March 26, 2006

Strange Balco Twist

American sprinter Chryste Gaines is currently serving a two-year suspension by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for taking THG, a designer steroid created and distributed by BALCO. She never tested positive, but was put away by the testimony of fellow US sprinter Kelli White. White was also a BALCO client, and tested positive for a banned substance at the 2003 World Championships. A third US sprinter, Marion Jones, has also been implicated in the BALCO scandal. Like Gaines, Jones has never tested positive. BALCO founder Victor Conte claimed during an interview on 20/20 that he provided performance-enhancing drugs to Jones, and watched her inject them.

At the 2002 US Championships, Jones, Gaines, and White finished first, second, and third in the women's 100m.

Last week, an old friend who sometimes goes by the name WM-K1-91 sent me this story from the New York Times. The story is about how the new book Game of Shadows implicates two New York Yankees in the steroid scandal that has now completely engulfed Barry Bonds.

Either you know a lot about Game of Shadows already, or you don't care much about baseball anyway. But my friend pointed out this fascinating snippet from near the end of the NY Times article:

The sprinter Chryste Gaines, who preceded Marion Jones as a client of Balco's, gave permission to Conte to work with Jones as long as Gaines got a cut of what Jones paid. Conte eventually paid Gaines $7,350.

If this allegation is true, then it provides some pretty interesting insight into the mind of the cheater. If Gaines and BALCO had some kind of exclusivity agreement, why would Gaines agree to waive it in exchange for money? Three possibilities occur to me:

  • Her motivation for cheating was primarily financial. She was willing to give up a (relative) performance advantage as long as she was appropriately compensated.
  • She had the high-performance athlete's natural superiority complex and believed that she didn't need an artificial advantage — she could beat Jones as long as they were on an equal footing.
  • She believed or knew that Jones was doping anyway, or would be, so she might as well get her cut.

The first of these flies in the face of what I believe about the reasons that athletes cheat — and in fact seems to contradict what Game of Shadows reveals about Bonds' motivations, too — but it seems the most plausible explanation in this particular case.

March 21, 2006

Soldiers in a Larger War

On this day twenty-six years ago, the American President made the official announcement confirming that the USA would not attend the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. President Carter had set a February 20 deadline for the Soviet Union to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and avoid a boycott.

Carter engaged in extensive arm-twisting to gain support from other nations. Some governments, like those of Great Britain and Australia, supported the boycott but allowed the athletes to decide for themselves whether to go to Moscow. No such freedom of choice was allowed U.S. athletes, as Carter threatened to revoke the passport of any athlete who tried to travel to the USSR. In the end, 65 nations turned down their invitations to the Olympics; probably 45 to 50 did so because of the U.S.-led boycott. (from

Carter is an intelligent man. He must have known, when he set out on this course, that the USSR would not back down because of controversy over a sporting event — even one as important to them as the Olympics. The Soviets did not withdraw from Afghanistan until 1989.

Carter also must have realized that the Soviets would retaliate; after all, isn't that what the Cold War was all about? The US First Strike could only lead to the Mutually Assured Destruction of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games.

Map of 1976, 1980, and 1984 boycotts from Wikipedia

Maybe the fact that the boycott was made over a hopeless cause is irrelevant. Maybe the principle, President Carter's stand for what he believed in, was enough justification for the sacrifice. Certainly many people felt that way at the time. (Of course principles, like political administrations, change. The fact that Afghanistan is today occupied by a US-led army is a twist worthy of Orwell.)

One thing I know for certain: the 1980 boycott was a tragedy for sport. The world's best athletes were robbed of an opportunity to meet on the playing field, not once, but twice. Those individuals who were brave enough to publicly oppose the boycott, like Canada's Diane Jones Konihowski, suffered even worse.

To the IOC and the international Olympic movement, these athletes simply do not exist. But in Canada, they hover in a sort of twilight zone. Although the COC joined the boycott on April 22, 1980, they still named 212 athletes (and a flagbearer) to the Olympic team. All of those athletes can be found in the COC's athlete database, distinguished by the soldier's identification: a Name; a Serial Number (database id); and finally a Rank, which is universally denoted by the three letters DNP.

March 18, 2006

Rick Say Anything, Any Time

Canada's Rick Say is at it again at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Say, you may remember, made headlines at the 2004 Olympics when he had this to say after a disappointing fifth-place finish in the men's 4×200m freestyle swimming relay:

I'm pissed off, I'm disappointed. This is crap.

