Sunday, 18 May 2014

how do we eliminate doping in sport?

I wrote the following post as a guest-post for journalist Ollie Wiliams' great site Frontier Sports last year.  I thought I might update it based on the recent controversies surrounding bans for sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell.  


With the ongoing issues in American professional sport, recent IAAF retroactive testing – and subsequent banning and ‘re-gifting’ of the sullied medals – as well as the high-profile positive tests - and subsequent bans - of the second and fourth-fastest 100m sprinters of all time in Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, the never-ending battle between testers and dopers continues to dominate our world.

No matter the advances in testing, the doping battle remains in lock-step. The testers devise better testing technology at just about the same rate as athletes devise better strategies to avoid it. The headlines are no different now than when Victor Conte was relevant.
The names change (sometimes). The details change. But the headlines remain. For all the advances, for all the money spent, for all the words: we are treading water. At what point are we going to say, “That’s enough, this is not working. Anyone else have any ideas?”
Because, you know what? There are tons of folk out there with great ideas. But instead, we continue down the same path of Einsteinian Insanity. And with the coming onset of gene doping, it’s not going to get any easier.

So, how do we eliminate doping in sport?

I’ll tell you how: We can’t. Cheating is in our nature. Athletes are going to cheat.
In fact, “the idea of stimulating the body’s performance with all manner of concoctions is as old as mankind. The Inca chewed coca leaves to pep them up when doing strenuous work. Nordic warriors munched mushrooms before going into battle to dull the inevitable pain. Ancient Olympians chomped opium, among other things, to give them a competitive edge.” - The Economist, Q1 2012.

And not only has cheating been around since the inception of organized sport, it is actually hard-wired into us. 
In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely writes that despite thinking we are all honest, we in fact all cheat. We all lie. This doesn’t, though “stop us from thinking we’re wonderful, honest people. We’ve become very good at justifying our dishonest behaviors so that, at the end of the day, we feel good about who we are … cheating has less to do with personal gain than it does with self-perception.”

The problem is that anti-doping agencies don’t take into account this protective self-deception. Instead, they assume the athlete who cheats is a rational being that simply chooses to ignore the current code of conduct. You cannot control dishonesty with more stringent laws, improved policing, and increased deterrents, for the original decision is not a rational one.
I remember a famous Sports Illustrated expose in the 1990s that spoke of the difficulty:
A scenario, from a 1995 poll of 198 sprinters, swimmers, powerlifters and other assorted athletes, most of them US Olympians or aspiring Olympians:
You are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance, with two guarantees:
1) You will not be caught. 2) You will win.
Would you take the substance?
One hundred and ninety-five athletes said yes; three said no.
Scenario II: You are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance that comes with two guarantees:
1) You will not be caught. 2) You will win every competition you enter for the next five years, and then you will die from the side effects of the substance. Would you take it?
More than half the athletes said yes.

Add to this the societal pressures that often override personal choice in many poor and/or corrupt countries, and the entirely logical decision for some athletes to dope in search for a better life for themselves or their families, and it is easy to see why this battle remains at best a stalemate.

So maybe we need to formulate a new question. A better understanding of why athletes dope is necessary. A better understanding of effective deterrence is necessary. A better understanding of societal cynicism, corruption, and desperation is necessary.
In the meantime, what can we do better today? What steps can be taken immediately to close the gap between dopers and testers?

I will discuss three: 

1. Improve the testing

2. Change the penalty 
3. Involve the athletes

Improve the testing
There are two primary reasons why drug-testers are keeping up with the dopers right now: 1) improved testing technology, and 2) increased reliance on investigation and intelligence.
The advent of the biological passport and carbon isotope ratio testing is a significant advancement to the technology available to the testers. Problem is, they are both extremely expensive, and are not used often enough.
According to Alan Abrahamson: “The IAAF … authorized 97 such cutting-edge tests (CIR) last year; 35 were out-of- competition and turned up no positives; 62 were done in-meet, when ordinary tests would likely turn up nothing; nine of the 62 came back positive. Using the carbon-isotope test raised the return rate in track and field to 5.75 percent overall … and to 4.97 percent in cycling … The Thai Weightlifting Federation performed an out-of-competition test on 26 weightlifters; 25, or 96.2 percent, came back positive, according to the WADA report.

