July 30, 2006

Testosterone, Too

Free Floyd Landis: I wish I had thought of that title, but it's a new blog that promises to address the issues surrounding the testosterone test as the Landis story unfolds over the coming weeks and months. The author, "Free Floyd," has already done a nice job discussing the testosterone testing protocol and the T/E ratio threshold.

This weekend American track star and world record co-holder Justin Gatlin was informed that he had tested positive for testosterone or its precursors at an in-competition test on April 22. Naturally, this is being linked to the Landis case in the media (and now I'm doing it, too). But there are a couple of important differences. First, judging by the statements of Dick Pound, it sounds like this has already been judged to be a doping violation — in other words, unlike the Landis case, the complete laboratory investigation has been completed before the public announcement of the test result.

The B sample is positive, they've gone through that whole exercise. What remains now is for the appropriate penalty to be handed out by the US Anti-Doping Agency and that will be reviewed by the IAAF, and by WADA if we're not satisfied that the right result has been achieved.

I can't really speak to exactly what was done with Gatlin's sample in the laboratory. In light of the announcement, I hope that a "reliable analytical method (e.g. IRMS)," as WADA puts it, was performed on either his A or his B sample, and came back positive for exogenous testosterone.

The other difference between the two cases is that while Landis' supporters are searching for a physiological excuse for the positive test, Gatlin's coach has immediately determined, with full certainty, that his was an inside job:

We are 100 percent sure who it is. The individual that did it, it's an individual that we fired and we went back and hired … he came to the [April 22] Kansas relay and was [upset] with Justin.

Gatlin is coached by Trevor Graham, who is the former coach of (dum, da-dum-dum) Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones. Graham has confessed to being the man who kick-started the investigation that led to the BALCO scandal, by anonymously sending the USADA a syringe filled with THG. Nine of his current or former athletes have tested positive and/or been charged with doping offenses.

Gatlin has already been suspended once for using a banned stimulant. In that case he was eventually found to have "no significant fault or negligence" as he had a legitimate medical need for the medication. His two-year ban was reduced to just over a year, but he was specifically warned by the IAAF that any repeat offense would result in a lifetime ban. A case of sabotage, if it could be proven, might be the only thing that can save him from that fate.

And since Graham is 100 percent sure who the culprit is, then the proof should be forthcoming any day now.

July 27, 2006

Floyd Landis Story Incomplete

By now most sports fans will have heard the news that Floyd Landis tested positive for testosterone after Stage 17 of the Tour de France.

I have a tendency to be long-winded, and I am going to be long-winded again on this subject. But there are two points that should be made up front here:

  • Landis has had a drug test with an abnormal T/E ratio. That is not the same thing as a doping sanction. Regardless of the outcome of the B sample test, Landis may not have violated anti-doping rules.
  • Landis apparently did not test positive with an elevated level of testosterone.

Now, if you want to read some real journalism on this story, skip ESPN and try the Boulder Report

This is not proof of exogenous testosterone

Testosterone is classified as an Endogenous Anabolic Androgenic Steroid (AAS). "Endogenous" substances are those produced naturally in the body. Using exogenous — that is, from outside one's own body — sources is against the rules. Here's the relevant section of the WADA Prohibited List:

Where an [AAS] is capable of being produced endogenously, a Sample will be deemed to contain such a Prohibited Substance where the concentration of such Prohibited Substance or its metabolites or markers and/or any other relevant ratio(s) in the Athlete's Sample so deviates from the range of values normally found in humans that it is unlikely to be consistent with normal endogenous production. A Sample shall not be deemed to contain a Prohibited Substance in any such case where the Athlete proves that the concentration of the Prohibited Substance … is attributable to a physiological or pathological condition.

