December 29, 2005

Too Young or Too Old

There's been a bit of a controversy brewing around Olympic figure skating — surprise, surprise. This time, the story is the exclusion of Japanese prodigy Mao Asada. Asada has been one of the best skaters in the world this year, winning gold at the Grand Prix final. Unfortunately for the Japanese, Asada is just barely 15 years old — old enough for senior international competitions like the Grand Prix, but too young to compete in the Olympics.

The IOC, I should point out, is not making the rules here; the athlete eligibility criteria are set by the IFs. Figure skating has a minimum age limit only because the ISU sets one. Despite the fact that one of the world's best figure skaters will be unable to compete at the Olympics, ISU officials have stated that there will be no exception, and no rule change, which is as it should be. To modify the rules at this late date, or to make an exception for a single athlete, would be unfair to everybody. But what is this rule all about in the first place?

The age limit is ostensibly for the protection of the athletes, but as this editorial by Philip Hersh points out, it isn't clear that the ISU has thought this through:

"This is a rule based on medical aspects and not a technical one," [ISU President Ottavio] Cinquanta said.

The idea behind that statement is laudable. Rushing young skaters to senior championship competition, with its multiple triple jumps, is dangerous at ages when growth plates have not fused. Young bodies are subject to even more pressure under the new judging system, which rewards programs jammed with technical demands and jumps late in the program.

Yet skaters already are doing the same demanding technical elements, especially jumps, to compete on the senior Grand Prix level and, in many cases, to compete at the junior level. This is especially true of prepubescent girls, whose hipless, small-chested bodies often have the perfect strength-weight ratio to pull off jump after jump.

The risk of long-term physical damage from such repetitive pounding is well documented. Less evident is how that can be compounded physically and mentally when skaters face the frustration of trying to keep doing those jumps with the changed center of gravity and proportions of a woman's body.

If the ISU really were concerned about skaters' health, it would severely limit the number of triple jumps women (and, to a lesser extent, men) can do in competition, especially before they reach the senior level.

Asada did 11 jumps — six triples, including the difficult triple axel, and five doubles, four in combinations after triples — in her free skate at the Grand Prix Final. To get extra credit, she did seven of the jumps in the second half of the four-minute program, when fatigue makes the body more susceptible to injury. It is plainly absurd to say Asada is old enough to do that in December but not in February …

I don't have a lot to add. It may be a good thing to prevent young athletes from doing lots of jumps, but this rule doesn't seem to accomplish that goal.

And as long as we're on the topic of eligibility rules and IFs, here's some soccer news that's a few weeks old; FIFA is planning to eliminate the loophole that allows men's football teams to bring three over-age players to the Olympics. The men's football competition at the Olympic Games will become strictly an under-23 tournament. In this case, FIFA is protecting the health of its brand rather than the health of its athletes; they are only interested in the supremacy of the World Cup, and won't let the world's best play anywhere else.

December 18, 2005

They're Positive, Even Without a Positive

To the casual observer, the latest addition to the roll call of cheaters looks commonplace: on December 13, US sprinters Tim Montgomery and Chryste Gaines were found guilty of doping offenses and suspended for two years. Add them to the long list of cheating superstars in athletics.

This case, though, is a little bit different from the rest. The written decisions from the Court of Arbitration for Sport spell this out nicely at the outset (you can read the full text (PDF) of the Mongomery ruling here and the Gaines ruling here; the two documents are nearly identical, so I will quote from the Montgomery document):

At issue is the charge by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (“USADA”) that Tim Montgomery violated applicable IAAF anti-doping rules, notwithstanding that he never tested positive in any in-competition or out-of-competition drug test.

Relay Team Not Guilty

Although Montgomery has been stripped of his 2001 world championship in the 4 × 100m relay, the other members of that team can breathe easy. A previous CAS decision in the Jerome Young case ruled that the IAAF doping rules in place at that time applied only to individuals, and that relay teams could not be disqualified based on the doping infractions of their members.

I have written before about how ludicrous this is. It is interesting to note that one member of the Young panel also ruled on the Montgomery/Gaines cases.

Both athletes have been suspended for two years. In addition, all "awards and additions to [the athlete's] trust fund" have been retroactively cancelled; dating from 31 March 2001 in Montgomery's case, and from 30 November 2003 in Gaines' case. For Montgomery, it will be as if he never existed as an international-calibre athlete. The IAAF will apply the retroactive cancellation to Montgomery's (since-broken) world record in the 100m, and all of his other results since 2001, which will be wiped from the books. They have also announced that they will ask him to return his prize money and appearance fees from that period as well.

