Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gene Doping Has Arrived in China!

In a breaking story by German television broadcaster ARD in conjunction with several journalists it has been revealed gene doping is now available for a fee in China. The documentary, aired Monday evening, outlines how despite China's official anti-doping position the problem of performance enhancing drugs is widespread and apparently tolerated at least at the local level in the country. It also detailed the state's continued recognition of national level coaches with histories of doping infractions, the lack of any testing in high risk sports, and the active participation of the country's medical community in the abuses. In one example cited by Swimnews Online, whose Craig Lord participated in the investigation, a young squad of swimmers from Hunan province have been making great advances by training up to 120 kilometers a week. That's twice the distance covered by most Olympians and some are reported to be as young as twelve. The story also notes we're only three weeks from opening the Beijing Olympics but China has not yet announced its national swim team.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Asking All the Wrong Questions

John Naber ranks among history’s great backstrokers. With his background in media broadcasting no real surprise he was chosen to be the U.S. Olympic Trials master of ceremonies. It seems some of his banter, however, rubbed people the wrong way. Apparently a lot of them. Since I wasn’t there I can’t really comment on this, though my natural inclination is to give people the benefit of doubt and assume they’re not trying to be nasty. For example one quote which was repeatedly used by the blogging community was the question he asked Natalie Coughlin, “What does it feel like to lose to a forty one year old?” It took a little digging to find out her answer but it evidently was a terse “That’s not a nice question” and an end to the interview. If true that’s a very interesting response. Leaving out the obvious reference to Dara Torres the question was a pretty basic variation of the standard “What does it feel like to lose” probe every champion faces when finally beaten. For example Brendan Hansen had a full blown press conference to answer this very thing after failing to qualify in his favorite event the 200 breast. A consummate professional Hansen handled it all with aplomb. He admitted he had an inexplicably bad race and then gave out the equally standard reply – praising the winner (or in his unfortunate case, the winners) as tremendous athletes and champions in their own right and declaring there was no shame in losing to such great competitors.

Coughlin has certainly shown over the years she’s at least Hansen’s equal in public relations. And yes, even Coughlin loses on rare occasion. So why was she offended? She must have faced this question before. Please allow me to speculate. I think Naber created the 'nastiness' by throwing in “... by a forty one year old” and in doing so moved the question’s emphasis from Natalie losing to Dara Torres winning. In a single, unmistakable gesture, Naber clearly indicated where he thought was the real story of the race was – Torres absolutely phenomenal, unprecedented swim – and was prodding Natalie to talk about Dara. I believe he wanted her to say what a giant she was in the sport and how inspiring to everyone around her, including the great Natalie Coughlin herself. That is, Naber wanted her to give the standard response. It was the only answer she could give standing there in front of thousands, knowing they would be teammates in Beijing, and even sharing some sponsors with her. But it didn’t happen did it? Why not? Because I think Natalie Coughlin, faced with an instantaneous decision, couldn’t bring herself to say those words. And that’s where the “that’s not a nice question” came from. She seems to be sure Naber, another great individual gold medalist, would know she’d be reluctant to praise Torres. But Naber went ahead and asked anyways. She was right – it wasn’t nice. But it was ever so revealing.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fair and Balanced

In my post “It’s Getting Surreal Out There” I wrote about the recent improvement in swimming world records and speculated as to the reasons why the sudden lurch forward. The queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach it may be because illegal doping has become commonplace, however, was hard to ignore. To deny this I followed up with “Believe”, a post about why this worse possible scenario isn’t necessarily the right or even most logical conclusion and provided several perfectly valid reasons for the outstanding times we’ve seen recently. Yet I find myself drawn back in uneasy speculation about the marked improvements being shown by so many: improvements which in normal times would draw immediate suspicion or outright denouncement. So in this post I’m going to look at the dark side of swimming; of the apocalyptic possibility which in polite circles cannot be spoken of. If you tremble with anticipation for the Beijing Games to begin so you can watch some spectacular swimming and cheer on your favourite stars you’ll want to seriously consider not reading any further. For, as one popular movie’s protagonist was told, “this is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes”.

