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Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Snake-oils, supplements and the pinnacle of data presentation

Snake-oils, supplements and the presentation of data

A big part of the reason for our existence at The Science of Sport is the clear and creative presentation and discussion of scientific subjects and concepts.  The idea was to make sports science more accessible, whether you're an interested reader, a coach, a high school teacher, a student, a scientist in an unrelated field, or a sports scientist. 

Of course, we regularly deviate into debate and opinion, but it's the way in which concepts are presented that (we hope!) makes the subject more interesting.  I've often felt that if you can go to a cocktail party or a dinner and talk about a scientific/analytical subject related to sport thanks to one of our articles and its discussion, then we've done our job!

The presentation of data - a defining characteristic for the translation of science

Yet have you ever noticed how badly, in general, science present its data?  You see this all the time in University courses, where often, the most accomplished scientists make the worst lecturers.  Students pick this up immediately, when some lecturers cannot seem to filter their ideas, they don't appreciate the level of the audience they're speaking to, and they lack the visual 'discipline' to take data and translate it into clear and concise principles and concepts.  I suspect all of you are remembering one such academic right now... (and if I happened to lecture you, you'd better not be thinking about me!)

The key here is that designing the research study, gathering the data, and performing the stats (which is the academic focus, most times) represents only part of the "journey".  This is because data by itself is raw and has no significance beyond its existence.  It must be related to other data, it must be aggregated or collected, analyzed, visualized and designed.  They teach this as part of "systems thinking" in IT courses, and the following diagram, designed by a brilliant website called "Information is Beautiful" depicts this:


The ability to communicate becomes all the more valuable when a scientist goes OUTSIDE the academic world and must speak to the public or corporate world.  Within academia, there is a level of acceptance of how data is presented - look at a dozen scientific journals and you'll see much the same style of language and graphics in every one.  Tables and line graphs are common and the language is, for all but a few in the field, very difficult to follow.  That's because it works in the field.  But outside, whether it's to the public, or the corporate sector, the rules of the game change a little.

I learned this the hard way, incidentally, because in 2006, I deviated from my PhD and went to the UCT Faculty of Commerce to do a Post-graduate in Sports Management.  There, I did marketing and finance, and spent 2 years working in the sports sponsorship industry, where a big part of the job was to put together presentations and show market-related, financial and sponsorship data to companies.  Gone was the classic approach of line graphs, tables and standard deviations.  I learned more about data presentation in those 2 years than in the previous 8.

And I can't help feeling that science loses out in this area, because it is often left to the individual to learn how to manage and present information.  I was lucky, because in my supervisor Tim Noakes, I had someone who had a gift for the communication of science, and then I was fortunate enough to work in sports sponsorship and learn on that job.  Not that I'm very good at it (it's not my place to say!), but I was at least given direct, tangible advice on how to do it.  For the most part, it's neglected (I haven't seen it taught before) and so some succeed, but most fail.

And so in line with that, today is a post on the presentation of data, and specifically, the scientific evidence for popular health supplements.

Snake-oils and health supplements

Right, so here is the single best piece of data presentation that I have ever seen.  It comes, once again, from the "Information is Beautiful" website, run by David McCandless (when you're done here, play around on the "Visualizations" tab on the top of his home-page.  Amazing work).

So what you're looking at below is an image depicting the level of evidence and popularity of a range of health supplements.  The higher the balloon, the stronger the evidence for the supplement (but only for the conditions listed in or linked to the bubbles).

The larger the balloon, the more popular it has been, based on Google hits.

So there's a lot to be said for this graphic.  It's easy to follow - so obvious that I dare say anyone will understand it almost instantly.  It's also concise - no need to read a 32-page review of the literature in a scientific journal to grasp the key points.  For example, in one glance, you can see that Vitamin A lacks evidence, whereas Vitamin D has strong evidence.  As easy as that.  In fact, it's so easy to follow that I don't even need to comment on it...!

The graphic uses "relativity" (in the size and position of the bubbles) to get across those key points, and it uses colour to further emphasize strength of evidence.  It's a masterpiece of clear and accurate data presentation.

Strength of evidence - not just externally impressive!

And then most important of all, the evidence is just about as "stringent" as you'll find it - it comes from Cochrane reviews and PubMed analyses in which only randomized, double-blinded placebo studies were used.  And this is a vital point - you cannot compensate for weak data with spectacular design and visualization.  Or at least, you shouldn't. 

This happens too often, and one of the challenges faced by science is that marketers and designers often end up working on projects with zero scientific backing, but they win the battle for "the mind of the consumer" because they know how to present what is actually hollow and worthless "science" in a much more appealing way (think Power Balance bands and other hocus pocus products that become "scientifically proven").  The end result is that you have this "debate" in which the companies present their visually impressive material and the science argues the "nuts and bolts", and in the end, the consumer loses (usually because it's easier to believe the fancy graphic than the dry science). 

The interactive - taking presentation to an even higher level

But wait, there's even more to it.  Taking the above image, McCandless then turned it into an interactive graphic (click here to open in a new tab).  Here, you can:
  • Hover over each balloon to see which conditions it is effective for
  • Click on "Show me" on the right hand side of the image to see which supplements are produced for each of the listed conditions
  • (Most impressively), click on the balloon and you'll be redirected to the page which carries the evidence for the image - the Pubmed and Cochrane review papers. 

    This is the strength of evidence I was talking about earlier - it is indispensable, because without that scientific evidence, this would just be wallpaper that does more damage than good.  And I dare say, this is part of the reason why many scientists will be skeptical of this kind of data.  Bizarrely, there seems to be a culture that "if it looks too good, then it's probably not accurate or credible". (This is the data equivalent of medicine - if it doesn't taste terrible, it probably doesn't work...!)
 Contrasting with the "typical" approach

A final point to make is that the "typical" approach to this kind of question (how effective are supplements?) would be to conduct a meta-analysis, and then publish the findings in a scientific journal, in 32-pages of black and white, scientific language and probably with multiple tables showing the level of evidence and the p-value.  

This is as accurate as anything you see above, and it contributes enormously to the value WITHIN that field, but for anyone outside of the health science-academic world, it has little significance.  The general public, as informed as they may wish to be, will not see that data - they will remain uninformed, not as a result of this knowledge not being available, but because it has not been translated and delivered to them in such an interactive, palatable (and stimulating) way.

I realize I may sound over-critical of science, and this is not my intention (I suspect some academics will have stopped reading at this heretic talk by now!)

Rather, I want to emphasize that science can be so much more effective, powerful even, if it meets with good design and presentation.  Whether that means partnering with a designer like David McCandless (probably quite costly, but I believe worth it in many cases), or simply learning the discipline of turning words, tables and line graphs into meaningful and elegantly presented information, I think it's indispensable!

And lastly, here is a slide that was labeled as the "worst Powerpoint slide ever".  It comes from the military, and shows part of the strategy in Afghanistan.  Just for contrast...


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Performance implications of Pistorius advantages

Pistorius Part IV: The performance implications complete the picture

I was going to delay this analysis until after the IAAF World Champs, which got underway this morning with a dominant Kenyan display in the women's marathon.  Later today sees the women's 10,000m, and there's every chance that Kenya will have claimed the first four (or maybe even more) of the medals at this year's Championships, with Vivian Cheruiyot the favorite for gold.  Ethiopia will again have something to say about this, so that should be a great race.

But then I made the "error" of posting a Tweet about Pistorius' race times,which I believe are very significant and complete the picture of the advantage, and it started something of a debate, because I think people misunderstood what I meant by performance comparisons.  So I felt it necessary to post this, Part 4 of the Pistorius series, now, rather than delaying it until after the World Championships.  I must make the point that the first three posts in this series explain the scientific evidence.  They are the basis for the advantage, NOT this post.  This post is merely to contextualize and to explain an observation about performance that further consolidates the picture, not to bring evidence to the debate.  It's a small piece of the puzzle, but it fits in at the end of the three-part debate we've been having.  By itself, it's not proof, but when you look at the whole picture, it is in place.

