Seeking a Competitive Edge From a Little Blue Pill

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Athletes looking for a performance boost in competition appear to be turning to a little blue pill that is more often taken for off-field benefits: Viagra. But experts are divided over whether it offers athletes an edge.

It isn't clear how many athletes might be taking Viagra, but it has attracted the attention of the World Anti-Doping Agency. The agency hasn't yet banned it. Viagra is not on the International Olympic Committee's list of prohibited drugs, so athletes can take it at the Beijing Olympics.

Viagra, also known as sildenafil, was developed as a heart drug. It increases the effects of nitric oxide, which makes blood vessels expand. That should theoretically allow blood cells to get more oxygen from the lungs. It also might improve heart function.

Viagra also is approved to treat pulmonary hypertension, a condition in which the lungs' blood vessels tighten.

But whether Viagra makes athletes faster or stronger is uncertain.

"Just because you have more nitric oxide doesn't mean that you are going to be a better athlete," said Anthony Butch, director of the Olympic Analytical laboratory at UCLA. "If you have all the nitric oxide you need, and if you generate more from Viagra, it's not clear what effect that would have."

Still, preliminary studies have shown that cyclists taking Viagra improved their performances by up to 40 percent.

"If you have more oxygen going to your muscles, that's more energy and that makes you a better athlete," said Andrew McCullough, a sexual health expert at the New York University School of Medicine. "Even if it only gives you a 10 percent increase, in peak athletes that is enough to win."

-- From News Services

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