Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Doping, athletics, and the Olympics

A spectre is haunting Athletics. Ok, so there has *obviously* been a lot of media attention on the Russian doping scandal. It boils down to an East German-era doping program alive and well in modern Russia. They even were brazen enough to dump all the evidence in the form of stored samples.

Taking a step back, the precipitator to this story was Hajo Seppelt investigative report, released in German, then quickly dubbed into English. Most importantly it implicated Kenya, Nike Coach Alberto Salazar, and the Russians.

Dick Pound, and WADA collectively, are considered the official whistleblower in this story, which is neat because a) they're an organization actually doing what they're mandated to do, and b) headquartered in Montreal, doubly impressive given how that city has its share of bribery scandals. In a nice play of feedback, Hajo then commented that WADA should be given more power.

IAAF responded with a timid press release on the situation. They are in the awkward situation of either knowing very little about any doping coverups, which is bad, or a lot, which is worse.

Browsing online there is ample opinion floating about. Steve Magness is severe on IAAF and it's leaders:
People are going to try to use Russia as a scapegoat. It's much easier. Don't be surprised if the IAAF or any organization under attack singles out Russia and claims that they were a rogue nation...The problem is widespread. It's in the U.S., UK, Europe, Africa, every where. Don't delude yourself. Don't think this is a one-off issue. It's not.
Cathal Kelly from Globe and Mail is more casual about the situation
Dick Pound has called for Russian athletes to be banned en masse from the Rio Games next summer. It makes a good headline and no sense. Thanks to that state-sponsored conspiracy Pound helped publicize, there is no hard evidence left on which to base such an unprecedented penalty. That was sort of the point....Russia will be in Rio. No amount of western garment-rending will change that.
So the big shots should be kicked out and we should do as Nick Willis suggests
Or clearly if something is valuable enough, some will inevitably cheat to have it. Hence some percentage of cheating is unavoidable, right?

But the reality is complicated and more nuanced than either extreme. For instance some countries cheat more than others. That much we already know. What I find surprising, and much less discussed, is how certain sports harbor cheaters more than others.

I took a quick look at the Wikipedia page for positive drug tests in the Olympics. This includes retroactive tests, such as Lance's cycling bronze. Regardless of cheating in sports and their governing bodies between Olympic years, every 4 years athletes are tested by the same set of standards. This leads to a semi-fair chance of any given athlete being caught. Despite this fact, only a few sports show a recurring theme of repeated doping violations: athletics (a.k.a Track & Field), weightlifters & wrestlers (which I combined into one category), and everyone else.

Here are the distributions per Olympic year, since 1972, for all three sporting groups:



Here is another visualization using relative numbers


A few comments:

The majority of dopers have been women (at least the ones getting caught), this despite a bias due to weightlifting being an all-male event until Beijing. In 2012 London, two thirds of dopers were female. Before there were the female-oriented doping programs in East Germany in the 1980s, and Chinese in the 1990s. Women cheaters have almost as long a history as men. This makes perfect sense since women have more to gain, biologically speaking, by taking testosterone. EPO and stimulants are a little more gender neutral, but there you have it.

In 2008 there were a huge number of equestrian 'athletes' doping by using capsaicin and other drugs on their horses (6 total), exaggerating the 'other' category for that year.

It should be noted that before 1972 doping still existed and certain substances were already banned, but doping was less formalized be it the enforcement or at various attempts of cheating. So little was known that athletes were as likely to hinder their performance as enhance it, as with Thomas Hicks near-fatal strychnine dosage before the 1904 marathon.

In terms of counting absolute numbers of athletes, we should also note that the number of events in both athletics and wrestling have not changed dramatically since 1972. There were 1324 persons competing in Athletics in 1972, and 2000 in the London games. Weightlifters have increased by a higher percentage due to the inclusion of women's events (from 9 events in 1972 to 15 in 2012). And the grand total number of Olympic athletes rose from 7134 to 10,768 for the same time span.

Moscow Olympics: The cleanest in modern history
Therefore all three categories of sport experienced similar participation growth, which was on the order of 40-50%. Meanwhile positive test counts have nearly quadrupled since the 1970s. Yet consider more positive tests occurred after the formation of WADA, and that 1980 Moscow saw no violations whatsoever. Obviously the number of dopers caught is clearly not a function of the number cheating.  The logic is that eventually the numbers will decrease due to increased chances of being outed. Present-day cheaters cannot then be realistically compared to past generations until standards persist. To some degree Sydney should be considered 'Year Zero' for drug enforcement.

I could have sorted my figures by the type of drug used, but that seemed unnecessary, as there are really just three categories: EPO/blood doping, steroids, and stimulants. Tests for all three can be manipulated.

I could have sorted things by country, but looking over the long-term there isn't a single country dominating drug use at the Olympics. Offenders tend to come from North America, Europe (mostly eastern countries), and Russia. But total participation also follows these trends, so that we expect a similar distribution were athletes doping at random. Interestingly, in light of Hajo's documentary, the only Kenyan ever officially caught for doping was in boxing.  

It is clear that trends in doping violations cannot be explained by either the relative growth of participation nor relative numbers per sporting category. For instance in 2012 Athletics accounted for 20% of total athletes but 75% of doping violations. Therefore the recent scrutiny of Athletics is quite warranted.

By contrast, very few swimmers apparently dope. There is certainly advantages to be obtained by EPO and steroids, just like every other endurance/speed event, yet there have been only two official infractions since 1972. Are swimmers the best at covering up? I doubt it, since the sheer length of time that has passed we might to expose at least one coverup by now. It seems most swimmers focus on technical improvements versus biological ones. As Magness pointed out in an earlier blog post, cheating has cultural and psychological components too.

I conclude only by pointing out that, as always, most athletes are clean and are competitive in ways ideal to their sport. Nevertheless Athletics is problematic. Doping, it seems, comes from imitating your peers, and imitation is the likely cause in track & field. In light of the above graphs in a best-case scenario these athletes are merely bad at covering their tracks. But we all know by now the Tour de France became an inbred affair, which insulated itself from scandal by design. Athletics is doing the same. Progress, though painful, is visible if we consider more individuals call out others and consider the rise in positive tests a improvement in modern science. I do think the cultural role does play a bigger part, however.

Neither athletes nor coaches should be let off the hook. I don't think it's worth 'blowing it all up', although perhaps....No, that never works. Rather think of the reformation of figure skating after the judging scandals of the 1990-2000s. And weightlifting appears to have bettered itself with no loss in performance. A sport can change minus the anarchy in between.

I do love a good foot race, but in light of both recent and past news, I'm taking results with a grain of salt. A bottom-up campaign could sweat out the disease, after which we can all enjoy a proper cool-down.

1 comment:

  1. I reviewed the posted information from the Russian hackers. It's interesting that the only athletes taking amphetamines were from the US. Most of the athletes from other countries were taking asthma medications. Half of the posted US athletes were taking amphetamines.

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