Anti-doping and the evidence card

Is it fair to ask for a little fairness when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs?

In general, yes. But a lot of devils lurk in the details.

Blame Luke Thomas for this post. The outstanding MMA analyst loves to raise tough questions about drug testing, so this morning, he retweeted an interesting series from Roger Pielke Jr., a Colorado environmental science professor who isn’t afraid to go against the grain — he’s been labeled a “climate misinformer” by Skeptical Science and wrote about his “unhappy life as a climate heretic” for The Wall Street Journal. He’s actually not a climate-change “denier,” and he’s the son of a scientist who has some complaints about being painted as a “denier” when he quite clearly is not. He is also, like me, a Guardian contributor.

(Ideally, when we in the media seek “balance” in climate change reporting, we’d quit looking for “deniers” vs. “everyone else” and demonstrate the spectrum of legitimate climate change science — “not that big a deal” on one extreme, Pielke Sr. somewhere in the middle, and “holy crap we’re all gonna die” on the other extreme. But I digress.)

That said, maybe Pielke Jr. was simply wrong, and when called out on it, he played the “victim of political correctness” card. This exchange certainly offers considerable evidence to support that conclusion, though like a lot of evidence, it’s incomplete. Maybe it’s not his fault he wound up as a poster boy for the “Yeah, I TOLD you all this ‘global warming’ stuff was crap” crowd, but he seemed to be reveling in the attention to a degree. (I’ve been accused of that sort of thing when I’ve gone against the orthodoxy in women’s soccer, too, but I’ve hopefully made it quite clear that I’m not on the side of the “don’t give gay women rights” people.)

So it appears Pielke has turned his attention to issues in sports, where we could use a bit of healthy skepticism. Sounds good. Maybe he can take whatever lessons he learned from his experience in climate debates and apply them here.

His series of tweets on anti-doping, taken from a presentation he gave in Norway, raises some strong points but also shows the pitfalls of setting too high a bar for evidence. Pielke wants everything to be black and white. I’m not sure that’s possible, in climate change or in anti-doping. (Or in criminal justice — where “the CSI effect” is a headache for prosecutors who can’t deliver the “aha!” moments that their fictional counterparts can.) Humans will never be omnipotent, nor will we be able to anticipate every eventuality. There comes a time in which we simply have to assess the information we have and make the best decision we can.

So are we splitting hairs because bad decisions are being made? Or do we just enjoy splitting hairs? (I admit — I’m sometimes overly pedantic myself.)

Let’s take a look, starting here with a clever (and apt) cartoon:

https://twitter.com/RogerPielkeJr/status/857640936066744321

He’s clearly not anti anti-doping, which some in the MMA community are. (Not Luke Thomas, who simply takes a skeptical stance, but some MMA fans wax nostalgic for the days of steroid-sculpted bodies colliding in PRIDE.)

He raises a good point in passing with the meme of old white guys laughing at the concept of each country testing its own athletes. I wish he’d gone into more detail on that, because it’s certainly a issue — at least until athletes compete outside their home countries and start getting tested by other agencies. Check out the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency site, and you can see how often athletes are being tested. (Katie Ledecky, the most dominant female athlete today, has already been tested 11 times this year.) Jamaica, on the other hand, is considerably less comprehensive. Being tested by your home country’s independent agency is an improvement over the days of the inherently conflicted sports federations doing it themselves (“Why, yes — we’ll happily disqualify our top medal contenders!”), but we still have inherent inequalities between the mammoth agencies in big, rich countries and the agencies in smaller countries with less money to spend on pee tests.

But Pielke’s main argument — one absolutely worth weighing — is that drug testing and its sanctions are too arbitrary. They’re not “evidence-based.”

 

One good example: the Prohibited List himself is governed by a process ripe for abuse. That’s a sound argument that bears repeating.

But the flaw here is that he often sees malice where others would simply see limitations. Classic example:

https://twitter.com/RogerPielkeJr/status/857651583441612800

It’s the same problem we see in a lot of media criticism. “Oh, you guys wrote that bad story about New Hanover High School because you all went to Hoggard,” a caller to the Star-News once told our sports staff — none of whom had gone to high school anywhere in Wilmington.

Here’s the problem: Drug testing is not simple.