Where is swimming really trending with regards to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)? Just how deep is the rabbit-hole? When I came out last year and publicly accused Dara Torres of using PEDs it wasn’t personal maliciousness on my part. It was my concern for the possible impact her story may well have on our sport. Every professional coach and elite swimmer in the world knows a forty year old woman cannot come back after several years of retirement, train for less than a year, and then dramatically improve enough on what was originally only a moderately successful career to become one of the leading sprinters in the world. Even her personal coach is on record¹ stating it’s not supposed to be possible. Dara Torres has quite literally thumbed her nose at WADA daring them to figure out how it’s being done. And no doubt the swimming world has watched in sick fascination to see if WADA would discover her secret. It was then and remains my belief Dara Torres standing up on the podium at Beijing would signal not only successful cheating is possible but unstoppable; and the money and fame following from her triumph would usher in a new age of unprecedented rampant cheating. Eventually such a debased culture must destroy swimming as a viable professional sport. Dara Torres, I personally believe, is our generation’s Typhoid Mary, a harbinger and bringer of disaster. It now seems possible, perhaps even likely, that after watching for over a year the rest of the swimming world has decided not to wait to see Torres to mount the Olympic podium. They’ve decided to follow her lead in time for this Olympics.

Let’s start with the question of whether or not PEDs work. Well do they? Oh, absolutely they do. In their post “Drugs Work – But by How Much? A Look at Doping and Performance Improvements” South Africans Jonathan Dugas and Ross Tucker analyze a paper authored by Franke and Berendonk which was published in the journal Clinical Chemistry in 1997. The paper compiles data from scientific studies produced from East Germany’s extensive state doping program. The paper’s abstract discloses:
Top-secret doctoral theses, scientific reports, progress reports of grants, proceedings from symposia of experts, and reports of physicians and scientists who served as unofficial collaborators for the Ministry for State Security (“Stasi”) reveal that from 1966 on, hundreds of physicians and scientists, including top-ranking professors, performed doping research and administered prescription drugs as well as unapproved experimental drug preparations. Several thousand athletes were treated with androgens every year, including minors of each sex. Special emphasis was placed on administering androgens to women and adolescent girls because this practice proved to be particularly effective for sports performance.
Of course, as this was in the very early stages of employing drugs for performance enhancement, the studies concentrate on the more obvious hormones, primarily testosterone. Ross and Jonathan expand on this to include analysis on the effectiveness of EPO vis-à-vis cycling. Their conclusion? It seems doping works “very well”, estimating benefits of at least 15% in the power sports and slightly less in endurance sports such as cycling. When we saw again and again finalists in the last Olympics all finishing within fractions of a second of each other the effectiveness of doping can not be debated.

What about health risks? It didn't take long to learn that though the hazards of steroid use and other performance enhancing drugs are well known and documented it’s also true they stem almost entirely from overdoses rather than any inherent pharmacological problem. It is safe to assume today’s elite athlete will be under strict medical supervision, if only to ensure his or her doping goes undetected, and consequently any potential for overdosing on these drugs is going to be either minimal or virtually non-existent. Of course injecting anything isn’t the preferred method of taking ‘health’ supplements but practically speaking the risk is minor compared to the serious and potentially crippling injuries from training and competition most athletes must contend with. Not that I’d recommend their use. If you want to vicariously experience what taking performance enhancing drugs actually entails you could do a lot worse than read Writer’s Workshop novelist Craig Davidson’s description of his short foray into this world here, all done in a misguided effort to give verisimilitude to his first novel.

What are the chances of being caught? Well the correct answer here is, of course, it depends. But for this article’s purposes we’re going to limit ourselves to looking at the sophisticated cheats, the ones who stand to make a great deal of money and therefore can afford to have the best medical advice and doping procedural experts close at hand to guide them through the potential traps and pitfalls of WADA and its national federations.