… When a laboratory has reported a T/E [Testosterone to Epitestosterone] ratio greater than four (4) to one (1) and any reliable analytical method (e.g. IRMS [Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer]) applied has not determined the exogenous origin of the substance, further investigation may be conducted by a review of previous tests or by conducting subsequent test(s), in order to determine whether the result is due to a physiological or pathological condition, or has occurred as a consequence of the exogenous origin of a Prohibited Substance. … When an additional reliable analytical method (e.g. IRMS) has not been applied and a minimum of three previous test results are not available, the relevant Anti-Doping Organization shall test the Athlete with no advance notice at least three times within a three-month period. …

Landis' team, sponsored by Phonak, has issued a statement that it received notice Wednesday from the UCI that Landis "showed a disproportionately high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone." Some sources are reporting the result as a T/E ratio of 11/1. So as noted above, that's step one in the process. Landis will now have his B sample tested. That's quite likely to show exactly the same problem as the A sample. But that is not the end of the story for Landis — it's only step one. The mere presence of an elevated T/E ratio is not enough to confirm a doping offense.

Was Landis' testosterone actually elevated?

It's being widely (although not loudly) reported, including at the Boulder Report article I cited above, that Landis' abnormally high T/E ratio was due to an extremely low level of epitestosterone (small E) and not a high level of testosterone (big T). That might seem like a subtlety, but it's an important fact if it's confirmed. If Landis had a lower-than-normal concentration of testosterone, then he clearly wasn't using that particular prohibited substance, was he? In fact it sounds like Landis has a good chance of proving that his elevated T/E ratio was endogenous in origin. In that case, he'll be exonerated. Of course, his moment of glory already lies in tatters. Which brings me to my third point …

And what happened to due process (again)?

Floyd Landis — and any athlete — deserves better than this. As I noted back here, in 2003 fewer than 15% of A Sample Adverse Analytical findings in cycling led to doping sanctions. We're actually a long way from a doping sanction against Floyd Landis in this case.

So why, given these facts, and the process outlined in WADA's own rules, did the UCI feel that it was a good idea to announce yesterday that an "unidentified rider" had "tested positive?" And why does Dick Pound again feel the need to open his mouth?

The guys who came second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth at last year's event have been busted in the [Spanish investigation], and now the winner of this year's event is busted in the race itself.

Right. Except that Floyd Landis has not yet been "busted" (and neither have the other five riders Pound mentions, but that's another story). It's one thing for the media to jump the gun on this story, and to miss the subtleties of the process still to come — they've got advertising to sell. But shouldn't Dick Pound, the head of the world's anti-doping law enforcement agency, have enough restraint to let due process run its course?

July 26, 2006

Punishment Scales in Chinese Table Tennis

Another Chinese table tennis player is in trouble. Three-time Olympic medallist Kong Linghui crashed his car into a taxi while under the influence of alcohol last week. The police gave him a modest fine and revoked his drivers' license, but Kong's punishment is probably not over yet.

The Chinese table tennis association said, through a spokesman, that "no timetable had been set" for team discipline. How bad will it be? It says here that it's going to be bad.

Consider a few examples from history:

  • Chen Qi's crime: he threw his racket and kicked a chair after losing a match to another Chinese player. His sentence included a public apology, loss of salary, military boot camp, and forced labour.
  • In 2004, four lovestruck (lust-filled?) athletes were removed, at least temporarily, from the national team. Female players Li Nan, Bai Yang, Fan Ying, and male player Hou Yingchao allegedly were engaged in "romantic affairs" with each other, and with other athletes on the team.
  • Qiu Yike was banned from all domestic and international competition for a year after he stayed out late drinking with friends.

As I pointed out in my post on the Chen case, the Chinese take a, well, pragmatic approach to these punishments when it comes to competition. Chen, the 2004 Olympic doubles gold medallist, had his drawn-out discipline interrupted to allow him to compete for China at the World Championships. Bai Yang's boyfriend and Fan Ying's lover were not disciplined in the anti-affair house cleaning. The two men who escaped punishment were Ma Lin, Chen's eventual doubles partner in Athens, and Wang Hao, the 2004 silver medallist in singles (and coincidentally, the man who sparked Chen Li's unsportsmanlike outburst). Chinese officials freely admitted that the two men were too important to send home:

Li, the association official, acknowledged that higher-ranked players were treated leniently. "We let the more important person (in the couples) stay because they have the heavier burdens and responsibilities," Li said.

And although Qiu is known as a very promising player, he is not yet one of the top players on the Chinese team, and is only 21 years old.

