Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Time to rebel against invasive drug rules?

In an article in today's Times Online, Matt Syed tells us it's "Time to rebel against invasive drug rules." He writes:

"The debate on drugs in sport has been driven by fanaticism for too long. The idea has been abroad that the only way to confront the scourge of cheating is to adopt a zero-tolerance approach that treats professional sportsmen as something akin to criminals. Oppressive monitoring, invasive scrutiny, blood testing — all are part and parcel of the Orwellian reality of modern sport...Some will say that professional sportsmen are at perfect liberty to retire from whatever sport they happen to be playing if they do not like the prevailing rules of the game, but there is a more attractive option at their disposal. They should tell WADA to take a running jump — and thus gain possession, once again, of their lives and liberties."

Certainly not your standard, fawning, "anti-dopers can do no wrong" media coverage, and a piece worthy of debate. Please read this piece in its entirety (provided below) and if you have any feedback, don't hesitate to share it.



Those within the anti-doping apparatus have no inhibition. They want to go farther still. The British Olympic Association is seeking unprecedented legal powers to allow the police to search the rooms of athletes at the 2012 Olympic Games. The UK Anti-Doping agency (Ukad), which opened its doors for business for the first time on Monday, is reportedly considering hiring private detectives to spy on athletes to detect nefarious behaviour.

On the second point, one wonders why this is necessary. The International Standard for Testing protocol, issued by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), requires top athletes to provide information on their whereabouts three months in advance. For an hour of every day the athlete must be available at a designated location to conduct a random drugs test. Popping out is not an option; a missed test and you are a third of the way to the obliteration of your career and reputation.

But that is not all. The athlete must also tell the authorities where he will be sleeping every night, where he will be training and competing, and any other regular activity in which he is involved, whether going to school, a part-time job, whatever. The authorities want to know the pattern of your behaviour, the way you go about your sport, the way you conduct your private life, because — even beyond the specified hour — they retain the right to conduct a random test.

These are serious matters. The right to privacy is enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and for good reason. As George Orwell understood, the moment that power is handed to any institution — and unelected institutions most of all — there is a malign tendency to make unjustified incursions into the private sphere of the individual. For years sportsmen willingly endured the indignity of peeing into a cup under the gaze of anonymous testers, but the totalitarian scrutiny of the new rules has tilted them towards rebellion.

“It’s crazy,” Rafael Nadal has said. “I don’t know if, from a legal point of view, this is correct. That is, to know where you are every single moment of your life. It’s a high price to pay to practise your sport.”

The Spanish tennis player is not alone. Andy Murray has said that “these new rules are so draconian that it makes it almost impossible to live a normal life”. Meanwhile, Michel D’Hooghe, the medical committee chairman of Fifa, the governing body of world football, likened the rules to an “inquisition”.

What is certain is that professional sport is gripped by paranoia. “We spend our days panicking, having always to think about when our nominated hour is on that day,” was the conclusion of an open letter by 16 Olympic and World Championship medal-winning rowers in February last year.

“There are some athletes who are so worried about missing tests inadvertently they have said if they got to two missed tests they would seriously consider retiring,” said Pete Gardner, of the British Athletes Commission.

The complexity of Wada’s form-filling requirements has led to claims that doping violations are more likely to be the consequence of administrative naivety rather than deliberate cheating. In November, Yanina Wickmayer, a 20-year-old tennis player from Belgium, was suspended for 12 months for failing to provide her whereabouts three times. She claimed that it was because of a logistical misunderstanding.

Her conviction was suspended by the Belgian courts last month owing to concerns about due process and the International Tennis Federation, after a brief period of silence, rescinded her ban. But the stain to her reputation remains. Wada, for its part, continues to push forward, to the extent of appealing Wickmayer’s original ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport with the possibility that it could be reintroduced and extended.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Wada, together with its anti-doping affiliates around the world, has become a gigantic, publicly subsidised industry with little interest in civil liberties and even less in the principles of natural justice. While the presumption of guilt implied by the strict liability clause of the Wada code was accepted by many as a necessary legal device to prevent cheats getting away with their crimes, the operation of the code has created a bonanza of false positives.

In an investigative article in the British Journal of Sports Medicinein 2008, it was shown that the vast majority of positive test results in tennis between 2003 and 2007 had been a consequence not of cheating but of factors such as recreational drug taking and the use of over-the-counter medications prescribed by doctors unfamiliar with the (ever-expanding) Prohibited List.

Wada’s appetite for perverse convictions was perhaps best highlighted by the case of a wheelchair tennis player who had previously been hospitalised for asthma. The player took all her medical papers to the tournament, but because she had faxed the original therapeutic-use exemption application to the wrong address, she had no valid exemption in place. She was banned for one month. Wickmayer would doubtless sympathise.