The whole picture - a recap to begin with

The missing piece in the debate so far is the performance implications of those metabolic and mechanical advantages.  It's really important to keep the WHOLE PICTURE in mind as you consider this question - each line of evidence by itself is important and telling, but when the pieces come together, only then you do see the full evidence for the advantage.  And the one piece that I've yet to tackle is performance.  To recap, this is the picture so far:

  1. The theory that Pistorius has an advantage is a result of two factors.  First, the significant reduction in mass of the carbon fiber blades means faster limb movements, and less work to accelerate the limb.  Second, the significantly higher energy return from the carbon fiber blades means less energy needed as the investment.

    Now, BOTH of these theories predict the same thing - a reduced metabolic cost of sprinting, and a performance advantage.  The problem was, back then, there was no research.

  2. Then the research came along and it confirmed the theory.  It showed:  1) Pistorius used 25% less oxygen during sprinting, and 17% less oxygen during slow running than other sprinters.  2) His mechanics were very different to those measured in able-bodied runners, and suggesting less work required to run at a given speed.  These were enormous differences, making him statistically way off the charts.  They also implied advantage, because oxygen use is a barometer for metabolic energy cost.  Herr and the team that tested him eventually resorted to comparing Pistorius to elite distance runners, and then he started to look similar, but it is remarkable that was still more economical than distance runners.

  3. Then came the explanation - Peter Weyand showed how Pistorius' running mechanics were off the charts.  His ability to reposition the limbs was 4 SD faster than average, and a full 11% faster than the next fastest runner ever measured.  This advantage means more contact time, and also reduces the need to generate forces.  The result is that he has to produce half the muscle work compared to able-bodied runners.
So, in a nutshell, you had a theory, confirmed by the findings on physiology and metabolism, and then explained by the findings of his running mechanics.

All told, that's a compelling and almost complete picture.  But the question is, what does it do to performance?  Obviously, it's impossible to know with certainty.  Weyand tried to quantify it, but as I explained in the previous post, I think he made some excessively "liberal" assumptions about how to adjust Pistorius' values.  The result was an over-estimate.  But I still believe it's possible to narrow down how large the advantage may be, and that's what I want to do in this post.  

I'm going to go through this very slowly, systematically, but bear with me - past experience has taught that this pacing concept is tricky to explain, there are lots of gaps to fill!

The theory - an abnormal performance relative to other performances

And we begin again with a hypothesis:  Pistorius' reduced metabolic cost of sprinting and those mechanical advantages lead you to the theory that Pistorius will be able to sustain a higher relative speed over longer distances than able-bodied controls.  The advantage, in other words, will be seen if Pistorius is able to slow down less as he moves up in distance.  I hope that is clear?  He will run at a higher speed (relative to his OWN performances) than any other athlete, and that will reveal that the metabolic and mechanical factors we've explained are 

Why would this be the case?  To understand this, ask yourself the following question:  Why don't 400m sprinters run faster in a 400m race?  The reason this seemingly obvious question is important is because it's clear that every 400m runner COULD run faster, based on their performance over 200m, and the question is why don't they?

Take Michael Johnson, for example.  Over 400m, he ran 43.18 seconds, and in that race, his first half was run in 21.22 seconds and the second half in 21.96 seconds (Ferro et al).  His 200m PB, as you know, is 19.32s.  

That means that his first 200m is 9.8% SLOWER than his best 200m, and his second 200m is 13.7% slower than his best 200m. Even if his 200m best is adjusted slightly because he wasn't quite in that shape at the time, he's still about 7% and 11% slower over 200m splits in a 400m than in a 200m race (bear with me as I try to evolve the argument - I have to labour the point because people may misunderstand this concept otherwise). I've shown this in the graph to the right.

Why pace a 400m race?  And doing the impossible

So, it's quite clear that the 400m event is paced.  This is obvious, but it's important to understand WHY it has to happen.  The reason the race must be paced is because there is a significant metabolic cost to sprinting at 200m pace.  If a runner does this, then factors such as metabolite accumulation (think H+ ions, phosphates, ADP) and failure to provide energy rapidly enough will force them to slow down too much.  Start too fast, try to run a 400m race at your 200m pace, and you will pay for it big time and slow down in a big way in the latter part of the race.  As it is, every single 400m runner in history has run the first 200m faster than the second 200m in a major race.  It's just not possible to negative split and still run fast

What is impossible to do is to race a 400m race at anything close to your 200m pace.  Rather, you pace yourself and still slow down in the second half of the race.  Below is a graph showing that in elite 400m running, the only way to race is to run the first half between 2% and 6% faster than the second half.  This happens without exception - 16 athletes in an IAAF final, every one did it.  It even applies to the 100m segments - the slowest 100m segment in 16 out of 16 elite races is the final 100m, and by a long way.

The average breakdown in both men's and women's races is that the first half is 47.7% of the race, the second half is 52.3%.  So, if someone is running a 45 second 400m, then the typical way of putting it together is to run the first half in 21.46s and the second half in 23.54s.  

And before you say that not every athlete has to be "typical", look again at the graph above - Michael Johnson is the only "non-typical" athlete, because his split is 49%-51%.  Even he, the outlier, is 1.7% faster in the first half, and that's about the limit for what is possible in terms of pacing a 400m race "evenly".  But as I mentioned, he still runs the first half a full 10% slower than his best and the second half 14% slower than his best (see the top graph)

I must just make the point, that it's possible to run the second half faster than the first, but then you'd have a huge overall under-performance.  Michael Johnson could run the first half in 25 seconds and then blast a 20.5 second second half, but the time he'd produce is not optimal.  And that's key.

Now, what's the significance of this?  It's very significant, because once you understand this concept, you realize that this method of looking at how a race is constructed is a very important and meaningful way of understanding Pistorius' performances. 

There are three things to consider:
  1. This method allows you to compare the first 200m of a 400m race to a 200m time.  This deals with the start issue, because both races include the start.  So you can see how he paces himself relative to a valid and reliable anchor - his own performance.

  2. The method also allows comparison of the second 200m to the best 200m, which gives an indication of fatigue over the course of a race.  Importantly, here the 200m race has the start, whereas the second 200 of a 400m race doesn't, and that makes the difference even greater.  When Michael Johnson is running a 21.96 s second half, it's a) much, much faster than anyone else has run, and b) it's still a full 14% slower than his 200 and would be even larger if you accounted for the start.

  3. You can also compare the halves of a 400m race, first to second 200m.  That is significant because it's known that the 48%-52% is pretty much universal.  However, in Oscar Pistorius' case, this comparison is not meaningful because of his affected start.

    This is important, because one can be misled if you just look at his first and second halves, because we don't know the time loss at the start.  I've heard Pistorius say it's 2 seconds, which is ridiculous, because he runs 100m in 10.9s, and so if he's losing 2 seconds, he's basically saying that he'd be a 8.9 second 100m runner without it.  So moving on from that...

    The point remains that Pistorius has an affected start, and that's why the first and second points above, where you compare his 200m race to his 200m splits gives you value AND accounts for any differences in the start
The key requisite is that the runner must have valid 200m and 400m times, and I'm happy to concede this point in this illustration. Many 400m runners race over 200m early in the season as part of their speed training, but that's different from recording a 200m in a targeted competition.  So the comparison will only work when the runner is racing 200m and 400m in targeted races, like Johnson, Felix, Perec and Richards-Ross did.  The issue is one of "capacity".  It does get trickier when you look at the 400m specialists (as opposed to the "double runners") who dip down only occasionally.  Then there is the variability in performance - these are not robots, and there is variability in performance that means you never really compare like to like.  Again, I concede this point, but this is why this illustration is not "proof", but comes at the end, almost an addendum to the three posts I've done on the science of Pistorius.  There will be disagreement, and that's fine, this is not proof, only an extension of previous explanations.

