May 29, 2006

Kurva Jó!

Something significant — significant to me, personally — happened yesterday in the small world of Canadian amateur sports. It won't register on the national radar screen, but I think some of the readers of this blog will appreciate it as a sporting accomplishment.

On Sunday in Duisburg, Germany, Canada won the Men's K-4 1000m final at the Duisburg Internationale Kanu Regatta und World-Cup 2006.

Our heroes at an earlier World Cup race in Poland

During my days as an athlete paddling for Canada I was something of a specialist in that event. In fact, that's an understatement — during three World Championships and one Olympic Games, I never raced in anything but K-4, at one distance or another. Looked at in a positive light, I could say that I was a core member of the national team K-4 for about eight years.

But looked at in another way, that national team K-4 was often pretty bad. From 1989 through 1992, we weren't even good enough to qualify to represent Canada at the World Championships or Olympics.

One of the lowest points of my career came sometime in the early 1990s at the Duisburg International Regatta. Duisburg is a tough place to race if you are not competitive with the world's best. Because of the timing of the regatta and the quality of the course, the regatta is always very well-attended. And each competing country can have two entries per event — as opposed to the Worlds, where it's limited to one. In men's kayak, especially, that can make for a brutally strong field. I raced at Duisburg half a dozen times between 1989 and 1996.

In this particular year, I was stroking the K-4 1000m — an inexplicable choice, to be blunt, but one that probably reflected our limited options at the time. In an early heat, my steering led us so close to the 500m start platform that at least one of my teammates had to miss a stroke in the middle of the race. That was a humiliating mistake to make at that level, although our general lack of K-4 skill was really the cause of our last-place finish. The end result: we failed, yet again, to even reach the semi-finals at Duisburg.

So, I spent yet another year at Duisburg with my Saturday afternoon and Sunday free. (As one of my teammates used to point out, this didn't have to be a bad thing. He would quote some of our southern-hemisphere colleagues: "The bad news is, we're out of the regatta. The good news is, we're on the piss!") This time, though, I was questioning whether I was really learning anything at all. Were we, as a team, getting something out of these beatings? Was I, as an athlete, still getting better? This all sounds rather introspective and thoughtful, but it wasn't — I am certain that I was a complete asshole to be around that weekend. All I really wanted to do was go home.

I got over that experience, eventually, although I wasn't finished with my punishment at Duisburg. A few years later, I did eventually get to race in a final there, in K-4 500m — we finished ninth, but it was glorious to belong. And in 1995 Duisburg hosted the World Championships, where we finished ninth in the K-4 1000m final, and also finished fourth in the inaugural K-4 200m event. At the 1996 Olympics, my international K-4 career finished with a seventh-place finish.

These results represented, more or less, the pinnacle of Canada's achievement in men's K-4 up to that point. The current crew — Richard Dober Jr., Steven Jorens, Ryan Cuthbert, and Andrew Willows — smashed through those marks yesterday. I know that these young men, and the whole Canadian team, have travelled their own journey in K-4 over the past six years. That journey was not unlike my own; they too have come from nowhere to here, and not always in a continuous line of progress. But they have now broken through to a place that I can only imagine: what must it have felt like to stand on the top of the podium in Duisburg?

Here's to more breakthroughs on the journey to come: congratulations, guys.

May 28, 2006

Crime, Punishment, and Rural Reeducation

Chen Qi works in the fields surrounding Pan Tao [Xinhua]

It's hard to write about sports in China without sounding ignorant. I'm going to try it anyway.

Last week I read this story about Olympic table tennis champion Chen Qi, who was sent to the countryside for "rural reeducation:"

After losing to compatriot Wang Ha in the men's final at the Asia Cup held in Japan on March 5, Chen flung the ball to the ground and kicked a chair into the air. The unsportsmanlike act earned Chen a "list" of penalties from team mates, the Beijing Times said. He can now add "levelling dirt … weeding and plucking cucumbers," as part of his rehabilitation, which has also involved heavy fines, a lengthy benching and a televised public apology. Chen is expected to spend a week in the fields …

Now here's where I start to sound ignorant, because there is obviously a cultural divide here that I am never going to be able to bridge. But this whole story is a mystery to me.

Chen's crime, according to all the stories, was acting upset after a loss — which happened to be at the hands of a Chinese teammate. I dislike poor sportsmanship as much as the next guy, but that's pretty mild.

