The present study examined the effect of oxygen fraction in inspired air (FIO2) on exercise performance and maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max). Six national level male rowers exercised three 2500-m all-out tests on a Concept II rowing ergometer. Each subject performed one test in normoxia (FIO2 20.9%), one in simulated hyperoxia (FIO2 62.2%) and one in simulated hypoxia (FIO2 15.8%) in a randomized single-blind fashion. The mean final rowing time was 2.3 +/- 0.9% (P < 0.01; 95% CI 1.4-3.2) shorter in hyperoxia and 5.3 +/- 1.8% (P < 0.01; 95% CI 3.1-7.5) longer in hypoxia when compared with normoxia. The effect of FIO2 on VO2max exceeded its effect on exercise performance as VO2max was 11.1 +/- 5.7% greater (P < 0.01; 95% CI 5.1-17.1) in hyperoxia and 15.5 +/- 3.2% smaller in hypoxia (P < 0.01; 95% CI 12.2-19.0) than in normoxia. Blood lactate concentration and O2 consumption per power unit (ml O2.W-1) failed to indicate statistically significant differences in anaerobic metabolism between normoxia and the other two conditions. These data suggest that there are other parameters besides those of energy metabolism that affect exercise performance as FIO2 is modified. These possible mechanisms are discussed in this paper.