The first line of defense is to simply avoid being tested at the wrong time. Doping can be, and often is, done in cycles. Normally the athlete will go on his or her drug regime during heavy training, and then ‘coast’ for a period of time off. Not coincidentally this seems to invariably align with competitions. To forestall this WADA implements “out-of-competition” testing where athletes can be tested without notice at any time. Critiques of the current testing procedures, however, have pointed out the relatively small number of these unannounced tests when compared to the population under scrutiny. Then there's the problem posed by the three strikes rule for missed tests. Presently a doping athlete can avoid giving a positive test by providing just enough information to WADA about their whereabouts to be in compliance but not enough for them to actually be found should they, by bad luck, be one of the few selected for random testing (ex. ensuring their mobile phone message box is always full). Certainly this results in a missed test but with another two in hand the exception isn’t a big deal. The cyclist Michael Rasmussen, for example, just recently won damages for his ‘wrongful’ firing from the cycling team Rabobank during last year’s Tour de France, something Rabobank carried out despite his wearing the treasured maillot jaune at the time. He was fired because he was discovered to have lied about his whereabouts prior to the race. The implications were obvious to all and personally speaking I think Rabobank was correct to fire him. Yet according to the rules currently in play Rasmussen had merely made a mistake. There's little doubt this technicality was crucial to his successful lawsuit.

But why go through all this bother and subterfuge if the desired performance enhancing drugs can be made undetectable to any the known test. The BALCO scandal opened the world’s eyes to this possibility. With only the help of an organic chemist Victor Conte created tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) aka “The Clear”. “The Clear” would probably still be in circulation today if it wasn’t for a coaching rivalry and a sample sent to WADA. In another sobering Science of Sport article “Drugs in Sport – Could It Be Bigger Than We Thought?”, which is in turn heavily reliant on the investigative writings of ESPN’s Shaun Assael, the two trudge through the depressing success story of steroid manufacturing today. The hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, the dozens upon dozens of manufacturers, the huge profits, the surging demand, they’re all covered in excruciating detail – including the plentiful availability of undetectable drugs.
Having set up a supplement company, the journalist orders products that are sold to him on the premise that they work and are undetectable. Sure enough, he has them shipped to his address from a company based in the USA, and has them tested for the 11 known classes of steroids. The result - negative.
Experts believe there could be up to a hundred custom steroids, all requiring their own special test to be detectable, floating around for sale. If you think all these drugs are headed for high school students, bodybuilders, and recreational athletes (after all what wouldn’t you do to be able to hit the ball out of the park in the company’s recreational softball league?) then I suggest you consider why the demand for undetectable steroids has soared. The very existence of devices for cheating tests, such as the Butt Wedge (no longer marketed but apparently very popular during the 2004 Athens Games) and the surprisingly still available Whizzinator, will undoubtedly come to those who deny drugs are a serious problem as quite a shock. I was also interested to discover it’s possible to purchase synthetic urine, though I’m not sure why anyone with a modicum of intelligence would be comforted by the double-your-money back guarantee offer.

But whatever I've written here the decision to use or not use drugs ultimately comes down to each athlete’s sense of ethics and economic need. And that I feel will be determined in large part by whether athletes believe the competitors lining up beside them aren’t doping. Sadly when I look at what’s going on right now I’d have to believe the chances for a drug-free Olympics aren’t very good. Not good at all.

Post Script:

Recently we’ve been hearing about American athletes who have been volunteering to contribute samples at frequent intervals both in and out of training and during competition. They belong to a USADA pilot program modeled on the “Passport” programs first implemented in Europe. I’m not quite as confident in the project’s infallibility to catch cheats as the mass media presents it to be so I’ll reserve any judgment until I can gather enough information together to give a reasonably informed opinion (i.e. contact experts). I will say at this time, however, that WADA withholding the program's protocols from the scientific community suggests there are ways to beat the test. USADA’s problem is reverse engineering applies as much to science as it does to manufacturing, and with enough effort the applicable protocols can be established and appropriate counter-measures taken. Nor can flat out espionage be ruled out. Secrets are notorious for being short lived. Sometimes they have no life at all.