Also – drug-testing agencies are increasingly taking a proactive stance against doping, rather than the traditional reactive method of devising tests for drugs that are already found in the system. USADA alone has spent over $50m on anti-doping research in an attempt to predict the new drugs that tomorrow’s athletes may be taking.
But for all advancements in testing technology, it is the increased reliance on investigation and intelligence that shows the most promise going forward. It’s what brought down BALCO. Biogenesis. Armstrong. The Australian links with organized crime. And it promises to be the driver in bringing down any other organized ‘support’ networks that are frequented by doping athletes – professional and amateur alike, including - we can assume - the recent case with Tyson Gay, and his controversial short ban.
Because such things are investigated by government agencies, local and national policing departments, funding is much easier. But it is imperative that our national and international anti-doping agencies partner with these investigations.
Australia was the first country to standardize this in its anti-doping program in 2006. Many others are following suit -some going so far as to rely on law enforcement completely. Former USATF CEO Doug Logan has grown weary: “Regrettably, I now conclude we should give up this fight and bring the troops home. Leave the regulation of drugs to governments and their law enforcement auspices. Dismantle the drug constabulary, the ‘ah dahs’ of this world; USADA [US Anti Doping Agency], WADA [World Anti Doping Agency], and all the others.”

I personally feel a single, international anti-doping agency (such as WADA) that oversees all anti-doping efforts worldwide could streamline this process massively - opening up far more efficiency and increased funding.
Currently, anti-doping efforts are undertaken by at least 10 types of organization, including national anti-doping organizations, Olympic international federations, national federations, and national Olympic committees. Add to this the myriad anti-doping efforts of professional sports, and it seems like there are far too many players, with differing levels of expertise, interest, and scope.

A single world-wide organization would reduce or eliminate the number of potentially corrupt authorities, Agencies like the Russian lab responsible for testing at both last year’s IAAF World Championships and the recent Sochi Winter Olympic Games require protection from corruption - only possible if an independent authority was responsible for its business.
Clearly, Russian anti-doping efforts have been stepped up – RUSADA tested more athletes than any other national anti-doping agency in the world last year; more than three times as many as USADA in the United States – but if those responsible for the handling and testing of samples can be corrupted, all tests are for nought.
If we improve the testing, and continue down the path of investigation and intelligence, will that be enough to eradicate – or at least significantly diminish – doping? 

Probably not. 

We have to ask serious questions about why athletes dope, and whether bans are deterrence enough. 

If not, what can we do?

Change the penalty
First of all, let me get this out in the open: lifetime bans do not work. At least, not as a deterrent.

Yes - they punish the individual who cheated, but it is near-sighted; it is not helping the long-term fight. It is not a viable long-term strategy in eradicating doping in sport.
Even WADA president John Fahey is critical, stating that simply getting tough on the cheats serves to reinforce the code of silence within the sport. 

At the present moment, what sane athlete would come forward?

A perfect example is Dwain Chambers. Chambers can barely squeak out a living bouncing from small competition to small competition. His Diamond League ban has been lifted to an extent, but he has a total of zero sponsors. Meanwhile, those who take the traditional route of 'deny-deny-deny' come straight out of their ban and immediately into the high-profile and big-money Diamond League. What athlete in their right mind would help the authorities after seeing what has happened to Chambers?

Zero tolerance is a death penalty. It doesn’t work as a crime deterrent, and it doesn't work as a doping deterrent. The anti-doping leaders know this: Fahey – and Dick Pound before him – were both clear on this issue, feeling it would be counter-productive in the long term. Lifetime bans are, for one, too distant and too unlikely to merit much attention from an athlete, and for two, totally eliminate even the smallest chance of the banned athlete stepping forward to assist in the fight retroactively.

Instead, offer lenience to those athletes that choose to admit to their mistakes. Those who choose to help the ‘Ah Dahs’ in their efforts. After Chambers was caught, instead of playing the blame-game, or the denial-game, he chose to come forward. He provided information on his entire drug protocol. He named names, gave dates, drug details, clearance times, etc. He went into classrooms to warn children about the dangers of trying to cheat the system. He truly became a role model for thousands. Yes – his mistake was big, but what 22 year-old would turn down the chance at big money, fame, and sporting success when it lay there at their feet? According to the Sports Illustrated article – not many!

It’s a complex problem in a complex society. Rather than the overly reductionist and simplistic logic that many of sport’s leaders have publicized (thereby influencing thousands more), we need to acknowledge the difficulty of the process: commit to serious study of deterrence without being clouded by emotion.

