November 22, 2004

Dick Pound Stays On at WADA

This isn't meant to be my diary of doping news, and I hope it doesn't turn out that way. But there was some news from the World Anti-Doping Agency yesterday, and that gives me an excuse to write about WADA in the bigger picture.

The lead item in the Canadian media (e.g. The Globe and Mail) was that WADA chairman Dick Pound was re-elected for another three-year term. Mr. Pound has been WADA chairman since the inception of the organization. He was unopposed. In the rest of the world, the story ran under headlines announcing a budget increase of 1.5M USD for 2005.

There were other announcements from WADA, including the election of a new vice-chairman, the formation of an athletes' working committee, and the accreditation of a new testing laboratory.

WADA's Law-And-Order Approach

WADA was created with several "objects" in its charter, among them to reinforce ethical principles, protect the health of athletes, and develop education and prevention programmes. Mostly, though, the agency spends its time and money promoting tougher and more consistent rules and more vigorous enforcement. Mr. Pound himself seems to favour this get-tough approach. He is at his most enthusiastic when he is discussing the crime-and-punishment aspects of his anti-doping work, and he has been criticized at times for making public accusations or even threats of punishment without proof.

The Goldman Survey

Whenever the subject of drugs in sport comes up, you are almost certain to hear about Robert Goldman's survey of elite athletes. Goldman published the results in his book Death in the Locker Room II: Drugs and Sports (1992, Elite Sports Medicine Publications). The most-cited result is often used to demonstrate that high-performance athletes will do anything to win. Goldman asked athletes if they would take a one-time dose of an undetectable substance that would guarantee victory in every competition, if the consequence was certain death at the end of five years. According to Goldman, more than 50% (103 out of 198) said that they would.

The survey itself has never been submitted to a peer review, and has never been published. It is unlikely that Goldman's methods would stand up to scientific scrutiny, and the 50% number is vigorously disputed by other experts. The result, unfortunately, has attained the status of an urban legend.

The WADA web site contains numerous references to a "fight against doping in sport." I can't help but be reminded of the War On Drugs. That "War" has also led to numerous get-tough measures, including mandatory minimum sentencing and so-called three-strikes laws. So the question this raises in my mind is: are stiffer penalties and tougher enforcement going to win the fight against doping?

Currently, although WADA is still working towards a uniform drug code across all sports in all countries, the basic penalties for doping are a two-year ban from competition for a first offense, and a lifetime ban from competition for a second offense. There are variations depending on the substance detected, but these are the usual punishments for the most severe infractions. On top of this, results can be annulled if a positive test occurs in competition (and sometimes even when it doesn't).

The Goldman survey (see box inset) is sometimes used to support the claim that even the most severe penalties can have no deterrent value. Flaws in the study aside, I am not sure that this logic is sound. What the Goldman results illustrate is that for some elite athletes, sporting glory is more important than almost anything else. The guarantee of getting away with the drug use is a key factor that is sometimes overlooked. More than anything else, the current doping penalities threaten a loss of glory, and that may indeed have a significant deterrent effect. By this logic, the annullment of competition results (medals and world records) is actually a more significant deterrent than any suspension.

On the other hand, my impression is that doping recidivism is pretty high (I haven't been able to find any statistics on this). If true, that would indicate that suspensions don't do much to rehabilitate the offenders. However, they still serve the purpose of removing known cheaters from competition.

Fundamentally, I believe that the majority of athletes, even at the highest levels, are honest, and want to win while playing within the rules. For these athletes the threat of being publicly labelled a cheater is the best deterrent available. There are, of course, a small number who want to win at any cost. I don't know how (or even if) athletes suffering from this "condition" can be treated; banning them from competition is a brutal but effective solution. Of course, you have to catch them first.

Some athletes, slightly apart from the hard-core cheaters, resort to doping because they see cheating around them and believe that they must use drugs in order to level the playing field. WADA can help to eliminate doping in this group, by making them believe that the cheaters are going to get caught. From this point of view, effective testing that catches a very high percentage of cheaters is much more important than the penalties that are handed down.

WADA Aiming at Doctors?

Dick Pound also turned up in this story by Alan Panzieri in the National Post (subscription required) last week. The athletes' commission of the IOC has proposed that athletes should be required to name their personal coach and their doctor on their doping-control forms. Currently, it is a doping offense to prescribe, administer, or encourage use of performance-enhancing substances, but it is usually difficult to link the guilty athlete to the responsible coaches and doctors. The Post story intimates that Pound and WADA would consider the modified form to be an aid to prosecuting those who support and conceal doping.

