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Friday, June 15, 2012

Olympic buzz: Nike's super-fast clothes, USADA's Armstrong case and on-track action

Olympic buzz: The USADA charges, the Nike Turbospeed Track Suit and on-track action

Three relatively short comments today, as we move into the final six weeks before the London Olympic Games start.  We look today at the USADA charges against Lance Armstrong, then shift to the Games to look at Nike's new suit and the claims it makes for performance, and wrap up with some brief thoughts on Ethiopia's emerging medal prospects in London, including Bekele's return and Ethiopia's women.

USADA charges Lance Armstrong: Pieces worth reading

First, a story that is not directly linked to the 2012 Olympic Games, but is without doubt the biggest news in the world of sport (and sports science and sports law) this week - USADA announced that it would be bringing charges against Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France champion.

Much has been written about this in the two days since the story broke, and anything I write is merely repeating what other have stated in more detail, so I rather direct you to the following excellent pieces for further details and insights:
  • The letter sent by USADA to Armstrong and five other "accused" informing them of charges.  In case you've missed it, this is NOT a case about Armstrong and doping.  Rather, it casts the net wider, and most significantly, is pursuing the "conspiracy" (the word used in the letter) to dope by teams of which Armstrong was a member.  As such, those five men accused along with Armstrong include manager Johan Bruyneel, three doctors including the infamous Michele Ferrari, and a coach who worked for US Postal during the Armstrong era.  The letter has some explosive allegations and lists them in some detail.  It also includes mention, but not details of the "numerous former riders and employees" of Armstrong's teams who will testify that they witnessed a range of offences including possession, trafficking, administration, aiding, abetting and covering-up doping offences on the team. 

  • The significant point about the case is that it is not a pursuit of one cyclist for doping.  As mentioned, it is about process, and the best piece I read on this features on "The Inner Ring" website.  It describes the case, and the focus on doping system, rather than on one case.  It also introduces the important point that the absence of a positive test is relatively meaningless (see: Ullrich, Basso, Jones, Montgomery, Valverde), and it explains what happens next.  If you have time, go through the comments section as well, they're very insightful and thought-provoking.

  • Finally, a concise summary of where this has come from, and where it may lead, comes from Bonnie Ford and TJ Quinn of ESPN.  It explains the link to the Federal investigation of Armstrong that was dropped in February (that was a criminal case, this is not, and more), issues around jurisdiction and sanctions, the intriguing mention of the samples from 2009 and 2010 tests which were "consistent" with doping, and speculates on who might testify.
There are many other good articles on the subject, but I'm sure most have seen more than enough by now!  I have also used our Twitter account to send those links out as I stumble across them myself, so if you haven't followed us, and want to keep more up to date, Twitter is where it's at.

I'll say the following three things about the Armstrong case:

First, many people are saying that it's time to move on, that too much time has elapsed and that the focus should be on the future.  I disagree, for a number of reasons.  The first in principle.  Saying "it's too late, let it go" is saying that if you can get away with something illegal for long enough, then you can get away with it forever.  That doesn't work.  And yes, I appreciate the concept of a statute of limitations (see the ESPN article I linked to above for more on this), but I would take the view of John Lancaster in this piece, where he argues that "determining the truth about Armstrong's past is vital to the well-being of cycling's present".

This is particularly true in this case, because, for the third time (sorry to labour the point), this is not exclusively about Armstrong.  It is about the system, and the most "exciting" thing about it is that the evidence presented may expose the internal doping system from the top-down.  That is something that has long been lacking, because the sole spotlight always falls on the doped rider, when it's the organization that enables doping that needs to be carved down.  So my view there is that any cycling fan who wishes to see the sport advance even further should celebrate the opportunity to fully expose the corruption that put it there in the first place.

The other important point there is that UCI stand to lose considerable face if the verdict goes against "the conspirators".  That is, part of the allegation is that the UCI contributed to covering up Armstrong' doping positives.  Prof Michael Ashenden, always outspoken about doping cases, including this terrific interview where he states the science behind Armstrong's EPO positive in 2001, alludes to this in this article, saying that a finding of a cover-up would be fatal for the UCI's credibility.