I once tried to explain this to a fellow journalist. His response: “Yeah, I think zero tolerance is the only way to avoid all that.” In other words, let’s avoid the muddy water by just making everything cut-and-dried.

That’s simply not going to work.

For one thing, we’re going to have cases of substances taken accidentally. Human beings can’t write a code that takes every possibility into account. Suppose we have an Olympic competition in which all the food was cooked with trace amounts of clenbuterol? We’re going to have to apply sound guidelines from the Code and precedent built through case law.

Then we get the stunning proclamation from Pielke — “Education. Doesn’t. Work.” If I were in one of Pielke’s classes at Colorado, I’d be tempted to write that on my final exam and walk out of the room.

He’s basing that on a quote from a WADA survey several years ago. Check the summary, and you find this: “Anti-doping education is a relatively young research field with few examples of best practice.”

Also noteworthy from this study: It’s based on efforts to combat bullying, alcohol, tobacco and social drug use. If Pielke is really suggesting education is useless in all of these efforts, we’re going to need to see much more evidence. (I actually couldn’t find the quote he cites in the report — I’m guessing it was included with some supplemental material that’s no longer there? I’m not going to conclude anything from WADA’s labyrinth of a website.)

In other words — it seems rather odd to accuse anti-doping efforts of not being “evidence-based” and then jump to a whopper of a conclusion based on … very little evidence.

All that said, a lot of Pielke’s recommendations are difficult to argue against:

https://twitter.com/RogerPielkeJr/status/857656653180751872

https://twitter.com/RogerPielkeJr/status/857657027631484930

But again, the devil’s in the details. And those details may have some gray areas that we’re going to have to navigate.

(Naturally, Saturday Night Live‘s site doesn’t have the sketch in which Johnnie Cochran responds to critics saying he’s playing the “race card” by complaining that the O.J. prosecution is playing the “evidence card.”)

 

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Doping: It’s complicated

“Ban the Russians!”

Like “Equal Play, Equal Pay” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” it’s a catchy slogan, but it merits further investigation.

Plenty of columnists have ripped the IOC for allowing any Russian athletes into the 2016 Olympics, arguing that the organizers should’ve issued a blanket ban in the wake of the McLaren report, which unveiled a shadowy state-sanctioned doping and concealment program not seen since the bad old days of East Germany.

The ruling forced each sport’s federation to decide on Russian participation. All track and field athletes, all weightlifters and a handful of others were tossed out.

But others were allowed, and the issue came to the forefront in the Western media not when two Russian men won judo gold, not when three fencers and two shooters won medals for Russia, not even when a Russian in the historically doping-heavy sport of cycling took silver (granted, that just happened this morning), but when American swimmer Lilly King wagged a finger at Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who trains in Southern California but has served one doping suspension and avoided a second in the muddy realm of meldonium tests.

King won their showdown in the pool, a nice feel-good moment for Americans and anti-doping authorities. And that led to this awkward press conference, in which Efimova was asked whether she should be in Rio and King was asked whether Team USA should expel athletes such as Justin Gatlin, who has been twice punished in doping regulations.

The vilification of Efimova didn’t sit well with columnist Alan Abrahamson, one of the few Olympic writers who pays attention to Olympic sports outside the Olympics.

Efimova, now 24, is a four-time breaststroke world champion. She is the 2012 bronze medalist in the women’s 200m breast. She has trained at the University of Southern California; indeed, she moved to Southern California in her late teens. This means many things, among them: She has submitted to American drug testing.

Abrahamson goes on to compare Efimova’s suspension to that of U.S. swimmer Jessica Hardy, who used the “tainted supplement” defense to get a reduced suspension, come back to win medals and appear in chocolate milk ads. But Efimova, he says, is somehow beyond redemption.

You have someone whose English was — and remains — not great, who when she bought a tainted supplement at GNC was in her early 20s, who relied on a friendly American clerk to help her — and now she’s depicted as a world-class villain?

AP columnist John Leicester also saw the gray areas.

Foolish, then, but not Lance Armstrong.

The arbitrators noted that Efimova impressed them “as sincere and honest and appropriately remorseful for her mistake. She did not seek to blame others for her rule violation and she accepted responsibility for her actions.”

These all-important nuances got drowned in the Olympic pool.

