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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Doping, management and inquisitions

A-Rod hits the bottom, Sevens Rugby hits the USA and Carl Lewis hits out at track and field

It's been a pretty controversial last 48 hours for US sport, with the revelations that Alex Rodriguez, the owner of baseball's richest ever contract ($275 million over 10 years with the Yankees) has admitted to using steroids during a period from 2001 to 2003. It means that one of baseball's great heros is now tainted with the same brush that has affected McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, Clemens and dozens of others, with the prospect of another 104 names to be released in the next few days.

All in all, baseball's credibility is fast disappearing, as can be seen by the headlines in the papers in response to A-Rod's confession: "A-roid", "Cheat", "Deception" are some of the common words. The strange thing about this is that Rodriguez is breaking the mould somewhat by confessing (having initially denied it, accordingto the script these guys read from). Some commentators have suggested that by confessiong, Rodriguez will escape the same kind of fallout that has affected McGwire and Bonds (who is facing jail-time). Honesty will see him rise above this, they say.

I don't believe him. I have watched the interview with Peter Gammons of ESPN, and it seems to me that he is playing what has now become the classic game of admitting to part, but not all of the allegations, once you've been caught red-handed. It's a case of say something to pacify the wolves at your door, but say only enough to keep them quiet. Marion Jones turned this deception into an art form when she admitted to doping but thinking in was flaxseed oil. A-Rod seems, to me at least, to be taking a similar approach. "To be quite honest I don't know exactly what substance I was guilty of using" were his words in response to the question about which substances he had used.

It seems to me, based on numerous cases in the last few years, that elite athletes are capable of lying without the slightest sign of deception. Rodriguez himself outright denied steroid use in 2007 in a 60 Minutes interview with Katie Couric. "I've never felt overmatched on the baseball field. I've always been a very strong, dominant position. And I felt that if I did my work since I was, you know, a rookie back in Seattle, I didn't have a problem competing at any level. So, no." His justification was at least original, convincing himself that he was worthy of his place among baseball's stars without steroids.

However, hindsight betrays his deception, and renders that apparently sincere answer a complete farce. The problem, then, for any newly-confessed doper, is that having weaved complex lies before, they now expect to be believed for their honesty? Perhaps I'm less trusting than most, but it feels as though we've heard "Wolf" too often and so Rodriguez's latest interview "confession" doesn't work for me.

Interestingly, his performances during his doping years (assuming we believe that he suddenly stopped doping, despite having some of the best success of his career, and moving to the Yankees where the pressure would be even greater than it was in Texas) were quite a bit better than in the other ten years of his career. According to ESPN, he hit 52 Home-runs a season while using steroids compared to 39.2 without, and 131.7 RBI per season compared to 119 when not using steroids. More detailed statistics would be insightful, perhaps they'll materialize in coming days.

All in all, I feel there's more to come, particularly for baseball. Perhaps A-Rod, by virtue of the "wholesome" interview he gave, will be passed over, and certainly, he has avoided the fate of Barry Bonds. But he's the latest in a long line of "symptoms" for baseball, though the underlying cause remains untreated (and is perhaps untreatable).

Sevens Rugby: A game and a website worth checking

On a more positive note (uplifting, that is, not doping positive), if you're a fan of Sevens rugby, then you'll appreciate the qualities of the game. Even if you're not a fan of rugby, Sevens brings a dimension to the sport that attracts the "non-purists", which is its most valuable (and potentially profitable) quality. The game has taken off in the smaller nations, because it gives them an opportunity to match the traditional powerhouses far more than would be the case in the 15-man version of the game.

Just this past weekend in Wellington, the USA beat Fiji, Wales beat New Zealand, Argentina beat England and Kenya beat South Africa. Such upsets are relatively common, and highlight the growth and relative competitive balance in the game. That competitive balance does not exist in the 15-man game, where the outcome of all but about six possible matches is known before the kickoff.