Now, I don't have any problem with athletes speaking bluntly about their own performances. It's refreshing, frankly, to hear somebody say something more meaningful than the usual platitudes. They shouldn't have to pretend to be positive all the time.

But tonight I watched the same event at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. The race was a real barnburner, with England, Scotland, Australia and Canada exchanging the lead several times. The Canadians were hoping for a victory, based on a second-place finish at the 2005 World Championships. Unfortunately, they finished fourth today. In the post race interview for Canadian television, the swimmers expressed disappointment. At least two of them said that they felt responsible for the loss, and that they should have done better. Say — standing right next to his three teammates — had the last word. I'm paraphrasing here, but the essence of Say's statement was:

I'm really happy with my swimming here. But we didn't really put our best team forward. You can't expect to win if you're not committed to it.

Translation: I'm pretty good, but you can't expect me to win with these three clowns. Say was apparently unhappy about the selection of Brian Johns for the team (not the first selection decision he has disagreed with at this competition).

An old coach used to advise us: don't piss in your own tent. It's one thing to say that you performed poorly, or even to say that your team performed poorly. But implying that you could have won if you'd been swimming with somebody else, well, that's bad sportsmanship. Sometimes those thoughts are really better off unexpressed.

In Spectacular Fashion (take our word for it)

It isn't too often these days that Canada enters an ice hockey game as a decided underdog. But that happened today in the sledge hockey gold medal game at the Paralympics. Canada took on top-ranked and defending Paralympic champions Norway, and defeated them 3-0. It is Canada's first ever Paralympic gold in hockey.

I can't really make any personal observations on this one, since I had no opportunity to watch; the CBC coverage in the Maritimes has been extremely sparse. I see from the broadcast schedule that there will be Paralympic coverage on three Saturdays in April, so maybe I'll see a condensed version of the game then.

March 17, 2006

Let's Pretend It's All About Sport

RICK HANSEN: "My dream back [at the 1984 summer Olympics] was that one day our athletes with a disability would have equal recognition. Today, as Canada's best competes at the ninth Paralympic Winter Games that dream remains unfulfilled. My challenge to Canadians is to see our team and indeed all the participants recognized as athletes first."

MARY ORMSBY: "You can't force people to care. You can't guilt them into cheering for athletes in sports for which they have no passion. Otherwise, we'd spend all our leisure time watching cricket and precision skating and ringette."

AMATEUR: Mr. Hansen, did you get that? We Canadians have no passion for skiing, curling, or hockey. Please stop trying to force us to care. (Also, apparently somebody is trying to make me feel guilty about not watching cricket. If it's you, please stop that also.)

MR. HANSEN: "In many ways, our acceptance of our athletes with a disability have broader socio-cultural implications, reflecting our acceptance of people with a disability in the offices, factories and boardrooms of our nation. Certainly more must be done before true equality is achieved. However, great strides have been made."

MS. ORMSBY: "There's no conspiracy. There's no deliberate attempt to ignore the country's disabled in Italy while more compelling news, such as the Maple Leafs' playoff battle, dominates sports coverage."

AMATEUR: I know, I'm totally pumped about the fact that the Leafs are going to miss the playoffs. But, uh, Mr. Hansen didn't actually say anything about a conspiracy. I like your straw man, though.

MS. ORMSBY: "These Games do not have the same worldwide involvement as the Olympics in numbers of countries and participants and therefore its heft as an event of true international scope and gravitas is diminished. There are 486 Paralympians from 39 countries in Turin, while more than 2,500 athletes from 84 nations attended the Olympics."

AMATEUR: Oh yeah, I can see your point. I knew there must be a logical reason that the Paralympics don't get more attention: not enough international scope and gravitas. And it also explains why the world junior hockey championship tournament is such a washout with Canadian audiences: there were only ten countries, and fewer than 250 athletes! No wonder those poor kids never get any credit for their success.

MS. ORMSBY: "In addition, events are divided into separate categories, a layered approach making it difficult to figure who's the true champion — is it the blind skier or the standing class skier? Or the sitting class skier?"

AMATEUR: I hate that, when you've got a layered approach that makes it difficult to figure out who's the true champion. Like the BCS system in US college football. That's a total audience killer, isn't it?