So how can the USADA bring sanctions against an athlete without a positive test? This is an example of what WADA calls a non-analytical positive case. Let's take a good look at The Case Against Mr. Montgomery.

The USADA presented what it called "seven types" of evidence in the case, which I would summarize as follows:

  • Blood and urine test results which, while not explicitly "negative analytical findings," raised suspicion of cheating.
  • The testimony of Kelli White, alleging that Montgomery admitted to using "the clear," a designer steroid distributed by BALCO.
  • Documentary evidence, and testimony by Victor Conte, Gaines, and Montgomery, arising as part of the BALCO investigation.

Sidestepping the trickier legal aspects of the test results and the BALCO evidence, the CAS based its conclusions on only one of the categories:

The Panel has wrestled with the question whether, in the circumstances, it should address each element of USADA's case … including each category of evidence relied upon by [USADA]. On balance, the Panel has determined not to do so for the simple reason that it is unnecessary. This is because the Panel is unanimously of the view that Mr. Montgomery in fact admitted his use of prohibited substances to Ms. White, as discussed in more detail below, on which basis alone the Panel can and does find him guilty of a doping offence.

In other words, there is no need to consider any of the scientific or documentary evidence against Montgomery, because the testimony of Kelli White is sufficient proof of doping. Ms. White is an admitted drug user, currently under suspension for using the Clear and other banned substances. Her testimony is described in paragraphs 46-50 of the Montgomery ruling. The details of the testimony differ for Montgomery and Gaines, but the essence is the same:

  • Kelli White testified that both Montgomery and Gaines admitted to her that they were using the Clear.
  • The CAS Panel found Kelli White's testimony "wholly credible," adding that "the members of the Panel do not doubt the veracity of her evidence. She answered all questions, including in relation to her own record of doping, in a forthright, honest, and reasonable manner."
  • Montgomery and Gaines and their respective representatives "did not in any way undermine Ms. White's evidence," which thus "stands uncontroverted."
  • Montgomery and Gaines did not testify or offer any denial or alternative explanation for the statements reported by Ms. White.

The decision is described with the statement that "the Panel has no doubt in this case, and is more than comfortably satisfied, that Mr. Montgomery committed the doping offence in question." Frankly, I find this statement incredible. Based simply on the testimony of a single athlete, the Panel has no doubt about Tim Montgomery's guilt? Consider the standard that this establishes for a non-analytical positive case.

First, you need somebody who is willing to testify that the athlete admitted to the use of a banned substance. There is no special weight attached to Ms. White's status as an athlete; presumably anybody could testify to the admission. Second, the testimony has to seem credible to the CAS. And third, the allegation has to be uncontested by the athlete; if the athlete does not explicitly deny that an admission took place, the CAS can consider the testimony to be "uncontroverted evidence."

I am of a mixed mind about this case in many ways. Like the CAS, I believe that Tim Montgomery is a steroid user. However, I admit that there is some doubt about the matter. I also believe that WADA and the IFs should be able to pursue sanctions against athletes in the absence of a positive drug test. However, it seems to me that the standard of proof applied in this case is much too low, the CAS Panel's statements to the contrary notwithstanding. The testimony of a single individual, without any corroborating evidence, should not be enough for a conclusive decision against an accused athlete.

Dick Pound, president of WADA, is practically drooling with delight at the prospect of all the drug cheats he can put away now:

Finally a stake has been driven through the heart of the preposterous argument that you have to have a doping infraction by producing an analytical positive doping test. Everybody knows it is a nonsensical argument, but until CAS says so it is not a precedent.

I expect that WADA will be coming after Marion Jones next. Jones, like Montgomery, has never tested positive for anything, but Victor Conte has publicly stated that he provided her with performance-enhancing substances, and watched her inject them.

December 13, 2005

Gushue/Howard Win Olympic Trials

Alan Adamson (of the Curling blog) and I have been having a drawn-out conversation about Olympic team selection in curling. Specifically, Alan has been objecting to the selection approach being used in Britain, and I have been defending it, to a degree.

The British approach for 2006 is to have a "bunch of administrators," as Alan puts it, assemble the "best" foursome from the members of the best rinks in the UK (read Scotland in this case). Alan, being a very non-interventionist, market-solution kind of guy, doesn't like placing that kind of decision-making power in the hands of the British curling association. Without defending the specific process being used in Scotland, I have argued that creating an all-star foursome might be, in some circumstances at least, the best way to optimize the performance of your team.

