Friday, August 10, 2012

For Discussion: A New Testing Regime for Tennis

How can the testing regime in tennis be improved? Here are my most recent thoughts in no particular order:

The paltry $1.65 million anti-doping budget needs a big boost. A more appropriate budget would be around $5 million to $6 million, which would get it close to the budget of cycling. Given the significant increases we've seen in prize money this year, increasing the anti-doping budget to the level I've suggested is a modest goal. The ITF achieve this increase by getting sponsors as well as top-tier and Grand Slam events to invest more money into the anti-doping program.

Ramp-up out-of-competition tests: In 2011, the ITF conducted only 216 out-of-competition tests. At the very least, this number needs to be increased by a factor of five (if not more). Top tennis players must be tested out-of-competition at least 4 times a year (i.e., a sample collected once per quarter). The current regime of allowing players to go years without an OOC test is a sham. For comparison purposes, even this increase would put the ITF well below cycling, which conducted 5,699 OOC tests in 2011 (and 13,144 total anti-doping tests).

Target out-of-competition tests to breaks in the schedule, off-season, players training in countries with weak doping control regimes, intelligence gathered from other anti-doping organizations, and the criteria in the WADA's International Standard for Testing.

Ramp-up blood tests significantly: In 2011, the ITF took only 21 out-of-competition blood samples. They took 110 in-competition blood tests. How many blood tests should be collected? In 2011, about 40% of all cycling doping controls were blood tests (60% of OOC tests), so let's go with those numbers.

Adopt the biological passport.

In-competition testing at Grand Slam events should include: off-day testing, winner-targeted testing at early rounds, test all players for quarterfinals and beyond.

Always test for synthetic testosterone.

Ramp-up EPO & HGH testing.

Conduct testing at all Masters/Premier-level tournaments.

Collaborate with national anti-doping organizations (e.g., allow organizations to conduct supplementary controls if they make a request to do so).

Increase transparency of the program: announce provisional suspensions, publish missed test statistics, publish exoneration decisions, publish the number of therapeutic use exemptions granted, and return to the detailed statistical reporting used from 2006 through 2009.

Put qualified and committed people in charge of the tennis anti-doping program.

WARNING! I will strictly enforce a "no name" policy for this post. You name a player and I will delete your comment. If you want to post a link to a news item about a player, go ahead, but still no names.


  1. French runner tests positive for EPO

  2. If you think the top-tier drugs are completely (or almost completely) undetectable then this is irrelevant. If not, here is a strategy I would try to utilize. Any of these efforts will obviously be bounded by rules, budgets, and to some extent, ethical constraints.

    Players are only allowed two missed tests in 18 months. I would use everything at my disposal to try to generate those two missed tests as quickly as possible. The most apparent problem with this strategy is that players miss tests for legitimate reasons, and you wouldn't want a player to miss their third test for honestly failing to update the whereabouts form or being on vacation. I'm not sure how to deal with that, except to say that the ITF rules leave some degree of interpretation as to what counts as a missed test.

    As for actually generating the missed tests, you would have to be creative. Maybe you show up persistently and pour samples down the drain (sink tests) or only test for things that are relatively cheap on many occasions, so you don't blow your whole budget when they happen to be home. I understand simply deploying the testers in this manner can be cost prohibitive, and it may in some cases lead to corruption to have those samples floating around. Maybe it means you go to a player's hotel room for an OOC test the day after they lose in a semi-final, hoping they've already gone to the airport (despite what their whereabouts form says). That particular scenario would reduce the cost of testers to some degree, because they would already be in the city. They may even be staying at the same hotel. They could search for the relevant player to test that morning, and then they could go out to the tournament site to do in-competition testing on the finalists.

    Generating two missed tests rather quickly could be beneficial for multiple reasons. Obviously, players have to be present for testing after the second missed test. If you increase testing volume, it may also deter some from being absent (doping) early in the 18-month period for fear that they will have multiple legitimate missed tests due to vacation or being at a friend's house down the street (or whatever). By "testing" more frequently, I think it deters players from doping in the first place, and it limits their ability to dope freely when they can't miss another test.