Absolute purity is a fantasy.

The ultimate answer lies in education, communication and engagement with the athletes themselves. We all want the same thing – athletes, coaches, the public, and the testers: to believe once again in clean and fair competition. 

This is not a battle.

Involve the athletes
We need to better understand the conditions that produce athletes who dope, and this begins with the athletes themselves.
“You’ve pushed the responsibility of compliance solely onto the athlete, but you’ve never engaged the athlete in real dialogue about the best ways to address this problem. Don’t see us as the problem. See us as the solution! Engage!
“You have created rules without the input from a broad group of neither athletes nor an independent athletes’ association. You have created rules that facilitate your mission statement without consideration for the population you are testing. As a result, your tests suck and those you are trying to protect don’t appreciate the service you think you provide.” 
Adam Nelson

So – in Nelson’s spirit – I asked around. I asked a number of coaches and athletes why they think athletes used performance-enhancing drugs. A common response was voiced by Todd Hays – Olympic silver medallist, and now head coach of the United States women’s bobsled team: “The number one reason why athletes dope is because they assume all their competitors are doping”. 

I tend to agree.

This has been a catalyst for impressionable young athletes – and coaches – for decades. The tipping point for me was the words of Charlie Francis, who, in 1991 at the Dubin Inquiry into PED use in track and field in Canada (most famously Ben Johnson), stated that everyone was doping. In fact, doping was just “levelling the playing field”, and not doping would be akin to setting up your starting blocks a meter behind the line.

Problem is, this isn’t even close to being true. But an entire generation of young sprinters and coaches – not only in Canada, but worldwide – took his words as gospel, and so the defeatist-insecure, cheat-to-win mentality that still exists in track and field to some extent today was perpetuated.

It was the same argument given by Victor Conte to dozens of athletes in the 90s – convincing these young men and women that “everyone else was doing it”, and “they don’t test what we give you anyway”.
Increasingly though, a new generation is rising from the ashes of Francis, Johnson, BALCO et al, with a new belief. Many athletes – increasingly frustrated with their sport – are taking a more active role in education, direction, and perception.
A story of a loudmouth on a plane, relayed by American 400m runner DeeDee Trotter, chronicles this attitude:
“This guy was reading the newspaper and he said, ‘Oh, they’re all on drugs.’ I turned around and said, ‘Hey, excuse me, I’m sorry, but that’s not true. I’m a professional athlete and Olympic gold medallist, and I’m not on drugs. I’ve never even considered it.’ It really upset me that it’s perceived that way – that if she runs fast, then she’s on drugs. I hated that and I gave him a little attitude.”
Trotter has since created the Test Me, I’m Clean Foundation giving athletes an opportunity to defend themselves. You will see many athletes (including Olympic champion and 110m hurdles world record-holder Aries Merritt) compete  with white rubber bracelets on their wrists, emblazoned with their motto. Trotter explains: “It means that I am a clean athlete. I do this with hard work, honesty and honor. I don’t take any outside substances.”

Shot-putter Adam Nelson has spoken out against drug use, as he only just recently received his long-deserved gold medal from the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, stolen from him by Yuriy Bilonog. The Ukrainian tested positive for a banned steroid via retroactive IOC re-testing that uncovered four other athletes who ‘won’ their medals unfairly.  
Nelson opines: “I don’t place blind faith in any one person. I research it. I also know my limitations. If I don’t understand a supplement, then I won’t take it.”

With the recent bans of Powell and Gay, and the apparent roles of their ‘support networks’, more and more athletes are starting to get the message that education is crucial. Blind faith in therapists, nutritionists, doctors, and even coaches is too risky a proposition. For a seemingly well-intentioned athlete like Gay (who was one of the first to raise his hand for the biological passport program in 2007), the risk of trusting someone new can be costly.
Others take an even more hard-line approach, and refuse to take any supplements at all. Sprinter Lauryn Williams for example, on my blog last year, said: “I just choose not to count on anyone but me.”

In 2001, an athlete I coached – American bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic – tested positive for nandrolone. Like many, prior to Pavle’s adverse finding, I assumed all athletes that were turning out positive nandrolone tests were dopers. 

Turns out, I was wrong. Turns out I was uneducated. 

