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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Around the rings: Weekly buzz

Ashenden, anti-doping and the impending marathon season and Olympic team selection

Ashenden steps down - "managing the message"

Michael Ashenden is one of the leading anti-doping advocates in the world as a result of a) his contribution to the development of the biological passport system and the detection of blood doping and EPO use, and b) his outspokenness about the process, including two interviews that will (and should) become part of the anti-doping folklore, but more on these shortly.

Ashenden last week stood down from the AMPU, a body that was recently created to manage the biological passport process, because he felt that the contract that its members were asked to sign was too restrictive, and would help foster a culture of "omerta", the pact of silence that characterizes the professional cycling peloton (originally a mafia term).

You can read a news piece on his resignation here for the details, but what was most interesting is Ashenden's description that the Athlete Passport Management Unit, formed recently to manage the biological passport system for cycling and athletics, is trying "manage the message".

I can see both sides of the story here - you can't have a person involved in the system, with intimate knowledge of the cases and processes, speaking out too much about ongoing cases, because it's potentially harmful (that is, slanderous and libelous) to the athlete involved.  So some form of "management" is non-negotiable to those bodies, it has to be in order to protect their credibility.

You may recall that the biological passport system was designed as "three strike" system, where a case is only opened against an athlete when they produce several unusual or suspicious results in a short period.  This is because for all its progress, the biological passport remains an imperfect method, which can, as shown by research, produce "false positives" (this fact is acknowledged by everyone on it, incidentally, and it will always be the case because physiological systems don't obey our best understanding at this stage).

For this reason, it was designed with multiple stages of evaluation, both legal and scientific, the first of which was the regular measurement of reticulocyte %, hemoglobin concentration and a calculated off-score, and the probability calculation of values occurring in an undoped individual.  The second level is evaluation by a panel, who assess the changes and evaluate whether a profile is suggestive of doping, and the third level is the opening of a legal proceeding.

The process is thus length and intensive, and I think it's fair to say that this is out of necessity, because the authorities have to "manage" the process, so that they don't pursue athletes unfairly.  Linked to this must be some form of "managing the message", at least while the case is ongoing.  But this is so obvious it feels almost foolish to point out, but I think that from some circles, criticism of Ashenden's resignation (and there is some) was based on the perception that Ashenden wanted to discuss individual cases while they were happening.  I certainly didn't see it this way.

Rather, my take is that the more transparency there is, the better.  The process should be explained so that the fans, the media and the athletes properly understand how the system works (the role of educator) and so that there is no chance whatsoever of anything being covered up (the whistleblower from inside).  The latter is so vital because in the last two years, so many allegations have emerged of preferential treatment for certain cyclists that the credibility and trust in the entire anti-doping system has been undermined.  There is a growing perception that some are untouchable, whereas others will be made examples of, because it's convenient to do so.  Exposing the champions is not as good for media coverage and sponsor perceptions (for example, remember that it's been media pressure that has exposed certain recent high profile cases). 

The only solution for this is transparency.  As Ashenden states, "there should be nothing to hide, so why stop experts from talking?" There are of course some reasons to stop experts from talking in certain situations - there may, at times, be "something to hide".  For example, when authorities were working with the pharmaceutical companies to develop the test for CERA, it was beneficial to be silent.  Again, this is obvious.  In most other situations, I agree with Ashenden - talk and educate and inform so that you build credibility through transparency.  The reverse is also true - if a system is broken and flawed, then preventing people from saying so, and refusing to accept criticism, halts that progress and fosters an environment where further cheating can prosper. 

Ashenden interview: Contador's CAS case and doping explained

Speaking of transparency, Ashenden had barely left the APMU and an interview appeared on nyvelocity.com, in which he described the scientific issues of the Contador CAS case.  This is the second interview Ashenden has done with Andy Shen of nyvelocity.com.  The first was a huge interview he gave in 1999, where he covered EPO testing and Lance Armstrong's failed EPO tests, and laid out why he believed Armstrong had doped.

Both interviews should be required reading, I think, because Ashenden explains the process from inside.  One can still disagree with Ashenden's final opinion, but it's the process by which he arrives at it, and the explanations of the anti-doping process that I found so interesting and valuable.  As mentioned, the first interview, and now this one, shed more light on the testing and anti-doping processes than the entire collection of news stories in the last decade, and this is the value of experts being accessible.

