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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Giro d'Italia 2009

Good news, Bad news prior to start of Giro centenary

This weekend see the start of the 100th running of the Giro d'Italia. It is notable for many reasons, first because it is one of the grand tours and has a significant place in cycling history, legend, and mythology. This year we can add to the hype because Lance Armstrong will be making his Giro debut, so all eyes will be upon the race to see how it goes. Many questions remain about his goals, how he will perform, and whether or not he or Levi Leipheimer will emerge as the Astana team leader. But as always with cycling, we have to talk about doping. . .

The bad news

It is now being reported on Cyclingnews.com and other sites that the first "non-negative" test has been returned even before the first stage. It turns out that Austrian National Champion Christian Pfannberger (Katusha) returned a non-negative out-of-competition test on 19 March. It has not been released yet what substance produced the result, but according to ProTour rules the team must suspend any rider until all samples can be analyzed and his name cleared or he is officially suspended by the UCI and/or his national body.

A couple of things are noteworthy here. First, Pfannberger served a previous ban from June 2004 to June 2006 as he tested positive for testosterone. He served that ban, fair enough, but the question must be asked regarding the deterrence of bans and testing. On this case alone we must conclude that the benefits of doping outweigh the risks of getting caught. This point was first argued by Michael Shermer at Scientific American and is an eloquent approach to understanding doping in sport.

Second, Pfannberger is a national champion (2007 and 2008) and was a top ten finisher in 2008 at The Amstel Gold Race (6th), La Fleche Wallonne 9th), Leige-Bastogne-Liege (5th), and the UCI World Champs (8th). Clearly he is an ambitious rider trying to be competitive at the top and not just sacrifice himself for a team leader in big races.

The good news

In the end we are fans of cycling, so let's try to look on the bright side of this. A cheater has been caught even before he started the race. Furthermore, if his "non-negative" is confirmed he will face a lifetime ban by the UCI for a second doping violation. As more athletes are caught it can only be a good thing for the sport, although cycling is a long way from being declared "cured" of doping.

Looking ahead to the next few weeks as the Giro unfolds, we should expect more positives, and we should be cynical of exemplary performances. Does this make us pessimists? No. Simply put, the history of cycling dictates this. Last year during the Olympics we wrote that it is legitimate to question Usain Bolt's amazing performance in the 100 m, because there are no major sprint champions in the last 30 years who have escaped suspicion, and many have been caught or confessed.

Just a note on this - if you check the comments below, you'll see an interesting comment or two - we just have to emphasize that we're not casting doubt. In fact, if you read the article we wrote at the time, you'll see that we've in fact stated that we believe Bolt to be legit. You can read that article here. However, it's still appropriate to wonder, which is what we're saying here - the history of the sport has forced on us a suspicion and mistrust, which is perhaps the most unfortunate consequence.

So like it or not, doping is a part of the cycling scenery and must be kept in mind as we go forward. Having said that, however, you can still enjoy the racing, and way back in 2007 we gave you some reasons why you should still watch the racing.

Looking ahead: try to watch the TTT

The first stage this year promises to be spectacular, a 20.5 km team time trial set in Venice with St. Mark's cathedral looming in the background. It is a dead flat course on a sandbar so the guys are going to be "low flying" on their way to the finish. Team Garmin-Slipstream has targeted this stage once again and will try to place one of their riders in the maglia rosa like they did with Christian Vandevelde last year.

We will be following the race a bit more this year due to its elevated "newsworthy" status, and we will also try to work in our much-anticipated commentary on Andy Shen's interview with Michael Ashenden, so stay tuned as we swtich over from running to cycling for a bit!

Jonathan

16 Comments:

Derek said...

In response to mentioning Usain Bolt as being under suspicion along with all of the sprint champions in the last 30 years; I understand and respect the logic, however I have cautiously grown to feel that it is un unfair suspicion, being that his rise to success does not follow the classic dopers template of inconsistency as Rashid Ramzi so perfectly demonstrates. It should be noted that Usain Bolt was a world junior champion and was running blisteringly fast 200's in his teens. Usain is anything BUT inconsistent. He was a junior gold medalist in 2002 and ran 19.93 for 200m as a teen, as well as holding a world junior record. That doesn’t sound like a doper to me. We may not have heard of him as a professional being that he was injured for the first two years of his professional career, but past performances show that he doesn’t need to cheat to be a champion. I have been cautiously optimistic for a long time, but I believe the stats show his innocence. I think it’s time we stop being suspicious of him, and time to start thanking him for what is arguably the best thing that has happened to the sport in many many years.