So I hope it's clear what the approach is - it's to compare an athlete over 200m and 400m, but not simply to look at times (which is what a lot of people missed in the tweet.  Fair enough, it's only 140 characters!)

The key is to look at how the race is constructed relative to that athlete's 200m race.

Oscar Pistorius - an increasing advantage as distance increases

So let's start with the simplest illustration, and then get increasingly more advanced.  The simplest thing is to take Pistorius over 200m and find similar performances in other athletes.

Pistorius' best 200m is 21.41s.  There are no male 400m runners with a 200m best as slow, so the best comparison comes from women runners. Allyson Felix has a PB of 21.81, and she's a great comparison because she's also focused on 400m events, like Pistorius (who races 200m seriously at the Paralympic level - it's important that the runner has to be competitive over both distances).  Then you can take Mari-Jose Perec, another 200m-400m combination runner.  Her 200m PB was 21.99s.  And Sanya Richards-Ross, a current 400m star, and her 200m PB is 22.17s.

So these three athletes are close to Pistorius - about 0.4 to 0.8 seconds slower than him over 400m.  But what about at 400m?  The image below summarizes the differences at the 200m and 400m distances:

So, those small differences over 200m, which you'd expect to be more or less doubled over 400m are suddenly much, much larger.  The Felix comparison is especially obvious - 0.4 seconds apart over 200m, and 4.6 seconds over 400m.  That is partly the result of Felix perhaps still underperforming over 400m, but you can't say the same about Perec, or Richards-Ross.  Their better performances are over 400m, and they too have a huge deficit at 400m, but not 200m.  

That's telling to begin with.  But, it's not a definitive point - you can counter this by saying that Pistorius loses maybe 0.5 seconds at the start.  And you'd be right - that accounts for maybe 0.5 seconds of the difference, but not all three to four seconds.  You could argue that Pistorius' 200m would come down, maybe to 21 seconds.  Fair enough, that accounts for 0.5 seconds, but not all three.  My point is that the differences are just so large that they are compelling.  (You can do the same for men's runners, but in reverse.  Find other 45 second guys, and you will find that all of them are more than 1 second faster than Pistorius over 200m, assuming they run 200m often enough to have decent times there, like Pistorius does)

Pistorius - putting the race together, racing 400m at close to 200m pace

But the picture crystalizes when you look at pacing and how the race is put together.

I've already showed Michael Johnson's performance - a 43.18s which was made up of a 21.22 and a 21.96s.  To the left is a figure showing the performance of each half compared to MJ's best, as well as a "conservative" assumption that he might have "only" run 19.8s in 1999.

So, 9.8% slower for the first half, 13.7% slower for the second half.  To repeat, the reason this has to happen is because the starting pace must be conservative to allow for distance, while the second half is slow because of a combination of pacing and fatigue.  Even if you make the adjustment, the pace is still 7.2% and 10.9% slower, first and second half, respectively.  

And remember, Michael Johnson is the exception to the rule - in most situations, you'll see an even larger difference than you see in this figure.

Perhaps you're dismissing Michael Johnson because he's such a great 200m runner, one of the greatest ever.  I'd argue that he's the greatest 400m runner ever, so his 400m to 200m comparison is, I believe,valid to compare to Pistorius.  But let's look at a few other runners.

First, back to the women - Felix, Perec and Richards-Ross.  Here, we don't have split data for their 400m PBs.  So, it needs an assumption.  And in in the interests of making the "conservative" assumption, we assume that their race is 48-52 split (remember that above, I showed that the average for women is 47.6%-52.4%, so this assumption is valid.  The graph below shows their projected splits, relative to their 200m bests.

So Allyson Felix, who I think is the best comparison by virtue of the fact that she's the 200m runner going up and still improving over 400m like Pistorius, runs the first half at a similar relative speed to Johnson (9.4% vs 9.8% compared to 200m times), but then her second half is very slow relative to her best.  Perec and Richards-Ross, slightly different runners in the sense that they were 400m runners going down in distance, start and finish closer to their 400m speed, but it's still a big gap - 5.5% on the first half, 14% on the second half.  Remember that their 200m PBs may be under-performances, much like Pistorius' may be this season.  But these are typical race patterns, relative to the 200m races.

Remember also that if you want to change the assumption of pacing from say 48-52% to 49-51%, and make them run faster in the second half, then you'll find bigger gaps in the first half of the race, relative to the 200m PB.  This is the strength of comparing to 200m PBs - the assumption over pacing and the split is actually not that crucial. All it affects is the relative size of the difference between first and second halves. The "weakness",which I freely admit, is that it uses 200m times, and assumes that they're max performances.  For Perec and Richards-Ross, I dare say they are not, and that they would be even faster over 200m.  Which of course increases the percent differences you see in the figure above.

Pistorius case

So let's now look at Pistorius.  The first issue is to ask what his splits would be?  We don't have his splits from the 45.07s race,  but from all reports, that bizarre negative split strategy that he used in Rome in 2007 has now been replaced by a more optimal one.  The fact that he could run a 46.78s with a negative split and a second half of 22.72s tells a story of its own, of a runner who doesn't fatigue normally, but for this discussion, that race is not relevant, because it is four years old and he's improved by seconds since.

So there are a few options.  One way to do it is to give him the "typical" race allocation of 47.8%-52.2%.  I've shown that on the far left in the figure below.  The problem is, Pistorius loses time at the start, and so his breakdown is likely to be more even.  So then we might make his race similar to Johnson's a 49%-51% split (the 'outlier' by comparison to other 400m races, as you saw in the figure above), and you see the figure in the middle is the result.  This would be the case, by the way, if Pistorius loses 0.5 seconds at the start.

And then a final option, just to make the point, is to assume that Pistorius does a 400m race with a 50%-50% split.  That is shown on the far right.  The reality is that this pattern would be highly, highly unusual, even given a slow start.  Remember, the normal pattern, the universal pattern, is that the second half is 2 seconds slower than the first half.  Even a full second lost at the start would not produce this pacing strategy.  Here, we've made every assumption possible IN FAVOUR of Pistorius, and the figures below are the result

In the figure above, it doesn't matter much which comparison you choose, there are some enormous differences between Pistorius and able-bodied runners, and they all suggest an advantage in terms of the relative pace that he runs a 400m race at compared to his 200m race.  And to repeat, this includes any time lost at the start.  For comparison, here is Pistorius compared to other able-bodied athletes:

So, the average, across able-bodied runners, is to run the first 200m 7.5% slower than the best 200m, and to run the second 200m 15.2% slower than the best 200m.  Pistorius runs both halves significantly faster than this, to the tune of anything between 2% and 6% faster for the first half, and 6% to 10% faster than the second half, depending on what the pacing strategy you assume. 

Take the 50-50 split example (bottom right graph).  Here, Pistorius runs the first half 5.3% slower than his 200m PB, which is the same as Perec and Richards-Ross.  However, then the second 200m is remarkably different - 5.3% compared to more than 14%, a 9% difference.  This the value of segmenting the race.  If you go with the typical strategy, then he is 4.2% faster and 8% faster than able bodied runners for the first and second halves, respectively.

Now, I realize there are assumptions here, but I hope that I've covered the range of possible inputs, and illustrated that if you assume a slow start, then the implication is a faster finish (both in time and relative to the 200m PB anchor), and in both instances, he stands out because of his performance over 400m segments relative to his 200m.  I would put the net size of that advantage between 3% and 8%, or around 3 to 4 seconds in a 400m race.  I dare suggest that if Weyand were to adjust his estimate based on the points I made in the previous post, he'd produce a similar number.

Some of you may be thinking that his 200m is a huge under-performance, explaining these findings.  I disagree - that PB of 21.41 is only a year old, and so it may certainly be up for revision, but only slightly.  You might improve it by half a second (based on the 400m improvement seen - it may not change at all, of course), and I'd invite you to look at what that does to the performance comparison.