    1. I agree with you to limit the number of missed tests. Right now it's three, but it should be knocked down to two. If you miss one test, okay, maybe something unforeseen happened, but missing two? That's stretching it a bit unless there is a damn good reason to miss a second test.

  3. An intriguing column by Greg Couch:

    "Can’t trust the tests, can’t trust the athletes. But some athletes must be clean, and it sure is fun watching Bolt."

    "It’s all on faith, either way."

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. @magicalgrasshopper: Sorry, but you'll have to discuss players on another thread.

  5. As usual Sen you have it spot on. Your first point is the most important, increase the budget everything else stems from that.

    Unfortunately I doubt this will happen, there's no incentive for this to happen. Look at the olympics, the countries that implement some PED prevention measures only hurt themselves.

    Money talks and the drug testing budget in tennis says go ahead and dope.

    1. I totally agree with you cob. What's the gain for the countries that police their athletes better than the ones that do not? Increasing anti-doping budgets does not make any sense when countries only wind up screwing their own over.

      The players themselves are going to have to speak out on this issue and publicly accuse the worst offender dopers before anything serious happens. As long as the clean players get millions of dollars in "hush money", I doubt that these players will want to say anything negative as long as the cash keeps coming in.

  6. Another interesting article by S.L. Price:

    "A doping free Olympics? Not in London -- and maybe never"

    Read more:

    1. Why is it that these issues only come up during the Olympics? We almost never see speculation like this about the NBA or NFL. Granted, you could argue the Olympic coverage is driven by the pro-American media and fans when Americans lose due to "outlier" performances. I'm not sure that really holds up. True they rarely go after Americans, but they also base most of the arguments on considerations of performance relative to prior generations of athletes (and on connections to "shady" individuals)

    2. Irish commentators are calling the results of the 1500m very suspicious, noting that 1st and 4th placed runners have doping history. They also note that Laura Dobriskey (British runner, finished 10th) has said that she doesn't believe it is a level playing field.

      So how many medals have been won by people who have had doping history? I haven't been paying a lot of attention, but I am aware of
      Cakir Alpteki (Turkey) - women's 1500,
      Tatyana Lysenko (Russia) - women's hammer
      Cian O'Connor (Ireland) - showjumping
      Hope Solo (USA) - women's football
      Yohan Blake (Jamaica) - men's 200m
      Alexander Vinokourov (Kazakhstan) - cycling
      Christine Ohorougu (GB) - women's 400m

      That's just from the top of my head. Then there are the suspicious winners from this Olympics - here's a story brewing about the women's discus.

    3. In addition, Tyler Hamilton to be stripped of his 2004 medal:
      5 2004 Olympics drugs cheats to be revealed after these games finish: All competing in field events, all from Eastern Europe.

    4. Catching East European field athletes is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. When they start busting (even 8 years after the events) American and British athletes then I'll know that they are serious about the whole issue.

      All this shows is that they have finally caught up with what people from Eastern Europe were doping with 8 years ago.

    5. Exactly. Countries like GB, America, China etc. have much more money to put into doping research. I guess it's too much to hope for that blood samples are kept for longer, to try and bridge the gap between more advanced doping and what doping tests can actually find.

      In addition to the other medallists mentioned above, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was suspended for 6 months in 2010.

    6. You can add Justin Gatlin (USA - men's 100m) and Dimitrij Ovtcharov (Germany - table tennis) to the list.

    7. Ossama Mellouli (Tunisia) swimming 1500m and 10Km
      Jessica Hardy (USA) swimming 4X100m

  7. Blood could be taken from players today and held for a period of years. Some could then randomly be selected for analysis at a point in the future as new tests for drugs come onstream.

  8. A tennis blogger asked the ITF anti-doping department for details about the Dr. del Moral ban. He got the expected answer:

    "Dear Mr Ståhl,
    Thank you for your questions. Unfortunately, we aren’t able to provide any further information on this matter beyond the press release to which you refer.
    ITF Anti-Doping"

  9. I read somewhere that blood tests are cheaper than urine tests. Is that true? I would have thought it would be the other way around for some reason. Is the rarity of them down to worries that regular blood samples would adversely affect the athlete in competition/training?

    1. Depends on the test and what drugs you are testing for. HGH blood test is expensive. EPO urine test is expensive. Synthetic testosterone urine test is expensive. Some drugs are only detectable in blood.

