Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Limits of Control (Update #2)

Update #2: More on the Stade 2 story from "Today’s programme said that these witnesses include Floyd Landis, Jonathan Vaughters, Levi Leipheimer, Dave Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde and George Hincapie..."

Update #1: Breaking news from "Stade 2, the weekly television sports show by France 2, claims that the American Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is in possession of blood samples from Lance Armstrong, which they have retested and have now come back positive for performance-enhancing drugs."

Original Post

On August 24, 2012 the New York Times published a piece about the Lance Armstrong case by Juliet Macur. What makes the piece noteworthy is the the experts interviewed emphasize the limitations of doping controls, and that testing is not a panacea.

David Howman, director general of the WADA: “Science can’t decide everything...These days, you need to complement a testing program with the gathering of evidence with other methods. To build your case, you put together strands that make one strong rope.”

Christiane Ayotte, the head of the WADA-accredited Montreal lab: “We’re at the point that if we’re not using these indirect markers, you can just forget about a case. For example, oral testosterone and microdoses of EPO will be detectable for only 12 hours. You just about have to be there when the athlete is doping to catch them.”

Don Catlin, the former head of the U.C.L.A. Olympic Analytical Laboratory: "“There’s a notion that, oh, they have drug testing, there are no more doping problems in the sport, but unfortunately that is not the case...The testing is just not that good. There are holes. There are loopholes, and we’re constantly trying to plug them...Athletes, particularly the most successful ones, have a complex network of people around them to figure out how to beat the drug tests.”

In tennis, we have an environment of a weak testing regime coupled with (based on the results of the Wayne Odesnik and Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral incidents) a complete lack of evidence gathering and other investigative capabilities. The most rationale explanation for this weak regimes is a lack of institutional support and willingness to combat doping in the sport. In fact, there is little evidence indicating that the threat of doping is being taken seriously by the tennis authorities. This absence of institutional support includes not just the players, ITF, ATP, WTA, and Grand Slams, but the many in the tennis media, who function more a promoters of the sport than independent journalists.

Further, it appears highly likely that Caitlin's statement about athletes, especially top ones, having "a complex network of people" to enable doping is an issue in tennis. The size of player entourages (for top players) has increased dramatically in recent years. Many top players now have large teams consisting of multiple coaches, fitness trainers, doctors, nutritionists, etc. Others are affiliated with tennis academies that provide similarly large support teams.

Caitlin's statement, plus the evolution of player teams, and the constant proclamations and evidence that tennis is becoming increasingly physical and based on fitness levels should give anyone concerned with the integrity of the game serious pause.

Does anyone care? Have things already spun out of control?


  1. Meanwhile, Nadal got out of the Davis Cup and will be returning to competition in Terminator mode in the beginning of 2013. As expected. Definitely a ban. If it losts longer, however....

    1. It will be interesting to see what he is like physically when he returns. If it's like 2009, when he conspicuously lost muscle mass, and hence power and speed, then we might surmise that he has (again) been forced to "clean-up". However, he could come back like Serena did after after a nearly year-long break, when she was stronger than ever, in which case we might ask how an athlete taking such a substantial break from training, as well as competition, through serious injury is able to maintain a very high level of fitness and technical sharpness.

  2. Considering the fact that doping doctor, Luis Garcia del Moral was working with several tennis players, I'd say it is likely we are heading to a point similar to what they had in cycling in the '90's, with rampant doping and no way to compete without it.

    1. Heading, or already there?

      As a side note, a recent article by Paul Kimmage states "Since Tommy Simpson's death in 1967, 86% of Tour de France winners have been tarnished or implicated by doping":

    2. Unfortunately, Kimmage doesn't provide the data on the 86% number, but the New York Times published this table for 1998 onwards that is consistent with Kimmage's statement:

    3. In truth, I think that we are already there. I don't think that top tennis players can compete with the current power/speed/stamina style of the game without doping. As with cycling, as Tyler Hamilton notes, when he did the Tour clean he placed 94th. We have already heard players call Odesnik a "snitch", which suggests Omerta is going on. We have the same doctors working with tennis players who used to "work with" cyclists. We have the ITF being as protective and secretive as the UCI ever was. Then you have some of these players who simply look beastly. That is actually something you didn't see as much with cycling, probably because of the lack of upper body strength involved. You also have the journalists who appear to be afraid to lose their meal ticket and continue to deny the obvious. So, yes, I think we are now at the place we were with in cycling in the 90's.