I am in no way criticizing our beloved sports scientists, I’m just using this board as a way to express my opinion after the previously described comment caught my attention and stood out.

The Sports Scientists said...

Hi Derek,

Thanks for the comment and as always for reading.

I was not trying to say that Bolt is now under suspicion, but merely that the knee-jerk reaction was and should be to raise an eyebrow because of the history of sprinting.

After poking around of course one can see that indeed he did have a steady rise to the top, and his career so far has not been highlighted by inconsistencies and amazing performances from nowhere a la Ramzi.

The bigger point was that sprinting, much like cycling, has a long history of doped champions, and therefore it is valid to raise the question.

I do not think Bolt is doped, and I think the evidence we presented in our "Discovering. . ." post last year supports that conclusion to a large extent. You reiterate many of those facts in your comment.

I suppose the bigger point for all of us as fans of both sports is that for some time now we cannot just accept winners as being winners, and to fully "validate" their performances we have to look back and take in their prior history before we can make a fully-informed decision about them.

What a pity, but then again the age of innocence ended a long time ago!

Thanks again for reading!

Kind Regards,
Jonathan

slow said...

I have always been a fan of cycling and despite the doping offenses will remain so. I would be interested to know if other sports underwent the same doping scrutiny as cycling would they be as "clean" (eg. Lance Armstrong tested 25 times in 6 months)? We know that one of the main reasons Operation Puerto was shut down was due to the number of high profile footballers implicated - this would have been embarrassing for FIFA if fully disclosed so close tot he world cup. Cycling continues to be the whipping boy of WADA yet other sports appear to escape with relative impunity. Look forward to your thoughts.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Derek

Just to add to Jonathan's reply to your comment - I'm not sure if you've been reading for long, but last year in August, we discussed this issue at length - http://www.sportsscientists.com/2008/08/beijing-2008-discovering-usain-bolt.html

Bolt's junior performances, his history, we've already covered all of that and we concluded exactly the same thing as you have.

So I think the context of Jonathan's post is important, because what we're saying here is that the history of the sport imposes on us (and not sports scientists, by the way, but people) suspicion that we can't simply ignore. Remember that Linford Christie, Gatlin, Montomery, Mitchell, Marion Jones, Torri Edwards, Kelli White and Ben Johnson are just some of the sprint champions who have now been exposed. Therefore, you look at these exceptional performances, and memory tells you that you have to wonder. That's what this post was dealing with, it wasn't an unfair accusation on Bolt.

We dealt with that accusation in August last year, and decided (partly out of hope, partly out of the information on Bolt's junior career) that he is legit. We hope we're not wrong, but to say we should not wonder would be to ignore a pattern. So just as the stats you present suggest that he is not a doper, there are stats that oblige us to wonder.

Thanks!
Ross

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Slow

Thanks for the comment. Good point you make about the scrutiny on other sports.

I think it's partly valid, and certainly sports like soccer have been avoiding the issue in a big way. I read recently that it now faces IOC exclusion from the Olympics because it doesn't conform to the doping policies. So there's certainly something in that. Perhaps the best example of complete "willful ignorance" of the doping problem is baseball, which for years avoided the problem. Fortunately, it's now been exposed (although only partially, it seems, and they're still soft). I think many other sports are the same - NFL, possibly rugby, who knows?

So yes, I think if the same spotlight was cast, it might be worse.

However, I still don't believe that cycling is anything like transparent. People are often quick to point out that at least cycling is doing something about the problem. I disagree, it isn't. The only reason we know so much about cycling's dark underside is because external organizations like WADA, and journalists and law enforcement have tried hard to work on cycling.

The actual cycling authorities were completely involved in the creation of the problem, the culture of doping that exists in cycling extends right from the cyclists all the way to the professional teams and the people who run the sport. The UCI wishes this would all go away, but they can't escape because external organizations have started to force the issue.

And recently, it's been sponsors and media pressure that have forced cycling to confront the problem. When TV channels and newspapers refuse to cover sport because it's so doped, then cycling has no choice but to listen. And that's done a lot of good for the sport. But I don't think cycling is playing along - they'd sooner return to the way it was, because the law of omerta exists among the people who used to ride, and now run the teams and the sport.

In that respect it deserves its status - I believe that all the work being done by anti-doping organizations is being held up by the sport, not facilitated.

but you're certainly right - if those same anti-doping agencies turned to other sports, the same would be true, and i think soccer would be nervous if it happened.