      I don't think there is a hard and fast rule. Only rule would be that the more drugs you look for, the more it will cost.

    2. Ah, thanks. It's a pity they can't get a regime like the Olympics one, if that is much better.

      I thought EPO was only used in blood doping. Is it really detectable by urine too?

  10. Two things I would do - and this goes for all sports.

    Take punishment out of the hands of the sporting authorities - there is too much vested interest in ensuring that big names do not test positive.

    Take the administration, running and planning of the program out of the hands of the sporting authorities.

    Let the ITF arrange the tournaments, TV deals, sponsorship etc and let someone else who has no financial interest in the sport take control of the anti-doping program.

    For as long as the authorities are involved there is no hope for any sport.

    1. National organisations can also be suspect - many would not like to ban a national hero. Punishment should be in the hands of a world-wide organisation, covering all sports. Any ban then coming from such an organisation would then be a world-wide ban. (Ohorougu effectively got her British ban overturned by threatening to run for another country. A world ban would have meant this wasn't possible.)

    2. Totally agree with you Monnax. Sporting authorities have no vested interest in stopping their cash cows from doping. I guess the next question is what organizations can be trusted to be impartial enforcers of doping controls?

      Forget the legal establishment (i.e. courts, judges, DA's) in this discussion as the legal establishment has proven all too often to be too corrupted to be trusted in this capacity. Just look at the Pacquiao/Bradley fight where there was obviously a fix and the Nevada state DA refused to even force the lying fight judges to make sworn statements. Guilty people never ever want to make official statements that they know to be false.

    3. I totally agree with you that the national federations and authorities should be let now where near doping investigations or punishment.

      A transnational body which is interested only in anti-doping is the way forward.

      We only need to see how the Spanish authorities legal and sporting have protected Spanish athletes implicated in Puerto.

      The Ohorougu example shows how mealy-mouthed British anti-doping is. And Australian anti-doping is equally laughable. Very good at catching the small fry but never very good at catching the big name.

      I think that you let WADA do all the testing, investigations and prosecutions and you set up a lower-level version of CAS to hear all doping cases.

  11. I think that the biggest problem is that there is very weak out of competition testing and, so far, the players are winning the propaganda war with the "invasiveness" argument. It has to get to a point where fans are more suspicious. If fans demand clean players, then the rest will fall into place, at least in terms of testing. In slightly related news, Carl Lewis makes a strong point about better out of competition testing, but judging by some recent races, it's not just Jamaica.

    1. Of note is that Carl "Who cares?" Lewis knows a thing or two about weak anti-doping regimes...

    2. The reason why the players are winning the propaganda war is because the media is so useless and weak. They are so scared of losing their access that they refuse to ask tough questions.

      The bottomline is that until there is a big scandal there will be little or no pressure on the players, authorities or media to change. Until something major happens there will be no reform.

  12. back when people really cared about cheating in anything, did it became a factor in what I guess is capitalism, but now there's a formula for everything, the only way we're going to find out there's doping in tennis is when that unhappy player has had enough with the organization or the provider is not happy with their current arrangements with the players/organization because when their favorite player wins everyone wins

  13. This entire thread is based on the assumption that testing works. Cycling has much more vigorous testing than tennis - as does the Olympics. Are they catching the cheats? 1 in 10? 1 in a hundred?

    1. I agree that testing alone isn't going to solve it all (or even most) of the problem. But most experts appear to agree that the cycling is "cleaner" than what is was 10 years ago, based on the slower times and power levels of riders. That doesn't mean the winners aren't doping, but I think the volume of testing done by UCI does have a deterrent effect. UCI testing has also busted top rides (e.g., Landis, Contador, Schleck).

      Of course, in my view, UCI is pretty much destroying their credibility with their recent behavior in the Armstrong-USADA fued, but that's another story.

      IAAF's reputation has gone up in my view lately. They have busted a over a dozen track athletes in last few weeks, including for EPO and synthetic testosterone.

      One of the keys is clearly a extensive out of competition testing. You need to test enough that if a player tries to skip tests they will trip the 3 missed tests rule in a short time. I think this requires a least one OOC collected (rather than attempted) a quarter. If a player misses a test, you send the testers back the next day.