MS. ORMSBY: "Disabled sport in general also suffers from a dearth of competition. The best example of this is the remarkable success of Canadian wheelchair athlete Chantal Petitclerc. At 36 years old — an age when many athletes' best days are behind them — Petitclerc currently holds every world record from the 100 metres to the 1,500, strongly suggesting her competitive fields are shallow."

AMATEUR: FactualPS and analytical — I'm starting to like you more. Unfortunately, these facts are irrelevant to the argument! Ice hockey also suffers a dearth of competition compared to, say, soccer. A couple of years ago Canada simultaneously held the titles of men's Olympic champion, women's Olympic champion, men's world champion, women's world champion, men's junior world champion — and probably two or three more that I'm not even aware of. Think that could happen in soccer? Think again. And yet, Canadians as a group would rather watch hockey! Funny, isn't it?

MR. HANSEN: "When I participated in Los Angeles I wanted to prove to myself and to the world that being in a wheelchair would not limit my ability to achieve my goals. Today, our Paralympic athletes will once again prove that anything is possible when you believe in a dream. I would urge all Canadians that as our Paralympic athletes capture medals in Turin, their achievements are celebrated with the same kind of enthusiasm afforded to Cindy Klassen and others."

MS. ORMSBY: "Rick Hansen believes that Canadians are wrong not to embrace every Paralympic medallist with the same fervour accorded speed skater Cindy Klassen because that prevents athletes with disabilities achieving 'equal recognition.' But that philosophical stand confuses crusading for the cause with logic. You cannot create the illusion that the Paralympics are on par with the Olympics and suggest that not believing this constitutes prejudice."

AMATEUR: I don't think Mr. Hansen is the one who is confused. We're talking about sports fandom here; how does logic enter into the discussion? It's easy to prove that the Paralympics are not "on par with" the Olympics; I can similarly prove that the Winter Olympics are not "on par with" the Summer Olympics, and that the NCAA basketball tournament is not "on par with" soccer's world cup. But so what? I enjoy all of those events, and they are all capable of inspiring joy, anguish, and admiration. The connection to a sporting event is based, fundamentally, on emotion, and not on logic.

Mr. Hansen is "urging" us, as Canadian sports fans, to give our Paralympians the same recognition that we give to our Olympians. Ms. Ormsby makes it sound like just another appeal for an obscure sport; like if I wrote here that everybody should pay more attention to flatwater kayaking. Then we could have a little debate about the merits of the sport, compared to others that are more popular; we could throw some numbers around, and make comparisons, and talk about what we like and don't like in a sport.

Ms. Ormsby wants to pretend that our national lack of interest in the Paralympics is just like that, I guess. That we all really, truly, don't even think about the fact that the athletes are disabled. We just don't care as much about the Paralympics because the competition is not as broad, or as deep; or the events are too complicated to follow; or skiing's just not our cup of tea and we'd rather watch cricket. And maybe that's true. So then, what's our excuse for the way disabled people get treated in other walks of life?

I'll give the last word to the two columnists:

MS. ORMSBY: "in this country of many choices, where Canadians choose to send Olympians and Paralympians around the globe to compete, we don't need to be told whom to cheer."

MR. HANSEN: "Then, let's begin building a truly Canadian model of inclusiveness for 2010 which ensures that the Games and the benefits of hosting them are applied equally to all our athletes."

PS L-girl did the homework that I did not do, and has discovered that this claim of five world records is actually not factual. My mistake.

March 16, 2006

Halifax 2014: Our Common Wealth

Note: Since the original publication of this post, I have corrected the spelling of Bruce DeVenne's name.

A couple of months back, Halifax (my home town) won the right to be Canada's bid city for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. (Incidentally, the 2006 Commonwealth Games are going on right now. What? You hadn't heard? Yes, I'm sure.) A delegation of prominent Nova Scotians — three of whom I know quite well — is in Melbourne now, lobbying and observing the preparations and staging.

Inevitably, there is also a group of local citizens mobilizing to prevent the Games from coming to Halifax. Yesterday on CBC Radio's Information Morning I heard one of them interviewed. Bruce DeVenne has launched a new web site, (For non-locals, HRM stands for Halifax Regional Municipality.)

When I heard the interview, I assumed that Bruce DeVenne was the anonymous author of, but it turns out I had the wrong anti-hosting web site. is still only half-baked and there is not much content yet, although Mr. DeVenne has collected some interesting historical data. has been operational longer, and although the site appears to be a bit borked right now, there is a lot more original content, and it is more coherently presented.

