Friday, May 25, 2012

Tignor/Wertheim (Updated)


In an article from today's NY Times by Christopher Clarey (thanks, Oliver), it looks like Jim "EPO is the problem" Courier has a new outlook on doping in tennis. I wonder if it has anything to do with him being the US Davis Cup captain and working as a commentator? Probably not, right?:

But the quest for an edge and the increased physicality also raise the specter, in a skeptical sports era, of other shortcuts. [Jim] Courier said he understands why doubts exist about sports but rejects them in this instance. “I want to be crystal clear,” Courier said. “There’s not a part of me that thinks these guys are doing anything illegal.”
Tennis, an Olympic sport, conforms to the World Anti-Doping Agency code, and neither Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, nor any of the current top men’s players has been found guilty of a doping offense. Courier said he believes in the testing program and that the top players have too much to lose by risking sanction or scandal.
What a load of rubbish from Courier. Again no evidence is offered to support the assertion that tennis has a strong doping program that, unlike all other testing programs in the world of sports, is beyond reproach. And spare me the "too much to lose" argument because (1) the testing in tennis is so weak that the risks of getting caught are very low (unless you're careless and/or a complete fool); and, (2) top athletes continue to get caught in other sports (e.g., A. Contador; F. Landis, A. Overeem; M. Jones; D. Galimzyanov, etc.).

I'm going to give writer Christopher Clarey marks for stating that none of the top men have "been found guilty of a doping offense" rather than the usual tennis media line about "none have ever tested positive." As we know, the ITF only publicly releases decisions that find players guilty of doping offences. The ITF doesn't announce provisional suspensions, adverse test results, or findings of non-guilt.

Original Post

I've been plumbing the archives of TENNIS magazine for articles about doping. I've come across two pieces that show a striking contrast in opinions:

The first is "Goose Eggs: There's Room For Improvement In Drug Testing" (June 2010, Vol. 46 (5), p24) by Steve Tignor.

The second is "Caught In The Gears: The Pitfalls Of The Anti-Doping Machine" (April 2009, Vol. 45(3), p26) by Jon Wertheim.

Let's take a look at what these two journalists have to say...

Tignor's piece starts off with references to Mark McGwire and Marion Jones, stating "No tennis star of that magnitude has been caught using performance-enhancing drugs. But in the current sporting climate, to believe that it can't happen — that it hasn't already happened, even — requires a state of willful denial." (emphasis mine)

To further support his statement, Tignor mentions Andre Agassi's lie about testing positive for crystal meth, Wayne Odesnik's HGH bust, and, significantly, the 49 "no sample collected" out-of-competition tests published (and then removed) by the ITF as part of its 2009 anti-doping program statistics.

Tignor goes on state that while anti-doping in tennis has progressed since the 1990s, there is room for improvement, such as adopting the test for HGH and ensuring that out-of-competition samples are, in fact, getting collected. In his conclusion, he states "Tennis fans need that protection, too, from cheating players as well as our own doubts. The specters of McGwire and Jones, of the possibility that our heroes' inspiring stories are nothing more than fiction, may always gnaw at us."

I think Tignor's piece is a well balanced article. He presents factual observations and data that support his view. My only complaint is that I wish he had delved deeper into the statistics to identify more shortcomings (e.g., loser targeted testing at Grand Slams; out-of-competition testing concentrated in the last 3-4 months of the year).

What does Wertheim have to say? The first sentence is telling: "For whatever else might ail tennis, performance-enhancing drugs aren't high on the list. While they accelerate recovery time, the players are quick to point out that mental fitness and technique count for so much in tennis that the value of the strength they provide is diminished." Didn't baseball players say the same thing about steroids? For example, Jason Giambi in 2004: "I'm not hiding anything. That stuff [steroids] didn't help me hit home runs. I don't care what people say, nothing is going to give you that gift of hitting a baseball." Giambi admitted to using in 2007. Also, Wertheim's claim sounds eerily similar to the views of Stuart Miller, the man in charge of the ITF's anti-doping program, who has asserted on many occasions that tennis doesn't lend itself to PED use.