    4. And then, you always have this kind of visual reminder:

    5. Given the number that were caught by just a simple change in testing in the nandrolene episode, we've likely been there for at least a decade, if not more.

    6. My opinion? Tennis is already there and has been there for years. The doping tests in tennis are weak to the point where they may as well be nonexistent.

      I wouldn't be surprised at all if everyone in the Top 50 - both ATP and WTA - is a doping machine. Hate to be cynical, but it's so easy to pass a drug test in tennis, there are a hell of a lot of players getting away with it.

    7. Sen there have been 45 TDF's since 1967 and 23 different winners. So I don't know if Kimmage is referring to 86% of the winners or 86% of the riders who have won.

      7 - Armstrong (implicated)
      5 - merckx - (failed 3 tests)
      5 - Indurain - (failed test)
      2 - Fignon - (admitted doping)
      2 - Contador - (tested positive + implicated in other scandals)
      2 - Thévenet - (tested positive)
      1 - Zoetemelk - ( caught in drugs tests during the Tour in 1977 and 1979. Tested positive in 1983)
      1 - Roche - (implicated)
      1 - Delgardo - (tested positive)
      1 - Riis - (confessed to doping)
      1 - Ullrich - (banned for doping as a result of Puerto)
      1 - Pantani - (tested positive and hounded to his death)
      1 - Pereiro - (implicated) ironic as he won the TDF from Landis
      1 - A.Schleck - (implicated via brother)
      1 - Evans (implicated via team history and management - allegations of links to Ferrari)
      1 - Wiggins (suspicions)
      1 - Ocana - (suicide - was suffering hep C at the time - linked to drug use during riding career)

      Riders I don't know about Hinault (5), Janssen (1), Pingeon (1), Van Impe (1).

      Lemond (3) and Sastre (1) have never been implicated.

      So the best numbers I can give you are 4 races out of 45 without suspicions.

      17 out of 23 winners have question marks only 2 of 23 I can tell for certain have no question marks. Someone else will have to do the maths.

  3. Let's hope the positive test report is true. There will still be a few stragglers who think this is a witch hunt, but it cuts off at the knees any argument that Armstrong could possibly try to make about being innocent. No longer would he be able to claim he has passed all the tests.

    1. Perhaps, but his fans won't even recognize that Armstrong failed a test in 1999. He received a backdated therapeutic use exemption and was therefore not punished:

    2. Even more ridiculous than I thought. So he has ...

      1993: testo/epi ratios outside legal ratio
      1994: testo/epi ratios outside legal ratio
      1996: testo/epi ratios outside legal ratio
      1999: failed steroid test, covered up
      2001: failed epo test, covered up
      2005: failed epo test (retest of 99 samples)

      Plus however many failed current tests USADA have, and any number of fellow cyclists and former employees talking openly about his doping.

      Does seem as if UCI was completely bent.

  4. If this report is indeed true it highlights again the power of retaining samples in the fight against doping.

    I remember when I announced The Tank storing samples initiative in Australia in 2007 that some media commentators criticised it.

    They claimed that the re-testing of samples would involve massive litigation and insurmountable scientific challenges that made the effort not worth the risk. The attacks in some quarters were pretty scathing and personal.

    To see the freezing program now standard across anti-doping and reportedly uncovering critical evidence of dopers who thought they were just too clever to be caught makes all that early adopter criticism easier to live with.

  5. If true, it will be interesting to see if any of Armstrong's supporters finally break. I doubt it. They just seem intractable.

    1. If true, I am sure more conspiracy theories will be spun by the Armstrong spin machine as well as his fans to explain the result. It will probably play out like the Ryan Braun positive with allegations of chain of custody problems, contamination, false positives...take your pick.