But assuming the relevent "authorities" believe that Chen needs to be punished, why do his teammates get to choose the punishment? Remember, table tennis is an individual sport (or a nearly-individual sport, in doubles), so Chen's "teammates" on the Chinese national team are also his competitors. Are they more likely to try to, um, reeducate Chen, or destroy him?

Then I look at the list of punishments, and I scratch my head again. Chen, according to several stories, was docked ten percent of his salary for the year; made a "humiliating" apology on national television; was sent to People's Liberation Army boot camp; and now, sentenced to a week's hard labour in the fields while wearing his national team jersey.

Hey Chen Qi, think you're somebody special? Think again. This isn't even like a parent disciplining a child — it's like a bad teen movie. "You embarassed me — so now I'm gonna embarrass you." It looks even more shallow when I read that the "discipline" was interrupted to allow Chen to compete at the World Championships!

The chain of punishments was suspended as Chen Qi helped the Chinese team defend the world team championship in Bremen, Germany, early this May and team discipline was resumed once he returned.

Chen, of course, has no choice but to act contrite, if he wants to play table tennis again. He came out of the last stage saying "I am truly sorry for my action. I should never disgrace the Chinese team." Yeah Chen, try not to make them look bad.

May 25, 2006

More Blogs by Athletes: A Pair of Skate(r)s

My Google Blog Search RSS feed recently led me to a blog called The Protocol written by US Speed Skater Eva Rodansky. The post I stumbled into was an interesting look at the differences between the very successful US and Canadian Speed Skating programs. Rodansky referred to another speed skating blog, Zen and the Art of Speedskating, written by Andrew Love.

These two blogs, together, offer a fascinating look at speed skating in the US. Neither Rodansky nor Love is a big star in the sport, but both are high-performance skaters. Although the two are friends, their blogs are very different.

Rodansky can barely bring herself to say anything positive about US Speedskating; she wields The Protocol like a weapon against her enemies. Some of it is quite difficult to read — not because it's poorly written (it isn't) but because of her ferocity.

Love's blog is personal in a different way; he is more positive, and more poetic. Here is Love discussing Rodansky's blog.

May 19, 2006

WADA: Best Two Out of Three

Should listening to music before your race be a violation of the World Anti-Doping Agency Code?

Section 4.3 of the WADA Code (PDF) identifies the Criteria for Including Substances and Methods on the Prohibited List (PDF). Rather than quoting the criteria, I will reproduce here the note attached to this section. The language is less technical, but captures the essence of the criteria, and includes a few interesting examples to help explain the rationale:

A substance shall be considered for inclusion on the Prohibited List if the substance is a masking agent or meets two of the following three criteria: (1) it has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance; (2) it represents a potential or actual health risk; or (3) it is contrary to the spirit of sport. None of the three criteria alone is a sufficient basis for adding a substance to the Prohibited List. Using the potential to enhance performance as the sole criteria would include, for example, physical and mental training, red meat, carbohydrate loading and training at altitude. Risk of harm would include smoking. Requiring all three criteria would also be unsatisfactory. For example the use of genetic transfer technology to dramatically enhance sport performance should be prohibited as contrary to the spirit of sport even if it is not harmful. Similarly, the potentially unhealthy abuse of certain substances without therapeutic justification based on the mistaken belief they enhance performance is clearly contradictory to the spirit of sport regardless of whether the expectation of performance enhancement is realistic.

This two-out-of-three business is a complicated matter. Is it really necessary to prohibit methods or substances (other than masking agents) that aren't performance-enhancing? I guess the last sentence of the note attempts to explain the rationale; if an athlete believes that a substance is performance-enhancing then he or she is trying to cheat, and therefore violating the spirit of sport. But isn't that a bit crazy? If Chinese swimmers believe that their success is due to caterpillar fungus soup, does that mean that eating caterpillar fungus soup is contrary to the spirit of sport? Even if they're wrong?

This nebulous "spirit of sport" is defined more fully in the Introduction to the Code:

Anti-doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as "the spirit of sport"; it is the essence of Olympism; it is how we play true. The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is characterized by the following values: ethics, fair play, and honesty; health; excellence in performance; character and education; fun and joy; teamwork; dedication and commitment; respect for rules and laws; respect for self and other participants; courage; and community and solidarity. Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport.

Once you have separated out the issues of performance enhancement and health, does the "spirit of sport" clause add anything useful to the argument? It seems to me that there are some serious problems with this definition in conjunction with the two-out-of-three criteria. If part of the spirit of sport is "health," does that mean that everything that's bad for your health is contrary to the spirit of sport? If so, then any substance or method that's bad for you — for example, smoking — automatically meets the two-out-of-three criteria for inclusion on the prohibited list.