Turns out, almost 20% of all supplements on the market at the time could have led to positive tests. 

Turns out, the supplement industry was one of the most unregulated industries in the world, to the extent that the most unscrupulous among them would often lace their products with pro-hormones in the race with other companies for consumer dollars. 

Turns out, that hundreds of athletes got burned this way – including Pavle – despite the best intentions of athlete and coach.

NGBs, IFs, and anti-doping authorities have clearly not done enough to educate the athletes. It has gotten better since 2001 – no doubt. But when Tyson Gay can go down for taking supplements given to him by an anti-aging ‘doctor’, clearly the educational initiatives are not working. How many more could have made the same mistake?

It’s one of the reasons why a group of athletes – led by Nelson – has begun a pseudo-union for athletes. Called the Track and Field Athletes Association, its primary roles involve educating the athletes, and helping to professionalize the sport.

Hopefully other athletes will get the message that success does not lie in the bottom of a syringe, or in a tube of cream. And hopefully, athletes, managers, and shoe companies can come together more proactively and make decisions together driven solely by what is best for the athlete. We need to stop rewarding coaches, managers, agents, and even countries that have repeatedly been involved with doping athletes and programs.

“As a federation, we were either ignorant, stupid or were avoiding the issue. Even today, coaches who had drug cases when they were athletes are earning a living. Athletes employ these coaches despite — or maybe because of — their drug- riddled past.” Doug Logan

What it really all comes down to is ethics and integrity.
The longer we are involved in sports, the more opportunities there will be to challenge our belief systems. We must hold strong to these beliefs, because chances are – if you’re good enough – someone may just make you an offer...

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  1. Really great article. Very well thought and articulated. I have some thoughts and some questions about it. Concerning athletes who inadvertently ingest some banned substances, it's really hard to find excuses for such a recklessness. There is 2 cases. Either the name of the banned substance appears on the label. Then it's unconceivable. Either you know what you're doing either you are immensely stupid. When I was 17, I just started T&F and didn't know anything about PED's. Someone gave me a supplement and told me that it would help me. The first thing I did is to watch the label. After some research, and there was no internet at that time I just bought a book with the list of forbidden substances, I found the supplement contained a form of stimulant. At 17 with no internet. So I see no excuse for Gay. He should get the full 2 years ban. At his place I would feel so embarassed by my own lack of professionalism, not to say stupidity, that I would ask a 4 year ban. It's a very serious professional fault.

    The other case is when the supplement is contaminated (the banned substance doesn't appear on the label). In that case I really wonder if the coach do his job. I mean his athlete go and see a doctor or a therapist that the coaching staff doesn't care. That seems really unreasonable. It's not very professional. Coaches should make it clear to their athlete. If you go and see someone else then you're not part of the training group anymore.

    I wonder why the ha Da's don't test those supplement or give the athletes the opportunity to send them there supplements to see if they are in accordance with the regulation. The ha Da's would publish a list of tested supplements that the athletes could take safely. That would save a lot of trouble. One should even think of an WADA certified supplements. The company would pay a WADA certification. It's a win-win-win situation, for the athletes, for the sports and for the company.

    Finally, the perceived "they're all cheating" is a little less important now than it used to be I think. At least in track and field. With the internet, a lot informations about athletes performance progression over the year are available. Their training program are also available to the public. We can even watch their work out. So when a young athlete ask me the question if they are all cheating, I can at least show them the difference in training volume of athletes that were on something during the 80's or 90's and some other high level athlete with a much lower volume of training. Even though that's not a definitive answer but just a hint, the difference so important that it make sense to them. Actually I was part of the people who thought that they were all cheating.

    PS : I hope Lauryn Williams will get the gold medal she deserve one day.

  2. Well gee, the athletes on the plane said he's not doping and no athlete has ever lied about doping only to finally admit that they were using when the evidence became overwhelming so clearly that anecdote means something.

    Hint: sarcasm.

    The best way to combat doping in sports is to just legalize everything and be done with it. You'll never stop it so you might as well hold the all drug games and just move the fuck on.

    1. We should do the same thing with corruption. Let's legalized it since it happens anyway. Ho wait I have a brilliant idea : what about legalizing murder too since it happens anyway no matter what we do. We tried for millenia but it's still there. Actually now I'm very inspired, I'm thinking about more that a couple of thing we should legalize since it will always exist. Thanks for sharing your well thought analysis.

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