Asked about the vexed issue of the whereabouts rule, Andy Parkinson, who heads Ukad, offered the following observation: “There is no doubt whereabouts is intrusive, but as long as it’s proportionate to the risk of doping in sport, then it has a very valid place.” The problem, however, is that the anti-doping industry lost sight of the concept of proportionality long ago.

Drugs enhance performance through two principal mechanisms: by boosting strength (anabolic steroids, etc) and endurance (EPO, blood doping and the like). In single-dimension sports such as running, cycling, swimming and lifting, these can confer a material advantage. That is why drug cheating is endemic and a valid argument can be made that drug-free competition in these sports demands all the measures at the disposal of Wada.

But in the vast majority of sports — tennis, football, badminton, hockey, cricket and so on — the gains of prohibited substances are far less certain. Roger Federer is not the best tennis player in the world because he has superior muscles or more oxygenated blood, but because of the sophistication of his timing and perceptual awareness. These attributes are immune to the chemical promptings of drugs, which is why doping is so much rarer in such sports. (The same applies to football. Lionel Messi could have the endurance of Hercules and the muscles of Achilles, but it would not help him to kick a football any more accurately.) In effect, tennis players, footballers and the like are being asked to pay an intolerable price in fear, paranoia and institutional intrusion for transgressions that have taken place in sports with entirely different risk profiles. Wada likes to call it harmonisation, without seeming to realise, much less care, that by creating a one-size-fits-all regime tailored for the lowest common denominator, it has torn to shreds the legal principle of proportionality.

Some will say that professional sportsmen are at perfect liberty to retire from whatever sport they happen to be playing if they do not like the prevailing rules of the game, but there is a more attractive option at their disposal. They should tell Wada to take a running jump — and thus gain possession, once again, of their lives and liberties.

6 comments:

  1. I'm sure that, like Syed, Floyd Landis would argue that "The problem, however, is that the anti-doping industry lost sight of the concept of proportionality long ago."

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  2. I disagree with the notion that only endurance sports are likely to have a doping problem. In fact, that's pure nonsense. If two players (or two teams) are equal in skill, the more fit one should prevail. And if you accept that doping enhances performance, you can see clear reasons why it would help with that aspect.

    Whether it's striking a tennis ball faster, running quicker or longer on a football field or even driving a golf ball further, banned substances can aid sports performance. In addition, many of those other sports listed as reduced risk have actually far more cash at stake. That's a pretty big carrot.

    And tennis? Nadal may call for less severe monitoring but, after all, he was rumoured to have been a patient of a certain doctor in Madrid...

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  3. i get drug tested at work, and not only do i have to tell them where i'll be for 8 hours a day, but i have to be here at work, and they're allowed to come check up on my at any time. it's something i signed up for, not something that was forced on me, so it's hard to complain. nobody has to comply with wada to ride bikes, or even make a living riding bikes (you could be a bike tour guide...). now, if you want to ride bikes in such a way that, and within a system in which, people give you money for your performances, there are bound to be some rules, a little give and take if you will. if it's too much give and not enough take for you, find something else to do.

    the argument that it's become too much, or too overbearing would resonate more with me if i didn't read about a new doping positive every other week. it's like saying that there is too much airport security even if there were terrorist attacks every two weeks. it would seem to me that the current system is not invasive enough if people still manage to hide their doping. maybe invasive is not the best word, how about effective?

    and the "it doesn't help sports like tennis or soccer" argument is just plain wrong. you may not be able to take drugs to make you hit the ball more accurately, but you certainly can take drugs to make sure that when the 5th set comes around, you can still run from one side of the court to the other in time to hit the ball, or outsprint a defender to the ball in the 89th minute of a soccer game.

    my view on the whole thing is this: prosecute dopers for fraud/theft, which is what doping is (one count for every person involved in the race), give them jail time (remember marion jones, she sang like a canary when the threat of jail time came up), test all samples retroactively, for ever, one doping offense = get any mention of the doper off all previous record books/race results. then we'll see who's willing to put their freedom and legacy at stake.

    my two cents.

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  4. Excellent comments so far, very true. Doping can enhance performance in almost every sport. After all, even Biathlon is enhanced by drugs which lower the heart-rate and allow for steadier aim.

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  5. It's an empty argument which ignores the proven cases of doping in Italian football and the systematic abuse of cortisone injections in the sport throughout the last 50 years.

    Not to mention that it turns away form any evidence on the effects of fatigue on performance. It's not for nothing that the England cricket team spend a fortune now on fitness and conditioning work. So to pretend that doping could have no benefit beggars belief.

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  6. Very true, Alex. Who do you think that he is writing for, or why? Wonder what his motivation was in writing that piece.

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