Poor Kong, a few years ago, might also have escaped serious discipline, or might at least (like Chen) have been allowed to continue with his competitive career. Alas, his days of heaping glory upon China are behind him now:

"He had already decided to quit from major tournaments and become a player-coach," the official said, which had effectively ruled him out of playing Olympic table tennis at Beijing in 2008.

On the one hand, that means that a ban or a suspension is more or less meaningless. However, as we saw from the Chen case, the table tennis association has a wide array of other techniques at its disposal. Who knows what public embarrassment they'll dream up for Kong?

July 23, 2006

Who's Driving on the Road To Excellence?

I've got my hands on a copy of the Road to Excellence Business Plan, released by the COC in April of this year. From a quick skim I can see that the document has lots of interesting stuff in it, and I'm looking forward to diving into it in more detail.

The report was authored by Dr. Roger Jackson, who was hired in 2005 to lead the COC's summer sport excellence program. At the time, I wondered if Jackson was too much an insider — too much part of the "old boys" network — to drive the kind of changes that would be needed to effect improvement in the Canadian sport system. One anonymous commenter chimed in that Jackson was a "blue blazer old school amateur chariots of fire type."

It turns out that in January of this year, Jackson was hired as the CEO of the Own the Podium 2010 "high performance unit," which was established to lead and manage the winter sport excellence program (I've written aboout Own the Podium most recently here).

The Road to Excellence stresses the importance of "incorporating the summmer sports into the same high performance leadership structure as is now in place for the winter sports." In other words, Own the Podium 2010 will become something called Podium, which will ultimately lead and manage all high performance sport programs in Canada — summer and winter. I'm not exactly sure where Jackson himself would fit into that plan; whether he would become the CEO of Podium, remain as a sort of vice-president on the winter side, or move over to the summer side.

About a month ago, George Gross had an article in the Toronto Sun speculating about the person that might be called upon to lead the planned improvement in summer sports. Now the fact that George Gross had Alex Baumann's name in mind may or may not mean anything. Gross certainly has the ear of the highest powers in the COC, so he may have Baumann's name from a reliable source. On the other hand, he's very careful not to say that in the article, and Baumann's name naturally pops up almost any time there's an opening in high-performance sport.

From the tone of the article, and from what's not being said, I'd guess that Baumann is at least on the short list. And if I can continue continue my quick and shallow analysis, he'd fit the requirements very well. He's young (42), and his still-remembered successes as an athlete would bring instant credibility. He's spent the past decade working his way up through the Australian sports system — so he's experienced and an outsider. That's a combination that's not easy to find.

July 19, 2006

NOC Hostages in Iraq

On Saturday the head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and a number of other top amateur sport officials were taken hostage in Baghdad:

… the kidnappers blindfolded and handcuffed all people in the room, police said. Police Lt. Thaer Mahmoud said Ahmed al-Hijiya, president of the committee, was taken around 1:30 p.m. local time along with other employees as they attended a conference in Karradah, a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. Others seized included the deputy head of the Olympic committee, Ammar Jabbar al-Saadi; the chairman of the Taekwondo Federation, Jamal Abdul-Karim; and the chief of the Boxing Federation Union, Bashar Mustafa, police added.

This followed a number of even more horrific incidents involving athletes and officials over the past few months; the coach of the national wrestling team was killed on Friday, with one of his athletes escaping the would-be kidnappers. The head of the national karate association was found floating in the Tigris on July 10. Fifteen members of a taekwondo team were kidnapped on May 17.

On Sunday, six of the most recent hostages were released, including four bodyguards. Reports on Wednesday stated that four more had been found alive.

The chair of the Iraqi Olympic Committee is still in custody, if he is still alive. The Committee's spokesman, Emad Nassir Hussain, was shot in the leg, but not taken by the gunmen. He credits the fact that he was left for dead, rather than abducted, to the time he spent on an exchange program to the US. In a telephone conversation with a USOC staff member, Hussain stated:

You may have saved my life. You told me to never wear a suit. I was wearing a T-shirt, a red-and-white T-shirt I bought in California. The gunman just wanted the guys in suits. I guess they thought I cleaned the place.