    2. If the IAAF has busted "over a dozen" track athletes in the last few weeks what is that against the "hundreds" of dopers (WADA's conservative estimate) at the Games? About 1 percent? The IAAF is not busting more through want of trying but because the technology of testing remains substantially behind the use of drugs. We have seen plenty published to know that is currently so - and has been for at least a decade. In that case there can be little practical gain from applying more zealous testing. Indeed it would be a substantial waste of money, while maintaining the illusion that sports are largely clean because athletes are not failing drug tests - the facade is maintained. How can we know Ye Shiwen is not another Marion Jones - because both tested clean? We can't, and until testing technology substantially improves we are unlikely to find out.

    3. @richard:

      What are you proposing?

    4. I don't think there are any easy answers. But until we can be confident that testing technology has improved to keep pace with developments in doping we are wasting money and effort to emphasise a more rigorous testing programme. Cycling is tough but I have no confidence that it is clean, and having followed track and field for many years I have no greater confidence that performances in London were more legit than those of yesteryear. I think many weren't. Personally, I don't care if we reduce the incidence of doping in sports if it still remains sufficiently prevalent to raise doubt about any given peformance by any athlete or competitor. We have still lost the war.

      That view sounds negative - and maybe it is - but you ask for suggestions of what else can we do. I would like to see greater effort directed at finding ways to improve testing technology, so that a rigorous testing programme is a real threat to the cheats; greater effort directed at attacking supply (Balco); and measures to elevate doping from breaches of a sporting code to criminal infringement - because in professional sports it is a form of fraud. The issue then moves from the clearly inadequate regulation by mostly national sporting bodies to the courts. This would require an international convention that countries would be required to adhere to, or the presumption is their athletes would not be given a clean bill of health, so to speak. (Can we see China accepting this?) All of this would require enormous amounts of money, and the political will to do it would not be there without public pressure through public education programmes. I am not optimistic.

  14. I agree with Sen no Rikyū's proposals.

    More independence of the organization (ITF ??) in charge of such a antidoping program is also important, to me.
    Several players (or so) said that one of the worst things that could happen in tennis is... doping scandal... big players been caught.. so independence is very important. Not easy, but crucial.

    (sorry for my english - hope I am understandable)

  15. I laughed pretty hard when I read the following:

    "There was some good news for fans of "clean sport" on Friday, though, as one of the oldest and most discredited world records on the books was finally displaced."

    "The United States won the women's 4x100 metres relay in 40.82 seconds to erase the 41.37 set by East Germany in 1985."

    Despite all the ink spilled on how testing isn't catching people, how could something so stupid be written? How do they know the new WR is "clean"?

    1. I laughed even harder when I read the next sentence:

      "None of Silke Gladisch-Moeller, Sabine Rieger, Ingrid Auerswald-Lange and Marlies Goehr were caught by the relative primitive drug tests of the time but after evidence of systematic doping in the country subsequently emerged, their record was treated with scepticism and derision."

      Yet the new record is above doubt? Nonsense.

    2. Isn't that more about media bias/anglo-centrism rather than anything else.

      Could you imagine the reaction if say the Russian or Chinese team had shaved half a second off the record of the GDR.

      In the eyes of the english speaking media the only people who dope are non-english speakers.

    3. I'm sure that is part of it, but the Jamaicans have been facing some "doubts," too (see Carl Lewis above).

    4. That's exactly what I was trying to point out when reacting to the fuss about that poor Chinese girl "being faster than men". There's still that Cold War spirit creeping in at any and every opportunity available, though the Cold War itself is supposedly over. And it's up to you in the first place, dear anglophones, to see through it and point Uncle Sam's index finger at. What with Serena et al running rampant at all times. Cheerio.

    5. For those who want to believe the 40.8sec relay record by the US women is clean, I suggest we compare it with the US men's record from Tokyo in 1964, which was not a lot faster, at 39 flat. That record also included the unbelievable (and I mean that in the old sense and not cynically) anchor leg by Bob Hayes (hand-timed at 8.5sec). Have the women really improved that much? Shades of Ye Shiwen.