The Canadian Olympic curling trials finished this past weekend, and the selection process was the polar opposite of the British approach. The CCA kept their fingers out of the selection as much as possible, setting up a qualifying process that admitted 10 men's and 10 women's team into the draw, and then letting the teams play a bonspiel with the Olympic team berth as the prize. If you are a curling fan it was some gripping entertainment; Alan and I both agree that it would be a shame, from a fan's point of view, to see the Trials replaced by a sequence of training camps and player evaluations.

On the men's side, something quite interesting happened, and it has some implications for the Canadian selection philosophy. The trials were won by the Brad Gushue rink. I want to say "the Brad Gushue rink from Newfoundland," but that's where the interesting part comes in. The winning team wasn't quite the Brad Gushue rink from Newfoundland; it was the Brad Gushue rink from Newfoundland with Russ Howard from New Brunswick throwing second stones:

Helping Gushue along the way was Howard, the 13-time Brier representative and two-time world champion. The 49-year-old was added to the team a few months back, a move that drew criticism. Could such a drastic change so close to a big event disrupt team chemistry? "He's fit into the team great and he's become a real good friend," Gushue said of Howard, who brought a steadying influence to the team throughout the week. "He's a special player."

Gushue's team was not considered one of the tournament favourites — in fact his opponent in the final was quoted some weeks ago as saying that Gushue had no chance to win. Therefore, Howard is getting a lot of credit for the team's success. Now this is clearly an example of the type of "free market" solution that Alan advocates; Gushue recognized that his team needed to be stronger, looked around for a top-quality curler who was not otherwise committed and would be a good fit with his team, and brought him on as his fifth. After experimenting with different arrangements, he optimized his team's performance by bringing Howard to the trials as second, and now they're all off to the Olympics.

Of course, I would have to counter that Gushue's rink might have been even better had he switched out even more of his players, and if he had been able to select players from other qualified teams instead of just picking up "leftovers" like Howard! The rules of the trials prohibited this, from what I understand, allowing teams to change only one player between qualifying for and competing in the trials. I suppose that the rules could be relaxed, allowing a free-for-all of substitutions. But that would raise some tricky questions about the validity of a team's qualification for the trials, wouldn't it?

And if the option had been available to the players, would they have taken full advantage of it? I guess Alan might argue that competitive pressure would be enough to lead to the formation of an "optimal" Canadian team. I think that the players have many sentimental and irrational reasons not to be performance-optimizing selectors; I think that outside experts (national team coaches, for example) are more likely to be unbiased evaluators.

As long as teams qualify for the trials on the basis of their performance in CCA events, including the Brier, the teams will be mostly organized along provincial lines. As I have said to Alan before, Canada is so strong in curling that a provincial champion rink might be good enough to win the Olympic gold medal (although Terry Jones has doubts). For now, there is little motivation to change a selection process that is very popular with the players and the fans, and very easy for the CCA. When (not if) Canada loses their dominance, I am sure that we are going to see some kind of all-star selection process — it's inevitable.

December 08, 2005

Dumbed-Down Olympic Selection

The Canadian Olympic Committee held a board meeting a couple of weekends ago. Among other items on the agenda, they approved new Olympic selection criteria:

At the meeting, the COC Board … voted strongly in favour of using International Federation qualification criteria as the minimum standard for nomination to the 2008 Canadian Olympic Team. Similar to existing criteria for the 2006 and 2010 Olympic Winter Games, each summer National Sport Federation has the right to require selection standards for its athletes that are higher than International Federation criteria.

What this means is that the COC will not place any explicit restrictions on qualification for the summer Olympics in 2008; if your IF says that you're good enough, then you will be part of the team. I am surprised that I have not seen much about this in the press, since the very tough "Top 12" selection standard got a lot of negative coverage in 2004. A Google News search turned up a single piece by Alison Korn at, a publication that was particularly critical of the Top 12 criteria.

Some of you will have heard my diatribes on this issue before. A year ago I laid out my arguments in favour of tough selection criteria. One of the most common arguments against tough standards is that they stifle development of up-and-coming athletes; I've done some analysis attempting to debunk that theory.

I still believe, as I stated last November, that using IF selection criteria creates a situation that is inherently unfair to Canadian athletes:

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.

