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Michael Phelps of the U.S. listens to music on his headphones as he arrives for the men's 100m butterfly final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 3, 2012. (TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)
Michael Phelps of the U.S. listens to music on his headphones as he arrives for the men's 100m butterfly final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre August 3, 2012. (TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)

London 2012

Listening to music before events may enhance performance, but WADA sees no problem Add to ...

Close, but no bull’s eye.

An article by an Israeli-based doctor that accuses Michael Phelps and other headphone-wearing medal winning swimmers of enhancing their performance just before they raced in the Olympics does have some validity. Listening to music does have the effect of shutting out distracting crowd noises, improving the blood’s oxygen transport and delivery system and possibly motivating an athlete.

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But it takes more than that to call headphone use before an event an illicit doping method.

Dr. Alexei Koudinov’s theory fails in two key categories, says Doug MacQuarrie, chief operating officer of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. While there’s evidence of enhanced sport performance, there is no proof that listening to music – or anything from nature sounds to a Fidel Castro speech – is a health risk for an athlete; and it’s not contrary to the spirit of sport. It hasn’t been banned. It’s available to everyone.

“It’s interesting and well-motivated,” said MacQuarrie after reading Koudinov’s open letter to The Queen, asking her “to oversee appropriate actions… [so] the integrity of the London 2012 Olympic Games is reinstated.”

“But WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) has confirmed for all what determines doping and what doesn’t,” MacQuarrie said.

“There is a prohibited list of doping substances and methods published each year. There are three conditions within the (WADA) code that determine a banned method: that there’s evidence of performance enhancement; that there’s a health risk to the athlete; and that it violates what’s referred to as the spirit of sport. Any two of those three form the basis for whether a substance or method is included on the banned list. It establishes the understanding in sport of whether something is on-side or off-side.”

Dr. Koudinov cited evidence of deeper breathing and improved oxygen delivery among swimmers who wore headphones on the pool deck before racing. He cited studies done at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Italy’s University of Pavia, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and Moscow’s Chuchalin Pulmonology Institute in Russia.

“But those in charge… would determine it doesn’t belong in the prohibited list,” MacQuarrie said. “Very clearly athletes will use all kinds of methods to ready themselves for competition: visualization, relaxation, listening to music. These all fit in to the realm of preparation for athletic competition. Someone running on the spot to increase their heart rate would have similar effects of enhancing the flow of blood.”