We’ve heard a lot about “blood doping,” but what does that really mean? Blood doping is when an athlete illicitly boosts the number of red blood cells (RBCs) in his or her body in order to enhance athletic performance. The main function of red blood cells is to carry oxygen to the muscles, meaning a higher RBC count can dramatically improve an athlete’s performance by kicking up their aerobic capacity and stamina.
Blood doping in the traditional sense involves harvesting red blood cells either from the athlete or compatible donor and then saving them until needed. Red blood cells can be easily frozen and later thawed for use without significant loss of their oxygen-carrying properties. Even better are units of the athlete's own blood stored in a refrigerator, which can be kept for up to three weeks with nearly the same ability to infuse a heady dose of oxygen as fresh blood. Then just prior to a critical competition (or even during a long event, like the three-week Tour de France), these harvested red blood cells are reinjected into the athlete’s circulatory system, replacing tired blood with new oxygen-rich cells giving an athlete an big boost.
The major blood doping case in professional cycling is known as Operación Puerto, the case name given by Spanish police. The investigation broke in May 2006 when Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes was accused of helping 200 professional athletes from a number of sports engage in blood doping to enhance their performance. Among these athletes were some of the best known cyclists in the world, including several of the top finishers at the most recent Olympic Games and Tours de France.
As of May 2007, fifteen cyclists whose names surfaced in the Operación Puerto investigation have been acquitted, while three riders -- Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, and Michele Scarponi -- have either admitted doping or been seemingly convicted by substantial evidence linking them to the practice.