Ross

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi again slow

Oh, just one more thing - being tested and coming out "clean" is completely meaningless, as shown by Marion Jones and many others.

If a jealous coach had not handed in a syringe to expose doping in American sprinting, Jones would have won 8 Olympic medals and we'd be hailing her as a legend. And she'd be saying "I've never failed a test, I must be clean".

Don Catlin (who Lance Armstrong was going to use but then went back on the deal and didn't) once said that there might be up to 100 drugs we can't test for.

So being tested "clean", that unfortunately doesn't mean much.

Ross

The Sports Scientists said...

Hi folks, thanks for all the commentary and discussion. As per normal, you guys come to the table with some keen observations and insightful questions!

Slow:
Indeed, I suspect the football authorities dread the day when WADA or someone comes scratching around more than they have so far. I recall reading an article years ago in Time or something about how in Italy some teams were raided. Authorities were shocked at what they found, which was that the teams practically had their own in-house pharmacies with numerous drugs and other products.

I have no idea where that story went, but I suspect it is sitting under the same rug as the Operacion Puerto dust that was stirred up!

FIFA is likely more powerful than the UCI, but also in football more people (more team owenrs, more countries, more players) have more to lose, so there is *huge* incentive to keep it under wraps. And while cycling is in the "lime light" of the anti-doping show most people seem ok with that.

It is a pity because I think it is a short-sighted approach by the owners/organizations. Instead of thinking that stricter controls will damage the sport, they should rather see it as a way to legitimize their sport. I suspect they fear that without doping the amazing performances will vanish and lead to less popularity, less revenue, and less cash in their pockets. This was certainly the case with baseball as steroids really took off in the early 1990s. It was suffering a major decline in popularity due to a players strike, and so when guys like Canseco and McGwire were smaching HRs for Oakland and then McGwire and Sosa chased each other to the now HR record, everything aligned for the to look the other way as their sport was experiencing renewed levels of popularity.

I am really keen to pick up Selena Roberts' book on A-Rod. I think it is kind of the "Breaking the Chain" of baseball because apparently she has stories from trainers and others who were complicit for years in steroid abuse in that sport.

One final quote from Michael Ashenden on the lack of positive tests. It is about Lance Armstrong, but you can insert the name of any athlete that claims they have never failed a doping control as proof of their innocence:

"Lance Armstrong is not a convicted doper, he has never been found guilty of doping, and he has steadfastly maintained his innocence. As far as I am aware, Marion Jones is not a convicted doper, she has never been found guilty of doping, and she steadfastly maintained her innocence - until she admitted lying to a federal investigator about taking banned substances (note: lying to a federal investigator is NOT a doping offence). . .To put it simply - not testing positive does not establish that an athlete did not use banned substances."

That is something we have long said here on this site, and there are too many examples (see Ross's reply to Derek) that support it.

Thanks again for the comments, this is turning into a lively debate even before the Giro starts this weekend!

Kind Regards,
Jonathan

Mircea said...

Interesting.

I still maintain my point of view about Bolt, also backed by Carl Lewis, if that makes a difference. It is his progression that seems peculiar: over 1 year he gained 2.something% in an event where he was already an established contender, a specialist, an experienced athlete. The 100m is less important for the discussion since Bolt had not run more than a few and those were not necesarily competitive runs, but the 200m is clearly problematic. It is very similar to what Michael Johnson did in Atlanta '96. There is no doubt in my mind that he was doped at that time. That result doesn't make sense, it is completely out of context.

Again, about Usain Bolt, look at the way he progresses and notice the seasaw! Bang-bang huge progress in one year followed by stagnation/regress the next. We have an athlete that somehow finds extra resources for performance for his objective-race, exactly the behaviour that we expect from a doping athlete.

You might say this is paranoia, but we can see athletes having major improvements followed by the discovery that they were on some performance enhancing drugs. As was the case of Bernhard Kohl if you follow cycling. The conclusion is that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

I've said this before, I would expect either Asafa Powell-like consistency or a positive test soon. The latter more than the former. Or maybe he will somehow slide under the radar like that Xavier Carter guy.

An interesting debate, where we are interpreting the same data differently, in fact the opposite way. Reminiscent of religious debates where the same arguments are used to prove the opposite conclusions. The atheists are correct, of course. Just to clarify things.

미르차

Ze Maria said...

