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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Science of Sport Awards: The Villain of 2011

The villain of the year

Let's jump right to it - sport tends to create heroes and villains, hence its appeal (or part of it).  But we're less interested in the parochial rivalries and specific players who fans love to hate simply because of rivalries (though we are not immune to these, of course), and more in the management of the sport, the behind the scenes action that affects play.

For that reason, most of the nominees in the category of villain of the year come from "outside the lines/ropes", and are administrators or sports officials of some kind.   We didn't get too many nominees for this category (a good sign, perhaps), but we'll narrow it down progressively.  There were nominations for Sepp Blatter (honestly, I don't even know what he was nominated for specifically, there seems to be a wide range of possibilities), for Jonathan Vaughters (for neutralizing Paris-Roubaix this year), and I'll throw in two of my own: 1)  The International Rugby Board, for their continued failure to manage and improve their referees properly, particularly in 7s, but also in 15s, which undermines the credibility of the sport.  2)  Jose Mourinho, for dragging the Barcelona vs Real Madrid matches down with 'trench warfare' tactics and snide behavior off-field, which is actually only fitting for a man who calls himself "the special one" (the most special people don't name themselves...).  Oh, and then there was the driver of the car that put Johnny Hoogerland into a barbed-wire fence during the Tour de France.

But the big nominees (total of three) are:

  • Oscar Pistorius, South Africa's controversial blade runner.  I don't think I'd go so far as to say that Pistorius is the "villain", though my thoughts on his participation are very clear and I'm happy to repeat over and over why.  And there was the whole issue of a cover-up, the denial of the science etc.  But I am not sure that he is the "villain" in this piece.  What he is is a hugely controversial figure, if you believe in sports science and facts.  If you don't, then he's an inspiration (and I am the villain, thanks to what has been pushed by the PR machine who back him).  So I'm going to amend this slightly, and say that if I were to nominate anyone linked to this whole story, it would be Pistorius, plus his team of scientists who failed to present all the scientific evidence to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, plus the team of PR guys who attack anyone not buying the fairytale.  But, there'll be a lot more on this story later in our awards round-up, including first-time comments from the scientists who were actually involved in the case, so I'll pick up this discussion then.

  • The IAAF for reaching the conclusion that women's world records set in mixed races should no longer be recognized as world records.  The result was that for a time, Paula Radcliffe's performance of 2:15:25 was suddenly "scratched" and replaced by her 2:17:42 from London in 2005, when the women started 45 minutes before the men.  The decision was roundly criticized, mostly because it showed up a double-standard when compared to men's races, where a herd of pacemakers usually accompanies the top three of four men to at least 32 km.  One photograph from Berlin this year showed about six pacemakers surrounding Makau and Gebrselassie.

    The other issue is that anyone who follows athletics even tangentially can see that women's records on the track, from 100m all the way to 10,000m are seriously tainted not by having male pace-makers, but by doping.  Nobody has come within 5% of some of the records since the 1980s, and if the IAAF are serious about "unfair advantages", I'd suggest they look there, rather than at marathons, for which there is certainly some advantage from pacing, but it's marginal when compared to the men, who get much the same benefit.

    Fortunately, the IAAF backtracked on the decision...sort of.  They now plan to enforce the rule in 2011, but will still allow Radcliffe's record to stand.  If that's confusing, then it introduces the other problem with this kind of unnecessary policy making - it sows confusion.  A big part of the appeal of running is its simplicity.  To those outside the sport (who should really be a target of the governing body's marketing plans), the introduction of "ifs" and "buts" to records does little to improve the appeal of the sport.  One can appreciate the desire of the IAAF to control records, because there does need to be some regulation (a 10,000m record of 25 minutes is possible if the whole route is 10% downhill), but this was clumsy, impossible to enforce and unfortunately detracted from the performances of great marathon runners (Radcliffe was not alone in seeing her efforts invalidated, for a time).  Backtracking (sort of) means the IAAF remain a nominee rather than the award winner!

  • Bryce Lawrence, the New Zealand referee who was in charge of South Africa's Rugby World Cup Quarter-final loss to Australia.  If a poll were conducted in South Africa to wrap up 2011, and a "villain" category was included, Lawrence would win 80% of the votes.  He is reviled in South Africa, blamed for the fact that we did not defend our World title (despite the fact that we would have had to win two more matches after Aus), and is probably the least popular sportsperson in the country.  In fact, at every sporting event in SA since the World Cup, a banner or poster will mock either Lawrence, or throw out an insult that usually invokes his name.  All in all, he is the big South African villain.