Meldonium is tricky. It was added to the banned substance list Jan. 1. Then a lot of Russians and a handful of people from other countries — including one American (see below) — tested positive. WADA ruled that trace amounts lingering from pre-Jan. 1 usage would not be punished, and that’s why Efimova is in the Games.

You can make a counterargument on Efimova. You can say she was reckless with supplements a few years ago. You can also argue that all these meldonium users knew they were cheating before WADA banned the substance, and you can argue that’s a second strike that should keep Efimova out of the Games. Legally, I doubt that argument would stand up (in fact, it didn’t — Efimova appealed and was ruled eligible).

Morally? Ethically? Up to you.

How about banning everyone who’s ever run afoul of doping authorities? Tricky.

The Wall Street Journal looked into the issue and counted 11 U.S. athletes who have positive tests in their past. I compared spreadsheets and came up with 11 names:

Screenshot 2016-08-10 at 10.58.34 AM

The first pattern you’ll notice is that there is no pattern. That brings us to the moral of the story:

Every case is different.

You have LaShawn Merritt, suspended because he failed to realize a “male-enhancement product” included something he can’t take. Most likely not intentional cheating, but not smart by anyone’s account.

Weightlifter Sarah Robles has insisted she was using medication to treat polycystic ovary syndrome. Her suspension ended in time for her to make the team for Rio.

Did you forget about Hope Solo? She received a warning when her medication was flagged.

And notice recreational drugs on the list — if you look at the whole USADA list, you’ll see enough “cannabis” to wonder how many athletes you’ll bump into at a Snoop Dogg or Phish concert.

Do you ban Merritt? Robles? Solo? How about Abby Wambach, who has admitted using recreational drugs during her playing career?

Opinions may vary. These aren’t easy decisions.

But you know damn well that a lot of the people speaking out about Efimova and every Russian judo athlete, sailor or gymnast would scream bloody murder if a U.S. sports hero like Wambach or Robles was banned. (They might concede Gatlin or Merritt because track and field somehow isn’t as inspirational to many in the media.)

And in that sense, Efimova is right. We’re still fighting the Cold War. Because we’re too lazy to get into the nuances or find a new narrative.

 

 

 

How not to hold a press conference, C. Jeter edition

Before the actual soccer started, the most entertaining thing I saw at a 2011 Women’s World Cup venue was a press conference that included one Sepp Blatter and a couple of other dignitaries of varying connections to women’s soccer. They had Steffi Jones, the beloved former German player and president of the organizing committee. They had Tatjana Haenni, head of FIFA women’s competition. And for some reason, they had FIFA executive committee member Worawi Makudi of Thailand.

Blatter artfully deflected questions about his old comments on women’s soccer and revealing clothes, and he declined to tackle the issue of Nigeria’s anti-lesbian purge. But at the very end, someone started to ask Makudi a question, somehow tying it to the tournament at hand but also steering it to recent alle-

Press conference over. Thanks for coming. Enjoy the whateverwurst.

Perhaps that abrupt conclusion was to be expected. The press conference was nearly over, anyway. The people behind the microphones said at the outset they were only going to talk about women’s football, and that question was a sharp tangent. We had managed to make it through 29 minutes or so of legitimate, if not particularly interesting, conversation.

Compare that with the curious case of Carmelita Jeter and Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce.

From Christopher Chavez, who documented yesterday’s press conference (with video): The two sprinters, the reigning world and Olympic champions at 100 meters, sat down for their introduction from the press officer, who also tossed them the usual opportunities to speak a little. Then the press officer said there would be no questions about the doping issues that have hit the USA and Jamaica, their home countries, in recent days.

The first question, barely audible on the video, was rather innocuous. The second question, addressed to Fraser-Pryce, was about how the Jamaican team was dealing with the distraction of the doping issues.

The press officer snapped that the question was out of bounds. Reporters asked why. Then Jeter said bye-bye. So did Fraser-Pryce. So reporters got one question before the walkout.

For his part, reporter Simon Hart of the Telegraph is hardly apologetic.

And he’ll defend his right to ask the questions:

Check around on Twitter, and you’ll see Jeter has plenty of enablers telling her she did the right thing. That’s a nice reflection of how much people respect journalists these days and adore celebrities, even celebrities a vast majority of people don’t know.