This is my team for a game called Fantasy Giro, you can see it in www.velogames.com. It's a good way of enjoying a bit more this fantastic cycling tour, I recomend it. I'm going to be cheering for this riders:

Ivan BASSO LIQ 26
Levi LEIPHEIMER AST 18
Joaquin RODRIGUEZ GCE 12
Carlos SASTRE CER 14
Juan José HAEDO SAX 6
Kevin SEELDRAYERS QST 4
Fabian CANCELLARA SAX 10
Fredrik KESSIAKOFF FUJ 6
David ZABRISKIE GAR 4

I've 3 certain top 5 finishers, if nothing goes wrong (Basso, Leipheimer and Sastre, all of them team leaders), more two team leaders, one of them is a rider that will get a stage (Joaquin Rodriguez, the guy has been amazing) and the other is aiming to the white jersey (Seeldrayers, look at his performance at Paris-Nice).

I'm not really betting in sprint stages, because I think there will be 3, maximum. But Haedo is always a good bet, he's fast when he's in the mood, costs few points in the game and Saxo has a super train with cancellara and voigt.

Then I was indecise between those last two guys: both of them always seem able to get a stage, but for now Fabian is more reliable, at least in the last TT he will get his chance for sure. Although I think it will be very close with Leipheimer. Armstrong isn´t a big card yet, will talk in the Tour again.

Finally, my two dark horses. Zabriskie always performs well in the giro, he has the TTT with the strong Garmin and the individuals TT too, remember ToC. Fredrik Kessiakoff, hopefully, is going to be a good surprise in the less important mountain stages, if there are any... The guy can climb and could emulate Van den Brook 2008's Giro.

cassio598 said...

You know, I was looking at the bar graph of Bolt's performances you published last summer, but I felt it didn't give an obvious presentation, so I made my own scatter plot of his 200m times.

I don't know about you guys, but my performances, and those of most people I know, show a fairly asymptotic behavior over time as we reach our genetic potential, and that's what you see if you look at his best times from 2001-2004.

However, If you look at the plot of Bolt's performances, you'll also notice that since 2005, his rate of improvement has actually been increasing. That, to me suggests that he is either a genetic freak, has discovered some magical new method of training, or began doping in 2005 or 2006.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Cassio. Bolt is obviously doped.

If he can do a lot better than previous doped runners, he is doped too. Of course he is very talented, and his junior results show just that. But I see that as an explanation of his amazing results, if he wasn´t talented, with or without doping, he would never be able to get those far superior times.

I'm sure of two things: Bolt is an amazing athlete and person, very talented guy and makes people happy. Second: Bolt is very, very doped, if it is possible to be more than just doped...

Remember that doping isn't every thing, you still have to work like there wasn't tomorrow. In sports less technical, doping has a bigger effect.

Example ranking of doping "effectivness":

1. Cycling (Very High)
2. Running (High)
3. Swimming (Moderate)

By the way, I also believe Phelps was doped. He still would have won a lot, whithout any doping, but not 8 gold medals in one week. He swims like no one ever did, the guy is a fish with an amazing trainig capacity, but he needs a little help to accomplish impossible things.

Kismet said...

I concur, Anonymous.
I'm always amazed that our sports scientists (seem to?) think that many champions & gold medalists are completely clean. Is this attitude wide-spread among your colleagues or are you the only optimists hoping that people can break world-records without doping?

Personally, I've heard sport MDs (e.g. Moosburger) claim - quite to the contrary - that it is unlikely that any records have been broken without doping in the last 40 or 50 years. That's pretty much the same I keep hearing from different people practising competetive sports & doping themselves.

To me it seems easier (and fairer) to assume that most "cheat" than the opposite...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Kismet

You obviously don't read this site often - if you did, you'd never suggest that we (who somehow suddenly represent "sports scientists" as a collective population) do NOT believe that all elite athletes are clean.

However, what you are missing (and forgive me for assuming, since I know nothing about you or what knowledge you may possess), is that we don't simply sit in our laboratories and form these opinions. So you may have MDs and athletes telling you this, and that's fine. but now you have a sports scientist telling you something different, and you will find many others with the same message (and these people do not have conflicts of interest, by the way - again, we're not shy of suggesting doping on this site, I couldn't care less from an objective point of view)

I know, and have worked with some elite athletes - never an Olympic and World record holder, but certainly an Olympic medallist (in a distance event) and I know that this athlete was not doping. We could not even convince them to use a protein supplement, and they had no access to medical support. They ran within 0.2 seconds of the world's fastest time three seasons in a row, and within 0.5 seconds of the world records.