I also want to take the time to thank Jonathan Dugas and Ross Tucker for their excellent selection of articles on doping practices. Their blog The Science of Sport was a tremendous source of scientifically grounded information. If I find their doping articles individually crushing in import, taken together they are absolutely devastating for those who believe drugs have no place in sports. Another most informative overview of the testing process and what athletes do to beat them can be found on the Meso-Rx blog in an post entitled "The History of Drug Testing in Sports & How Athletes Beat the Drug Tests". Read all the links, you won't understand the depth of the problem until you do.

¹"Her comeback is just mind-boggling," said Michael Lohberg, Torres's coach in Coral Springs, Fla. "I don't think people can actually comprehend what's happening here. It hasn't happened before and it probably won't happen again. A 40-year-old who hasn't been swimming for years should never go this fast." – At 40, Torres is Back in the Fast Lane, Washington Post, Aug.2, 2007 (my italics)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Reader Weighs In

My major piece on Dara Torres is without question my three part post dated almost a year ago titled "I Came to Praise Dara Torres, But Intend to Leave Seeing Her Drowned", an article which continues to attract comments that, if an honest attempt to discuss the issues is raised, I dutifully try to answer.
Note to readers using this link the article is split into three parts and the other two can be accessed from the first by scrolling to the very bottom and double clicking on the blue highlighted "Newer Post" located after the comments.
The most recent visitor to the post has been Robert. His rejection of my entire premise covers ground already well traveled and, in an attempt to forestall repeating the same arguments over and over again, I thought I'd republish both his observations and my response for the more recent readers of this blog. Consider reading the comments section after the last part where I defend my blogging. Several readers clearly put considerable effort in arguing both for and against and overall I think they have reasonably delineated the strengths and weaknesses of flatly asserting Dara Torres is cheating with performance enhancing drugs.

Robert writes: Scott, because of recent high-profile doping cases, one can understand you having your stated point of view. We've been disappointed by athletes too numerous to name in just the last couple years. I have to admit myself that this remarkable comeback by Dara Torres evoked a skeptical reaction in my own head.

However, I don't want to address whether or not she's doping. She could be taking undetectable drugs, or have taken drugs while "retired". She could be completely clean. She's never tested positive in her life for anything.

I want to address, as some previous posters already have, your lack of knowledge about the sport of swimming. You know a little about swimming. Just enough to be dangerous. Dangerous enough that I wouldn't want you anywhere near a pool deck coaching children or masters swimmers.

You also make some bold statements about the body's [in]abilities that you provide no references for. You intermixed your personal beliefs in a manner that make them appear to be fact. However, when you see through the smoke and mirrors, your argument rests on baseless assumptions.

I personally know many masters swimmers who re-entered the water after considerable layoff and returned to their previous levels of competition, and even faster. And most of them do it on 3 workouts a week. Why should it be that Dara Torres could not re-enter the pool and return to her previous level (world class) and then surpass it? We're all human and we all have limitations. But masters swimmers have shown time and again that they can return to and surpass their personal previous level of competition.

I think that you have a good topic to work with, but I'd like to see you remove your personal agenda and anecdotal arguments from the piece. I want to see you back up your claims about physiology, and show modern research behind your swimming-specific statements.

P.S. I believe that definition of insanity is attributed to Benjamin Franklin?

I respond: Well of course I disagree with you, first and most of all with your statement about my “lack of knowledge about the sport of swimming”. Actually I have a long history of competing at a reasonably high level in several sports as an adult and consequently possess what I consider a reasonable grounding in physiology as it applies to performance, even if swimming wasn’t included in the mix. But when I wrote this article I consulted many scientific sources to establish the veracity of my statements, as well as discussed my opinions with friends who happen to be in the medical profession. It’s as objective as I can make it and now, after over a year of accumulating quite a file of books, articles, scientific papers on athletic performance, current practices in the training of elite swimmers, and the physical effects of aging and detraining, I’m gaining considerable confidence in the truth of my position. If anyone is flinging unsubstantiated personal beliefs around surely it is you.