    And make no mistake, he was poor.  It was a dreadful performance by a referee, and criticism is justified.  However, the reaction here in SA is neither justified nor constructive.  There were accusations of deliberate match-fixing, there were death threats, and there has been whining that has persisted long after it should have subsided.  The issue of match-fixing will come up again later in our Awards round-up, when we discuss the biggest controversies of 2011, but the reality is that in rugby, the problem is far more likely incompetence than corruption, and the problem for Lawrence is that his poor performance came in a match where one side was completely dominant, and he made "errors of omission".  That is, his mistakes tended to favor the defensive team, because he gave allowed too much to happen.  The result is that the dominant team (SA) seemed discriminated against.  I wrote a little on this back in October when the fallout began, for those who would like to read more.  Again, it was a poor performance, but the real villain in this whole story is the South African public, I'm afraid to say, for pointing the finger in the wrong direction.  It's just too easy to blame the referee and overlook your own failures.  And believe me, I've been there, done that, with a professional team at the international level of rugby.  The referee may have been poor, but did we do enough to win the match?  Answer is yes, and so the villain may not be where we are quick to point.
The winner is...The Contador case - all involved, though all are probably not guilty

But those three villains are no match for our winner.  In fact, our winner is so convoluted that I'm not even 100% sure who to give the award to.  But I'll bundle it all into one category and go with the UCI, the Spanish Anti-Doping Authorities, WADA, CAS and Alberto Contador's lawyers, for the prolonged drama that is the clenbuterol case of the 2010 Tour de France champion. 

I don't even recall where the case began and ended, and if I tried to sum it up, I'd misrepresent one or more of the parties involved.  Going all the way back to 2010, when the case first broke, it was clear that the UCI had known about the test result long before the German media eventually "forced" the announcement.  That prompted Contador's admission that the UCI had informed him that they'd "take care of it", whatever that is supposed to mean.

Carrying this into 2011, the confusion kicked off in January, when the Spanish federation "proposed" a one year ban for Contador.  A few weeks later, in mid-February, the same committee cleared Contador of doping, something that happened, it seems, as a result of a politician's pressure and turning the concept of "strict liability" inside out.  That is, rather than accepting the normal approach which says that the athlete is responsible for any substances in their body, the decision now seemed to be "Prove that it's NOT doping or he is innocent".  At the time, I wrote a post that inspired some good discussion on this issue, for those wishing to revisit it.

The case was always destined for the CAS, of course, except the Spanish Federation decision meant that the UCI and then WADA would be making the appeal, rather than Contador.  Meanwhile, Contador continued to race, his first big stage race being the Giro, because there was so much doubt as to whether he'd be able to compete in the Tour de France, given that the CAS hearing was set for before the race (it was supposed to be June 6 to 8).  The case was however postponed, this time to August 1st, soon after the Tour.

So Contador raced the Tour, finishing fifth after winning the Giro.  The CAS hearing was delayed again, this time because WADA requests more time to prepare its response, and it would take until November 21 for the case to finally be heard.  The hearing ended on the 24th, and then it was announced that a decision may be ready by "early next year".

Make no mistake, this is a complicated case.  The drug in question is clenbuterol, and the Contador defense is accidental ingestion from contaminated meat.  This is possible - there have been a few such cases.  There is also the matter of alleged plasticizers in Contador's blood, the result of blood doping but only detectable using a test that is not yet approved.  So that adds a dimension to the WADA case, but may not hold up legally.  And apparently Contador's lawyers have absolutely buried the case in paperwork and technical details, testimonies, lie detector tests, case studies and so forth, which was the reason for at least one of the delays in having the hearing (when WADA was forced to ask for more time).

All in all, it's a very, very messy legal situation.  And probably a little harsh to single out any one party for the lengthy delay.  After all, what are they to do?  Each acting independently is doing what they feel they need to in order to win a case, but their actions produce reactions that force delays.  

The end result however has dragged on, and of the dozens of responses to my call for nominations, this was almost ubiquitous.  There seems a universal frustration at the delay, understandably, and so while I apologize for not knowing exactly who the "villain" is (if he doped, then it's clearly Contador, of course), the award goes to all involved.

As for what happens next, I'd bet strongly that Contador will be cleared.  That's partly because I have zero faith in the CAS (who after all missed gaping holes in the Pistorius case) and I have only revulsion for lawyers who play the system from inside.  And those factors together, along with the mountain of technical information they have thrown at this, will, I strongly suspect, see the verdict go in favour of Contador.  That will in turn have ramifications for anti-doping.  For one thing, it will mean that they may as well take clenbuterol off the banned list, but it will also challenge the concept of strict liability.  Whether it would create a legal precedent, I don't know (the specific details of the case would determine this), but it certainly would leave a bad taste.  It already has, thanks to the delays.


Next time: Comeback of the year