    6. The best we can say about the British and American sports media is that they are hypocritical and naively xenophobic, at worst their writing is infused with racism.

    7. The new WR is a farce. I don't know about any of the other US girls, but Carmelita Jeter is most definitely a doper. She was a mediocre runner for many years and then in her late twenties, she suddenly ran the second fastest 100m time ever and became World Champion. That's the same kind of career trajectory that Kellie White has had and Kellie White was doped to the eyeballs.

      The coverage of the English speaking media can not be taken seriously because it's completely lacking in objectivity.

  16. Concentrate on busting the dealers, rather than focusing exclusively on the users.

    Control the supply, not demand. There will always be demand, because there will always be another crop of young athletes eager to do whatever it takes to get an edge. Because athletes get paid a lot for winning, there's always going to be an enormous incentive to dope. Popping individual athletes can only do so much to change that.

    Going after the providers of the best dope, the secret labs and the doping rings and the networks of dirty doctors, will dry up the supply. Then it will be harder for athletes to get access to the most sophisticated dope, and they'll have to make do with cruder, less effective PEDs, which may be more easily detectable by tests.

    On the other hand, it would be very hard to stop a government-sanctioned national doping program. A government which is running a clandestine doping program is going to use everything in its power to foil outside scrutiny. They can deny outside investigators the ability to gather evidence and mount a case.

    That is the real difficulty, in my view.

    1. Given the failure of the government "War on [Hard] Drugs", it's unlikely that a "War on Doping" would be anymore more successful. Plus, athletes will always be able to "train" in places with lax drug/doping laws (e.g., the Italy race walker bought EPO in Turkey, b/c no prescription needed).

      The battle will needed to waged on the demand side through (1) more testing, (2) much tougher penalties (e.g., 1st offense is a minimum 4/5 year ban, 2nd offense is 10yrs to life). The expect chance of getting caught and, more importantly, the expected loss from getting caught needs to be raised significantly.

      At this time, my view is that if you're not willingly to implement a extremely strict anti-doping regime, the only reasonable alternative is to legalize doping.

    2. I'm not saying that tennis is necessarily over-run by doping, but to the extent it is, I have a fundamental problem with picking people off one-by-one. I'm very comfortable with a system that is strict for a sport where "clean" athletes is the norm. Everyone knows from the beginning that they are expected to be clean, and any doping is fair game in that case.

      In any sport where it's run rampant for years, it's unfair to sporadically get players. In those sports, doping has become a way of professional survival. Let's just say, for instance, that all of the top 10 men's players were doping (I'm not saying there are). We know that the testing won't catch everybody even if it improves a lot. That may mean during the course of their careers (with a great testing regime), three of those 10 players may be nabbed. Is it more "fair" or less "fair" to just let those other seven guys reap the benefits in the name of trying to clean up the sport? That's why it's so important to get on top of things early. Once the cat's out of the bag, it becomes very difficult to find a good, equitable solution. That's why I'm most in favor of a system that could manage to eradicate much of the doping without landing a positive test. That's also why I'd like to see the testers test enough to make the players use up their missed tests. Hopefully, that would to some degree limit doping without generating [m]any positive tests.

      Just think about Ben Johnson. Is it fair for him to have to give up a gold medal to a guy who we are absolutely certain had cheated? It's easy to say if you cheat you risk getting caught, but I don't see any value in hanging a few guys out to dry in any sport where there is heavy doping. It's counter-productive.

    3. The "war on drugs" is a failure precisely because it targets users far more extensively than it does suppliers.

      The suppliers--drug cartels--are wealthy and politically connected. They are well-equipped to counter police investigation, and on the relatively rare occasions when they are caught, they can afford the best legal representation to defend them and drag out the proceedings.

      Individual drug users are a much softer and easier target, often poor and uneducated. It's easy to arrest a bunch of addicts, they don't have the resources to evade police or defend themselves in the legal system.

      Then law enforcement can say, "See, our streets are safe because we locked up a couple of poor, homeless dope fiends. The system works." Meanwhile the problem continues unabated, because there will always be plenty of people looking to escape their problems by getting high.

      A version of this dynamic is already present in tennis: pop a couple of the lowliest of the low-ranking athletes from nowheresville and then tout those cases as proof that the sport is clean.