What will be interesting in the future is whether the game grows faster than the 15-man game, particularly in the lucrative Gulf region. You'll recall a post we did a month ago looking at how the Gulf region (Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Dubai) have pumped enormous money into bringing sport to the region. The world's richest golf tournaments, marathons, tennis exhibitions, Formula 1 races are but a few of the sports they have attracted. And Sevens rugby, faster, more competitive, and more exciting, looms as a possible "product" for the region. If it were possible, I'd be buying shares in Sevens rugby.

Onto a more personal involvement with Sevens, I've been fortunate enough to have been involved with the SA Sevens Team (currently number 1 in the world rankings, long may it continue) thanks to the vision of Paul Treu, the coach. I'll be going to the World Cup in Dubai in the first week of March, and the Hong Kong Tournament at the end of March.

Paul Treu, the youngest coach on the circuit, is also one of the smartest, and most savvy. He recently started up his own website, to which I contribute from time to time. My latest article can be read here - a commentary on sporting success and failure. For Sevens fans, the site is well worth following.

This week sees the Sevens Series visit the USA, and so if you're in the San Diego area, this is your chance to check out my post first-hand. The action happens at PETCO Park, starting Saturday. It's the last tournament before the World Cup in Dubai, and following on from Wellington, should be a great battle. So if you're in the San Diego area, make a plan to join the 50,000 other expected fans there (and drop us your feedback if you do!).

Track and field in the USA under fire

The Beijing Olympic Games were a low point for US track and field. They came up against an extra-ordinary athlete in Usain Bolt, and short of producing three world records, they were never going to win gold medals anyway. On the women's side, it was more of the same as Jamaica took three of the four sprint medals, Great Britain the other, and the USA claimed only the gold of LaShawn Merritt in the 400m.

To cap it off, both teams dropped the relay baton in the 4 x 100m. In response, the USATF Chief Executive Doug Logan called for the analysis and a nine-person task team led by Carl Lewis got to work. Their report was released yesterday, and among other criticisms, cites excessive travel by athletes, poor planning, a lack of professionalism among athletes, "chaos" in the national organization's relay program and a "culture of mistrust" among athletes and coaches as reasons for the disappointing performances.

So widespread are the reported problems that to enact the recommendations will require bylaw changes. They include the creation of a general manager for the organization's high-performance division; the development and support of high-performance training centers across the nation; shorter Olympic trials; specific criteria for athletes to compete as professionals; a comprehensive plan for winning 30 medals at the 2012 Summer Games; the creation of an organized athletes union; and more stringent standards for reinstatement after doping bans.

Is the criticism justified? As I said upfront, Bolt was never going to be beaten unless the USA managed to produce three world records in the short sprints. The relay failure certainly warrants mention, and the report calls for the termination of an expensive relay development programme. I don't know the ins and outs of this programme, but it seems to me that relay success requires finding four or five very fast sprinters (a separate system), combined with a week's worth of decent practice. No programme required...?

On the note of the trials, there is some physiological justification. As an outsider, the proximity of the US trials, combined with the very 'black and white' criteria for the selection of the team means that the season peak is stretched, possibly beyond what is achievable. This was the same as the swimming debate for the USA, since many of their best swimmers seemed tired by the time they got to Beijing.

The same may have happened to the athletes. To force an athlete to peak for the trials (which they have to do in order to qualify, especially in the sprints) and then to hold that for the Olympics a few months later is a physiological challenge, perhaps an impossible one.

A comparison with South Africa

In terms of the management structures that were so heavily criticized, my interpretation is based on my own experiences here in South Africa. It is interesting that the report's recommendations are very much in line with what was suggested in a report developed for SA sport in 2007. It too called for professionalization, high performance centres, and funding for sports science. Sadly, government have stumbled through implementation and ended up making a bad situation worse, so it's always interesting to read other nation's responses to similar situations.