And as for performance-enhancing methods and substances, the Code requires WADA to rule on which are "unethical" or "unfair." In practice, it seems to me, this means that the Prohibited List could be extended to include almost any performance-enhancement technique.

Recently the WADA Ethical Issues Review Panel ruled that hypoxic tents are contrary to the spirit of sport. Hypoxic tents allow athletes to simulate the effect of sleeping at high altitude. The tent contains an oxygen-poor environment; sleeping in the tent stimulates an athlete's body to produce extra red blood cells, which may increase performance in endurance sports. Hypoxic tents are used by a significant number of athletes, particularly in cross country skiing, cycling, and triathlon.

Few people dispute the theory that hypoxic tents are performance-enhancing. If we take the decision of the ethics panel at face value, that means that they would qualify as a Prohibited Method under WADA's criteria. The WADA Executive is clearly reluctant to make that ruling, but they find themselves in a bit of a tight spot. WADA recently announced that they would "seek broad stakeholder comment" on the question of whether hypoxic tents are an unethical performance-enhancing method or not.

So in what sense are hypoxic tents unethical or unfair? How should we decide? I would submit that they are unfair only to the extent that they are performance-enhancing; that is, if the tents were not performance-enhancing then they could not be unethical. There is clearly more to this, of course; at least in the minds of the ethics panel, there is a line between the use of hypoxic tents on one hand, and living at high altitude on the other. At least for now, one of these is "artificial" enough (I'm speculating) that it is not an ethical training practice. But is it really a good idea for WADA to be making such subjective evaluations? Is it necessary?

Let me bring you back to the hook that started this post: could music be added to the list of Prohibited Methods? A few months ago I came across an opinion posted at The Doping Journal. Alexei R. Koudinov of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences noted that some swimmers at the Olympics in Athens were using headphones when they arrived on the pool deck. Koudinov goes on to point out:

Michael Phelps enhancing oxygen transfer before a race
Previously published research … showed that in humans, music makes saturation of oxyhemoglobin (SPO(2)) significantly higher … The statistically significant higher SPO(2) level indicates the "enhancement of oxygen transfer" and implies that "music by the pool" is prohibited by WADA in competition blood-doping method of "the use of products that enhance the uptake, transport or delivery of oxygen"*, apparently conflicting with the essence of olympism, and WADA calls for "ethics, fair play and honestly [sic]."

*Here Dr. Koudinov is quoting from an older version of the Prohibited List. The new version refers to "artificially enhancing the uptake, transport or delivery of oxygen."

I assumed, when I first read this, that Dr. Koudinov intended it to be a satirical barb pointed at WADA's policies. (The "previously published research" he cites concerns music therapy applied to premature infants.) After further investigation, it appears that Dr. Koudinov is quite serious. Although his campaign is unlikely to lead to any action by WADA, is this really so much different than the debate over hypoxic tents? Dr. Koudinov is arguing that listening to your pre-race psych-up tape is performance-enhancing. Most athletes who listen to music before their competition would not dispute that statement, although they may not swallow Dr. Koudinov's explanation of the mechanism for the improvement. That mechanism, he argues, puts pre-race music in the same category as EPO — and hypoxic tents. Note that Dr. Koudinov explicitly refers to the WADA spirit of sport definition.

Could WADA really go there? Are headphones going to be banned on the pool deck? Well, that's very unlikely, I would think. On the other hand, I do think that the current criteria, with their slippery two-out-of-three conditions, leave WADA open to just this kind of nonsense.

May 14, 2006

Summer Sport Report Cards 2005

In the past few years, the agencies that fund high-performance sport in Canada have made a change to their basic philosophy. Instead of stretching the available funding until it's thin enough to cover every sport, there has been a trend toward concentrating financial resources on sports with the greatest probability of international success. I've previously touched quite a bit on the winter sport Own the Podium program. Today I want to talk about summer sports.

The 2005 Report of the Canadian Sport Review Panel was finally completed and released last month. The CSRP is an arm's length group of technical experts that reports to Canada's high performance sport funding partners: Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), and the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC). The CSRP was created with a mandate to assess the high performance programs of Canada's summer sports, and the potential for repeatedly winning medals at the summer Olympic, and the summer and winter Paralympic Games. The report contains summaries of those assessments, and funding recommendations for each sport from the CSRP.

Before I get into the data, it is important to note that the CSRP evaluation is based on the high performance programs of the various sports, and doesn't address the broader goals of Canada's sports organizations, such as participation or outreach.

