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The Perfect Performance-Enhancing Drug — Placebos

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An Australian researcher today showed that athletes who believe they're taking synthetic human growth hormone, but are instead taking placebos, can actually become stronger.

Human growth hormone, developed to treat pituitary deficiencies in children, is a banned substance widely used in sports to increase power and endurance — despite zero scientific evidence that it works. Professor Ken Ho, director of the Pituitary Research Unit at Garvan University, told 64 recreational athletes they were in a growth hormone study, randomly ging some of them a placebo. Athletes in the placebo group who believed they were receiving hormone performed better in a high-jump test after the bogus treatment.

Police raids of doping wizards, such as BALCO's Victor Conte, and Spain's Eufemiano Fuentes, have shown that athletes are willing to pay huge sums for doping treatments. They're not paying so much for the performance enhancement. Steroids and other drugs can be obtained cheaply on the black market. The big money goes to doping experts who've earned a reputation for helping athletes evade anti-doping tests. And in his placebo study, Ho may have thus developed the ideal doping regimen.

"I'm taking out a patent," Ho joked during a presentation at this week's annual meeting of The Endocrine Society, attended by experts on the body's hormonal system.

A more likely effect might be to dissuade athletes from injecting growth hormone for the upcoming Olympics in Beijing. The 2000 Sydney Olympics were dubbed the HGH Olympics after an Australia customs raid showed the Chinese swim team with growth hormone in their luggage.

Given Ho's findings, might this summer's event be remembered as the Sugar Pill Games?