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A whiff of the future

I was intrigued to read in the press recently, a story based on a new study published by de Boer in the journal, Geology, that in Ancient Greece, the oracle at Delphi was probably in a state of a drug induced trance when advising supplicants. Plutarch, the historian, who was also the high priest at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, describes how the high priestess who spoke the oracles inhaled “sweet smelling vapours” in her chasm under the temple. De Boer and his coworkers discovered that the walls of this chasm or adytum contain volatile gases from the bituminous limestone that lies beneath the temple. The most common of these gases was ethylene, which smells sweet and moreover breathing it often induces a state of euphoria. Sometimes people have a more violent reaction. They become delirious and thrash around—a state that Plutarch also recorded. The high priestess, it seems, was as much a glue sniffer as a guru.

It is interesting how attitudes change. What was seen in Ancient Greece as prophecy would today be seen as a social problem. Glue sniffing and other illicit drug use are banes of urban society. In sport, drug use is widespread. Both recreational drugs as well as performance enhancing or ergogenic agents are a commonplace feature of elite competition. We are no longer shocked when athletes are sent home from competition, stripped of their records or medals or stopped at customs inspections with banned substances. We have recently had the situation of athletes at the world athletic championships threatening to strike if an athlete known to have tested positive to erythropoeitin was allowed to compete. What a situation!

It is not surprising that the outgoing International Olympic Committee (IOC) president despaired that the drug use was so endemic, that detection, and ultimately removal of all drug use within elite sport was a forlorn hope. We can only hope that the new IOC supremo, Dr Jacques Rogge, will be true to his medical training by upholding the Hippocratic tradition and continuing the drug battle at the IOC.

It also seems strange, as an IOC outsider, that more sophisticated testing is not performed. Prior to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, speculation about the introduction of testing for EPO and Growth Hormone testing was widespread and the ultimate EPO test strategy that was introduced was confusing. Whilst there may have been very good reasons for this approach, it may be cognizant of the IOC to be more transparent in its anti-drug strategy. We, as sports clinicians, are on the same side and we also see the negative effects of banned drug use first hand.

Perhaps prophecy as to the future of the drug dilemma in sport should take a leaf from the ancient oracle. A little chemical help is always welcome!

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