My own thoughts on the issue are also only half-baked, but to get in the spirit of things I thought I would share them anyway. I certainly don't want to get into a war of web sites over any issue, let alone one as local as this, but I have a feeling that I will be writing more about it over the next months (before the host selection) and years (if Halifax is selected).

So here's my naive view of the issue, as it relates to the taxpayer. Currently, the anti- side in this debate is entirely focused on cost, eager to tally up every cent of taxpayer money that might be spent on anything related to the Commonwealth Games. There are three types of costs associated with hosting a competition on this scale. There are the costs of building the required infrastructure; the costs of winning, planning, organizing, and staging the competition itself; and the costs of maintaining the infrastructure after the games are over.

If we consider, as Mr. DeVenne does, the sum total of these costs as the "cost" of the Commonwealth Games, the major part of the burden will be borne by the local taxpayer. Anybody who denies this is a dreamer, in my opinion, and ignoring historical reality — hosting a major Games is not free. But the question that Mr. Devanney and the anti-lobbyists ignore is this: what do you get for your money?

To stave off (a small part of) the criticism I am about to get from my economist friends, I'm not talking about some mythical long-term economic benefit, like a future flood of tourists drawn to Halifax by the Commonwealth Games. I think that kind of "Boom Vision" planning has been pretty well discredited already. But we're not just throwing the money away, either; we're buying something. And when you're deciding whether or not to buy something, cost is only half of the equation.

So we need to ask ourselves, and our politicians, some key questions related to the three categories of costs.

  • Can the direct costs of winning, planning, organizing, and staging the Commonwealth Games be balanced by the direct revenue generated from ticket sales, corporate sponsorship, broadcast rights, etc.? Should we expect a net loss? A net gain? In this case I would include taxes collected from out-of-town spectators as direct revenue, although we should be careful to consider only the marginal increase in tourism due to the Commonwealth Games.
  • Can we, as a municipality, afford the costs of building the necessary infrastructure? Do we want to? Is there something else we should be spending our money on instead? A complicating factor here is that building the infrastructure might be a "good deal" if we do it as preparation for a major Games. A new sports stadium constructed for the Commonwealth Games will get subsidized by the federal and provincial governments, and by corporate sponsors, whereas a new sports stadium otherwise might not.
  • Can we, as a municipality, afford the costs of maintaining and operating that infrastructure after the Games are over? Again, do we want to? Is there something else we should be spending our money on?

The first question is relatively easy to answer, if we believe that it is possible to accurately forecast expenses and revenues. I think it is reasonable to expect that Halifax can break even or make a profit on the Games themselves. Many other cities have done it — remember, I'm leaving the major infrastructure costs out of this — and we should expect it, too.

On the second and third questions, reasonable people will disagree, because this is a matter of values and priorities. Bid committee CEO Scott Logan has referred to the necessary spending as an "investment," but that's sort of like calling your new car an "investment." We're putting some of our money into a depreciating asset that will cost still more money to own. Let's just be honest about that. But it doesn't logically follow that we shouldn't spend that money — just like it doesn't logically follow that you shouldn't buy that car you've been saving up for. We do need to ask ourselves how much we are going to pay, and what we are going to get in return; and then we, as a democratic society, need to decide if that is something that we should do with everybody's tax money.

To some people, every public dollar spent on sport is a dollar wasted. And those people, as members of our community, deserve to be heard; but I disagree with them. I think that sport is important. I also think that hosting the Commonwealth Games will give Halifax an opportunity — one we will not otherwise have — to build some sport and civic infrastructure that is sorely needed. Those developments will make Halifax a better place to live, and I am willing to pay for that.

March 10, 2006

A Disclosure

I discovered this week that I am a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Now, you might find it surprising that one can become a member of the COC and not know it. I am what is called an A Member of the COC, which means that I was appointed by a National Sport Federation. I assumed that appointment in December, when I took on a new volunteer position with my favourite NSF. You will not find my name on the COC's lists of members, yet, and I was not aware that COC Membership was one of the responsibilities that went with the job. Let's just call it a pleasant surprise.

Now: back in the comments here, I explicitly denied being a member of the COC. I hope we can avoid a federal commission to determine what I did and didn't know at the time, but that statement was false when I made it. I apologize.

