Monday, October 08, 2007

Troubling News

I had a different subject in mind for this post, one which veered away from what is fast becoming a major theme of my blog, the problem of doping in sports. Unfortunately I drafted the intended post on a borrowed computer while traveling and now can’t open the copy I had emailed to myself. So until I can find another means to reacquire my missing work I’m stuck with using a preexisting draft of another piece which once again deals with performance enhancing drugs. I unfortunately have lots of those.

This past week multiple gold medalist Marion Jones was forced to confess her guilt and return her Olympic medals in the face of overwhelming evidence produced by the continuing BALCO investigation. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone except the na├»ve. She had been implicated in the scandal back in 2005 and her stellar performances in the Sydney Games where she destroyed her competition should have raised at least pragmatic skepticism. We need to accept the millions which can be earned from endorsements and the fame which comes with such performances are major corrupting influences. The problem is not going away and consequently every evaluation of extraordinary athletic performance nowadays must consider the possibility of performance enhancing drugs. But Marion Jones isn’t the focus today. This particular article is about my reliance upon what I think is an admittedly crude but fairly effective way to identify possible cheats through analysis of historical performance, something I used in my previous post. My premise is simple: an athlete generally won’t start doping until they realize their performance will not reach the level of a world champion. I rely on the boundless enthusiasm of youth, still confident in their ability to continue improving, to hold off doping until their limitations are pretty well conclusively proven. This delay invariably shows up as a performance plateau extending well into their peak performance years, often beyond it, until a dramatic improvement usually attributed to a change in attitude or new training/coaching methods then belatedly raises the individual to the highest levels in the sport. Likewise I depend on already established stars not to commence doping to extend their competitive careers because they or their advisers understand any possible gains would be dwarfed by the costs and ignominy of being caught. As with most generalizations, however, my premise has some inherent weaknesses. Firstly I cannot preclude there will be the rare individual who will legitimately be a late developer at the world class level, just that the odds against this happening are prohibitive. Out of all those in sport who have shown such eyebrow raising improvement late in their career there might be one whose improvement didn’t come about because of drugs. Doubtful, but the possibility does exist and my method will not allow for this. Secondly state sponsored or program doping won’t wait for a child to discover their real potential. Knowing full well the probabilities against one of their charges actually being a world champion they typically start doping soon after the onset of puberty, a practice which has the effect of obliterating any historical evidence. But here at least evidence of their crimes often shows up in other ways. Their women are invariably much more successful than their men, phenomenally so to the point where their male counterparts often don't exist (doping is considerably more effective for women than men in swimming); and because they didn’t know the true abilities of their subjects they tend to use excessive amounts, which can cause significant and noticeable changes in appearance. Then there’s my hope established stars will act rationally in their own best interest, but that isn’t necessarily true either. There is a case pending where an established superstar is under investigation for doping. A horrible, mind boggling error in judgment if true, but it can and probably will happen even if the individual is cleared in this particular case. Yet as troubling as all this is even more disturbing to my mind is the recent confession by a Canadian cyclist admitting to her long time use of Erythropoietin (EPO), the hormone used to boost red blood cell production. Genevieve Jeanson, formerly a world junior road champion, started doping when she was fifteen on the instructions of her coach. Such an admission, the fact a fifteen year old can be cajoled into doping (and the fact there are coaches out there willing to do this to one of their charges) means my methodology will increasingly become more and more obsolete as sport continues down a path where participation becomes a career move rather than athletic endeavor. It seems inevitable a few more years will see doping for performance become as acceptable to teenagers as it now is for American youth to use steroids to ‘bulk up’ for social reasons¹. Today in Canada ethics courses are required for our certified coaches but such bureaucratic approaches will ultimately prove useless in stopping those who believe doping benefits the athlete. The money and allure of success seem just too strong.

¹Doping in Sports and Its Spread To At-Risk Populations: An International Review: World Psychiatry June 2007 issue

Postscript:
In my meanderings I came across the following interview with Genevieve Jeanson from the official site of the Hamilton 2003 Road World Championships. I thought it made interesting reading:
Q: Hi Genevieve, you are quite a petite athlete, how do you train hard enough to be as competitive as you are, yet not be injured all the time? Do you ride with some aches or pains most of the season? Also, how do you achieve that explosive power that allows you to break away from your competitors? (Reggie Dunbar, Calgary, AB)

GJ: I have a reputation for training harder than everybody else, but I don't believe it's true. Actually my coach Andre Aubut is very careful to prevent me from overtraining. We focus not so much on the volume of work, but more on the quality of the program. In other words, I don't think I train more than everybody else, but I do think, that, thanks to Andre, I train better than most. I think that the trick is to be very systematic, to do a lot of very specific training, on and off the bike. It requires careful planning, disciplined execution, yet flexibility (because I try and listen to my aches and pains, when I have some). As for the power, well, that's one of the specifics that Andre and I have worked on for several years. A mixture of power rides on the bike, and weight training in the gym. It pays off after a while...

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