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Artificial altitude training creates concern in Australian football

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A sense of unease pervades some quarters of Australian football over the Australian Football League’s decision not to ban hypoxic air machines for enhancing performance by simulating high altitude conditions. An ethicist’s view is that the machines should be banned only for reasons of ensuring fair competition among players.

Hypoxic air machines provide a nitrogen rich environment, which is thought to boost the production of red blood cells and their oxygen transporting ability. The parallel with erythropoietin, which does the same chemically, is disquieting to some but so far disproved scientifically. So the league has ruled that use of the machines does not break its antidoping code or its rules.

Those in favour of the machines point out that training at altitude or in hypoxic machines is widespread, though the documented track record in improving performance is unconvincing. The machines merely provide a high altitude environment to try to boost training and are not a biomedical short cut to improved performance like chemical enhancers, their advocates say. Arguments against their use are also rather undermined by recent realisation that another club in the league is doing hypoxic training the simple way—its members swimming laps while holding their breath—which is said to mimic altitude training

So, should hypoxic environments be permissible forms of performance enhancement in sport—alongside exercise, training, and nutrition? Ultimately it’s all down to what is judged as fair competition.