Otherwise, in all posts going back to December 2005, please substitute "we" for "they" and "us" for "them" when I have referred to the COC. Going forward, this circumstance will probably not change much about this blog. I have been mostly supportive of the COC, anyway, and I am sure that there is room for informed debate.

March 07, 2006

The Italian Job: Doping Scandal 2006

In the months before the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, there was a political dispute between the IOC and the Italian government over control of anti-doping efforts in Torino. Sports doping is a criminal offense in Italy, which is at odds with current IOC policy. The IOC and WADA have been working to have anti-doping regulations adopted in national laws, through the UNESCO International Convention Against Doping in Sport. That convention, however, follows the philosophy of the WADA Code, specifying only sports-related sanctions for doping.

In keeping with that philosophy, the IOC resisted the idea of having the Italian police involved in Olympic anti-doping activities. The dispute was only resolved about two weeks before the Opening Ceremonies. In essence, the IOC lost the battle, acknowledging that there would be no legal exemptions for Olympic participants, but maintaining control over dope testing. The Italian health ministry was given a seat on the anti-doping commission, which normally includes the IOC and WADA.

While Jacques Rogge was working to keep the Italian criminal justice system away from his Olympics, he was bragging about new "police-style" intelligence gathering in the fight against doping:

Some athletes will be targeted for testing based on tip-offs from what IOC medical director Dr. Patrick Schamasch described as a network of mostly anonymous informers around the world. "More and more we are using the same procedures as the police," he said. Just as police forces have profilers of serial killers, Schamasch said the IOC is compiling a "cheater's profile" to single out potential drug offenders. Rogge said the testers are also zeroing in on athletes who show a suspicious improvement in their level of performance. "Whenever there is a big surge in the performance that we don't consider as being normal, or a reasonable progression, then we target the athlete," he said.

Some of these "police-style" techniques were apparently on display in the days leading up to the 2006 Games, including ambush drug tests being conducted by the Torino Organizing Committee (TOROC):

Posing as an Italian couple and big fans of two-time gold-medalist Hermann Maier, sample collectors dispatched by the Torino Organizing Committee entered the athletes' village Thursday and convinced both Maier's coach and his agent to help them get an autograph and perhaps take a picture alongside the Olympic champion. Once they located Maier, the two announced they were doping officials, hustled Maier into a nearby clinic, extracted blood and urine samples and then — you can't make this stuff up — the woman actually planted a kiss on his cheek.

In the event, the 905 tests conducted prior to, during, and after the 2006 Winter Olympics ― with or without intelligence gathering ― turned up only one positive test. Russian biathlete Olga Pyleva tested positive for a stimulant that probably has little or no performance-enhancing effect in biathlon. Of course, she will still face a two-year ban from competition. On top of that, Italian authorities have announced a judicial inquiry into her case.

That positive test, though, became a minor subplot of the doping story at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Of the 904 tests that didn't turn up any adverse findings, ten in particular received special scrutiny. Ten members of Austria's nordic ski team — cross-country and biathlon — were surprised by a late-night raid at their residence on February 18 and taken for drug testing. The Italian police then searched their residences, seizing a number of suspicious items.

Let us, for the moment, leave the Italian police out of this story; we'll come back to that. The actions of the IOC in this case are within the rules in place for the 2006 Olympics. Those rules state that:

  • The NOC must tell the IOC where all athletes are training, competing, and residing for the duration of the Olympic Games (paragraph 5.5);
  • The IOC can select athletes for Doping Control based on any fact it deems relevant, at its sole discretion (paragraph 5.6);
  • All athletes shall be subject to doping control initiated by the IOC at any time or place, with no advance notice. Such doping control may include testing for all prohibited substances and all prohibited methods (paragraph 5.1); and
  • Mere possession of a prohibited substance or prohibited method is an anti-doping rule violation (paragraph 2.6).

So here, as near as I can determine, is the sequence of events in this particular intelligence-gathering operation. Doping control officers working for WADA learned that former coach Walther Mayer was in Italy with the Austrian nordic team. Mayer had been previously banned from the Olympics because of his suspected role in performing blood transfusions at the 2002 Olympics. WADA tipped off the IOC about Mayer's presence, and the IOC initiated an unannounced (no advance notice) test for ten of the members of the Austrian nordic teams.

