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Pricking up their ears
Jerry Kirshenbaum
October 31, 1977
A test pioneered in East Germany, which involves a computer and a few drops of blood from the earlobe, may well alter U.S. methods of training and competition
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October 31, 1977

Pricking Up Their Ears

A test pioneered in East Germany, which involves a computer and a few drops of blood from the earlobe, may well alter U.S. methods of training and competition

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In his eagerness to spread the East German gospel, Greenwell rather tends to oversell Mader's methods. He will carelessly refer to the 43-year-old Mader as the former head of the entire East German sports-medicine program, a considerable exaggeration. He also brushes off other explanations often put forward for East Germany's sporting successes, including advances in selection of athletes, weight training and technique.

One person who is troubled by Greenwell's narrow focus is Dr. Irving Dardik, the New Jersey vascular surgeon who is chairman of the United States Olympic Sports Medicine Committee. The 41-year-old Dardik oversees medical research at the USOC's new training center in Squaw Valley, Calif. (SI, Aug. 22) and Colorado Springs. He has promised thorough research into such matters as blood doping and steroid use, but he declined a request by Greenwell that the two of them collaborate on lactic-acid testing, at least until the whole Olympic program is worked out.

"We do plan to review the lactic-acid business," says Dardik, who has also visited the Cologne Sports Medicine Institute, "but I suspect you can find out the same things by measuring oxygen consumption or running treadmill tests, which we're doing. You can't take one thing and say that's the answer. The guy's a promoter."

To which Greenwell responds, "I don't feel we should ignore other possibilities. Until we test it out, we're guessing. We have followed oxygen-consumption test procedures and tested oxygen-transport capabilities without showing any tangible success. How long will we continue in this one area before we look into other possibilities? I can find more positive results from lactic-acid testing than from oxygen transport. Taking the oxygen measure does nothing to change or improve a training program."

Dardik's approach to sports medicine has also been questioned. He has yet to announce a single appointment to his six-month-old committee, and he will not say how his wide-ranging research is coming or when he is going to announce the results—though, granted, physiological profiles have been compiled on the 500-odd athletes who have trained so far in Squaw Valley, and some intriguing biomechanical work is under way. Included are plans to experiment with Herman Frazier, the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist in the 400-meter dash, as a bobsled starter. "Dardik wants to be the whole show," says Bob Greenwell, counter-punching. "He's afraid that if anybody else gets involved, it will lower the height of his own pedestal."

It was a thoroughly upbeat Greenwell who set out to demonstrate the East German system before AAU convention-goers at Ohio State, where he planned to conduct lactic-acid tests on three Ohio State swimmers. Greenwell drew the first series of blood samples. Unhappily, things went wrong because of the technicians' unfamiliarity with the new equipment, and the tests had to be scrapped. Greenwell shrugged. "At least we showed people how to draw the blood," he said.

The coaches who plan to try the lactic-acid procedure have been scrambling to borrow the necessary lab instruments and computers—all the gear could cost more than $40,000, though the first-stage blood-testing equipment alone would only be around $5,000—and to obtain volunteer technicians. Some critics argue that whether it winds up helping or not, the GDR system smacks of an effort to create bionic athletes. But Mission Viejo's Schubert says, "I think these tests may show that we do overtrain some of our athletes. But then we may be under-training others. The point is: training is an individual thing and this could help us tailor workouts to suit each athlete."

Schubert is a go-getter who was in touch with Mader even before Greenwell came onto the scene. In gamely pushing ahead with the experiment, he evinces the sort of scientific spirit that may keep the U.S.'s budding sports-medicine movement from dissolving. "Some people say the lactic-acid tests probably won't help," Schubert says. "Well, how do we know unless we try? We've got to start testing the validity of some of the things other countries are doing."

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