The bottom line: She had an opportunity to show grace and determination at a difficult time in her sport’s history. Instead, she came across as petty and defensive. Casual fans — which would describe most track and field fans in the USA, despite my best efforts to get you all to read the Woly Awards and everything else I posted in 10 years at USA TODAY — would look at that video and think she has something to hide.

Maybe if she had at least waited until, say, an actual doping question was actually addressed to her?

Sorry we’re late, Adam — here’s your gold medal

Those of you who complain about drug-testing authorities going back and stripping away most of Lance Armstrong’s career accomplishments should enjoy seeing the other side of the process: U.S. shot putter Adam Nelson is now the gold medalist in the Athens (2004) Olympics, thanks to a re-test of Yuriy Bilonog’s thawed urine. That sequence of events sounds more archaeological than medical, but the IOC has acted to reassign the medals.

One irony here: In 2004, Adam Nelson had one of the funniest stories about USADA out-of-competition testing. Who knew my hometown of Athens (Georgia, not Greece) was such a party town?

So Nelson gets the medal. But he can never re-create the medal ceremony from ancient Olympia, surely the most amazing atmosphere for a shot put competition in the last millennium or two.

But with a little creativity, sponsors can make up for the marketing opportunities he missed. Maybe Nelson can be at line at the DMV: “You think this is a long wait? I waited eight years to get my gold medal!” Or he could stand alone at Olympia humming the national anthem to himself. Or a shoddy delivery service can hand him a beat-up package with a medal inside, and Nelson can say the IOC should’ve used FedEx.

Maybe combine generations in an ad. It’s about time something impressed McKayla.

Lance Armstrong’s legacy falling like Berlin Wall

At what point does Lance Armstrong go from a being an inspirational figure to a sympathetic one?

Six months ago, Armstrong was comfortably in the USA’s firmament of sports heroes. He had parlayed his Tour de France championships and triumph over cancer into an assortment of lucrative business deals and a reputation as one of the country’s leading cancer-fighters. Of the people whose names are synonymous with cancer organizations — Susan Komen, Jim Valvano — he’s the one who’s still with us, ready to speak about his experience.

Sure, he had critics. But they were mostly shouted down, scorned or sometimes silenced in court.

Then the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said it was checking into Armstrong’s past. And Armstrong scoffed, confident that his business partners and the sports community as a whole would stick with him. After losing a round in court, he wiped his hands and figured he didn’t even need to fight the case against him. Maybe he couldn’t? No one knew for sure.

When USADA released its colossal evidence against Armstrong, he shrugged it off again. Great times coming up at Livestrong, he reminded everyone on Twitter.

Aside from the media reaction, nothing tangible happened at first. Then, everything fell. It was like everyone in East Berlin suddenly realizing that the guards were no longer at the Berlin Wall. The official bulwarks — in Armstrong’s case, Livestrong and his many commercial partners — fell away. And journalists, many of whom had suspicions for years but no proof, felt free at last to heap scorn upon Armstrong.

Today, Lance Armstrong is officially the seven-time Tour champion no longer, stripped by international cycling authorities who seem to believe every bit of evidence except the bits that implicate them as well. Given the depth of doping scandals within cycling over Armstrong’s decade of wins, many titles will simply sit vacant. There’s no point in “promoting” anyone to the Tour title when the other cyclists either had doping issues of their own or were never put under the same scrutiny to which USADA put Armstrong.

And Armstrong has lost the last of his endorsement deals. A few days ago, he had tens of millions in future earnings. Today, that’s all gone.

Other people and organizations are feeling the ripple effect. In the D.C. area, some people want to hear from Post columnist Sally Jenkins, Armstrong’s co-author and staunch defender a few short weeks ago. Former Armstrong teammate Levi Leipheimer will be telling his story in a documentary and panel discussion. And will we ever see the lovely Tour de France the same way?

But at the heart of it all is a giant now toppled. Just 12 days ago, he said he was “unaffected.” How different he must feel today.

Livestrong’s legacy and Lance Armstrong

A thoughtful espnW roundtable on Lance Armstrong raised a good question: How valuable is Livestrong, anyway?

(One question needs to be addressed: One participant says people might see Livestrong Park and wonder where the funds are going. But unless the reporting is wrong, the funds are going to other way.)