I realize that a charge of cheating does not carry the same burden of proof as a criminal trial, but personally I think that this strays too far from the principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Pound is quoted in the article as saying that it "strains credulity" to believe that a coach or doctor doesn't know "everything that is going on" with an athlete. Based on my personal experience, it doesn't strain my credulity at all, especially as far as doctors are concerned.

During my years on the national team, Dr. Don McKenzie served as our team doctor. Dr. McKenzie is a staunch opponent of doping and is currently the chair of the ICF medical committee; you could not find a more responsible or ethical doctor in any sport. However, there is no way that Dr. McKenzie could control or take responsibility for the actions of all of the athletes on the team. Had any one of us decided to use a banned substance, it would have been relatively easy to hide it from the doctor. In fact, Dr. McKenzie's well-known stance against doping would have encouraged concealment. And if a cheater found another doctor who was willing to provide advice or drugs, he or she would be unlikely to name that doctor on their doping-control form.

Of course team doctors do have an influence over and a responsibility for the athletes in their care, and crooked doctors are part of the doping problem. But most team doctors don't live with the athletes, and usually don't even see them on a weekly basis unless there is a health concern. In my opinion, a positive dope test provides proof of an athlete's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The culpability of the team doctor, on the other hand, is much less certain. Does your doctor know about everything that you put into your body? Certainly, it would be great if we could catch and punish those doctors that are administering organized doping programs, but we must be careful not to tangle up a large number of innocent doctors in the same net.

November 19, 2004

COC Reviews Selection Criteria

This past weekend, the Canadian Olympic Committee board of directors met in Toronto and began the process of setting the Olympic selection criteria for 2008. I thought that I would take the opportunity to comment on this issue, which received a lot of press this past summer.

For 2004, the COC applied a uniform "top 12" criterion in all non-team sports (team sports were exempt; Canada qualified only in baseball, softball, and women's water polo). That is, an athlete or crew had to demonstrate the ability to achieve a top twelve finish in their event at the Olympics. In many cases, this is significantly tougher than the qualification standards set by the international federations (IFs) in their respective sports.

The end result was that some athletes who had met their IF qualification standard were not quite good enough to make the Canadian team. Understandably, this caused some anger among the athletes. Top officials at some of Canada's national sport federations (NSFs), who had to apply the top 12 criterion in selecting their Olympic teams, were also unhappy.

Against Top 12

It wasn't difficult to find people who thought that top 12 was a bad idea this August. Some stories survive on the web:

Calgary Herald
The Link
Before, during, and after the Games, the media and many sports advocacy organizations picked up on these voices of dissent, and came down hard on the COC (examples inset). Personally, I'm a supporter of the top 12 criteria, and I think that the arguments put against it are either one-sided or just plain wrong. Here's my rebuttal to the usual arguments.
"Top 12 is unfair"
In the weeks before the Games started, there were two very well-written and personal articles posted on Runner's Web: one by Bruce Deacon, and another by Nicole Stevenson. These are two of Canada's top marathon runners. Canada was not represented in either Olympic marathon.

These two editorials typify the athlete's response to the COC standard; "If I'm the best in Canada, I should be at the Olympics; it isn't fair to set a tougher standard." This argument seems reasonable on its face, especially to the general public. However, I think that applying a uniform and tough standard is actually more fair than ceding the decision to the IFs.

For the 2004 marathon, the IF for athletics (the IAAF) raised the qualifying times and publicly encouraged national Olympic committees to send participants to Athens. This was designed to enlarge the field for the marathons, which of course have their historical roots in Greece. Williams picked up on Stevenson's story, in particular, and became one of her most prominent supporters. He stated several times on CBC television that the COC's refusal to send Stevenson was disgraceful.

What Williams and other journalists don't consider is whether this would have been fair to other Canadian athletes. Would it be fair to make an exception for the marathon, while other track and field athletes are left home for being unable to meet a tougher standard?

Similarly, would it be fair to allow a top 40 trap shooter to go to Athens, when the IF for rowing has set their field size much smaller? Sometimes different IFs set very different criteria. The top 12 standard allows the COC to ensure that athletes from different sports have to meet similar standards. That's only fair.

There is one important aspect of the top 12 standard which is unfair, and that is that it will not be applied to the 2006 Winter Olympic Games. If the top 12 standard is supported for the summer athletes as part of a broader plan to improve performance, then why shouldn't it be applied for winter athletes, too?

"Participation is what's important"
Many newspapers, and some athlete advocacy organizations, made the argument that Canada should send as many athletes as they are allowed to send to the Olympics, because participation — not performance — is what's important.

There are many people in Canada who actually believe this, and I can understand that point of view. On the other hand, there are many others, particularly in the media, who want to have it both ways. They espouse participation and the "Olympic experience," but are first in line to criticize the Canadian sport system when Canada doesn't win lots of medals at the Olympics.