(I should also disclose the fact that my brother is one of the members of the CSRP. He has never discussed any confidential information with me, and all of the information I am going to discuss here is in the official report linked to above.)

The CSRP defines several categories of Olympic summer sports, from 1A through 6B. Category 1A/1B is for Olympic individual/team sports with high probability of podium success, category 2A/2B is for sports with moderate probability of podium success, and so on. Sports are ranked on the basis of their athlete development systems, technical leadership and authority, organizational commitment and the capacity to implement, and sport science development.

There are three 1A sports, two 2A sports, three 2B sports, and four 3A sports. Altogether, these sports garnered 55% of the CSRP funding, and account for 17 of the 20 medals that the CSRP predicts Canada will win at the 2008 Olympic Games. I will focus on these twelve sports.

As part of the CSRP evaluation process, each Canadian NSO was asked to provide detailed information to the panel. This information included a budget submission, and an assessment of potential Olympic medal performances in 2008 and 2012. The CSRP then performed its own evaluation of the submissions, and used them to provide recommendations to the funding partners. The table below attempts to capture some information about the NSO inputs, the CSRP evaluation, and the sport performance in 2005, for each of the sports in categories 1A through 3A.

Table 1 — Summary of CSRP inputs, outputs, and 2005 performance.
Olympic Sport
CSRP Support 2005-06 2004 Olympic Medals 2008 Medal Prediction 2005 Worlds (Olympic Events)
CategoryReqst. ($K)Recmd. ($K) SportCSRP Top 3Top 8Top 12
Canoe-Kayak (Sprint) 1A 1420 987 3 5 3 4 6 9
Aquatics (Diving) 1A 515 377 2 4 2 2 5 8
Rowing 1A 994 898 1 3 3 1 3 3
Athletics 2A 766 823 0 6 2 1 5 12
Cycling (all) 2A 803 562 2 7 1 0 5 6
Soccer (women) 2B 140 140 0 1 0 N/A N/A N/A
Softball (women) 2B 480 229 0 0 1 N/A N/A N/A
Waterpolo (women) 2B 666 468 0 1 1 1 0 0
Gymnastics (Artistic, men) 3A 501 299 1 1 1 1 1 1
Aquatics (Swimming) 3A 1462 688 0 4 1 4 9 13
Gymnastics (Trampoline) 3A 493 150 1 1 1 0 1 1
Wrestling (women) 3A 240 259 1 1 1 1 3 4

The list of sports follows CSRP terminology; in many cases they identified one discipline governed by an NSO as a distinct "sport" separate from other disciplines. It is significant that "men" and "women" are listed as different disciplines in some sports. The CSRP has obviously decided that in many cases one gender should be supported more than the other. The support money in the table is only the portion for Olympic funding, which is separate from Paralympic allocations. The "Requested" column shows the budget presented by the NSO, and the "Recommended" column indicates the CSRP recommendation to the funding partners. The next column lists 2004 Olympic medals — the twelve sports in the table accounted for all but one of Canada's 12 medals in Athens. The 2008 Medal Prediction column indicates the number of medals predicted by the NSO, and the number of medals predicted by the CSRP after an evaluation of the NSO submission. The last three columns show Canada's performance in each discipline at the 2005 World Championships.

It is amusing to note that the sports, when asked to predict their own success at the 2008 Olympics, came back with a "bottom-up" estimate of 68 medals — more than three times the total in 1996, which was the best non-boycott result ever. The CSRP has refined that estimate to 20, with a "top end" of 30. The top 12 sports included in Table 1 — presumably the best-managed of the bunch — thought that they could contribute 34 medals in 2008. The CSRP reduced this by "only" a factor of two.

The lion's share of that reduction came from Athletics, Cycling, and Swimming, which together predicted 17 medals in 2008. That story didn't wash with the CSRP, who reduced the number to 4. That mistrust of the medal predictions didn't necessarily translate into a loss of sport funding; Athletics, in fact, was recommended for a larger allocation than they asked for.

All three of these "over-confident" sports had relatively good years in 2005, putting a large number of athletes into top-8 and top-12 positions at the 2005 World Championships. The top 12 sports are otherwise living up to CSRP expectations, with sprint canoe/kayak and diving leading the way. It will be interesting to follow progress leading up to the next summer Olympics.

May 08, 2006

2006 Budget Recap

I know things have been a bit slow around here lately. I've been travelling a lot, and busy at work, but I think things should clear up a bit soon.