Accounts differ about how the police got involved. At any rate, the Italian ministry of health would have known about the targeted testing, and the reports of Mayer's presence, because of their seat on the anti-doping commission.

It turns out that the Italian police had authority in this case that the IOC did not; there is nothing in the Olympic doping rules that allows the IOC to search athletes' residences, or seize their property. Law enforcement authorities confirmed that the seized materials included "blood analysis equipment," syringes, vials of distilled water, asthma medication, and "other substances." In addition, Mayer's presence in Italy was confirmed when he crashed his car into a police roadblock.

That's a pile of circumstantial evidence, and there's more where that came from. Without more details, it proves nothing, in my opinion, but it still smells bad. We shall see whether the evidence constitutes proof of "possession of a prohibited method" in the eyes of WADA and the IOC. They have announced that they will launch a disciplinary hearing, and that they will consider all of the evidence collected by Italian police. Recall that this is the same organization that made a show of trying to secure exemptions to Italian law prior to the Olympics. Now, faced with an embarrassing scandal and an absence of positive tests, they have decided that perhaps police raids and criminal investigations are not so bad after all.

I suspect that it will be difficult to tie the seized materials to any particular athlete or athletes, and even to prove that the equipment was used (or intended for use) in a prohibited method. It may come down to an argument about the burden of proof.

This leads to some difficult questions about WADA's new investigative approach to anti-doping. Most of the discussion, to date, has been framed in terms of testing. The IOC and WADA are claiming that informants, profiling, and data mining will enable them to make their drug testing program more effective. We know, though, from the Tim Montgomery / Chryste Gaines case, that the fight against doping has already moved beyond testing. We know that a positive test is not required to prove a doping violation; Dick Pound himself calls that idea "preposterous" and "nonsensical." In the Montgomery case, the CAS ruled that two athletes had violated anti-doping rules based on their alleged confessions to a third athlete. So what does that mean about the IOC's new network of informants — and about their intelligence in general? Would the testimony of an anonymous snitch be enough to pursue sanctions? What about suspicious telephone conversations? Association with known cheaters? How much (or how little) circumstantial evidence is enough? If the case against the Austrian athletes goes forward, some of these issues will come before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the next few months.

It seems to me that we have come to a new crossroads in the effort to reduce doping in sport. The anti-doping authorities see themselves as law enforcement agencies. But what kind of law enforcement agency do we, as sports fans, want them to be?

Evidence only knows one thing: the truth. It is what it is. — Gil Grissom, CSI
Where is the Nerve Gas? I'm gonna cut your right eye, then I'm gonna cut your left eye and I'm gonna keep cutting you until I get the information I need. Where is the nerve gas? — Jack Bauer, 24

Is anti-doping "police" work the kind that strikes preemptively and recklessly, assumes guilt, and uses any means necessary to enforce the rules? Or is it the kind that requires conclusive evidence of guilt and respects the rights of the innocent above all else?

I think you know where I stand. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the vast majority of Olympic athletes are not cheaters. In my opinion, a false conviction is far more tragic than a cheater who escapes detection. After all, for all the apocalyptic talk about the end of sport as we know it, we're still talking about cheating at sports. It isn't terrorism, or organized crime, and we don't need to trample the rights of the innocent to catch the guilty.

I would never argue that we should surrender the fight by making doping legal, and I don't think we should go easy on proven cheaters. Cheating is bad, and doping is the worst kind of cheating. But let's make sure that anti-doping tactics are appropriate to the crime.

Further Reading

March 01, 2006

I Am Aster … So Play Safe

Aster, Prone, With Rifle

Anticipating the start of the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games, I wandered over to the official web site and was greeted by this image. That's Aster, the lovable cartoon mascot of the Torino Paralympics, prone on the snow with a rifle.

I know that this is supposed to depict biathlon, but does this give anybody else the creeps? It's not as creepy as the 400 brides at the Olympic closing ceremonies, but it's disturbing, don't you think?

I also wonder about the design of the mascot itself. Is it just an accident that the Paralympic mascot is named Aster and looks just like an asterisk? As in a parenthetical annotation that provides further explanation? e.g. Paralympic gold medallist, 2006, long distance biathlon*.

And of course, the term "asterisk" in sports almost always has a negative connotation: see Olympic gold medallist, 2004**. I know, I know, Aster is a snowflake, or an ice crystal, or something. But am I the only one who notices these things?

*LW10 class

**Due to judging error