In fact, there's only one way to make assumptions that don't give Pistorius an advantage - you have to assume that his 200m PB drops to 20.20 (a full 1.2s faster).  Possible?  Sure.  But overall, there are perhaps 10 assumptions you'd have to make, and the only way to NOT show an advantage is to make 10 out of 10 in one direction.  And yes, there are ranges (that's why Usain Bolt who is fastest over 200m is not guaranteed to win over 400m - he'd slow down more than others), but even with the ranges, you see an outlier. 

All told, what is the conclusion?  The conclusion is that Oscar Pistorius runs a 400m race at a speed that is much, much more like his 200m race pace than any other 200m-400m runner in history.  Why might this be?  Remember the big picture - you have a theory, you have evidence, and you have a mechanism. All these factors suggest that Pistorius sprints at a lower metabolic cost, with less work required, and therefore, the implication is that as distance increases, his pace declines less than for other athletes.

The key to this debate is by no means this observation.  The key is the evidence gathered, which I've explained in the previous three posts.  I post this because it's a compelling observation that lends further support to the theory.

Now, let's go onto the athletics and leave this issue behind!  


Appendix: Performance analysis - key to make the prudent assumptions

I foresee some comments about the idea about making assumptions.  It was the same when I tried to explain how performance analysis can help identify and explain possible doping behaviour.  So the first response is to emphasize that I'm not making these assumptions to PROVE a point, but rather to add to an already existing set of findings.  The evidence is there already.  I do the post above because it gives context to the evidence, a practical illustration of what the evidence suggests might be the case.  To me, it adds another "brick in the wall" in the issue of Pistorius' advantage, but it's not proof, and please recognize this before labeling as absurd any of the estimates.

But more than this, I'm a big believer in performance analysis, as regular readers will know.  I believe that if you are SENSIBLE about how you analyze performance, you can glean enormous quantities of useful information.

The key is that you have to be prudent about what you assume.  Before dismissing an illustration based on assumption as flawed, just remember that assumption is often valuable in evaluating options.  For example, in business, you always develop business cases based on assumption before making business decisions.  You make a "best case" and "worst case" scenario, and if the "worst case scenario"  still succeeds, then the business will likely succeed.  I used to do this all the time when I worked in sports business because for example you have work out if a sports event is viable.  So you assume how many tickets you'll sell, what the costs of staging the event are, and so on.  If you make all the worst assumptions, and succeed, then the event works.  And that's the principle here - reasonable assumptions show what is feasible and what is not.

In the Pistorius debate, Peter Weyand tried to quantify the size of Pistorius' advantage by adjusting his mechanical advantages and making them equal to those of able-bodied athletes.  The result was his estimate of a 12 seconds advantage, which is probably an over-estimate.

But the point I made the other day is that it was the assumptions that may be incorrect, not the principle, and the same goes for any performance analysis.  So above, I have tried to make the equivalent of "worst case" scenarios.  Don't just make Pistorius equal to the "typical" case, because clearly he is not.  Rather make him the outlier and see what happens then.  So don't give him the 47.8%-52.2% split which is typical, show the 49%-51% and the 50-50 splits as well.  Reduce the 200m time to see how it affects the pace.  And when those are all done, then you start to see the picture.

There are perhaps 10 assumptions you can make - if you make all 10 in the "favourable" direction, then you find that Pistorius is getting an advantage of around 15 to 18% (7 to 8 seconds in a 400m).  If you make all 10 in the "unfavourable" direction, then you can estimate the advantage at around 3 to 4% (about 2 seconds).  The reality is that it's likely to be a moderate version.  But the advantage is still there.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The state of doping control: Dangerous waters

Doping control in dangerous waters - the fight is immeasurably more difficult

I logged onto the website this morning, and we have this block of ads on the page (kindly provided by the folk at Google) and sure enough, every single one was an advertisement for "Drug Rehab".  One promised me "Drug abuse no more", which seems like a nice idea (especially for the UCI...)

I take this as a sign - enough with the doping coverage, at least for a while!  I'm developing doping fatigue, and looking into some other topics, maybe a short series as we lead into the running season, where hopefully there's some more interesting analysis to be done!

A bad month for anti-doping. Where to now?

The problem is that doping seems to force its way into the science of sport (and onto The Science of Sport) so frequently. And there is one final doping post, again, for now, that I need to write before I can put the syringes and blood bags and tainted beef to rest for a while, and that is a post on the wider repercussions of what has been a pretty lousy month for doping control.

The high profile case of Contador

The highest profile case was that of Alberto Contador - first offered a one-year ban, then exonerated, his case threatens to spin the historical "strict liability" concept 180 degrees and shift the onus back onto the testing authorities to prove that a banned substance was NOT ingested accidentally.  I'm sure I don't need to elaborate on how difficult it will be to prove this particular negative...

We've received a number of very interesting emails on this topic (thank you once again), but my personal thought has always been that as soon as the athlete tests positive, then the burden of proof should shift to them to prove their innocence.  This differs from the usual "innocent until proven guilty" concept, but that's how it has always been, for better or for worse (more on this below).

What Contador's case has done has interpreted doping control in the opposite direction, based on what seems to be circumstantial evidence (certainly, the beef is long gone, and that's the only evidence I would say is not circumstantial) and a possibility that Contador ingested the clenbuterol accidentally.  Incidentally, Contador's lawyer has been speaking out about the reasons for the exoneration, and you can read some of those views here.

My reading of that article is that not much has emerged that wasn't already known.  I still think the key question is what level of evidence did that Spanish committee require in order to conclude that accidental ingestion was a valid excuse, in the absence of the supposed tainted beef?  Contador's lawyer has pointed to the fact that only 0.25% of all Spanish beef is tested for clenbuterol, with the resultant low probability that authorities are able to pick up clenbuterol presence.

Quite where this leaves doping control for clenbuterol is difficult to say.  Producing positive tests is difficult enough - between undetectable drugs, alleged inside information allowing athletes to evade testers, micro-dosing to stay beneath the radar and the "mundane" problem of limited financial resources in a very, very expensive battle, the authorities appear almost "lucky" when a test comes back positive. 

Now, it appears that a positive test may become the START of a complex legal process in which the onus is on those authorities to form a water tight case against the athlete - can they provide evidence to convince committees (who are partisan and conflicted) that the substance was present as a result of doping, rather than the result of (and take your pick here): Contamination, spiking, laboratory error, vanishing twins, vindictive rivals/wives, accidents, unexplained but theoretically plausible physiological 'malfunctions'.

Doping control becomes an order of magnitude more difficult if the positive test is merely an invitation for authorities to then eliminate the innumerable other sources of contamination or ingestion.

Diana Taurasi - positive, banned, then the lab apologises

Then to add to the complexity, along came Diana Taurasi, a US basketball star playing for Fenerbache in Turkey, along with three other athletes in Turkey.  A positive test for the stimulant modafinil led to a suspension, the termination of her contract and what she describes as the loss of three months of her career.

The reason it was only 3 months (and not 2 years, which is the normal ban for modafinil) is because last week, the Turkish laboratory that tested Taurasi and three others retracted its own result.  All four athletes, including another basketball player and two footballers, have been cleared.

Strict liability requires strict testing accuracy

I'm not 100% sure of the reason for the retraction (if you know, please let me know), but the bottom line is that the whole concept of "strict liability" is 100% dependent on accurate testing and so flawed lab processes further dent this concept.

If the positive drugs test places the burden of proof onto the athlete (as I believe it should - Contador's anti-doping committee took a different view), then that testing had better be 100% certain.  It cannot produce false positives, and it cannot produce false negatives.

It transpires that the Turkish lab was suspended by WADA in 2009 and then re-instated last year, so there is clearly a quality control to ensure best practice among all the testing labs.  Something fell through the cracks, and the result is that the system loses the confidence of the athletes it is supposed to protect.