A quick Google for Hussain's name turned up the following quote from 2004, where the spokesman describes the horror that was the Iraqi Olympic Committee under the old regime:

During the former regime, international sports gained a dark reputation after Iraq's Olympic Committee and soccer federation was put under the control of Saddam Hussein's son Udai in 1984. At the Olympic committee's headquarters in Baghdad, Udai was said to have torture rooms and had the reputation of being unforgiving for gaffes on the field. When athletes lost, they were punished through acts of violence and humiliation. For women that often meant rape. The result was years of women shying away from taking part in competitive sports, said Emad Nassir Hussain, the Iraqi Olympic Committee spokesman.
     —cited Chicago Tribune, 28 July 2004

July 17, 2006

WADA Statistics 2005, Part 3

In Part 2 of this post, I discussed the statistics of anti-doping tests conducted by WADA from 2003 to 2005. Specifically, I showed the positive test rates for 2003, 2004, and 2005 for all summer and winter Olympic sports, plus a few selected other sports. As I noted in that post, there was a significant increase in the positive test rate in 2005 compared to the previous two-year period. In the first part of this discussion, which was several months ago, I discussed WADA's publicly-stated hypothesis that the year-over-year increase was due to an increase in the effectiveness of their testing, and not due to an increase in the rate of cheating.

In this post, I want to explore the statistics of the increase in more detail. My goal here is to provide a crude test of the hypothesis that the effectiveness of anti-doping programs increased between 2004 and 2005.

Measured positive test rate changes

The figure above shows some of the key data summarizing that increase. The upper plot shows the positive test rates for the period 2003-2004, and for 2005, for all of the sports. The sports are arrayed on the vertical axis, although the names are not shown in this plot — see Figure 1 from Part 2 for more detail. The positive test rate, defined here as the number of A-sample adverse analytical findings divided by the total number of tests, is displayed on the horizontal axis. The error bars on the positive test rate are calculated on the basis of the total number of tests performed. Large error bars mean there were few tests performed, and small error bars mean that there were many tests (see this post for details).

The lower plot shows the change in the positive test rate (2005 rate minus the 2003-04 rate) plotted as a function of the 2003-04 positive test rate. As I noted last time, the curve is consistent with the hypothesis that the increase is the same for all sports, having a mean value of 0.53%.

Now it is interesting to note that almost all of this 0.53% increase can be attributed to a single banned substance: testosterone. The number of adverse analytical findings for testosterone in 2004, in all sports, was 392. The number of adverse analytical findings for testosterone in 2005, in all sports, was 1132. An increase of 740 positive tests, out of 146,539 total tests, would result in an increase in the positive test rate of 0.50%. That's an interesting coincidence.

It also turns out that the test for testosterone was changed between 2004 and 2005. Specifically, the threshold for the testosterone test was lowered:

The 2005 figures include several elevated T/E ratios [a urine parameter used in anti-drug tests] over 4, which were not reported in previous years when the threshold was 6, partially accounting for the increased number of AAFs in 2005. (source, PDF)

Now, lowering your failure threshhold is guaranteed to accomplish two things: it will increase your probability of detecting cheaters, and it will increase your probability of "catching" innocent athletes by mistake. The degree of each change will depend on how many cheaters are below the current threshhold, and how many non-cheaters are above the new one. To be honest, I don't know the details of those distributions, but the observations we do have (provided by WADA) might be of some help in assessing the change. I don't have the testing breakdown by sport by substance, so I'll have to look at the global data for all banned substances.

To quantify this a little bit further, I'll assume that within each sport, a fraction DS of the population of tested athletes are using banned substances, where DS is different for each sport. I'll assume that when one of those cheating athletes is tested, there is a probability Pd (the probability of detection) that the test will give an adverse analytical finding, and that Pd is the same for all forty sports. (In other words, drug testing, overall, is equally effective in all sports. I don't think that's really true, but I'll do my best to gloss over that fact when I'm finished.) Finally, I'll assume that when any athlete (clean or dirty) in any sport is tested, there is a probability Pfp that the test will generate a false positive.