The problem with strategic recommendations made by these reports is always implementation. Often, the organization charged with executing the strategy will attempt to do so within their current structures. The nature of such reports, however, is transformational, in that they often call for radical overhauls of the existing system and structures. So you have a Catch 22 situation, where the incumbents are asked to overhaul a system they're tightly embedded in, and they inevitably fail. It needs a transformational implementation, which is why execution lets them down. It will be interesting to see if the USA make these changes. South African didn't -the same people tried to execute the new strategy without the required change in support, and so given that they'd steered the sport into the abyss to begin with, they were always going to fail. It was a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

On the note of South Africa...

If the USA felt that they had a poor Olympic Games, consider that South Africa won only one medal in TOTAL. Yet to date, the only sports code that has commissioned an enquiry into what went wrong is swimming. The government blustered and huffed and puffed and did nothing else, other than butcher the proposal they were given thanks to the personal egos and incentives of people within the system who prefer to wallow in mediocrity than to fix the situation. Then, on the other end of the extreme, certain academics and scientists undermined the hope of improvement through their refusal to collaborate with one another out of personal vendettas and, once again, insecurity.

We were inches away from negotiating a collaborative agreement for a sports federation that would have seen the athletes benefit. That was thanks to the vision and security of those in charge of the two respective institutions, who actually dared to collaborate and listen to others. Then a huge ego intervened and expertise was gagged, blacklisted and sidelined. So while the USA has problems with its systems, and hopefully can redeem the situation, if it's any consolation, South Africa will not pose a threat to any of your medal chances in 2012. We are a nation full of world-leaders in their own Universities, people who love to be the king or queen of their own sandpit while the athletes around them suffer thanks to their own inabilities.

Last word goes to Logan, the CEO of US Track and Field:

"Change never comes out of a climate of comfort. This report has and will produce a significant amount of discomfort. . . . At the end of the day, this is the only way this institution will be able to . . . realize its potential."

Ross

6 Comments:

Giovanni Ciriani said...

This is beside the point, but actually he didn't lie. Or better, his body language didn't lie, while his lips were lying.

I'm surprised that almost nobody caught his lie to Couric. His body language irrefutably showed a yes (a nod of the head) while his lips were saying no. I'm surprised that nobody stepped forward to say this back in 2007.

Everybody who lies has some other subconscious behavior that is associated with the correct answer. This is no bogus or voodoo science. There is a new show Lie to me (Wed.9EST Fox), that is popularizing the concept. The show is inspired by Dr. Paul Ekman, a scientist who pioneered the science of facial expressions.

I haven't seen the second interview, but it would be very easy, after having read one of Dr.Ekman books, to tell whether he's telling the truth or not in the case of the New York years.

John Lee said...

It's interesting how the focus is always about home runs in these steroid cases. Wouldn't we assume that other statistics like doubles and triples and total hits would increase if a player was measurably stronger? Yet Rodriguez's statistics in those categories were basically flat.

Does Roger Maris ever get accused of doing amphetamines during his 61 home run season? After all, his second closest total was 39. A one season jump of home runs? Must be performance enhancers!

The point of this is trying to figure out how steroids helps. Is there a minimum amount of extra strength you need to actually become better? In the case of Barry Bonds, did it make him that much stronger or did it simply keep him from breaking down from injury? Once baseball started its drug testing, Bonds began to suffer all sorts of debilitating injuries to his legs. Was his benefit unnaturally extending his career?

Outliers abound in baseball history. Part of the confusion is trying to separate the true outliers from the chemically enhanced ones.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Giovanni

Agreed that there are definitely physiological cues that betray the act of lying. Where I disagree is that it's "easy" to catch the lie, because sometimes it's not, depending on the person and how they are able to control it. After all, some people become so good that they are able to hide even the internal physiological signals and pass lie detector tests.

I suspect that if one used a high speed camera, you'd catch tiny cues, but only upon closer analysis. So I don't think it's as simple as that. I think that everybody does have some subconscious behaviour, facial expression or cue, but it may not always be as obvious as A-Rod's nod, which is very interesting.