A review of the banned list may be necessary?

Now, unlike Taurasi, Contador's result was not even a false positive - he never argued that the clenbuterol was not present.  So therefore, the test was reliable and properly conducted, but the result unenforceable legally (from the anti-doping authority's point of view.  Contador's lawyers would disagree, clearly).

One then has to ask the question that if this is the case, then should that substance remain on the list of substances?  There are two options for how one might deal with this kind of situation (it seems to me that neither is an option for clenbuterol):

One could be to make the substance a threshold drug, one where a positive test is declared only when the level of the drug exceeds a certain threshold.  This level would be set based on what authorities establish to be a level that confirms doping rather than contamination.  The problem in the case of clenbuterol is that it's not as though contamination produces values 1000-fold lower than deliberate use - rather, there seems to be overlap in the levels.  In fact, experts on doping control were quoted as saying that Contador's low levels were typical of clenbuterol doping.  Also, this would allow significant doping to occur, with a potentially very effective drug.  Not a good solution unless you want to bend the boundaries of allowing doping...

The second is to develop a test that can detect the source, but because clenbuterol is only present through synthetic means, it can't be treated like testosterone, so this is not an option either.  Therefore, the rule has to stay as it is, where an athlete is pardoned if they can provide evidence that it entered their system accidentally.  In the case of clenbuterol, it's difficult to see how an athlete will NOT make this case, given the precedent now set in Spain, and so this rule, some would say, may as well be extended to say that clenbuterol is no longer tested for as a banned substance.

The merit of anti-doping?  The cost-benefit question

All of this points to one very important question - where is the fight against doping headed?  Two things stand out:
  • The absence of a failed dope test is a very poor indication of a clean athlete - Jan Ullrich only ever failed a test for recreational drugs.  Ivan Basso and Marion Jones never did.  Nor did Tim Montgomery or Dwain Chambers, until a tip-off led to a new drug test.  The point is that athletes are tested all the time but elude detection.  "World's most tested athlete" is a completely meaningless phrase.  Even the introduction of the sophisticated biological passport has not yet "caught" anyone, thanks to equally sophisticated micro-doping, though I would argue that it has been an effective deterrent and in time, will make inroads
  • The presence of a failed dope test is no indication of a dirty athlete - ask Diana Taurasi, who has failed one more drug test in her life than Marion Jones.  Jones doped, Taurasi (seemingly) did not.
So why then bother testing?  A colleague asked me this today - it's enormously costly, it seems to create more controversy than it is worth, and positive tests mean little to certain committees who either re-interpret the doping regulations or attempt to cover them up (if the Sports Illustrated article is believed, which I think it is).

Two possible solutions - simplify, or shorten?

One solution is to simplify the fight by cutting the list dramatically.  Go back to an interview we did with Prof Bengt Kayser of Geneva in 2009.  In it, he argues for a reduced list of banned substances.  Effectively, the message is "Cut the fat, improve the accuracy of testing so that positive tests actually become meaningful, and then enforce stronger bans on offenders".

Another is to reduce the length of a ban for a first-time offence.  At first this may seem paradoxical, but it has some real merit, and was introduced to me by a reader, David Beever.  The rationale (in short), is that shorter bans can be enforced in much the same way as the "safety stop" for EPO was enforced using hematocrits in the 1990s.  The first time offender then receives an automatic 3-month ban (less likely to be challenged vociferously as unfair), but a second offence carries a much longer ban.  After all, if Contador continues eating that contaminated Basque meat...

So the approach, according to David is to "loosen them (doping penalties) up, and those who start collecting strikes/bans will soon be naturally marginalised anyway."

There may very well be merit in these approaches.  I would love to see a situation where testing is so reliable and valid that a positive test is a guaranteed four-year ban, so that the penalties are harsh and the risk of being caught is high.  Sadly, neither seems likely - avoiding detection seems all too easy, and penalties are lenient or avoidable.  And so maybe it is time for compromise.

Why anti-doping?  Drugs are not equally effective and the rights of ALL athletes

As for the complete legalization of doping, that is a post or a series all of its own.  What I will say is that I'm not fond of the idea of watching sport when the result may be determined pharmacologically.  The problem is that drugs don't affect people the same way.  Just as some people respond well to sleeping tablets, or pain killers, the effect of doping on performance is likely to be highly variable.  Now, if a drug improves performance by 0 to 5%, and the natural/physiological differences between athletes is 1 to 2%, then you have a situation where a drug can make a bigger difference than the normal differences between athletes.  It would be much like Formula 1 Motorsport, where the difference between cars is larger than the difference between driver ability.  The result is that the best (human, anyway) is often undiscernable.

Then there is the matter of those who don't wish to dope.  Ricardo Ricco demonstrated the dangers of doping, as did dozens of young men who died in their sleep in the 1990s as a result of unregulated EPO and blood doping.  Christophe Bassons is one such rider, and a clean sport respects his rights (to health and performance) just as much as it does ours to watch it.  Anti-doping exists as much for those who don't wish to dope as it does to prevent those who do.

And finally, as we discussed at great length last year, the fight has made steps forward.  The performances in the Tour were arguably still "drug-assisted", but gone are the days of the 6.5 W/kg ascents - in fact, as I've pointed out numerous times, Contador and Schleck would have been minutes down on their best climbs.  That to me is a sign of a problem that is at least being "reigned in", if not eradicated, and as long as that is happening, it's a campaign worth continuing.

So call me romantic, but I hope that doping can claw back some credibility.  It may take some compromise on that list, but it beats the Pharma-Olympics (and call me naive, but we are not quite there yet!).  As always, yours views welcome!

Oh, and one last thing - there has to be a central authority to whom federations are accountable.  The allegations made against the UCI by the likes of Landis may be only partly true, but as has been said before, if even 10% of them are true, then there is corruption and collaboration at the head of the sport.  Yet nothing will come of it, because the people who should act are those who stand accused.  Until there is a central body, with teeth and authority to act, the sport will resist change from within.  So fix the management structure, before the Feds have to come knocking incidentally...

That's it for doping (I hope).  Follow our Twitter feed for updates and links to more stories, but I'll put my mind (and what time I can squeeze out) to another series in the coming week!


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Floyd Landis, spoof emails and the cycling comedy carousel

Landis, the UCI and spoof emails - but look beyond the joking as the spotlight is turned on the UCI

Floyd Landis may well already have gone down in history as one of sport's most polarizing figures.  A year ago, he was merely a disgraced Tour champion, the first man to have the Tour title officially stripped as a result of a positive doping test.

Then a series of leaked emails, a Wall Street Journal report, a federal investigation and an almost daily doping story later, Landis is one of the central characters in arguably cycling's most dramatic year, the latest saga being the "proposal" for suspension and then exoneration of its 2010 Tour champion Alberto Contador.

Landis' catch-22 and

The problem for Landis, of course, was always going to be credibility.  Having spent millions of dollars and much time crafting his passionate defence, his admission of doping undermined his own argument, and the easiest response for everyone concerned - Armstrong, Bruyneel, the UCI included - was to dismiss him as bitter, vengeful and lacking morality.  Pat McQuaid's own words show this: "Unfortunately my initial reaction to someone like that is to discredit them..." (note that there was no desire to discredit the allegations or the content of Landis' emails, rather the person)

It also doesn't make it easy that Landis brings news that people don't really want to hear - finding out that their heroes have feet of clay, or the inevitable negativity that resonates through Landis' allegations would make any messenger unpopular.  The fact that it was Landis, a self-confessed doper who found himself in the impossible Catch 22 of revealing himself as a liar by claiming to tell the truth, made it even easier to resort to the all too common defence of "leave cycling alone".

Landis goes public - the UCI threaten to sue and Landis turns the spotlight on them

Landis' latest series of allegations and the background to his story were then laid out in full in an interview with Paul Kimmage which was published in full by NY Velocity about two weeks ago.