The top 12 standard was instituted by the COC as part of a bigger plan to achieve better performances at the Olympics. It is fair to criticize the COC for having the wrong goal, if that is what you believe. It is also fair to criticize this particular strategy as a means of achieving that goal. It is not fair, however, to criticize the goal and then to condemn the COC when the Olympic teams perform poorly.

"Top 12 stifles development"

Some critics have argued that the top 12 standard actually hinders athletes from making it to the elite level. The argument goes like this; a young but promising athlete, not able to make the top 12 cut, is denied an opportunity to compete at the Olympics. Without the opportunity to appear on the big stage, the young athlete's development is slowed or perhaps cut off altogether.

If true, then this would mean that the COC policy is actually going to contribute to poorer team performance at future Olympics. Although there is some logic to this argument, it is (as far as I know) unsupported by any analysis. Personally, I think that the positive effects of this kind of experience are overstated; but more study of this issue is required. So, I am going to do some, and I will post the results here when it is complete. It is possible that there is a case to be made here.

"Top 12 didn't work"
Of course, Canada won only 12 medals at the 2004 Olympics. Many people, after the fact, will look at the medal table and conclude that the top 12 standard did not "work" in 2004. A closer look, however, reveals that the Canadian team was, in some ways, the best team that ever represented Canada. Canadians achieved more top 12 finishes and more top 8 finishes than ever before. It is not clear why this improved performance did not translate into an increased number of medals. I have some thoughts on this matter, and I am working on pulling some data together. It does deserve some more investigation.

In some cases the tough selection process is being used as an explanation for sub-par performances in Athens. For example, the swimming team did not perform well. Critics have noted that the final qualification opportunity was only five weeks before the Games, and that athletes who peaked for qualification had an unavoidable letdown in Athens. This probably is part of the reason for the poor performance in the pool, but I think that the root of this failure is poor management of the selection process. The timing of the selection events is partially in the control of the NSFs, and it is up to them to adjust their season schedule so that athletes can have the best possible preparation.

At any rate, as many people have pointed out in their criticisms of the policy, the application of a top 12 standard by itself cannot really be expected to lead to better performances. Cutting out the weakest athletes from the team will not logically improve the performances of the strongest athletes. What it does do, however, is allow a concentration of resources on those athletes with the best chances at medals. It reduced the cost of sending the Olympic team to Athens, which allows the COC to spend more money on the best of the best. This is one component of an overall shift towards a committment to high performance by the COC.

November 17, 2004

Swim Canada Continues Shake-Up

Swim Canada has been under a lot of pressure to make changes since the poor performance at the 2004 Games. And the performance was poor, although it's simplistic and unfair to just keep trotting out the "no medals" mantra.

This past weekend's annual general meeting is being widely reported as some kind of failure of nerve because "only" three of seven members of the board of directors were replaced.

Replacing three of seven board members is actually a huge change; I don't really know what more the members were hoping for. I hope that at least a few of the cowardly former swimmers who called for a housecleaning during the Games put their money where their mouths are and stood for election.

In September, Swim Canada fired 12-year head coach Dave Johnson; they're also searching for a new director general and a new national team director. Altogether, that's a major purge, and a very real opportunity for a fresh start.

I have served for four years as a volunteer for one of Canada's most successful NSFs, and briefly with the COC, and I'll tell you my impression of Swim Canada from here; it's an overweight organization with bitter internal politics and unclear long-term goals. The national body doesn't get along with the provinces, or the clubs, or the universities, and for the most part they don't get along with each other either. The poor performance in Athens stimulated a lot of unproductive whining, but could also provide an impetus for significant change. If they get the right people in charge, there is no reason why Canada can't again be a significant player in high performance swimming. But it's going to be a lot of work.

November 16, 2004

Doping News

Too much news about doping in the last couple of weeks.

BALCO Sprinters Granted Delay

Hearings at the Court of Arbitration for Sport for Tim Montgomery and Chryste Gains have been postponed until June and July, respectively. Gains and Montgomery have been charged with doping offenses by the U.S. anti-doping agency, and both face lifetime bans if found guilty. The interesting twist here is that neither athlete tested positive. Both are being charged based on evidence obtained during the BALCO investigation.

While watching the 2004 Olympics on CBC, I was often exasperated by Brian Williams' poor grasp of the facts. This news story reminded me of one particular instance. Williams stated several times that U.S. sprinter Kelli White had been suspended as a result of the BALCO investigation. He seemed to be insinuating that this is somehow unfair treatment, handing down suspensions without a positive test result. In fact, White is currently serving a two-year ban, but tested positive for a stimulant at the 2003 World Championships and has since admitted to using performance-enhancing substances. Her case is certainly linked to the BALCO investigation, but she is not in the same position as Montgomery and others.

