to give out specifics on sales and clientele, but said a growing number of their customers are mountaineers preparing for high-altitude ascents, as well as adventure racers and even athletes from relatively obscure sports like speed waterskiing. Its website lists the US military as a client, and in addition, amateur cyclists provide a steady stream of sales, it says.
WADA's executive committee is expected to take up the issue at this weekend's meeting, which will also address other antidoping concerns. Although the International Olympic Committee has set something of a precedent by banning altitude tents in Olympic villages, athletes and others are already asking how a possible WADA regulation could be enforced. Will there be surprise bedroom checks?
Others ask why it's OK to sleep in the mountains, but not in similar air that's artificially created.
"I don't see how they can make one legal and not the other," says Wecker. "Holding your breath would probably do the same thing."