      I am not advocating getting rid of testing; I am saying that testing alone won't get the job done and that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on trying to cut off the supply of dope.

      Some of what you're proposing actually bears quite a resemblance to the counterproductive way the war on drugs is currently fought--that is, making the penalties draconian in order to discourage users.

      Merely making penalties harsher disproportionately affects poorer athletes. If a young, ambitious athlete who succumbs to temptation in a moment of frustration is caught, his career is ruined.

      Meanwhile, those who dope systematically, who are rich or well-connected enough to have access to the most sophisticated PEDs and doping techniques, will be more readily able to evade the testing regime and will still be able to avoid punishment while being doped to the gills so they can rake in the trophies and sponsorships.

      This seems manifestly unfair to me.

      A more stringent testing regime is obviously necessary--testing should be more sophisticated and more frequent. The penalties, however, should be carefully calibrated to avoid the problems I outlined. For instance, fines could be levied as a percentage of yearly winnings rather than as a flat amount. (The percentage itself could increase in a graded way according to winnings, much as income taxes are levied according to income bracket.)

    4. I liken drug testing to the legal system. It's not meant to be perfect or even fair at times; some criminals will get caught, some will get away with it, but it's in place more as a deterrent against committing crimes in the first place.

      But unlike the legal system, it doesn't necessarily need to be applied equally. As has been discussed at length, higher ranked players have far more resources at their disposal to avoid getting caught, so the allocation of resources spent on testing could be somewhat more proportional. A big name getting caught would have a trickle-down effect. Nobody cares if a guy ranked 200th gets busted, but imagine the fallout if a top-four guy was busted. It would certainly prove to the rest of the field that nobody is above the law.

    5. I do think that if you are not going to increase the money then you do need to spend it in more effective ways.

      So for example more targeted OOC testing - especially during times when we know players will be cycling up.

      If you have a player who comes from a country where there is little or no testing then target them, if a player comes from a country with a serious anti-doping agency then work with the anti-doping agency to ensure that there is no duplication of testing.

      Invest money in bringing in the best anti-doping experts, with all due respect, Richard Ings is no Michael Ashenden. If tennis is serious then it needs to pick the brains of the best experts from other sports.

    6. @demisphere:

      I don't agree with some the comparisons you are making between the War of Drugs versus your proposed War on Doping. Drug users are getting high (and mostly) destroying their own lives. Dopers are depending on what they are using (and how much) may be hurting themselves, but they're also damaging the careers of non-doping athletes. They are committing a type of fraud. Therefore, I don't think having "draconian" penalties are counterproductive.

      The problem is selective enforcement by tennis. Policies like loser-targeted testing is the reason low ranked players are the ones getting caught.

      Second, how are you going to cut off supply? There are no opium fields to burn here. EPO/HGH/steroids/synthetic testosterone and other doping substances have legitimate medical uses and are widely available. They are mass produced legally all over the world.

      What is your proposal for restricting access? Monitoring all doctor prescriptions? Hospital and pharmacist inventories? In my view, cutting off the supply of doping products is more impossible than the war on hard drugs.

      Indeed, look at all the doping rings that have been busted in Spain. What good has it done? And cutting off supply will not solve the problem of well financed athletes having access to doping products.

      I'm not saying they should stop busting doping rings, but it has yet to shown that there is any strategy more sound than high volume and smart testing, couple with funding better testing technology.

  17. Despite the financial crisis, tennis never bothered.

    to analyse a urine-test - costs ~US$500
    to analyse a blood-test - costs ~US$1000

    It is actually very simple. At least 2/3 of all testing should be blood tests.

    at least

    250= random blood testing
    500= all quarter finalist get blood tested
    1000= random and all quarter finalist get blood tested

    Every top10-top30 player should pay 3-1% of is annual income into one pot to pay
    for it.

    Just look at the crazy discussions and numbers for equal payment and the raise of money between women and men some years ago at Wimbledon. There is no lack of
    money in tennis.

    1. What's the source for your test cost data?

    2. Hello sen

      my source is Hajo Seppelt.

      His name appeared several times on this blog in the past.

      Why don't you ask wada montreal by yourself?