    2. What's actually even more interesting to me than the doping allegations are the stories of how he treated his support staff. There are numerous stories from friends to masseuses to assistants to other riders. The story plays in repeat. He gets close to someone on a friendly and professional level. They learn to some degree about his misdeeds. He has a falling out with them. They know too much and/or say too much, and he becomes incredibly vindictive. Either he treated all of those people terribly or everyone he's ever met is out to get him due to jealousy. The latter seems unlikely. From a character standpoint, some of those stories are more compelling than the actual doping story.

    3. What Sen no Rikyu said.

      It's like how defense attorneys criticize the way police investigated the crime, how the evidence was collected by forensic techs, how the evidence got from the lab to the crime lab, etc.

      Those are the main excuses heard from Armstrong supporters when you bring up any positive tests, or positive tests of most athletes in general.

    4. I'm not a Lance supporter, but I would expect any quality attorney to bring up those points. Those types of excuses have to be built into the system for instances when they're actually legitimate. The problem is building meaningful distinctions into the system for when those technicalities are merely being used as technicalities. That's very difficult to do. It's also why I think WADA should think about revising the language for what qualifies for a "warning" under the "specific substance" section of the code. How do you distinguish someone who made an honest mistake from someone who pretended to make an honest mistake so they can get off with a warning? The way it's been applied in practice makes that distinction impossible.

    5. You make good points, and of course an attorney should bring up those points, but it's become the de facto explanation/excuse for those trying to wiggle out of a bad situation. The sad fact is that a lot of people buy it.

      All you need is for an excuse to work once, and everyone else will use it too. And since Ryan Braun got off on this technicality, expect others to use it too. It's like when several athletes got off because they used the "supplement" defense or the "my trainer/doctor/coach gave me something" defense.

      Sorry, I am just venting. It's just so frustrating to see all the loopholes out there for dopers to get through.

    6. I would expect those points to be raised, too. My main point is that nothing less than Armstrong admitting he doped will change the minds of his many fanatical supporters. As long as he says he is innocent, they will believe. Remember that these fans believe Armstrong's spin that eye-witness accounts of doping are of zero value, although such accounts are good enough to convict someone of murder in the criminal justice system.

      So, even in the presence of a positive test(s), I would not expect many of Armstrong's supporters to break. Just look at Contador. His fan base is probably stronger now than it was before his positive test. What we are witnessing is classic backfire effect: "When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger."

    7. I agree with that. I just don't care what they think. They're irrational people. If you throw confirmed positive tests into the mix of evidence that USADA has, there is no rational argument that anybody can make in saying that there's a hole in the proof against him. There would be no hole.

    8. Worse than the doping would be if he really ratted out Hamilton to the UCI for doping. What freakin' nerve!

    9. Contador learnt well from Armstrong. He realised the benefits of using nationalism as a means to appeal to your fanbase. Armstrong always presented the doping allegations as anti-americanism. Contador plays to the sense that this is driven by anti-Spanish sentiments. Wiggins and the British 'golden age' also wrap themselves in the flag.

      THASP - in 2004 Armstrong sent an email to the UCI telling them how a Spanish rival was doping. (second story down)

  6. An interesting post from Sweden criticizing the ITF's lack of transparency with respect to anti-doping (the post also mentions this blog):

  7. News from Spain:

    Nadal will not play Davis Cup and will be out for another two months. Dr.Ruiz-Cotorro will give more details in press conference tomorrow.

    (source in Spanish: )

  8. Sadly, Armstrong supporters won't break. They just wheel out people like this:

  9. Andy Shen interviewed Dr Michael Ashenden back in 2009. No one really listened.

    "AS: So based on that, you can definitively say that Lance Armstrong used EPO in the '99 Tour. No doubt in your mind.

    MA: There is no doubt in my mind these samples contain synthetic EPO, they belong to Lance Armstrong, and there's no conceivable way that I can see that a lab could've spiked them in a way that the data has presented itself. So there is no doubt in my mind he took EPO during the '99 Tour."


  10. Consider all the money taken by the Livestrong foundation over many years under false pretences. That's a massive fraud.