Under these assumptions, when N athletes are tested, the expected number of positive tests will be given by:

      A = N (Pfp + Pd DS) ,

and the positive test rate will be simply A/N. Since we're talking about positive tests for all banned substances combined, the probabilities and rates in the equation above have to be averaged over all banned substances as well.

I've run some simulations using this equation to try to estimate the effect of changing the probabilities Pd and Pfp. I set N equal to the number of tests actually performed, using the 2005 numbers as a basis, and then ran multiple Monte Carlo simulations to estimate the statistics of the distribution of the number A of observed positives. The underlying doping rates DS are unknown, but once the values of Pd and Pfp are specified, then the doping rates have to be set to match the observed positive test rates for 2003-04; from there I can simulate the effect of changing either Pd, or Pfp, or both, while holding the DS fixed.

If drug testing was more effective in 2005 than it was in 2004, I can model that as an increase in Pd for all sports. To make things simple, I'll assume for the moment that the probability of false positives is zero. I don't really have any idea what to use as the value for Pd in 2003-04, but for starters I'll assume that the probability of catching a doping athlete with a drug test was 25%.

If that probability increased to 36.5% in 2005, then the simulated positive test rates would be as shown in the figure below:

Simulated positive test rate changes

The upper plot shows the simulated positive test rates for the two proposed values of Pd, where the doping rates DS are set to match the 2003-04 observations, and then held constant for the 2005 simulation. The error bars on the positive test rates indicate the standard deviations of the Monte Carlo runs, and the red circles indicate the means.

The increase in Pd was chosen to match the mean observed increase of 0.53% in all sports, indicated by the dashed blue line on the lower plot. The same result is obtained from any similar proportional change in the probability of detection. In other words, an increase from 25% to 36.5% looks exactly the same as an increase from 65% to 95%, or from 10% to 14.5%.

As you can see, if the probability of detection is increased for all sports, then the greatest increase in the positive test rate should be in sports with the highest positive test rates, and the sports with very low positive test rates show the smallest increase. The expected increase is proportional to the initial positive test rate. That doesn't actually match the observed changes very well. In general the sports with the highest positive test rates showed little or no change in 2005 compared to 2003-04.

But what if, instead of increasing Pd, we simulated an increase in Pfp, the false positive rate? Then the picture looks quite different:

Simulated positive test rate changes

The figure above shows the effect of increasing the false positive rate in all sports from zero to 0.53%. In this case, the positive test rate is increased uniformly for all sports, regardless of the underlying doping rate. (I used a probability of detection of 25% for the simulation, but that parameter turns out to be irrelevant to the increase.)

Modelling the 2005 increase as an increase in the false positive rate looks like it matches the observations quite a bit better than an increase in the detection rate. Given the sample uncertainty, as I stated at the outset of this post, the observed increase is consistent with a uniform change in all sports.

One small problem with this theory is that the postulated false positive rate is pretty high. If Pfp = 0.0053 for all sports in 2005, then that should set a lower threshold on the observed positive test rates. Both luge (0%) and softball (0.37%) came in under the limit in 2005, but the number of tests involved was very small. With 178 tests in luge, we would have expected 0.94 positive tests, whereas none were observed. In softball, 542 tests should lead to 2.87 positives, whereas two were observed. So we're talking about less than one "missing" positive test in each case — I don't think we can rule out a false positive rate of 0.53% quite yet, and I think we have to at least consider the possibility that the false positive rate increased significantly in 2005.

Of course the assumptions I've used in my analysis are pretty simplistic; certainly all sports don't have the same kind of doping problem, and therefore their anti-doping programs are not all the same either. But my conclusions are based on a comparison of broad trends, and don't really depend critically on that assumption, I don't think. For a future analysis, it would be really nice if I could study the positive test rate changes for testosterone by itself, since I think that the increase in positive test rates was largely due to the changes in the testosterone test. Unfortunately, WADA doesn't provide that breakdown.

Some people might also reject my very first assumption, which was that athlete behaviour (specifically doping rates) didn't change between 2004 and 2005. What if they did change? Well, assuming that the tests were consistent from year to year, the observed changes in positive test rates suggest that the rate of doping increased more or less uniformly across the board. I can't really tell the difference between that event and a change in the false positive rate.

