Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Further mistreatment of athletes / a call to revisit the illegality of large groups of drugs

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And again have I just published something on the situation of athletes, only to see something new pop up…

This time, it appears that the Swedish/Eritrean middle- and long-distance runner Meraf Bahta is in trouble* with doping** agencies. Not because she has been caught doping or because she had a suspect test result—but because she has (apparently inadvertently) violated “whereabouts” rules imposed by WADA.

*It is not yet a given that she will be sanctioned, but others in a similar situation already have been, and even her hypothetical acquittal does not change how problematic the current system is.

**In this text, I will mostly speak of “doping” (and variations) rather than e.g. “PED use”. The latter might still be saved from the automatic implication of something illegal, while the former either can not or (possibly) never has had other implications. (Due to an implicit “illegal” or similar that should have been explicit. This parallels the highly unfortunate situation with “discrimination”, where keywords have been left out of phrases like “illegal discrimination” and “sexual discrimination”, replacing the true meaning of “discrimination” with a special-case meaning.) I will make ample use of the word “drug[s]”, however, seeing that the matter of legality is often secondary to the points under discussion. As a further note on language, “illegal” and similar phrasings are not always to be taken as references to the literal legal situation, seeing that substances banned by e.g. WADA are not automatically illegal or illegal in all jurisdictions; it is enough for my purposes that they are banned in the current context.

According to the Swedish national T & F association, concerning general rules and her specific situation:

[…] Elitaktiva idrottare ska kontinuerligt redovisa var de befinner sig vid olika tidpunkter för att finnas tillgängliga för dopingkontroller, allt genom ett rapporteringsprogram, ADAMS. Den aktive ska för varje kvartal i förväg redovisa var han eller hon kommer att befinna sig under en timma varje dag. Därigenom kan idrottaren anträffas för oannonserade tester. Om en vistelserapport inte lämnas eller om idrottaren inte är där han eller hon uppgett (s.k. bomkontroll), är det en förseelse. En person tillåts göra två förseelser under en löpande tolvmånadersperiod. Vid en tredje förseelse anses den aktive inte ha uppfyllt de krav som ställs av WADA […]

[…]de bakomliggande orsakerna till att rapporteringen inte helt fungerat i detta fall. Flera av dessa är personliga, till exempel kopplade till läs- och skrivsvårigheter och olyckliga sjukdomsfall, och andra är rent administrativa såsom inloggningsproblem […] säger Stefan Olsson, Generalsekreterare.

[…] Sedan januari 2017 har Meraf Bahta dopingtestats 19 gånger av internationella och nationella dopingkontrollanter och 10 av dessa har skett utanför tävlingssammanhang.

[…]Vi kan dock konstatera att Meraf inte hållit sig undan eller medvetet felrapporterat, vilket bland annat är tydligt då vi alla kan följa hennes tränings- och tävlingsaktiviteter via sociala medier. […] säger Karin Torneklint, Förbundskapten.

Translation:

[…] Active elite athletes shall* continuously make known where they are at different times to be available for doping tests, all through a reporting system, ADAMS. The active [elite athlete] shall for each quarter, in advance, make known where he or she will be present during one hour each day. Hereby, the athlete can be encountered for unannounced tests. If a report-of-presence [“vistelserapport”] is not provided or if the athlete is not where he or she has claimed (so called bomkontroll) this is a violation. A person is allowed to commit two violations during a running twelve-month period. In case of a third violation, the active is considered non-compliant with the requirements of WADA […]

*The translation of “ska” with “shall” can be disputed in context, but then the original use of “ska” is it self disputable. The more typical choice of words in a text of this descriptive nature is “måste”, with the translation “must”. (But “ska”, like “shall”, might have been appropriate in a prescriptive document.) Generally, the text is quite stilted and unnatural. It also uses some phrasings that are hard to translate into English without compromise. The words “vistelserapport” and “bomkontroll” (presumably, a play on “en bom”, “a miss [of a target]”) are either not standard Swedish or of a highly specialized nature. I have made some corresponding compromises, here and below, which I will not detail, seeing that the impact on my discussion will be negligible.

[…]the underlying reasons why the reporting has not worked entirely in this case. Several of these are personal, for instance connected to difficulties with reading and writing and unfortunate instances of sickness, and others are purely administrative, like log-in problems […] says Stefan Olsson, secretary general

[…] Since January 2017, Meraf Bahta has been doping tested 19 times by international and national doping testers and 10 of these have occurred outside of competition contexts.