Returning to the case, I'd say that anyone interesting in seeing cycling move forward should probably take very seriously the prospects that the sport is run by people who would cover up the tests as is alleged.  So this is yet another angle that makes these charges relevant today.  Bottom line - don't believe the PR machine that says this is a "vendetta" and that everyone should leave the retired rider alone.  There's more to this than that.

Second point - there need not be a smoking gun.  A lot of people are still pointing to the "more than 500 tests" that Armstrong passed (since rounded up to 600).  That's all good and well, but again, see: Ullrich, Valverde, Basso, Jones, Montgomery.  This is a point we've laboured in the last few years here on this site, but the truth is that a positive test does not necessarily equal a ban, and a negative test does not equal innocence.  Such is the climate of anti-doping these days, so the sooner we leave this dependence on a clearly beatable system, the better.

That, and realize that witness accounts, particularly from direct witnesses rather than hearsay, are often used to convict people of murder.  So doping?  It's not the weak evidence that is argued.  One person making an accusation?  That can be dismissed as a disgruntled former employee (a bike mechanic, perhaps).  The second accuser? Dismissed as malice or vendetta.  But when the slow drip turns into a raging torrent, then even with the right incentive to testify, you can't just discount them all as malice or jealousy.  Of course, each witness account must be corroborated, and there's still a standard to uphold, but it's too lazy to simply dismiss everyone with the same strategy.

And finally, I hope that the evidence emerges.  In all likelihood, much will happen behind closed doors at first, and perhaps with every intention of keeping it that way.  But this opaqueness has long been part of the problem, and I'm all for more transparency.

The Nike Turbospeed Track Suit: Technological doping or marketing games?

The next story is that of Nike's unveiling of its Olympic track kit today (see pic right).  They claim that it will improve 100m sprint performance by 0.023 seconds, the importance of which they illustrate by pointing out that it would have been the difference between a bronze and silver medal for Walter Dix in Beijing.  Their secret is strategically placed dimples on the fast-moving arms and legs that improve aerodynamics in much the same way that a dimpled golf ball flies considerably further than it would were it smooth.

There are two interesting questions arising out of this story.  First, does the suit actually work?  It's all good and well to say, as the Nike Olympics Creative Director has, that "We've tested them over 100m, 200m and 400m and couldn't believe the numbers".  Call me a skeptic, but until I see the results of that testing, and perhaps more importantly, the methods, I'm not convinced about a 0.2% difference.  The only mention I am able to find of the testing is that it comprised 1000 hours of wind-tunnel testing.  The fact of the matter is that this kind of claim is made every four years - the marketing battle between Nike and Adidas ensures that every new design is "revolutionary".  And this seems further advanced than most, but given the financial stakes here, the default response is "believe with caution".

Performance-wise, the advantage they are touting, the 0.023 seconds, amounts to just over 0.2% in a 100m race.  The improvement over longer distances would be even smaller, if this suit behaved in the same way that swimsuits did, because as the speed drops, so too does the relative aerodynamic benefit (For example, the breast-stroke events got the smallest advantage from the suits, freestyle and fly the largest).

This 0.2% is a tiny improvement, and while it can indeed make the difference between gold and silver, it's small enough that even the slightest "error" in the testing methods (either deliberate or unavoidable) could easily undo it.  I'm no aerodynamic engineer, of course, and so I'll bow to those who have specific expertise, but I do worry about the validity of testing a garment in a wind tunnel.

The second issue relates to technological doping.  Of course, this issue assumes that the garment works to begin with - I have my doubts, but many in the media seem to have swallowed the science whole.  But if it does, then the inevitable questions and comparisons will arise - remember the swimsuit sage of 2008 and 2009?  Back then, super-fast, buoyant suits helped swimmers break 25 World and 65 Olympic records in all but two events in the pool in Beijing.  They then saw 43 world records fall in the 2009 World Championships.  In the three years since those World Championships, we've seen a grand total of two world records!

Inevitably, these running outfits are being compared to the swimsuits.  That's a misplaced comparison, because this advantage (0.2%) is nowhere near what the suits seem to have provided.  For example, the difference between 2009 (suit-aided) and 2011 (non-suit aided) performances in the swimming sprint events was about 1.6%, so that's almost 8-fold greater than the running suit.  Bottom line - the swimsuits were another level of technological assistance, Nike's Turbospeed suit may or may not work, but by comparison, it's a tiny benefit.