I have to live with the limitations of the analysis, which means that there's no "smoking gun" here. But everything I've looked at in the 2003-2005 statistics suggests that the increase in the positive test rate in 2005 came largely at the expense of athletes that weren't cheating in the first place.

July 11, 2006

WADA Statistics 2005, Part 2

Last September I wrote about the statistics of anti-doping tests. More recently WADA released the statistics for out-of-competition tests they conducted in 2005. As I noted at that time, there was a statistically significant rise in the percentage of positive tests in 2005 compared to 2004.

Last month, WADA released their annual report covering all tests conducted by WADA-accredited labs. That includes all in-competition and out-of-competition tests conducted by the various IFs, as well as those conducted by WADA directly. That's a huge number of tests, and the archives include detailed results for 2003 and 2004 as well. I'm going to spend a couple of posts looking at these numbers in more detail.

In Figure 1 (inset), I have plotted the positive test rate (number of positive tests divided by the total number of tests). The results are shown for each of the three years for all Olympic sports, and the five summer sports that are on the "short list" for inclusion in the Olympics. The total number of tests was more than 145,000 in 2005.


Figure 1 - Positive test rates 2003-2005

Figure 1 — positive test rates at WADA-accredited labs in 2003, 2004, and 2005 (click to enlarge).

Figure 2 - Positive test rate changes in 2005

Figure 2 — changes in the positive test rate in 2005 compared to the average for 2003-04 (click to enlarge).

Back in September I discussed how the sample size (number of tests) can be used to estimate the uncertainty in the measurement. Similar error bars are shown in Figure 1.

At the time I explained that calculation, I sort of glossed over the meaning of those error bars. I'm going to talk about changes in positive test rates, and in the next part of this post I'm going to speculate about reasons why those test rates changed in 2005, so I should be a bit more careful about that point here. What the error bars represent is the statistical distribution of positive test rates that you would measure if you repeated the ensemble of tests many times using different (but equivalent) random samples of athletes. If the tests don't change, and the behaviour of the athletes doesn't change, then the error bars should also represent the year-to-year variation in positive test rates.

As was the case with the much smaller sample I discussed in April, there was a statitsically significant increase in the positive test rate in 2005 compared to 2004 and 2003. The overall rate, averaged for the 40 sports, was (1.51 ± 0.36)% in 2003, (1.67 ± 0.35)% in 2004, and (2.10 ± 0.38)% in 2005.

It's also interesting to look at the increase on a sport-by-sport basis. Figure 1 demonstrates that the increase is roughly constant for all sports, although there are of course some exceptions. Figure 2 explores this in a little bit more detail, showing the difference between the 2005 positive test rate and the average of the 2003-04 positive test rates. Where the change is positive — as most of them are — it indicates more positive tests in 2005. The blue dashed line is the average change, which is 0.53%. When we take the error bars into account, the changes are consistent with the assumption that the positive test rate has increased uniformly for all sports.

If you squint, you might even convince yourself that the increase has been greatest for sports with low positive test rates, and less for sports with the highest catch rates. In the next part of this post, I'll talk a little bit more about what kinds of changes might lead to that kind of distribution.

Speaking of sports with high positive test rates, something struck me when I was comparing the 2003 results from my September post to the 2003 curve from this post. Namely, the 2003 rates reported by WADA are significantly higher than those reported by the IFs for the IOC report that was the basis of my earlier post. This is true across the board, but I particularly noticed cycling and triathlon.

Cycling was, by WADA's measure, the dirtiest of all 40 sports in 2003, with 486 positive tests out of 12,352 total (3.93%). In the IOC report, the UCI noted a total of 61 positives out of 12,352 tests (0.49%). The ITU similarly reported no positives out of 1664, whereas WADA's accredited labs counted 23 positives.

So what gives? It turns out there's a subtle difference in what's being reported. The IOC report counts "Number of tests reported that resulted in anti-doping rule violations," whereas WADA counts "A sample adverse analytical findings." The WADA reports footnote that fact, stating:

These figures may not to be [sic] identical to sanctioned cases, as the figures given in this report may contain findings that underwent the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) approval process. In addition, some adverse analytical findings also correspond to multiple measurements performed on the same athlete, in the case of longitudinal studies on testosterone.