To compound your problem you then raise a very common rebuttal to my position – that many, many masters swimmers have seen improvements in their times, so why can’t Torres? This is a completely fallacious argument and invariably comes from individuals who have never competed at a high level in anything, certainly far below the level Dara Torres has competed her entire life. She’s now more than 4% faster than the fastest she ever went during the span of her first three Olympics (not counting her recent improvement with the LZR Racer) and that percentage, in Olympian terms, is a massive improvement. Olympians improve by tenths and hundredths of a percent, not several. Read my rebuttal in the above comments. Just what is she doing now so differently that she didn’t do in ten years of performing and being coached at an elite level? You are also totally disregarding the negative effect of aging on athletic performance. I think that’s a pretty big deal. How can Torres beat the finest sprinters in America but then joke about how her failing eyesight makes reading her time off the board difficult? How can she swim as fast as she does, but then be forced to drop an individual event, a sprint event mind you, because of concerns over her ability to recover adequately enough to compete in her remaining individual and relay events? It’s illogical – on one hand she’s showing the performance and athleticism of a twenty year old, but on the other she’s exhibiting plenty of evidence of a deteriorating, middle-aged body. Bob, you’re looking at Dara Torres with Pollyanna eyes and you clearly had made up your mind before you even read my post. If you want to argue my position is premised upon baseless assumptions the very least you must do is identify those assumptions and state why they are so. If you do so I’ll be more than glad to defend my position and critique yours.

P.S. Though a great admirer of Benjamin Franklin the definition of insanity quote wasn’t his. According to a recent Wikiquotes, however, apparently it wasn’t Einstein’s either, these being the two most misattributed with the now famous line. It seems to be the creation of Rita Mae Brown, an American playwright.

Update: Robert has responded to my comment with a detailed critique and I thought it would be unfair to leave readers with the possible misunderstanding he meekly accepted my response without rebuff. Of course I answer back ... Part 3 with the bulk of reader comments (and where Robert has posted) can be accessed directly here

Monday, July 07, 2008

Dara Torres Sets Two New American Records & Another Personal Best


With the U.S. Olympic Trials over I can report Dara Torres, competing now with the help of a LZR Racer, set two new American records this past weekend - both in the 50 free by dropping her time first to 24.38 and then lowering that to 24.25. To round everything off she set a new PB of 53.78 in the 100 free. That's an improvement of just a touch under seven percent (6.98%) over the best 50 free time she could manage at the 1992 Olympic Trials. Her 100 free time is unspeakably fast. Really, when I try to talk about it I start choking. In a post written several months ago I flippantly wrote that at her present rate of improvement she would be setting world records by the time she started collecting social security. I thought I was being sarcastic, certainly not prescient. Apparently I was wrong.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Trojan Says

Gary Hall Jr. hit the news yesterday once again with a controversial statement that his guts told him the recent glut of world records this year is as much due to doping as it is to technological advances in suit design – and he feels the problem is world wide ... his beloved United States included. While he certainly won’t get an argument from me there are many prominent individuals more than willing to take up the banner of drug-free swimming. You can find them every where. A few days ago on Gary Hall Jr.’s very own Race Club message board the subject of thirty eight year old Briton Mark Foster setting a new personal best of 21.96 was raised. For those who aren’t immersed in the minutia of sprint swimming Mr. Foster formerly held the short course 50 free world record several years back. He’s also known for the longevity of his career. Refused a place on Britain’s Athens Olympic team he quit for a spell but returned to successfully qualify for Beijing. A blogger going by the moniker Trojan immediately claimed vindication for Dara Torres. His comment, “He just dropped his PR in the 50 by .16 (sic¹) – he has been at this since 1987. Where are all the Dara doubters now?” was met with the collective equivalent of a polite pat on the head along with reminders the questions about Torres’ performance weren’t just based upon her age. Undeterred Trojan hit back. “Sorry – but you guys are rather selective in your reasoning” he wrote, “his time is 0.66 (sic) off the WR – Dara is 0.59 off the WR. The 50 is the main question here – I don't think swimming a 54+ when you are able to go 24.5 is any "miracle". Since the thread was about Mark Foster and not about Dara Torres there were only a couple more desultory posts on the subject before the conversation switched back to Foster and his achievement.