Now, in the latest 'episode' of Landis vs the UCI, Landis has resorted to humor to further make his points.  By way of background, the UCI threatened to sue Landis for the comments he made in November 2010 suggesting that the UCI protects certain cyclists in the fight against doping, and is corrupt.

The UCI could not have picked a worse time to take this step - it happened at the same time as Alberto Contador was being exonerated by the Spanish Cycling Federation.  And while the UCI were not involved in that decision, the whole management of the Contador case, from the delay in announcing the lab finding to the hearing, had already given cause to others to suggest much the same as Landis was doing in November.  Not that Landis was limiting his allegation to Contador - there is also the matter of bribes, payments, and alleged cover-ups.

Landis' response to this legal challenge was to set up a fake website, create a fictional law firm (Grey Manrod Associates), lawyer (Chade O Grey) and then produce a series of emails that he decided to make public through NY Velocity.  You can read the entire exchange here.

A tricky tightrope to walk

Landis' approach is likely to be met with polarized views.  His emails, all of which were sent to the UCI (Mcquaid and Hein Verbruggen) are creative and cleverly constructed.  Landis probably has a future as a lawyer.  Or a successful documentary film maker/script writer.

I suspect his detractors will disagree, and Landis may be marginalizing himself even further by making that email exchange available on the net for everyone to see (already a few people have either misunderstood his humor or criticized his cheek).  If he could be accused of not having cycling's interests at heart before, he'll now be dismissed as being actively anti-cycling by making the fight so public.  Not that he will care a great deal, I suspect, and short of bringing his views to the media, he may feel few would listen anyway - quiet diplomacy doesn't seem likely from either side.

Then again, his supporters are loving every second of it, and he is growing his "fan base" for his brazen attitude towards an organization that is having to defend itself more and more frequently. His approach and candor are refreshing, and have invigorated the anti-doping fight.  It's difficult to see that his allegations are merely those of a twisted and bitter man (Sure, he is upset but people seem to miss the point that one can still tell the truth when you're upset).  Landis has brought more to the anti-doping table than anyone in many years, and those who were already hungry to take on the UCI for their part in the doping problem will find his outspokenness (and attitude) appropriate and long overdue.

Not that the UCI helps itself in any way.  Former President Hein Verbruggen this week criticized the media for giving too much focus to doping coverage.  His view seems to be that doping in cycling is only "1 or 2%" of the sport, yet it gets 50% of the coverage.  Presumably Verbruggen hasn't seen lists of his own sport's former champions, at least 50% of whom are tainted by failed tests, doping admissions and allegations.  Go back on the Top 3 of every Tour since about 1992 and see how many convicted or confessed dopers there are - it certainly isn't 2%!  In fact, the entire podium in some years is questionable at best, or entirely composed of dopers at worst.

Verbruggen seems to think that the perception of cycling is created by the media, rather than by cycling.  He'd do well to remember that the media reflect, they don't create, and his denial (handed down to McQuaid) is symptomatic of cycling's problem.  I've said before, and I stand by it 100%, if it were not for media coverage, cycling would still be deluding us all that its champions are clean.

Looking beyond the humor - what is Landis actually saying?

Back to Landis though, I will admit that I find the emails to be incredibly funny, and intelligent.  Beneath the humor and obvious sarcasm, he has systematically managed to turn the spotlight around and ask some pointed questions of the UCI.

If you jump ahead in the email exchange, the emails dated February 17th, 19th and particularly the 20th, ask some important questions of the UCI.  They raise this article, where Pat McQuaid says that he would not be surprised if there was doping on the US Postal Team, and that "a lot" of what Landis has alleged is "probably true".

Landis brings this up, along with numerous other links, also worth reading, emphasizes the contradictions of the UCI and asks them to back up their own allegations.  Many will never even consider Landis' argument, as he is appealing to such a "niche" market.  It's easy for the mainstream to ignore what are actually very good questions (the email dated February 20 asks the best of these questions).  If Landis' six points were made in an anonymous blog on any other website, they'd be deserving of some serious answers.  Hopefully the fact that they are Floyd Landis, in the guise of Chade O. Grey, won't change that.

All in all, you may view Landis as one of the sport's least honest characters, or you may see him as one of the best things to happen to it in years.  But what would be a pity is to not engage in the debate and ask WHAT is being said, simply because of WHO is saying it.  Landis has revealed what Prof Michael Ashenden has said is "a key piece of the puzzle" in the anti-doping fight.  He has provided more detail and more allegation than anyone before him.  He has provided enough content for hours of debate, and corroborating even half of the allegations will take the fight to fix the sport forward immeasurably.

Are spoof emails the way to get that message across?  For a small, niche market, yes, but hopefully a larger audience will read the links, and be led to question the apparent inconsistencies that Landis has pointed out.  The UCI is already under pressure (deservedly) and the approach of Landis, like it or not, brings more to the argument than most have done.

In one non-Landis related example, McQuaid is quoted as defending the long delay between Contador's lab result and the announcement of the positive test as "protocol".  This delay (which was not longer thanks mostly to media allegation), led to obvious suggestion of an attempted cover up.  McQuaid says he was following protocol.  Fair enough.  But then what should be asked is why Li Fuyu and countless other cyclists have had their test results announced before a B-sample is even tested.  Why "protocol" is so important for one cyclist but not others?  All in all, the UCI have a lot to answer for.  Hopefully Floyd Landis' teasing and goading compels answers.

As always your thoughts and views welcome!

Coming soon - doping fatigue, athletics and road running back on the map

Looking ahead to the next few weeks, the indoor track season is underway, the marathon season is approaching and so we'll look at some other sports soon.  The coverage of doping does, I must confess, cause "doping fatigue", and so it will be good to discuss another aspect of science in sport soon.  First, however, there is one other big story that needs to be discussed, and that is the global picture of anti-doping, in the light of Contador's case, and more recently, that of Diana Taurasi, an American basketball star, who was also exonerated of doping after a lab in Turkey retracted its initial positive finding for the stimulant modafinil. 

This raises all kinds of questions for doping control, and that also needs discussion, another time.  But then hopefully I will leave doping behind - there is more to the Science of Sport than just drugs, after all!


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Contador is cleared. A Verdict, not a proposal...

Contador is cleared to race.  And this time, it's a verdict, not a "proposal"

In a bizarre series of events, the Spanish cycling federation has cleared Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, and exonerated him of any doping charges.  He is therefore free to race immediately.

The verdict, which was until yesterday a "proposal" was announced by Spanish news yesterday and confirmed today.  You can read the coverage in English at cyclingnews

There is a lot to comment on this story, and I will in due course.  Right now, I'm traveling back from the USA Sevens in Las Vegas, and I had been planning a couple of posts on high performance sport, inspired by the weekend's victory!  Then this came up!  So a short comment below.

The basis for exoneration - a theory without proof, but good enough

Contador was cleared for two reasons:
  1. Article 296 of the UCI code states that an athlete can be exonerated if they prove (my emphasis) that they had inadvertently ingested a banned product through no fault or negligence on their part.

    And that's fair enough, of course.  I'm all for sensible decisions based on the evidence.  It happened in SA Rugby, and as I posted last time, I think the correct verdict was reached there because the players were able to prove that they'd ingested contaminated supplements.  The "culprit" was presented to a lab, it contained the banned stimulant, it was presented to the committee.

    No such thing seems to have happened here.  Contador's cow is long gone...and no secondary evidence that suggests the likelihood of contamination seems to have been provided, unless we are not being told of all the evidence.  Instead, we have a proposal, not proof, provided by Contador and his team, having been given some time to prepare a report on it last year.  That report provides a possible argument, sure, but it does NOT constitute proof.

    So am I to interpret this to mean that Article 296 of the UCI regulations, at least to the Spanish committee, actually says "an athlete can be exonerated if they offer a theory that they inadvertently ingested a banned product.  Whether or not that theory is provable is not so important, as long as there is some precedent and the possibility exists, however small"? 