This of course leads to a natural consideration of false positives, which I will also touch on in the next part of this post. But there's an interesting piece of data in the WADA results that sheds some light on the issue. The sport of Luge has not had a single positive test in three years (458 tests). This lets us put an upper bound on the false positive rate — the probability that an innocent athlete will have an adverse analytical finding by random chance. Based on the results from luge over the past few years, it can't be much more than 1 in 500 or 0.2%. Of course, if it's really that high I would be pretty dismayed — that would mean that about 290 tests (0.002 × 145000) were false positives in 2005 alone.

July 07, 2006

Gert Fredriksson, 1919-2006

I once had a Hungarian coach (who I have written about before) who used to teach us about kayaking in his own unique language. As part of that language there was a particular phrase that he used almost as a litany when discussing the historical stars of our sport. Whenever he mentioned the name of one of the greats — Helm, Parfenovich, Barton, Gyulai, Holmann — it was always followed by the responsorial psalm, "You know, he was many times World Champion."

A contemporary of Coach K—'s, Gert Fredriksson of Sweden, died Wednesday at the age of 86.

Gert Fredriksson from www.olympic.org

Fredriksson won six gold, a silver, and a bronze medal in flatwater kayaking over four Olympic games (1948-1960), which makes him the most decorated man in the history of Olympic canoeing. He also won seven World Championships outside of the Olympics. No other man has ever won more than his thirteen combined Olympic and World titles. He holds the unofficial records for the largest margin of victory in any Olympic canoe or kayak race, and for the largest margin of victory in any race that is still contested at the Olympics. When he won his final Olympic championship, he was nearly 41 years old.

Gert Fredriksson, 21 November 1919 - 5 July 2006.

You know, he was many times World Champion.

July 05, 2006

Brian Williams Leaves CBC Sports

This story is a few weeks old, and L-girl already brought it up in the comments back here, but I thought I'd better mention it. Brian Willams* has left CBC Sports. Williams is now working for Rogers/CTV, who have the rights to the Canadian Olympic broadcasts for 2010 and 2012.

(*Note to American readers: I don't mean this guy.)

So, short-term good news: we won't have Brian Williams to kick around in 2008 (which is still a CBC property). OK, that's not really fair. I know that lots of people really like Brian Williams, and his absence will be seen as a loss for CBC Sports. He's just not my cup of tea.

Just like when Chris Cuthbert left, there's gossip going around that CBC Sports boss Nancy Lee didn't handle the situation with the utmost of delicacy. In this case I'm not sure many bosses would have done differently — Williams had, after all, already accepted a job with CTV when he was fired.

As long as we're talking about CBC Sports, I'll mention the Final Report on the Canadian News Media, authored by the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communication. The Standing Committee has recommended, among other things, that CBC should get out of the business of broadcasting professional sports and the Olympics:

This Committee believes that the CBC should greatly reduce its broadcasting of professional sports (e.g., hockey games) and the Olympics since these are activities that will be covered by other broadcasters in both official languages. In addition, broadcasts of professional sports are readily available everywhere in Canada via cable and satellite.

Sport is, of course, part of Canadian culture. Professional sports are increasingly carried by specialty channels and this trend will continue. This tendency, evident in the United States, is also occurring in Canada. It has already had an impact on the CBC French language service, which has lost its rights to NHL hockey to a specialty channel (RDS). Similarly, the CBC lost its bid for the 2010 and 2012 Olympics. In the near future, the CBC may well lose the English-language rights for the NHL to a private sector service. This reality needs to be recognized and dealt with in a way that does not interfere with the mandate of Canada’s national public broadcaster.

I should point out that the committee has also recommended that the government provide "realistic and stable funding" on a "long-term basis," with the goal of removing advertising from CBC Television. I suppose that in the fantasy land where this funding recommendation comes true, getting out of the revenue-generating sports business might be good for Canadian sport as a whole. It would probably mean more exposure for lower-profile sports, and support for projects that only a public broadcaster can do. That exposure — subsidized by the Canadian taxpayer — would indirectly lead to more private-sector revenue for amateur sport.

