Every night at the 2000 Tour de France, the Dutch golden boy of cycling, Michael Boogerd says “bon nuit” and climbs into a little tent. What, the David Beckham of Dutch cycling, current beau of an Ex-Miss Holland, forced to pitch a tent and camp out in the hotel grounds because his Rabobank team have mucked up their accommodation schedule? Is the hotel double-booked with flocks of Tour obsessives and packs of journalists?
No, the explanation is altogether crazier and yet simpler than that. Boogerd, along with a growing number of endurance athletes, has taken to utilising the latest ingenious device on the market in a bid to boost his performances in this year’s Tour de France -an oxygen tent.
The tent, which simulates being at high altitude, is currently under investigation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) following reports that athletes were planning to turn the Games village in Sydney into an indoor campsite. The athletes, as Boogerd is already doing in France, plan to sleep in them at night and breathe in the artificially mixed air.
The controversial $6,000 tents, not available to buy in your local camping shop incidentally, help boost levels of red blood cells and the infamous ‘naturally occurring’ erythropoietin (EPO). As all fans of cycling will know by now after a series of high-profile scandals (the 1998 Tour de France, for example) this is an illegal blood booster that is tremendously effective in enhancing performance if injected, and suspected to be widely abused by a number of top athletes.
But how can you prevent athletes simulating altitude conditions by sleeping in oxygen tents? That would be like banning athletes who come from Mexico City because they benefit from living in an altitude location. Imagine the headlines: “Midnight raid on Rabobank hotel: Police find Boogerd dozing in oxygen tent!” or “My oxygen tent hell,” by Marco Pantani!
At the moment there is nothing in the rules to prevent the oxygen tents. Certainly not at the Tour de France anyway. However, the IOC is shifting uncomfortably in their seats at the prospect of athletes pitching tents in their rooms in Sydney, like an army of Wacko Jacko’s.
Word is that they are considering prohibition. But everyone knows what happened in America in the 1930’s when the prohibition of alcohol was enforced. It went underground. Following that, I admit slightly skewed logic, maybe there’ll be oxygen tent “speakeasy’s” in Sydney.
‘They are in the grey zone,’ said Dr Jacques Rogge of the IOC’s medical commission. ‘I don’t like the idea. It is pushing training and preparation too far.’
But Boogerd is not alone in his peculiar sleeping habits. The Australian triathlete Michelle Jones, a top tip for the gold medal in Sydney, uses the tent along with a number of other big name Aussie athletes.
Athletes who use the tents, which were originally designed by the former British Olympic cyclist Shane Wallace, have been shown in tests to be faster and stronger over a range of sports, and significantly, by as much as up to three seconds over 1500 metres.
Over and above their magical performance benefits, the advantages of the tent are obvious. They are portable, which means, like Boogerd is doing, they can be carried in your luggage wherever you may roam, in his case all over France. Also, for European-based athletes who regularly train at altitude, they can save a fortune by cutting out expensive trips to the Alps and the Pyrenees, or further afield, and set up camp in the comfort of their own beds.
This is exactly what Spencer Duval, the only British owner of one of the tents, does. The former UK cross-country champion and hopeful for the 3,000 metres steeplechase in Sydney, has pulled the plug on any future trips to the French Pyrenees and instead does all his training at home in Staffordshire.
‘I’ve been sleeping in one since last November,’ said Duval. ‘It’s the equivalent of sleeping at 9,000 feet in my bedroom, which means my body will produce more red blood cells and eventually I will become more efficient at processing oxygen. Therefore if I am more efficient then I should be able to run faster or at least not feel as tired.’
The proof is undoubtedly in the pudding. Since he started to use the tent , Duval’s red blood cell count has increased by about 20 per cent – an enormous amount in running terms – and he feels that he is running five per cent more efficiently than he was before.
However, Duval does not understand why the IOC could consider banning the tents.
‘It’s like saying living at altitude is illegal,’ he said. ‘It just means I don’t have to go to altitude 12 months a year and can stay at home. If they banned it from the village I would just stay outside the village.’
So it seems that, for Duval and Boogerd at least, it will be a case of carry on camping.