The roundtable links to this Outside magazine story from earlier in the year that questioned a lot of Livestrong’s practices, from its strong-arm approach to the media to the nebulous emphasis on “awareness.” The latter is turning into a hot topic in cancer charities these days — is it time to put away the ribbons and pick up some lab microscopes?

But the Outside piece, while occasionally blunt, is fair. It doesn’t shy away from the good that Livestrong has done.

The more official watchdogs — Charity Navigator, Charity Watch and the Better Business Bureau — give Livestrong good grades.

Then you get to the intangibles. How many people were inspired by Armstrong’s recovery? How many people found hope through Livestrong?

Time will tell if any of those intangibles translate to numbers.

Lance Armstrong case: Because you have no plans this evening

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has a long release about the Lance Armstrong investigation at its site.

But wait, there’s more.

The evidence of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team-run scheme is overwhelming and is in excess of 1000 pages, and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with knowledge of the US Postal Service Team (USPS Team) and its participants’ doping activities. The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding. …

All of the material will be made available later this afternoon on the USADA website at http://www.usada.org.

So … shall we each take 100 pages and meet back here?

Cycling vs. Floyd Landis: Can Swiss court really tell him what to say?

Guess which of the following Floyd Landis is explicitly forbidden to say about the UCI (cycling’s international federation), Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen, according to a Swiss court ruling (pardon the profanity):

  1. They’ve taken bribes.
  2. They delayed publication of a positive test by Alberto Contador.
  3. They burned LiveStrong bracelets at a cocktail party.
  4. They concealed doping cases.
  5. They’re terrorists.
  6. They’re just like Gaddafi.
  7. They’re responsible for the international economy crashing.
  8. They’re bigger than Jesus.
  9. They load the dice.
  10. They stack the deck.
  11. They’re full of shit.
  12. They have no regard for the rules.

Correct answer: All but 3, 7, 8 and 10. See the ruling for yourself.

Now guess where Landis has to publish a retraction of claims against the UCI and others at his own expense — it doesn’t specify standard ad rate or advertorial deal.

  1. The Wall Street Journal
  2. USA TODAY
  3. The Onion
  4. L’Equipe
  5. Le Temps (Switzerland)
  6. NYVelocity.com
  7. Velo News
  8. Cycling News
  9. De Volksrant (Netherlands)
  10. Velonation

Correct answer: All but USA TODAY and The Onion.

We’d need a lawyer to tell us if, say, NYVelocity.com is compelled to take a Landis retraction. That’s not an idle question. NYVelocity is taking up a defense fund for journalist Paul Kimmage, who faces a similar suit in Swiss court.

“But the only cyclist I know is Lance Armstrong,” you say. “What does this mean to him?”

It means that you might want to be careful about accusing the UCI of covering up a positive test for Armstrong. So in a tangential sense, it’s a “win” for Armstrong, but a slight one.

Landis did not contest the case. Kimmage’s case is due in court in December.

Can any lawyers tell us what Switzerland plans to do if Landis decides paying back the “Floyd Fairness Fund” donations are a higher priority than paying for ads in all these publications?

Why anti-doping efforts come across as heavy-handed

Three Irishmen competed in a tug of war event in July. In the midst of it, they grabbed something to drink.

Turns out the drink included a supplement that had a banned substance.

“We didn’t know,” the athletes said, “but we won’t challenge this case or demand that our B samples be tested.”

“Thanks for your cooperation,” the Irish Sport Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel said. “Because you didn’t know about the supplement and you did everything you were supposed to do after testing positive, we’ll only suspend you for 18 months.”

Seriously?

If they had clearly gained a competitive advantage and won a million dollars, then by all means, invalidate that result. We have precedent for this: Alain Baxter lost a medal for an accidental doping violation but was only suspended for a couple of events.

So does this punishment serve any purpose?

Three Irish Tug Of War Athletes Fail Doping TestsBalls.ie via Trapit.

Why Lance Armstrong isn’t done with international authorities yet

The short answer: Because his associates’ cases are still active.

And that leads to this:

Translation of Travis Tygart’s interview with L’Équipe « Tour De José.

A few highlights:

– Travis Tygart talks about USADA’s reaction to death threats.

– Again, Tygart says Armstrong could’ve made things a lot easier by cooperating.

– Statute of limitations? Not so simple.

– The L’Equipe interviewer thinks the federal investigation into Armstrong must have stopped because it’s an election year. What?