Ah, the sacrifices required to be a great endurance athlete. The training that leaves you feeling like your lungs are several sizes too small. The strict diet. The constant travel and utterly uncertain long-term career prospects. The noise from the generator as you try to get some sleep inside the tent in your bedroom.
No, that bizarre last sentence is no editing error. The pursuit of sports excellence marches on. But is it progress when the chase obliges you to forgo your usual bedtime arrangements and zip yourself into damp, relatively cramped sleeping quarters designed to replicate high-altitude conditions in low places?
"It's obviously not as comfortable as a double bed," said the British track star Paula Radcliffe.
Altitude training has long been a prerequisite for the world's elite runners, cross-country skiers and other endurance athletes. Lowlanders have been heading to the Alps or Rockies or Atlas mountains for decades in a successful attempt to increase their red blood cell counts.
But in the past decade, a high-tech shortcut has emerged.
First came the "altitude houses," developed by Finnish scientists in the early 1990s, in which nitrogen was pumped into a structure to create mountain air in mountain-free Finland. Now come the "altitude tents," many manufactured by an American company called Hypoxico and sold for several thousand dollars or more.
Sea-level air contains approximately 21 percent oxygen. The tents, with the generators doing the work, can reduce that by several percentage points, simulating altitudes of 9,000 feet (2,700 meters) or higher.
Shaun Wallace, a former British Olympic cyclist who is a Hypoxico vice president, estimates that 400 or more top athletes are using such tents. Besides Radcliffe, the converts include three-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, American world-record swimmer Ed Moses, and Michellie Jones, the Australian triathlete who won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics.
The question is, should anything be done to prevent athletes from sleeping their way to the top?
My initial reaction was: Absolutely. Strike camp. Pull the plugs. If we ban athletes from seeking an artificial edge in a bottle, shouldn't we discourage them from seeking an artificial edge in a tent? I was cheered to hear that the International Olympic Committee plans to launch a study of the "altitude systems" in conjunction with six European universities. It is scheduled to begin shortly after the 2002 Winter Olympics end in February.
"We've been a bit concerned to see some international competitions where the athletes' village can be transformed into a tent camp," said Patrick Schamasch, the IOC's medical director. "Our goal is to examine whether these methods are dangerous for the health of the athlete, and if it's against sports ethics and could potentially be considered doping behavior."
Bravo, I said to myself, after hanging up the phone. Well done, I thought, after hearing that the IOC would ban such devices from the Olympic village in Salt Lake City, just as they did at last year's Summer Olympic village in Sydney.
Well said, I thought, after an IOC member, Dick Pound, head of the new world anti-doping agency, called the use of altitude chambers "incredibly tacky" and observed that "it's one thing to live in Machu Picchu and quite another to get into a diving bell to go to bed."
But after speaking with athletes, I soon realized that this is nowhere near as morally straightforward as the argument against doping; soon realized that I do not envy the international sports leaders who will have to make this call.
The argument for the chambers is that they level the playing field, rather than plow it up.
Some athletes have the good fortune to live at high altitude; others have the financial means or flexibility to attend high-altitude camps frequently.
The tents and chambers allow other competitors access to similar training benefits, although real altitude still appears superior to artificial altitude.
"I don't really agree with the IOC investigation into it," said Radcliffe, a silver medalist in the 10,000 meters at 1999 world track and field championships.
"All the altitude tent does is stimulate the body to cope with conditions that can be found naturally. If you say an altitude tent is unfair, you have to ban people living at altitude. The only argument against the tents is cost. Not everybody can afford them. But then you get into the whole argument of whether athletes can wear more expensive shoes than others."
Radcliffe's words carry particular weight. She has been one of the most visible anti-doping campaigners in any sport, wearing red ribbons on her running uniforms to lobby for blood testing. She is now leading a group of athletes who will subject themselves to regular blood examinations whose results will be made public.
Her proactive approach is the right approach: The burden is unfortunately now on endurance athletes to prove that they are clean. But Radcliffe feels no burden about having used an altitude tent on occasion, most recently for several days before she won the world cross-country title in March.
"If the IOC is going to fund research into tents, I think they are sidestepping issues a bit," Radcliffe said.
"The main point is that we don't have adequate tests for EPO or human growth hormone, and there is a big risk of gene manipulation coming up. They should spend their ammunition on something that is really doping."
A recent Australian study compared benefits of altitude-house use with EPO use and found that the altitude-house effect was significantly lower.
But there is still an endurance-enhancing effect and still a potential stigma. Norway, where cross-country skiing is a major sport, has had a particularly animated public debate.
Though the Norwegian team initially planned to train and reside in an "altitude apartment" near the site of the 2002 Olympic cross-country races in Soldier Hollow, those plans were canceled in August, partly because of ethical concerns.
Despite my respect for Radcliffe, there is indeed something troubling here; something troubling, too, about the fact that Radcliffe, who can afford to train in the Alps, used the tent as a supplementary device, essentially topping off her altitude benefits.
It seems clear that just as athletes shouldn't have to feel obliged to take drugs to have a chance, they shouldn't have to feel obliged to sleep in a plastic bubble (or tent) to have a chance. Is this really what we've come to? But if redrawing the line is tempting, how on earth could the IOC enforce it?
You can't put observers in the bedroom, and considering how difficult it was to distinguish synthetic EPO from real EPO, could there be any hope of determining which athletes were benefiting from real or ersatz altitude? Dream on. If you can still dream with all that generator noise.