[…]However, we can note that Meraf has not avoided [the testers] or deliberately misreported, which e.g. is obvious because we can all follow her training and competition activities on social media. […] says Karin Torneklint, head of the national team.

There are at least three remarkable things here:

  1. The constraints and privacy violations imposed on the athletes are extreme: Imagine, dear reader, that you would be forced to state for every day, long in advance*, where you will be for a part of that day. Imagine having to plan that far ahead. Imagine being so constrained in your later activities, e.g. in that an impromptu trip is impossible. Imagine being so vulnerable to external obstacles, e.g. a missed or severely delayed train. Imagine having to keep track of where you are allowed to be on a daily basis. Imagine the potential privacy violations. (Never mind the actual testing and the time needed to file the information.)

    *If my recollections from previous encounters with similar rules are correct (they are not new), there are some provisions for later changes, but this is obviously intended for exceptional cases. Similarly, a missed train would likely be forgiven on a rare occasion; however, the athlete would still need to apply for dispensation, and it might not be forthcoming when there have been repeated similar events. The take on anything relating directly or indirectly to doping is highly “strict liability” and with a one-sided burden placed on the athlete.

  2. The means for filing this information are obviously not what they should be. That log-in (or other technical) problems can prevent a correct reporting, and possibly require the athlete to ask the real perpetrator for clemency for the perpetration, is unacceptable. (In light of my own experiences with Elster, cf. [1] and further texts, I have great sympathies. Consider if professional athletes are met with similar problems.) That problems with reading and writing can be preventative is also a red flag.*

    *I am not clear on whether these are relating to use of Swedish (her being an immigrant) or general (her coming from a country with far lower standards of education than Sweden). In the latter case, the Federation/WADA/whoever should have provided other means and must carry the responsibility for the failure to do so—even (in a hypothetical and exaggerated example) an entirely uneducated, border-line retarded, trainer- and friendless athlete must not be excluded from competition based on restrictive software. As to the former, it should be self-evident that anyone who forces a tool upon someone must make sure that it is available in an acceptable language. (As an aside, I do believe that immigrants should learn the local language; however, that is an issue on a different dimension.)

  3. Bahta has been tested* roughly once per month, on average, since January 2017. More than half of these tests are likely to have been so random that she has been in no position to manipulate test results or alter any drug use in time. She is still in trouble.

    *Presumably, without any findings, or else it would have been mentioned or, more likely, already hit the news shortly after the test.

We have long reached a point where the impositions upon athletes are hard to defend. Note that it does not end with the above, the overall burden also including e.g. “biological passports”, the need to pee on command and in the presence of others after competitions, the constant risk and accompanying fear* that someone will mess with e.g. a water bottle, the risk of inadvertently** ingesting/injecting/whatnot something illegal, the risk of a lab screwing up, the risk of a natural-but-unusual level of something being interpreted as cheating, the risk of missing a change of classification*** of a substance, misestimations*** by organizations like WADA leading to unfair convictions, … To boot, the way potential violations are treated are contrary to the principles of due process, it usually being the obligation of the athlete to prove his innocence well beyond “reasonable doubt”.****

*I can recall Carolina Klüft, a now retired supreme heptathlete, repeatedly discussing this fear, and how she always made sure not to leave e.g. water bottles out of sight.

**The very recent case of Ryan Lochte springs to mind, who apparently took too much of an otherwise legal substance; as does the case of Martin Johnsrud Sundby, whose team physician screwed up.

***Meldonium was banned after long being allowed, and the “half-time” of Meldonium already (legally) present in the body was severely underestimated, leading to cases like Alexander Povetkin and Abeba Aregawi. The former missed a chance at winning a world-championship belt in boxing; the latter a chance at an Olympic gold. To boot, Aregawi has yet to make a serious come-back, implying that it might have been a career-ender.

****Which to some degree is understandable, in light of the many potential excuses that could create reasonable doubt. Consider the early case of Dieter Baumann and his (correctly or incorrectly) rejected explanation that his toothpaste was to blame. This is nevertheless highly unfortunate and has considerable negative consequences for the security of the athletes. To boot, the way this reversal of the burden of proof (lowering of proof limit, strict liability, whatnot) is implemented is usually through forcing the athletes to “voluntarily” agree to some set of rules only indirectly relating to doping. The “whereabouts” rules and potential punishment discussed above are a good example. Similarly, many of the banned substances are not considered performance enhancers, and there is no reason to believe that an athlete would (directly) cheat with them—they are masking agents that could hide the use of other drugs that are banned performance enhancers. In other words, we have a criminalization and punishment of suspect behavior rather than truly criminal behavior—as if someone was put in jail for having staked out a bank, with the reasoning that doing so is tantamount to actually robbing it.