You can read the interview here - Ashenden typically pulls no punches, explains blood doping and EPO microdoping, plasticizers, and then his role in the CAS hearing.  As I say, it's well worth a read.

My thoughts, apart from interest at the anti-doping content, are that Ashenden was clearly frustrated at the narrow terms of the CAS hearing.  That seems typical of CAS hearings, incidentally (and perhaps law, for that matter), but what emerges from Ashenden is that there was a good deal of evidence against Contador but that the very narrow question being asked meant that it could not be covered and presented as evidence.   He was ordered not to answer certain questions and describes his frustration that some relatively simple matters which could have been resolved in 30 seconds took many hours to thrash out.  

This frustration seems typical for a scientist in a legal setting - reading the decision from the Pistorius case, for example, it was equally clear that CAS don't hear all the evidence, they rule only on a previously defined question and decision (the nature of arbitration, of course).  The result is that a decision gets made in arbitration that does not truly reflect the evidence - in the Contador case, the plasticizer and transfusion theory could never be fully advanced, whereas in the Pistorius case, the Weyand/Bundle theory of swing times was never even presented to the panel.  It seems a flawed system to me.  I'd have thought that the goal of the CAS as the final decision-maker should be to evaluate ALL the evidence, rather than to be bound up in dozens of boxes of legal arguments, but I guess such is life and legality.

Marathon season is here

Moving away from cycling to running, next week sees the start of the Spring Marathon season, and it's a loaded season, for many reasons.  Recall that 2011 was the most sensational year of marathon running ever seen, largely because of Kenyan runners - they occupied the Top 20 places in the world rankings, won every major marathon, broke every Major Marathon course record, and the world record.

It's almost inconceivable that the same could happen this year, but it's a loaded season because everything now points towards London in August.  The next three weeks will determine who even gets to start the Olympic Marathon, because Kenya and Ethiopia will pick their teams based on London, Rotterdam and Boston performances, and I can't think of a time when competition was so deep, at such a high quality, just to earn the right to represent a country in the Olympic Games.

First up are Paris and Rotterdam, followed on Monday by Boston.  Neither of the weekend's races is a Major, and Paris is unlikely to produce a scintillating time, though it has served as a springboard for future champions.  For now, however, it's Rotterdam on Sunday that should attract most attention, because Moses Mosop of Kenya will be aiming for a world record on Rotterdam's super fast course.  He's joined there by Peter Kirui, who is Kenya's 10,000m champion, and a man who recently won the New York Half Marathon looking extremely comfortable. If Rotterdam's weather plays along (and here, the wind has been the main culprit in recent years) then the world record is under threat, and Kenya's selection problems may multiply ahead of Boston (where Geoffrey Mutai races) and London (where just about all the others - Emmanuel Mutai, Patrick Makau, Wilson Kipsang, Abel Kirui and Martin Lel - are running).

It means that of all the Marathons, London has the most spectacular field, but may only provide one place for Kenyan runners, given that Geoffrey Mutai must surely be the first choice based on his Boston and New York wins last year.  Quite how Kenyan officials will select when athletes are running on different courses under different circumstances is anyone's guess, but it should make for good discussion.  Incidentally, on this note, the weather forecast for Boston is not favorable.  Last year, the weather helped make Boston the fastest marathon ever run - 2:03:02 beat 2:03:06.  This year, even with a strong tailwind, the forecast is for warm temperatures, and that means a repeat is unlikely.

Make the Olympic Marathon open to everyone?

Ethiopia, meanwhile, have similar selection problems, in that a host of young Ethiopians dominated the Dubai Marathon earlier this year, and seem to be front-runners for their three spots.  Whether it's wise to choose youth in a fast race (and a first-time performance) over the experience and proven pedigree of athletes like Tsegaye Kebede or Gebremariam, who may be a little slower, is a debatable point.

What I would say, however, is that I agree with Amby Burfoot who recently wrote that the Olympic Marathon should not restrict each country to selecting only three athletes.  His reasoning is that the Olympic Marathon should be the premier marathon in the world, and I agree with him.  As it stands, the London Marathon is clearly the deepest, highest quality race, but it is missing at least three of the best in the world, in Mosop, Mutai and Kirui.  The Olympic Marathon in August will be short of at least 10 Kenyans, and probably five Ethiopians, and that somewhat "dilutes" its value.