There is the philosophical question, however:  Should the suit be banned in the same way that doping would (and should) be banned, even if it produced a debatable improvement in the range of 1%?  As I see it, a ban on a substance is for numerous reasons, and performance advantage is only one of them.  One such reason is a health risk - a crucial reason doping control exists is to protect athletes who don't want to risk their health in order to compete and win.  Then there is whether the device creates an unequal playing field because it is inaccessible or unobtainable for some.  Certainly, the latter issue can be debated here.  It was a problem for many swimmers, who were tied into sponsorships that prevented them from getting into the super-fast suits in Beijing.  The same would probably be true of the Nike Turbospeed Suit, but then it's not a health risk.  And again, I'm not convinced about the performance advantage.

Taking an even broader view, one can argue about modern tennis rackets, cricket bats, baseball bats, golf clubs, starting blocks, gymnastics apparatus and just about every piece of equipment which has morphed (or transformed) over time into what we now accept as 'normal'.  So do we need to draw a line?  As far as I'm concerned, with the CAS ruled that carbon-fiber prosthetic limbs conferred no advantage, they opened a door on many technological advancements.  In this instance, I'm just not convinced of the performance benefit.

One last thought - I was watching the Beijing Olympic highlights today and couldn't help notice that Usain Bolt doesn't even run in a tight-fitting skin-suit.  And that's true today - Bolt races in a vest, which flaps around in the considerable wind that he generates as he hits 44 km/hour!  The creative designers at Nike would be aghast!

On-track action: Diamond League takes a break for trials, but London is building nicely

And finally, much has been happening on the tracks around the world with the Diamond League athletics series crossing the Atlantic between Rome, Oslo, Eugene and New York.  There have been a number of notable performances - David Rudisha cruised to a sub-1:42 in New York, Usain Bolt had a bad run in Ostrava, then bounced back with two sub-9.8s to remind everyone that he remains the alpha-dog of men's sprinting.  Yohan Blake's statement ended rather flatly in New York as he ran "only" 9.90s, hours after Tyson Gay returned to racing with a 10.00s into a 1.5 m/s wind.  Gay attempts to qualify for the USA team this weekend, but the men's 100m has some questions against it yet. 

Kenenisa Bekele continued his comeback, quietly finding improvements in all the right areas.  His debut didn't exactly light up the track world, as he ran only 7:40 for seventh in the 3000m in Doha.  Then he ran 13:13.89 in admittedly poor conditions in Shanghai, finishing sixth.  He then got down to 13:01.48 for fourth in Eugene, where his lack of final lap speed was exposed again.  And finally, he ran 13:00.54 in Oslo.  That was in an erratic race, badly paced, but his final lap was faster than in Eugene (around 56s vs 57s) and augurs well for Bekele.

Elite athletes are elite precisely because they respond so rapidly to training, and given eight weeks of training from that race, Bekele cannot be ruled out as a medal favourite, particularly in the 10,000m.  The attribute that he seems to have lost, and which is often most difficult to regain, is that ability to shift gears at the bell, and to sprint.  The fascinating question for Bekele will be 1) can he continue the current rate of improvement, and 2) how will he race, assuming he doesn't have the ability to control the race in the final lap as he did so brilliantly in Beijing four years ago?

The biggest "change" in the world order, however, has been the emergence of Ethiopia's women.  Only a month ago, it seemed that Kenya had all the women's distance events cornered.  Then came Fantu Magiso in the 800m, Genzebe Dibaba and Abebe Arigawe in the 1500m, and now the return of Tirunesh Dibaba in the women's 5000m and 10,000m.  Of course, Vivian Cheruiyot awaits in those events in London, and that may well produce the races of the Games.

In New York, Dibaba was spectacular in defeating Meseret Defar - in an admittedly slow race, she hit the front with three laps to go and ended up running the final 1500m in about 4:05.  Defar was crushed by 50m, and Dibaba didn't even look troubled.  Given that Defar had been challenging Cheruiyot, Dibaba looks like a real problem on the horizon for Kenya's medals.  And so remarkably, the return of Dibaba and the emergence of middle distance stars means that where one month ago, Kenya looked good to win four or five gold medals, they now face a struggle to win one!

Such is the pull of the Olympic Games, and the raised stakes it can produce.

With six weeks to go, there is undoubtedly more to come!