Then to John Lee:

Fair point about the other performance parameters, certainly should be looked at. I think in the case of Bonds, it was definitely a case of extending his career, and also allowing him to do the training necessary to maintain the level of strength to remain injury free and get stronger without injury.

I am quite sure that peak strength is the main 'beneficiary' when steroids allow increased training. Under those circumstances, "mis-hits" which would ordinarily be caught in the outfield may suddenly reach the fence. The result would be that home runs would increase.

However, I imagine that triples and doubles wouldn't necessarily rise, because a hit that would normally produce a single would not necessarily produce a double as a result of increased strength, and a double would not necessarily be turned into a triple. That's because of coverage in the field. You could quite easily suggest that hits into the outfield would be caught more often when on steroid, and fail to find space, for example.

And total hits wouldn't be a function of strength either. So perhaps it's not necessary that those parameters increase. I stand corrected on this, but I still think steroids would impact on HR most. The other one is games played, but that's not always a direct function of steroids, but would happen in the years after use, difficult to pin down.

I guess the big unanswerable question is:

Would the player achieve the same level of sustained performance without steroids (and other drugs, don't forget, I'm sure that steroids are not isolated)? I would say no, certainly in the case of Bonds. And probably with others. And I think they may be outliers anyway, because a lot more goes into performance than strength. But they're breaking rules, knowingly. Performance aside, that deserves condemnation.

Ross

Giovanni Ciriani said...

Ross,
You are right. My "easy" was an hyperbole to make the point that it is possible. However, his nod in front of Couric was so blatantly easy to detect.

I wanted to add that lie detectors are unreliable, whereas "micro-expression", which are involuntary muscle contractions of the 43 muscles in the face, for around 0.2 seconds, are very reliable, and impossible to conceal even for somebody trained in lie evasion. Granted you need somebody trained in the field to detect them.

John Lee said...

Ross,

If a player hits the ball harder because he has more strength, presumably that strength would apply to all balls hit, not just balls hit into the air. Therefore, if a player can hit a groundball harder, maybe that means an infielder can't get to it when otherwise a "non-steroid fueled" ball could be fielded. I would think that ought to lead to an increase in singles.

I understand your point about hits that are not on the ground, but I can't think of a legitimate reason of why there wouldn't be more ground ball hits.

Another thought I have is the other end of steroid users: why do a documented number of players seem to gain no benefit or even see a decline in performance? Mental effects associated with the shameful nature of using steroids? There were a number of players who used steroids in baseball's pre-2003 anonymous survey period who, with almost explicit consent, were using steroids, yet failed to gain any benefit. Both Jeremy and Jason Giambi used steroids; both were solid (or better, in Jason's case) major league hitters, yet Jeremy failed to improve.

On a side note, thanks for having this site. You guys do a fantastic job, though I don't know how you find the time to do it.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi JOhn Lee

Thanks for dropping by again.

You're right, it might turn groundballs into singles if the ball is struck harder. It could also reduce them if the ball is hit harder and reaches and outfielder sooner, so I guess it would work either way. Perhaps a ground ball is a "mishit" that is so bad that steroids make only 1% difference to it. All speculation. I'm sure that if someone could prove who was using steroids, they'd be able to do a proper analysis of their stats and find proof of performance changes, whether they be in singles.

As for the failure of some to improve, that's a really interesting point. Could be a psychological thing. Maybe their training didn't do justice to the doping, because we know that they'd have to at the very least train as hard, perhaps differently (I don't know enough about baseball training for hitters). Or perhaps there are responders and non-responders - there certainly are for supplements like creatine.

Or perhaps steroids don't affect performance! And the major effect, as you suggested in your first comment, is the improved ability to recover from injuries or stay injury free. That would of course translate into better performances in the long term, but perhaps some guys were not injury prone and didn't see a benefit.

Thanks for visiting and the complements, great to hear!

Ross