The view presented by Wertheim and Miller on PEDs and tennis has no foundation in logic or fact. Bill Gifford put it best: "Tennis, as much as any other major sport, demands a combination of power and endurance: It's like taking batting practice while running—or sprinting—a marathon. It's difficult to think of a sport where performance-enhancing drugs could help an athlete more."

Wertheim proceeds to proclaim that "pro tennis has some of the most aggressive testing in sports," purely on the basis that they signed to the WADA Code (you know, like Spain). However, he does not make any reference to the ITF's actual testing procedures. No reference to the statistics. Also, Wertheim provides no comparison or evidence to substantiate his statement regarding the aggressiveness of testing in tennis compared to other sports. And while Wertheim's piece came before the Agassi, Odesnik, and 49 no sample collected revelations, the ITF's 2007 anti-doping statistics were available; among other things, they show that only 157 out-of-competition tests were conducted that year with almost half conducted after the US Open and none collected during the first 3 months of the year. And he would have noticed that Federer, Nadal, and both Williams sisters weren't tested out of competition at all in 2007 by the ITF or WADA.

Further, Wertheim writes "Go ahead and question whether the top swimmers or cyclists or home-run hitters achieved their status naturally; with tennis pros, you have to be pretty cynical to doubt." (emphasis mine) Again, based on what evidence? Moreover, swimming and cycling were (and remain) WADA signatories, so why did Wertheim find it acceptable to doubt swimmers and cyclists, but not tennis players? There's an inconsistency here. How could Wertheim assert that being part of WADA puts tennis beyond reproach, but not other signatories? Perhaps Wertheim was (remains?) in "a state of willful denial"?

The rest of his article discusses Martina Hingis's positive test for cocaine and appears to imply that testing in tennis is too strict and/or lacks proportionality in sanctioning players.

So, there you have it. Two tennis journalists. Two articles on doping in the sport. Two different styles of making arguments. Two different points of view.

I've given my opinion on the articles, but perhaps I'm a victim of confirmation bias. Which article do you think is more reasonable? Is it "willful denial" or "cynical to doubt"?


  1. I think Tignor is the best in the business, but that's just my opinion. His articles on every subject seem to be well thought out and clearly stated. He does a nice job of mixing back stories (and adding symbolism) with discussing matches and scorelines. I'm not really sure why we need anybody else covering tennis. My only complaint is that he doesn't get the same access to the players that some other people do. Maybe Tignor prefers it that way.

    He's certainly better than Bodo and Pagliaro. Every time I read an article by Pagliaro, it feels like he wants us to know how smart he is. It generally takes me a half an hour to sort through all the hyperbole just to figure out who won the match.

    It's clear that Wertheim has no interest or motivation in digging into the doping issue. I do find it unfortunate that he more or less accuses us of propaganda, and then inserts the same "rigorous testing" mantra in all of his pieces.

    As it relates to JW, and the rest of the media, this site has two problems. One is that to some degree most people, journalists included, probably still consider us to be "out there" based on previous content and the subject in general. The other problem is that it's beneficial for them to paint us that way, regardless of their actual belief. The pen is mightier than the sword, and they get to put their disparaging remarks in national print at their whimsy.


    A story that dances around the obvious.

    If you can find the original story from the NY Times, please post it.

  3. The Courier quote is definitely counter to what he has said in the past. It actually seems to contradict what he implies in an earlier quote in the same article.

    "I certainly think these guys at the top, they have very large teams they work with," said Jim Courier, the US Davis Cup captain and former world No.1, who was renowned for his fitness during his playing career. "They have become very scientific about their sweat loss and replacing the minerals very specifically with what's coming out of their bodies. And I think they've really taken the science on the legal side up to the next level, which is interesting. I think they also have gotten much better at recovery. "

    The last sentence of that quote struck me as a way for Courier to draw a contrast between the recovery and the maximization of the "legal side" of things. I thought the implication was that the "recovery" left him a bit baffled until I read the last quote from the article, which was posted by SnR.

    It's irreconcilable with Courier's previous position. He seemed to imply as recently as this year's Australian Open that he was suspicious of the play in that final, though he never stated anything explicitly. It's all very frustrating.

  4. Excellent post this one, thanks Sen.