I did want to recap last week's federal budget, as it deals with amateur sport in Canada. As my patrons at CanSport have already pointed out, the Harper government didn't fulfil its campaign promise to increase funding for sport to one percent of the health care budget.

In fact, things went just about as I predicted the night before the budget. Although I haven't figured out what the total allocation is, the conservatives didn't dramatically increase the budget for sport. They did introduce a number of tax breaks, including one for parents who register their children in organized sports, and one for people who donate securities to non-profit organizations. On the question of infrastructure, the conservatives didn't make any committments, and wouldn't even grant Vancouver's request for more funding for the 2010 Olympics. That's not an encouraging sign for infrastructure.

Locally, the new premier of Nova Scotia — a former gym teacher — delivered his first Throne Speech last week and promised to make physical education mandatory in high school. I took PE in grade 10 and I remember it as a year filled with Dodgeball and Kickball (which we called soccer baseball in my neighbourhood). I don't think it did much for my physical fitness.

May 05, 2006

Timed Finals

While I had a few free minutes, I just wanted to point out a new link over on the right under "Other Amateurs." Timed Finals is a blog all about swimming run by two-time Olympic medallist Scott Goldblatt. It's well written, and has interesting material from a unique perspective. (I found it via Light the Torch, which I found through a Google Blog Search RSS feed I subscribe to.)

Scott also has a more personal blog that you can check out. Be warned, though — if you haven't got small kids, you probably won't find much there for you.

May 02, 2006

The Budget as Sport

Tomorrow is budget day for our new federal government — our new minority federal government, and that adds quite a lot of drama to the proceedings. Like most Canadians, I'll be looking closely at the issues that affect me personally and how the Conservatives plan to address them.

Before the election, I wrote a bit about the Sport Matters Group and their analysis of which political party would come closest to meeting its "wish list" of pro-sport initiatives. Last month the SMG released the submission they made to the Minister of Finance in advance of the budget. In a separate e-mail I received, SMG stated that the Minister received about 400 submissions on sport and physical activity out of 5600 total.

The conclusion of the report identifies three broad recommendations for "introducing a comprehensive package of investments in sport and physical activity." Here's my summary of those recommendations and my take on the Conservative view. (I should say up front that I my knowledge of politics is quite shallow, so you can take that part for what it's worth.)

Sport Funding

Sport Matters Group is calling for funding for sport and physical activity that is equal to 1% of total federal health care spending. This paper goes through the calculation and assesses the 1% mark as $465M per year. The report admits that some might take a less generous definition, which would come out at $318M. Either way, it would be a very significant increase from current levels.

According to SMG, the Conservative party platform for 2006 made a promise to meet this goal. I predict that they'll break this one. As a minority government, they'll be under pressure to spend; as Conservatives, they'll be pressured to cut. Funding for sport isn't an area where there is significant pressure to increase spending. As usual, it will be quickly passed over by the press and the public. I do believe that they will propose a small increase, but not a tripling or even a doubling.

New Fiscal Policy

Sport Matters Group is proposing a number of tax breaks and fiscal policy changes, including:

  • Tax credits for fees to register children in organized sport, and for fees paid by coaches and officials
  • Elimination of the capital gains tax on donations of securities to charities (including sport not-for-profits)
  • An increase in the allowable tax deduction for sponsorship of community sport by private corporations
  • Tax credits for parents supporting high-performance athletes
  • The renewal of the national sport lottery

Some of the above were Conservative campaign promises. And Conservatives and tax cuts, that's like peas and carrots. I think there will be a number of proposals in tomorrow's budget along these lines, and they will sail through parliament without debate. Many middle-class parents will be pleased when they read about this on page three.

Investments in Infrastructure

Sport Matters Group is hyping sport infrastructure as an investment in community health, and as an economic investment as well:

The lack of facilities that meet international standards causes many Canadian communities to miss out on the opportunity to reap the economic benefits from hosting competitive games. Similarly many communities are unable to fully exploit their potential to attract sport tourism because of inadequate or insufficient facilities.

SMG is asking for a "designated envelope" for sport facilities and infrastructure, with "adequate, long-term funding for this envelope." To be honest, I don't know what all this talk about "envelopes" means. I don't expect to see any of it in tomorrow's Conservative budget, though. My prediction is that they won't be sold on the alleged social or economic benefits.

Sport Matters Group has made a very coherent presentation, and a well-reasoned argument for their cause. And of course they don't really expect to check off everything on their wish list tomorrow. I don't think they'll be disappointed, and they'll have some concrete successes to point to at the end of the day.