The downside is that opening the race up to every Kenyan with a 2:06 or faster means that the Olympic Marathon would start to resemble the World Cross Country Championships, which are really a Kenyan and Ethiopian procession, and which kind of turns many "less than passionate fans" away from the sport.  The reality is that for global reach and appeal, the chance that an Italian or American athlete, for example, can medal in the Olympic Marathon, is necessary.  

So it's a difficult one - there is almost zero chance that the London Marathon on the 22nd will be won by anyone NOT from Kenya or Ethiopia, and if the top 10 from each of these countries raced in the Olympics, the same would be true.  As it is, the top 3 from Kenya and Ethiopia look close to untouchable, but at least there's some hope!  Would love to hear your thoughts on this one!

The spillover from the marathon and Kenya's bizarre selection processes

And finally, related to this incredible depth and quality in the marathon, we're starting to see a potential "spill down" back to the half-marathon and possibly 10,000m event.  The last few years have seen the marathon explosion, and that has been to the detriment of the longest track event.  Not many high quality 10,000m races happen each year, and the result is that Kenenisa Bekele's world records have been untroubled for a long time.

That's unlikely to change, but what does seem to be happening, again driven by the Olympic Games, is that a lot of runners who would be heading towards the Marathon are now coming back down to the 10,000m distance.  Last week, a previously unknown Ethiopian, aged only 20, won the Prague half marathon in 58:47.  Atsedu Tsegay became the fifth fastest man in history, and declared afterwards that he'll now focus on making the Ethiopian team in the 10,000m for the Olympics.

Similarly, Dennis Koech won the Berlin half marathon in 59:14 and also stated his intent to qualify for the 10,000m event (he was not however named in a 30-man squad of athletes for the Kenyan pre-trial trial, as discussed below).  These are athletes who almost certainly will be running marathons by 2013, and they're on the way to that distance, because that's clearly where the prestige and hence biggest payday lies.

But, the depth of talent available to those countries, and the relatively late stage in the year means that for these men, the sensible approach is to look down, at the shorter 10,000m distance, for now.  As Letsrun.com pointed out, what this means is that the medal chances of their USA-based athletes take a hit as this talent comes back to the track, albeit for a few months only.

The good news, however, is that just today, Kenyan athletics announced a ridiculous ultimatum that will exclude many of their potential 10,000m medalists from even making their team.  They have arranged a 10,000m event in Nairobi on Saturday, and announced that anyone NOT participating in these trials will be ineligible for selection to the Olympic Team.

The result is that Geoffrey Mutai, who races in Boston on Sunday, as well as Mosop and Kirui who race Rotterdam on Sunday, are automatically excluded from the Kenyan 10,000m team.  Not that any of these three wanted to be in the 10,000m team, but all could be potential medalists in the event that they fail to make the Kenyan Marathon team.

The reality is that there is enough time post-Rotterdam/Boston/London for a talented and fast marathon runner to reassess their season's focus and come down to the 10,000m event.  This is particularly the case for Mutai and Kirui - Mutai was Kenya's Cross Country champion last year and Kirui, as mentioned, their 10,000m champion.  So both were options over 10,000m, in the event that they didn't make the Marathon team.  

Now, that option has also been taken away, and it's a foolish thing to do.  Why have two separate trial races?  As you may already know, the final Kenyan 10,000m trials have been "outsourced" to the USA in June, and will take place in Oregon on June 2nd.  This 'mini-trial' will feature 30 athletes, and the top 15 will qualify for the Oregon race. 

It's an unnecessary thing to do in the first place, but when it excludes some of your top runners, who happen to be focusing on the marathon at the time, it seems doubly foolish.  Kenya has not won a gold over 10000m in the Olympic Games since 1968, and with Mo Farah and a host of Ethiopians standing in their way, it may be ambitious to think that one of their top marathon runners could come down in distance and win that gold in London this year, but this kind of decision makes it even more unlikely, and that seems like a bad decision in sports management.

Again, your thoughts welcome!