Factoring in the many other problems, costs, and whatnot, I have, year for year, grown increasingly skeptical to whether it is justifiable to continue a “no doping” policy—by now, I am in favor of very considerably easing the regulations, just like the old ban on professionalism was once removed. More, I explicitly call for this question to be re-examined in detail, in order to either largely or wholly remove these bans, as well as to remove the excessive burden placed on the athletes. Further, that this be done in an open-minded and unprejudiced manner, independent of the current opinion corridor.

Consider negative effects like the enormous costs and efforts that go into these programs, the fact that there still is reason to believe that many of the athletes are not clean*, the risk of having to alter the official results of past events**, or the enormous credibility blow when a major name is revealed as a cheater (Lance Armstrong, for instance).

*Creating an unfair competition, where those with the better ability to hide their use, e.g. through a previously unknown drug, can gain an enormous advantage. See also parts of the first item below.

**Take e.g. the Women’s 1500m race of the 2012 Olympics, where there has been three different winners (the original winner, the original second-placer after the original winner was disqualified, and the original third-placer after the second winner was disqualified), and where another two finalist have also gone down the drain. To boot, the current second and third placers (Tomashova, and the aforementioned Aregawi), have also been suspended for doping at other times. The situation with Tour de France and Armstrong is also horrifying, with a long stretch of competitions invalidated considerably after their end. Consider the effect on fans and sponsors, who have the remaining fear that an apparent victory will be invalidated a few years later, and who might lose interest in the sport.

On the other hand, let us look at the some* justifications for a ban:

*Feel free to point me to others.

  1. Doping can artificially distort the playing field:

    However, this is already the case, due to the imperfectness of testing. True, it might be possible to reach perfection at some later time, but this could be far in the future and could involve even more intrusive and costly efforts. To this we have to add complications like some athletes being officially exempt from certain restrictions due to (real or fake) medical issues, notably asthma; or different countries having very different takes on issues like doping, e.g. the Swedish condemnation as a deadly sin, the Jamaican negligence, or the Russian deliberate support of doping. I strongly suspect that a less restricted take would actually make the playing field more even.

    To boot, there already are distortions* of the playing field that are perfectly accepted, including having a better trainer (and other helpers), better training conditions, the opportunities** created by more money, and (in some sports) better equipment. Indeed, the old resistance against professionalism was largely based in the wish to have a level playing field—but professionalism is considered perfectly normal today.

    *Compared to an athletes natural ability, willingness to work hard, personal knowledge of relevant theory, and similar.

    **Including not only the ability to train and compete full-time, but also e.g. with what comfort travel and hotels can be endured/enjoyed, access to more dedicated training facilities, and similar.

  2. Doping can be bad for the health of the athletes.

    However, athletes already do other things that are bad for their health, and what they do with their bodies is, at the end of the day, their decision. Many athletes in their thirties have damage to e.g. knees and back that are decades ahead of their real ages. Some few suffer so severe acute injuries that they die or must spend the rest of their lives in wheel-chairs. Practices like dehydration before a boxing match can be quite dangerous—not to mention the actual match! Some high-jumpers have been heavy smokers in order to keep their body-weight down. Sumo wrestlers are often so fat that they encounter severe health problems. Etc. To this might be added some involuntary and uncalculated excesses, e.g. the relatively common occurrence of severe eating disorders in young female athletes. How many other things would have to be banned, if we applied the same reasoning as with banned drugs?

    It is not a given that such quantities* of drugs make sense, as to cause a severe danger. Correspondingly, athletes would likely show restraint even without a ban, especially when also factoring in the health risks and the phenomenon of “diminishing returns”. It might make sense for a body-builder, power-lifter, or similar, to gorge himself on steroids and growth-hormone—but in most sports this would be counter-productive, because the extra weight will do more harm than good. For instance, a tennis or soccer player who puts on another forty pounds would see his endurance drop, and would need to compensate for that, while getting relatively little direct benefit from more muscle**. Marathon*** runners look like twigs for a reason. A high-jumper might not get enough benefit from more muscle to compensate for the weight-gain even during short efforts, especially when e.g. large glutes threaten to touch the bar during the crossing. Someone like the prime Ron Coleman would have been useless in many sports, because the protrusions of his muscles reduced his natural movements. Etc. (However, I raise the caveat that this might apply more to male athletes than to female, the latter having a lower starting point and, likely, room for greater consumption before the benefits of “more” drops below the disadvantages.)