    This is a crucial re-interpretation of what has always been strict liability on the part of the athlete.  And we have all heard some crazy doping defence arguments - toothpaste being spiked, vanishing twin theories, accidents causing testosterone to rise.  And yes, the idea of contaminated beef is not so outrageous that it can be dismissed out of hand.  However, numerous experts have pointed out that small doses of clenbuterol are not unusual.  And even in Contador's own report, cases of contaminated beef have often resulted in very serious symptoms.  Experts cast doubt on this defence, yet Spain's authorities have accepted it.

    Perhaps the key is that even though the contaminated beef theory is possible, it doesn't matter.  Unless it can be proven, it is not a sound defence argument, particularly when the alternative - deliberate doping - is far more plausible.

  2. The second basis for clearance may be a technicality, a procedural flaw early in the case.  That is, a letter was sent from the UCI to the Spanish federation on November 8, but it was not also sent to Contador and his legal representatives.  This violates Spanish anti-doping law, and L'Equipe are reporting that this may have had something to do with the clearance.

    If that is true, then so be it - the legal loophole wins again.  It would be interesting to know if that were interpreted by Contador as evidence of innocence.  As it is, we won't know, because of the contaminated beef argument, which he will almost certainly feel vindicates him.
The bigger picture - a politician's tweet, a committee's neutrality, cycling's reaction and what happens next?

Finally, look at the bigger picture here.
  • We have a Committee, set up by a President who himself said that he hoped Contador would be cleared.  The committee is "neutral", but answers to the president.
  • They deliberate for months before deciding on a PROPOSAL.  Not a sanction or a decision, but a proposal of a one-year ban.  An idea, that they effectively floated out there to see how it would be received.
  • It's received very badly.  Contador is outraged, the Spanish Prime Minister is equally upset.  He tweets that there “there are no legal grounds for sanctioning Contador”
  • The Committee gets back together, and apparently mulls over their proposal for a weekend.  They emerge, but this time, with a verdict.  Contador is cleared.  There is no contaminated beef, no proof of the alternate theory, but they have decided that Article 296 must include the possibility of inadvertent use, rather than proof
All in all, it is quite a bizarre series of events.  I'd like to think that the Committee were not swayed by the Spanish Prime Minister's tweet.  That he, like many others, was simply ignorant of the WADA code.  But then again, it appears that the Committee may have been equally ignorant.  Or that they have decided to re-interpret it for the good for Spanish cycling, and Contador.

As for the UCI, their reaction will be interesting.  Will there be an outcry?  Or are they also drinking champagne and celebrating behind closed doors tonight?  Pat McQuaide has after all stated numerous times that cycling doesn't have a doping problem.  Clearly the Spanish Committee agree.  And now their champion cyclist has been cleared.  I expect to hear very little from the UCI on this one, but I also expect media and public pressure to force their hand, as it has done before, and I wouldn't be surprised if the CAS get involved in this one. 

What will be the reactions of the professional peloton?  Will they decry the injustice of the verdict?  Or will they support, quietly, the escape of one of their own?

All in all, cycling's condition just go worse, regardless of whether you believe in tainted beef or not.

Love to hear your comments and discussion, as always!  I'll be traveling to New York tomorrow, spending three days there, so I may not always respond, but I'll be reading!


Friday, February 04, 2011

Two doping cases: Exonerated vs punished. Fair or foul?

Springbok rugby players and a cycling champion: Why some are exonerated fairly and others punished unfairly

Yesterday, a reader sent me a link for an article from the Telegraph newspaper, titled "Rugby Union players are exonerated while cyclists take the blame.  How is that fair?"  Ordinarily, articles from the Telegraph are thought-provoking, accurate and praise-worthy.  This was not one of them.

The article concerns the recent one-year suspension handed to Alberto Contador, and the exoneration of two Springbok rugby players, Chiliboy Ralepele and Bjorn Basson, for a failed doping control in November last year.  It asks how one can be suspended for a year, while the others are exonerated with no blame at all.  The conclusion of the article is that rugby is in denial about its doping problem, while cycling is taking the fight to doping (as I said, the writer, Brendan Gallagher, clearly doesn't follow cycling very closely...).

As an aside, isn't it curious that not a single cyclist who has ever spoken out about doping, or made a confession, or blown the whistle, has been welcomed by the UCI?  Every single one of them is a bitter, malicious liar.  One would think that a sport serious to clean up, taking the fight to dopers, would pay attention to the confessions of its own riders...

However, the issue and the question raised by the journalist, who needed to do some homework on both cases before painting the rugby players with the same brush as Contador, still invites some interesting debate.  How is the exoneration of the players in one case fair, while the 1-year suspension in another case is being criticized as too lenient?  It boils down to the science, the law and also the issue of full responsibility of the athletes for doping.  Here are the 'facts' (as much as one can use that word in the anti-doping argument!)

Same defence, but with big differences

The biggest error (the fundamental error, in effect), comes at the outset of the article, when Gallagher writes "Their defences are essentially the same".

Perhaps to an outsider who has done little to peel away the first reaction to a positive drugs tests, the defences are the same.  But once you look a little more closely, then you that see a great deal was different.  And those differences make for an interesting talking point in the anti-doping battle.

Let's recap - 2010 brought two "surprise" positive doping tests.  First Alberto Contador, cycling's current champion, was informed of a positive test for clenbuterol, a beta-2-agonist.  His samples in the Tour de France contained minuscule amounts of the drug, but that was irrelevant - it's not a threshold drug, which means that unlike testosterone, it doesn't need to be present in a specific amount to constitute doping.  ANY clenbuterol is a failed dope test.

The two South African rugby players, Chiliboy Ralepele and Bjorn Basson, were tested after South Africa's match against Wales in November.  In their case, it was methylhexanamine, a banned stimulant, and also a drug whose presence is a positive test, regardless of its level.  So far, the cases are similar.

The initial reaction:  It got in by accident

The initial reaction was also similar.  For Contador, the issue seems to have been swept under the carpet for as long as possible, and only a tenacious media forced Contador into a statement.  That statement, I guess predictably, was along the lines of "I am innocent, this has been a mistake, I will fight to clear my name".  In no time (perhaps thanks to the forewarning provided by the virtuous and kind UCI, who are serious about doping control), Contador had his defence prepared - contaminated beef.  A legal document by Douwe de Boer was released, giving examples of the same thing in previous cases.  The Spanish farming community didn't buy it, and of course, Contador's cow was long gone, but his defence essentially argued that he was a victim of contamination.

For South Africa's rugby players, the reaction was similar - surprise and strong denial of cheating.  In this case, the fact that it was a stimulant that had already been responsible for dozens of positive results in 2010 was a clue to where the source might have been - contaminated supplements.  And so the focus was immediately placed on all the team's supplements and medical products.

Also, the substance, methylhexanamine, had been identified as a problem drug, and was to be reclassified as a "specified substance" by WADA, which was essentially an admission that this drug could easily be taken inadvertently.

That realization is the first difference - no such recognition exists for clenbuterol.

Finding the contaminant - the vital difference

The second and most important difference is that on hearing of the rugby positives, SA Rugby called for all supplements and medicines to be returned to South Africa immediately.  Here, they were tested, and sure enough, methylhexanamine was found in a USN supplement that the players had been using.  But there's more - that supplement had been declared "safe" by the manufacturer, who gave assurances of quality control and a certificate that 'guaranteed' that it did not contain any banned substances.

The point is that the rugby players took every precaution - they not only used a supplement that wasn't supposed to contain banned supplements, they also did as much as could be done to ensure that contamination was not possible.  The fact that it was, is an indictment on the supplement industry, for whom "quality control" is non-existent (at least, in SA), and not on the players.