But I’d like to respond to the challenge. By all means let us compare the two and their achievements. When Trojan asserts Torres’ times are equivalent to Foster’s I’d like to quote Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Rather than relying on the two’s relative proximity to different world records (something not possible because they’re independent of each other) I submit to use instead the much more defensible analysis of relative improvement over time. For this I’ll rely on Olympic Trial performances for my source data: one because they provide both a regular flow of data over time and also because they provide reasonable guarantees they reflect peak efforts. Foster at thirty four, for example, swam a 22.49 50 free at the 2004 British Olympic Trials (good enough for the IOC but not good enough for Bill Sweetenham). Thus his recent 21.96 translates into a 2.36% improvement over that, or a 0.77% improvement over his previous personal best (PB) established seven years ago. To me this appears plausible after factoring in he was wearing the new LZR Racer. Regrettably Dara Torres’ situation is rather more complex so you’ll have to bear with me here. Today her career best is 24.53, achieved last year at the age of forty, and it’s important to note this was done without the aid of today’s advances in suit technology. Now let’s go back ... waaay back ... to Dara’s first retirement. It came right after the 1988 Olympics where in Trials qualifying she had swum 25.83. Her 25.61 PB at that time (which was for a short while the world record) had been achieved fully four years earlier. Thus now over forty she’s able to swim 5.03% faster than at twenty one, or 4.22% faster than what she could do as a seventeen year old with her best ever world ranking. After a short retirement she returned for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Trials but once again finished without an Olympic berth in an individual event, swimming a 26.07 in prelims and a 26.15 in the finals. Three different times, three different Trials, but surely the trend which led to her second retirement is easy to see – she was getting slower. Now sixteen years later, thirteen of which were spent out of the pool in retirement, she’s swum an amazing 5.91% faster than her 1992 trial performance without any help from the new suits. Contrast this to Mark Foster’s bettering his 2004 performance by 2.36% with a LZR Racer. Trojan thinks their performances are comparable? I have to disagree.

Of course I have no actual evidence to support my contention Dara Torres is cheating as, because she’s never recorded a positive test result for performance enhancing drugs, it’s just pure supposition and a wheel barrowful of circumstantial evidence on my part. Neither does Gary Hall Jr. have anything to support his “gut feeling” doping is wide spread in swimming. The response to his statement has been swift and furious. Australian Libby Trickett, current world record holder in the women’s 50 sprint, thinks he needs “to keep his mouth shut, especially when he doesn’t have anything to back it up with”. American Amy Van Dyken, a former world record holder in the event and someone Hall specifically mentioned being on the same BALCO list as Marion Jones, sputtered in an email to the Associated Press “It is ridiculous that Gary would say something like that. It’s slanderous, outrageous, and unfounded!!!” Give me a break ladies. The history of the women's 50 free absolutely reeks of doping. In fact it’s a source of considerable personal amusement I actually believe it possible Dara Torres was likely the last clean world record holder in this event; at least until perhaps a couple of months ago when Veldhuis and Trickett stepped in with a big assist from the new suit technology. But listening to Trickett saying “If you are doing it here in Australia you are definitely going to get caught” and “FINA and WADA are doing a great job” knowledgable insiders of the sporting world must wonder, performance enhancing drugs or not, what recreational hallucinogen she’s indulging in.

¹ Actually Foster's new personal best was an improvement of 0.13 seconds and he’s 0.68 off the world record (WR). Not much of a difference but in the 50 sprint hundredths of a second take on enormous importance.