I found the link to the report via The Tea Makers, a good blog written by an anonymous CBC employee. Ouimet supports the concept of cutting sports, but argues that the private broadcasters should be the ones paying to keep the CBC out of the competition.

As a big fan of the Olympics, I'd be sorry to see the CBC stop bidding. In my experience, they do a better job of covering the Games than any private broadcaster I have seen. But that doesn't mean, necessarily, that CTV or some other private entity couldn't do a good job. They just haven't shown it so far, and I'm not sure why that is. Maybe part of the answer is that CBC Sports just has more expertise, developed through years of experience. If CBC Sports really got out of the business, then a lot of talented people — on-screen and off — would migrate to the private broadcasters eventually.

It's kind of amusing, though, to read suggestions that CBC should get out of the hockey business. Even if they didn't have the NHL or the winter Olympics, hockey is just too much part of Canadian culture for the CBC to ignore. We still might end up with a program lineup entirely and completely dedicated to shows about hockey.

July 01, 2006

I'll Stop the HRM Games, Because I Know What's Good For You

A few months ago, I posted my thoughts on my hometown's attempt to win the right to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. During that discussion, I mentioned a professional-looking anti-bid website called Halifax No Way, and another, um, less professional one called the Stop the HRM Commonwealth Games Site (or perhaps it's called "Index," I'm not quite sure).

The proprietor of the latter is one Bruce DeVenne of Lower Sackville. Mr. DeVenne found my blog and left a couple of comments to my post, which you can read for yourself. Our conversation continued by e-mail, and was quite civil, but I don't think that I managed to change his mind one iota. Mr. DeVenne continues to sing a one-note tune about the cost of hosting the Games. I've already expressed my thoughts on that argument, and I'll leave it at that.

Recently I paid a visit to Halifax No Way to see what was new in the anti-Games camp. From what I had seen before, they had presented a balanced view of the risks inherent in the bid, and fair criticism of the bid process.

Unfortunately, Halifax No Way is off the air. I was intrigued, though, by this disclaimer on their front page:

Take Note: The owners of this site are not associated with Bruce DeVenne nor do they support his effort to block Halifax from winning the bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth games.

Oh. I thought these were Mr. DeVenne's allies?

A little digging turned up more of the story. Mr. DeVenne has been frequenting (and I mean frequenting) at least one Scottish message board. This thread starts off with Glaswegians happily anticipating their own city's bid; Mr. DeVenne chimes in on about page 10. Soon thereafter, he's joined by several pro- and anti-bid voices from Nova Scotia, and the Scottish audience is treated to a debate on the merits of the Halifax bid.

Mr. DeVenne's strategy seems to be to undermine the Halifax bid by providing ammunition and encouragement to Glasgow's supporters. He posts quite a bit of material arguing in favour of Glasgow, and lots that is derogatory (although completely public as far as I can see) about the Halifax bid. He also ends up arguing quite a bit in opposition to the idea of hosting, period, which might undermine his goal, but I guess he can't entirely keep his true opinions to himself.

Now, I don't have any problem with people who think that Halifax cannot or should not host the Commonwealth Games. As I argued before, I'm not saying that it's a slam dunk — all I want is an argument that is framed in the proper terms. And if Mr. DeVenne thinks that he can convince his fellow citizens not to support Halifax's bid, well that's his right. The people of Halifax have the right to choose whether their tax dollars should be used to pursue this adventure.

But every opinion poll that has been conducted so far has shown overwhelming support for the bid. Mr. DeVenne's own on-line petition against the bid has garnered only 135 signatures, and there is no telling how many of those people are really on his side — as he told me himself, "The pro side has some people who aren't the brightest bulbs on the tree they are filling in pro games messages in the comment boxes but then voting to kill the games. People have to learn to read what they are signing."

This is all a bit hypocritical coming from a man who likes to portray himself as the little guy fighting city hall. In the absence of significant bid opposition from the public, he's decided that he'd better take matters into his own hands — the majority be damned. He'll stop the HRM games one way or another, because he knows what's good for us … I guess even better than we know ourselves.