Is Spinning Cheating?

Posted on February 4, 2013


If you looked hard enough past the myriad of transfer stories last week you may well have spotted an uncomfortable issue slowly bubbling to the surface again. Jermain Defoe’s return from injury thanks to the controversial use of blood spinning left a sour taste in the mouth of some, and deposited a yellow-jerseyed-Elephant in the corner of football’s room that sooner or later has to be addressed.

Jermain Defoe is at the centre of the latest 'blood spinning' controversy

Jermain Defoe is at the centre of the latest ‘blood spinning’ controversy

To look at and understand the issue it’s important to address some of the basic facts around the treatment. Lance Armstrong’s use of transfusions has brought the phrase ‘blood-doping’ into the common vernacular. Immediately this has caused many to question what’s the difference between his cheating and Defoe’s use of a blood removal technique to recover from injury?

Firstly, the two treatments are completely separate and have very different aims. Armstrong’s use of his own blood was for one reason – to gain an advantage over his opponents by being able to work harder and longer than his body would naturally allow.

This effect was produced by maximising his red blood cell count, these (in the simplest terms) being the carriers of oxygen to his muscles that allow an endurance athlete the ability to keep going beyond normal human capacities. Through taking EPO and his extensive use of transfusions to encourage and artificially increase his count, Armstrong gave himself the ability to train for longer pre-race and then recover quicker during. He took part in a process that increased his performance consistently by creating circumstances that wouldn’t otherwise exist. He cheated.

The object of blood spinning is specific tendon and muscle repair. By removing blood from the area and spinning it in a centrifuge, the process encourages growth hormones and increases healing factors. This is then injected directly back into the damaged area and recovery time (in theory) is dramatically improved. While there are sanctions around prolonged use and permission must be sought if used for muscle injury (to avoid the process being used to build rather than repair), currently if used to deal with tendon damage there are no restrictions other than to report it. Not cheating.

Is it? Isn’t it?

The problem is there are more shades of grey here than in the women’s ‘Erotic Fiction’ section at Waterstones. The objection can be summed up in one sentence – it forces a condition on the human body that wouldn’t necessarily occur in nature. Therefore this rightly begs the question, how can this be considered different from doing the same thing via doping?

Let me declare an interest here. I have experience of this technique and how it works. This process has become more prevalent with the re-diagnosis and treatment of tendonitis. In extreme cases the preferred method was to ‘strip’ the affected tendon – remove the section that was not healing so new tissue can grow – get rid of the bad so good can come in its place. The problem is often the new growth is just as prone to the same condition.

Blood spinning offers an operation-free solution and, from personal experience, does work. The appeal from a sporting view is immediately evident and not just in football. Injury is the biggest curse of any athlete, a legitimate way to reduce recovery time a dream scenario.

Blood doping is about total body conditioning and increasing stamina beyond the norm. It’s a black and white issue; it is and always will be cheating. Blood spinning is highly localized repair to specific tendons, it is in effect ‘artificial healing’, and maybe in those two words we have the nub of the problem.

For years treatments have been used across all sport that fall under the banner of artificial healing. From magnetism to a simple aspirin, any method used to treat an injury beyond that provided by our own bodies could be classed as a level of interference. Where do we draw the line?

The discomfort with spinning comes from the actual removal of blood and reintroduction in an altered form. Chelsea used the process to aid an admittedly reluctant Arjen Robben in 2005 and found themselves under the microscope even in a world that still believed in Lance. Their use of the technique has always been within the laws of the game and has benefited several players since. With Defoe’s use the topic is back on the table and unfairly illuminated and confused by cycling’s issues.

There is merit in the objections, this is manipulation of the blood to an extent and requires careful management. It is also open to abuse and therefore needs regulation, something a groundswell of support is hoping to force. Rather than gain an advantage via increased performance the profit comes from less time away from the game. If we are to blanket-ban blood spinning there will be arguments over other methods of aided recovery, some will be ridiculous, some will be valid, all must be considered.

As a chilling footnote while it should be established there is no relation between spinning and doping, the investigations into the infamous Doctor Michele Ferrari (the medical man behind Lance Armstrong’s double life) did throw up the strong possibility that he was working with a football team.

While no official link was found and it remains as no more than an unproven allegation, if nothing else it should serve as a warning. Never have we seen a footballing world where the slightest of advantages can bring the biggest reward on and off the pitch. The distrust of blood spinning is proof that the thought of any level of doping in the game will not be tolerated and as such, must be treated in the harshest possible terms.

By David Hartrick

David is the author of ’50 Teams That Mattered’ and a Content Editor for the acclaimed football website In Bed With Maradona.

Posted in: Football