I also know many of the Kenyan athletes, and their coaches, and I know that it is possible to succeed without doping. However, I prefer to evaluate each athlete on a case by case basis, rather than making sweeping generalizations in these kinds of serious discussions (a 'science' jest is another matter).

So it's interesting to read the comments, and I particularly enjoyed Cassio's post, because he presents some thoughtful insights into how he analysed the performances and drew his conclusion. But to throw in "obviously" because they all are, that kind of kills the argument.

So I don't know if Bolt is doping or not. I believe not, based on my interpretation of what I see, but I am not naive and recognize the possibility that he is doping is real - that inspired the posts back in August last year, and it inspired the comment Jonathan made here.

SO perhaps I am guilty of optimism (which is not a bad thing, I don't believe), but I know athletes who succeed (and not just who compete, but who win Olympic medals, set world-leading marks etc.) and they don't dope. Therefore, i am led to believe that a statement that ALL winners dope is wrong.

Does that mean Bolt is clean? Of course not, but it also suggests he might be. Asking the question is important, which we've done. definitively answering it because MDs and other athletes say so, that doesn't cut it, I believe.

Cassio's approach, however, i have time for, and if you read this Cassio, I'd love to know more about what performances you looked at there?

Regards
Ross

Ross

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Everyone, and thanks for all the commentary.

I am not sure if Anonymous means the sports scientists here at The Science of Sport, or all sports scientists, but regular readers will definitely know that we are not shy about airing our doping suspicions. In fact often times we are wary of being seen as too negative by always mentioning the doping problems in many sports. Even before we started this site, I cannot tell you how many conversations we would have in our PhD office about doping in sport!

To be sure many records have been set by doped athletes in the past 50+ years. However there are also records that have been set by clean athletes.

Anonymous's comment hints at the complexity of the problem and how we cannot simply say that every winner is doped. The model we use to understand doping and performance says that training predicts performance, and among other things doping allows one to do more training, and as Anonymous said, one still must train "like there is no tomorrow," and even that will not guarantee a win. The doping increases those chances, though, partly because of physiological reasons and partly because of the confidence it gives an athlete to push themselves to the edge knowing that the next day they will be able to do it all over again.

The mistake people make is underestimating the complexity of the situation. It is not as clear as Doping = Winning.

Part of the complexity is that with so many undetectable drugs and with the anti-doping authorities still lagging behind, we really must look at each athlete case by case and read between the lines, analyze their performances and examine the physiology behind those times. It is not longer as simple as Negative test = Clean athlete.

So Cassio, I would also like to see the scatter plot you made to look at Bolt's performances. I wonder if you can please email it to us and tell us more about what you did?

sportsscientists@gmail.com

Kind Regards,
Jonathan

Joe Garland said...

Don't know if you'll see this, but anything on the interview of Michael Ashenden?

Ze Maria said...

This is my team for a game called Fantasy Giro, you can see it in www.velogames.com. It's a good way of enjoying a bit more this fantastic cycling tour, I recomend it. I'm going to be cheering for this riders:

Ivan BASSO LIQ 26
Levi LEIPHEIMER AST 18
Joaquin RODRIGUEZ GCE 12
Carlos SASTRE CER 14
Juan José HAEDO SAX 6
Kevin SEELDRAYERS QST 4
Fabian CANCELLARA SAX 10
Fredrik KESSIAKOFF FUJ 6
David ZABRISKIE GAR 4

I've 3 certain top 5 finishers, if nothing goes wrong (Basso, Leipheimer and Sastre, all of them team leaders), more two team leaders, one of them is a rider that will get a stage (Joaquin Rodriguez, the guy has been amazing) and the other is aiming to the white jersey (Seeldrayers, look at his performance at Paris-Nice).

I'm not really betting in sprint stages, because I think there will be 3, maximum. But Haedo is always a good bet, he's fast when he's in the mood, costs few points in the game and Saxo has a super train with cancellara and voigt.

Then I was indecise between those last two guys: both of them always seem able to get a stage, but for now Fabian is more reliable, at least in the last TT he will get his chance for sure. Although I think it will be very close with Leipheimer. Armstrong isn´t a big card yet, will talk in the Tour again.

Finally, my two dark horses. Zabriskie always performs well in the giro, he has the TTT with the strong Garmin and the individuals TT too, remember ToC. Fredrik Kessiakoff, hopefully, is going to be a good surprise in the less important mountain stages, if there are any... The guy can climb and could emulate Van den Brook 2008's Giro.