In the cycling case, to quote Bonnie Ford, "Contador's cow has gone off to greener pastures".  Therefore, there was no way to prove the source.  Instead, all the evidence pointed at how UNLIKELY it was for the clenbuterol to come from contaminated Spanish beef.  Certainly, the farming community were none too pleased with the accusation.  Add to this the fact that an expert from Montreal suggested that the low levels in Contador's system are in keeping with how the drug is used for doping, and not what is seen in contamination cases, and you have a defence that is stretching the realms of possibility.  Indeed, even in Contador's own defence report, the previous cases of clenbuterol contamination were usually "poisonings" that caused some nasty side effects with very high levels of clenbuterol in the body.

And then finally, not a single team-mate tested positive for the same thing.  Not too surprising, of course, since they didn't all eat it and weren't tested like Contador was.  Had an Astana team-mate been tested, it might have made a massive difference to his defence.  That was true for the rugby players - the way professional rugby works, two players per team are chosen for doping control at each match, and the fact that the chosen two (out of 22) were positive for the same substance actually strengthens the case that they were taking something inadvertently.  I dare say many others might have been tested positive had they been picked out.

The media here in South Africa were quick to condemn the doping problem, and the players were labeled as cheats.  One prominent anti-doping figure in SA proclaimed that they should receive two-year bans instantly, then quickly back-pedalled when it became quite clear that the team, and the players, had done everything possible to avoid ingesting a stimulant, but had been let down by the system.

The fact that the supplement could so easily be identified meant their defence was credible.  Contador's meanwhile, was unprovable and only marginally plausible.  Again, to quote Bonnie Ford, "There's no out clause saying you get a reduced suspension just because no one can figure out precisely how the substance got into your body."

Why the reliance on the smoking gun is futile in the anti-doping battle

The end result is that exoneration was 100% correct.  That's not to say that rugby doesn't have a doping problem.  I'm convinced it does, and I am sure that it exists right down to the school boy level.  But to suggest double-standards based on this case is a failure of common sense, and also ignorance of the law.  The law allows for leniency or pardons when the athlete can prove (and finding a tub of powder that contains the stimulant despite a certificate that says it doesn't is strong proof) that they didn't cheat. Failing to prove it, the law allows for a 2-year ban.  Not a "proposal" for a one-year suspension.

So Gallagher and the Telegraph should be saving their ire and criticism for cycling, who from afar seem to be doing what they can to stamp out their doping problem ("What doping problem?", ask the UCI).  But as I have maintained for a while, the media, the sponsors, some teams, and independent experts and agencies are the ones driving the 'crusade' to clean up the sport, and the UCI, much against their will, are being dragged along with it.

The continued search for the "smoking gun":  Rather bury your head in the sand

The final interesting aspect of the rugby vs cycling case debate is that doping control is becoming less and less about the "magical" drugs tests and doping controls after races or matches, and more and more an accumulation of evidence that is presented before a judge or jury, the way any other court proceeding is handled.  Right now, for example, many of the biological passport cases are being heard, and both sides are using experts who present why a cyclist should or should not be sanctioned based on their blood profiles.  That kind of court case is the future of anti-doping, because as we have seen, a positive test is rarely simply accepted, and a negative test means, well, next to nothing.

This is why when people jump to the defence of an athlete saying "they never tested positive", they are showing deliberate ignorance of the reality of anti-doping, which is that we cannot rely simply on a test and the insistence that we'll find a smoking gun.  As mentioned before, doping somehow requires that this smoking gun, a video of the 'crime' and a confession exist in order for people to finally admit, "Yes, that athlete doped".  People are sentenced on far less than this outside of doping, and that's the direction anti-doping is going, and must go in order to make inroads against what seems to be a massive, systemic problem (at UCI level, team level, and if history and the SI article are believed, national level.

Look at ALL the evidence, and sometimes, you'll find that players should be fully exonerated (even apologized to) despite failing a doping test.  Other times, athletes should be found guilty and banned despite never failing a test.  Common sense, some would call it...


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Anti-doping spotlight: Articles worth reading

The spotlight falls on cycling: Articles worth reading

Apologies for our silence in the midst of some dramatic debate and news in the world of cycling.  In the aftermath of the Sports Illustrated article on Lance Armstrong, we've had some good debate on our previous post, Alberto Contador has been handed a one year suspension which he will apparently appeal (and risk a longer suspension) and most recently, Paul Kimmage has produced the longest and most detailed interview to date with Floyd Landis.

All the while, we've been rather silent, with work pressures to blame!  So we are a little late to the party, but for those who haven't yet read about the above stories, here are three must-read articles.

"Anti-doping decisions are not negotiations"

First, a viewpoint on the Contador case from Joe Lindsey at Boulder Report.  In it, he describes how the suspension of Contador was delivered as a "proposal" rather than a sanction.  It hits on some crucial points, most notably that the rule says a two-year sanction for a doping offence unless it can be proved that the banned substance entered the athlete's system completely by accident.

This became relevant here in South Africa because two of our top rugby players were recently pardoned after testing positive for a banned stimulant last year.  What happened in this case was that as soon as the positive test result was found, the medical director of SA Rugby requested that all supplements and medicines to be sent to a laboratory for analysis.  And sure enough, a supplement by a company called USN was found to contain the supplement, even though a certificate had been issued guaranteeing that it was "clean".  The result was that the players had no knowledge of ingesting the stimulant, had even taken steps to ensure that they were not taking anything illegal, and they were rightly pardoned.

In the Contador case, this couldn't happen, because the alleged tainted beef could never be proven.  So how a reduced sentence was achieved is beyond me.  It certainly sets a dangerous precedent and highlights once again the inconsistencies in the anti-doping process.

Bonnie Ford on the precedent and some startling insight into the Spanish anti-doping mindset

Next, an article by the always excellent Bonnie Ford of ESPN.  In this article, the most striking comments are those relating the initial reaction of Juan Carlos Castano, President of the Spanish Cycling federation, who actually said that he "hoped the case would be resolved in favour of the cyclist".  This leading statement gave little hope that the committee, comprised of people who answer to Castano, would reach anything but a lenient sentence.

Ford also paints a telling picture of how the news was broken to Contador many weeks before it was ever known in the media.

What will be most interesting now is to see the reaction of the UCI to the verdict.  The fact that they seemed to be trying their level best to sweep the issue under the carpet back in July and August last year doesn't inspire much hope that they'll act to look for a harsher sentence. As Ford writes:  "One of the foundational problems of the anti-doping infrastructure established globally a decade ago is many of the organizations doing the policing are simultaneously promoting their sports, and rare is the governing body willing to gore its own ox."

That applies to the national federation, and to the UCI, who, as I have said before, have been complicit in the sport's doping problem since it began.

Kimmage draws more out of Landis

And finally, the longest piece of all, and the most fascinating, is the detailed interview of Floyd Landis by Paul Kimmage.  Kimmage is famous, even notorious, for being a doping "whistleblower".  His book "Rough Ride" is a must read, and he then became infamous when Lance Armstrong laid into him at the AmGen Tour of California a few years ago.

The thing about Kimmage, however, is that history has, for the most part, shown him to be right.  His revelations about cycling in "Rough Ride" were roundly dismissed and he became a pariah to the sport.  Then came Festina in 1998 where those outside the sport suddenly realized the truth about the sport, while those inside could no longer blindly deny their own "cancer" (and yes, I borrowed that word from Kimmage, who used it to describe the sport's problem when Armstrong returned).

Kimmage's 7 hour interview with Landis has been transcribed word for word by NY Velocity, and it reveals the mindset of Landis in great detail.  Of course, many are going to dismiss Landis as a liar.  Because yes, he was.  He took money, he toured the country denying doping and he lied to everyone.  Does that disqualify everything he says now?  Depends what you want to believe.  But the interview provides new revelations, it gets into Landis' mind like no interview before.

It's lengthy, so do it in stages if you need to, but it's well worth a read!