Nina Kraft Ashamed ... To Get Caught

German triathlete Nina Kraft, winner of the 2004 Ironman world championship, has been disqualified after a positive test for EPO. Kraft has admitted taking the drug. The world championship title passes to Natascha Badmann (SWI), followed by Heather Fuhr (CAN) and Kate Major (AUS).

Since being caught out, Kraft admits to being ashamed and says that she never really rejoiced in her win. While it is somewhat refreshing that she didn't immediately deny the test result, I don't think that we can find anything particularly admirable in this. In her "charming" victory speech in Hawaii, she apparently went on at length about all her hard work and thanked her coach/boyfriend Martin Malleier for making it possible. Apparently he did support her ... in the decision to start using EPO. Asked about doping in triathlon, she was quoted as saying: "In triathlon there is not so much money that the athlete would turn to doping. It's different from cycling and athletics. I believe that in triathlon one does not dope." I guess she hoped that everybody else would believe it, too.

End of the Jerome Young Story

U.S. sprinter Jerome Young has received a lifetime ban for a second doping offense. Young's drug of choice was also EPO, which is unusual for a 400m specialist. He tested positive for EPO at a meet in July 2004. He has denied using any banned substances, but previously tested positive for nandrolone (a steroid) in 1999.

This has been a very high-profile case. In an outrageous decision, the USOC exonerated Young for his 1999 positive test, allowed him to compete in Sydney (where he won a gold medal in the 4x400m relay), and did not inform the IAAF. The IAAF has since recommended that the gold medal-winning relay team be disqualified. That recommendation (but not Young's lifetime ban) has been challenged by the USOC, and the appeal will be reviewed by the CAS. And lest you feel sorry for the five "innocent" members of that relay team, note that two other members are currently serving suspensions for doping offenses after the fact.

Doping of Non-Humans

Finally, it looks like Germany is going to lose another Olympic equestrian gold. Two of their show jumping horses (Goldfever and Ringwood Cockatoo) have failed their dope tests, as recently confirmed by B sample results. I am not an expert in equestrian sports, but as I read it the gold medal in question is in the team show jumping event. Germany lost two other apparent gold medals in Athens, under protest, due to a timing violation. The gold medallist in the individual show jumping event, Cian O'Connor (IRL), has also received notice of a positive B sample test. That's the horse's sample again, not the rider's. O'Connor and his vet admit to the drug use, but deny any wrongdoing.

It is interesting to note that the IOC only takes responsibility for testing the human participants in the Games. The horse testing is managed by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, although any decision on disqualification rests with the IOC. Since I have had to submit to a drug test before, I naturally wondered how this works for horses. Apparently urine and blood samples are taken. And yes, they make the horses pee in a cup.

November 15, 2004

Bids for 2012 Submitted

The five short-list bids for the 2012 Olympics were submitted today. This marks the start of the final evaluation stage. IOC officials will visit each of the candidate sites. The full IOC membership will choose the winner in a vote on 6 July 2005. The short list includes five candidates: London, Madrid, Moscow, New York, and Paris.

Four cities (Istanbul, Leipzig, Havana, and Rio de Janeiro) were earlier rejected and did not make the short list.

Moscow has got to be considered the longest shot here, but hell, if Atlanta can host the Olympics, I suppose anything is possible.

New York seems to have two fairly significant political problems. One, local opposition (e.g. and Hells Kitchen Online) seems vocal and well-organized; and two, the U.S. is currently rather unpopular.

That leaves one of the big three EU capitals. The winner will be the group that can win votes from outside of Europe. I will wager that the technical and sporting merits of the three bids play very little role in the outcome this time.

November 02, 2004

Conte, Kenteris Complaining

Two unrelated yet somehow similar stories in the last week about drugs in sport.

Sunday, Kostas Kenteris spoke out to deny that he and Katerina Thanou faked their motorcycle accident in Athens this summer.

Today, Victor Conte's lawyer moved to have the case against his client dismissed. Conte is one of the defendants in the ongoing BALCO case.

The two stories may be directly related. The two Greek athletes have been implicated in the BALCO investigation by at least one source.

The other thing connecting these two stories is that neither Kenteris nor Conte is actually denying the central charge against them. Kenteris is claiming that he wasn't properly given notice for the drug test he missed in Athens. Conte is claiming miscondunct by the U.S. Attorney's office. Both legitimate legal points, and no doubt important to the individuals involved; but technicalities in the big picture. Basically, both of the accused are arguing that they aren't being given a fair trial, without denying real wrongdoing.