My other principle objection to weakening the standard was that it causes the COC (and Sport Canada, too) to waste money preparing Olympic teams and athletes that have little chance of performing well when they get there. The policy approved by the COC board, however, attempts to make it clear that all Olympians are not created equal. Korn puts it well in her article:

Previously, the COC funded all Olympic teams fairly equally; hence its interest in taking a small team. After Athens, the organization decided to focus its resources primarily on those ranked in the top eight, with far less support given to lower-ranked teams. So the overall size of the team became less of a financial concern.

So although the Olympic team will get bigger, and will potentially include more sports, the COC is so far holding the line on the idea that funding will be targeted at the highest-performing sports. That's a good policy. Of course, we'll see how it holds up when the stories start to surface about the "unfairness" of unequal NSF funding leading up to the 2008 games.

December 07, 2005

Sport For Good

Let me change the subject for a minute, just to get away from "professional" amateur sports. Last week there was an article in my local paper — buried inside the Living section, not in the Sports section — about a non-government organization called KidSport. KidSport raises money through personal and corporate donations, and distributes it to needy families to defray the costs of putting their kids in organized sports.

KidSport are always happy to take donations; they are also looking for volunteers. I hear a voice in my head telling me that I do not have time for this activity. I have no time for this activity in part because I recently agreed to increase my volunteer committment to the high performance program of my favourite Canadian NSO. Are my committments completely misguided?

December 02, 2005

Lagat, Offered Nothing, Says No Thanks

In August 2003, Bernard Lagat (then of Kenya) tested positive for EPO as the result of an out-of-competition urine test. The IAAF suspended Lagat and informed the Kenyan athletics federation, who promptly leaked the news to the press. Lagat missed the 2003 World Championships and several other lucrative meets that summer while he was suspended. In October that same year, Lagat's B sample tested negative.

Here's what the WADA Code has to say about this situation:

If a Provisional Suspension is imposed based on an A Sample Adverse Analytical Finding and a subsequent B Sample analysis does not confirm the A Sample analysis, then the Athlete shall not be subject to any further disciplinary action and any sanction previously imposed shall be rescinded.

What's a B Sample?

There is sometimes confusion in the press about what a "B sample" is. When urine is collected for a doping test, it is divided into two separately sealed containers; one is labeled 'A' and the other is labeled 'B.' The B sample is therefore not a separate sample at all; it is just another part of the same urine sample.

The B sample is never opened, unless there is an "adverse analytical finding" (positive test result) from the A sample. The intent is to provide a backup check of the testing procedure, not to test the athlete a second time.

The article linked to here claims that the B sample was "taken on September 29." That cannot be true. The B sample and the A sample must be taken at the same time. The clearing time for EPO, in particular, is only a few days, so a second test taken two months after the fact would be meaningless.

If you're interested in reading more about the urine sample collection process, you can read the WADA Guidelines for Urine Collection.

Well, that's clear enough, then. Mr. Lagat, you're free to go.

Unfortunately, Bernard Lagat decided to get uppity about the situation. He launched a lawsuit against the IAAF and WADA, claiming loss of income as a result of his two-month suspension. The IAAF, apparently a bit nervous about the prospect, came up with a deal; reported that:

Lagat will be exonerated of any doping offense if he drops his lawsuit seeking compensation from the IAAF … "We are very pleased and we expect the athlete to accept it as well," IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said.

But why would anybody expect Lagat to take this deal? He had already been cleared of doping charges, when his B sample turned up negative. The IAAF knew this, of course; in the same article, Davies is later quoted as saying "The A and B samples didn't match and for us, he committed no doping offense and was free to compete." So even though the IAAF was already admitting that according to IAAF and WADA rules Bernard Lagat had not committed a doping offense, they still expected him to drop his lawsuit in exchange for being "exonerated?"

This week, the inevitable happened. Lagat decided to reject the deal:

Lagat's statement said he couldn't accept the IAAF compromise because it didn't contain an apology, didn't acknowledge testing methods weren't fail-safe and didn't include compensation.

As I've said before, WADA and the IFs are not going to voluntarily admit that the testing methods are imperfect. Such an admission would open them up to a long line of appeals and lawsuits like this one. My prediction is that the IAAF will next try to reach a financial settlement with Lagat, to avoid a legal judgement that highlights flaws in the anti-doping tests. For my part, I hope that Lagat does not give in; a good hard look at the urinary EPO test is critical to ensure fairness to all.