    *Note that the damaging effects of drugs depend strongly on quantity, and that e.g. extrapolating negative effects from body-builders to sprinters makes little sense, unless the latter actually use at least somewhat similar quantities. (Not to mention similar drugs, which is far from a given. I can, e.g., see no obvious advantage for a 100m runner in using insulin—but I do see a risk of putting on dead weight…)

    **Here and elsewhere, once a certain amount has been reached.

    ***However, there are obviously drugs and other enhancers for other purposes than gaining muscle, e.g. EPO and blood doping—both of which have been used extensively by some endurance athletes and are not without their own dangers. I lack the detail knowledge to judge the reasonable limits in a similar manner to the above; however, I strongly suspect that similar reasons for restraint will apply. Even if not, the public image, the basis for regulation, and the exaggerated fear of PEDs (aka steroids, aka that thing that kills all the body-builders before 50; see also [2]) is still mostly based on muscle building.

    Newer and better drugs will appear over time that have fewer or lesser negative side-effects. (As they already have.) Indeed, current classifications of drugs by e.g. WADA are likely less directed by the risk of negative side-effects and more by the positive (main) effects.

    Drug taking under more controlled circumstances, including open visits to specialist physicians and the procurement of drugs free from e.g. cutting agents, can do a lot to reduce even the current risks. (Note that while true world-class athletes might already have access to such resources, this does not apply to the lower levels of competition and the younger athletes who might one day become true world-class.)

    Some drugs might, even performance aside, have positive effects that outweigh the negative, e.g. because they help the body heal or cope with stress. (And can even be prescribed to non-athletes for such reasons, notably corticosteroids. The above obviously with some reservations for length of use and the quantities involved.)

  3. In the overlap between the two, we have the risk that some athletes might feel themselves forced to take health-risking doses or types of drug in order to be competitive with those who willingly take such drugs. This introduces an ethical issue of a different type than in the first item. (Indeed, this was long my own main argument against doping.)

    However, with the lower risks possible for drug users per the second item, chances are that this will be mostly an academic question. In as far as it is not, we have to consider that the problem is not restricted to drugs. For instance, an athlete who trains through an injury, at the cost of greater long-term damage, can win that gold medal over the athlete who does not; the boxer who is willing to dehydrate further can put on more non-water weight and still remain in the same weight class; the down-hill skier who is willing to take greater, possibly life threatening risks, can gain those extra tenths of a second; etc.

    If push comes to shove, a reasonable way out might be to just disallow the more dangerous types of drugs or too large quantities: Someone with the choice of say running an illegal 9.80 or a legal 10.00 in the 100m dash has far stronger incentives to cheat than someone who chooses between an illegal 9.80 and a legal 9.85.

Apart from the above, we also have to consider that a freer drug use could lead to improvements of drugs, the understanding of drugs and the human body, etc., that can have a very positive impact on the general population: What if we e.g. find a combination of drugs that makes the body of an 80 y.o. function on the level of someone ten or twenty years younger, with minimal risks? (At that age, even larger risks could well be acceptable.) What if we find better means to combat e.g. muscular dystrophy and atrophy? What if we can reduce the exercise time needed to stay in great (non-athlete) shape to an hour a week?

Excursion on records:
A point that can be an advantage or a disadvantage is the comparison with old records in some sports. Track-and-Field, e.g., has a problem with some old records that appear close to unbreakable and that are strongly suspected of having been set by dopers. Freer rules could solve that problem. On the other hand, it might make the comparison in other disciplines less fair. Then again, any comparison over time risks being unfair, e.g. due to better equipment or a better technique. Swimming is a sport that appears to be ridiculously (and counter-intuitively) sensitive to changes to pools, suits, and whatnots. (In many other sports, there either are no significant records, or the records are not that dependent on artificial help. Even baseball, famed for its collection of statistics and notorious for rumored doping, sees a reduced sensitivity because of the opposing influences: For instance, drugs might make a batter swing harder and increase his chances of striking a home run when he hits; however, the same drugs can make the pitcher throw harder or with more spin, decreasing the chance that the batter hits. Drugs that help with recuperation and injuries will affect everyone on the field.)

Excursion on the chance of a rule change:
Unfortunately, there is a strong, but ultimately irrational, reason why the bans will continue: For various organizations and many legal systems, to do an about-turn at this late stage would cause an enormous loss of face and credibility. (Note that anything that is harmful to the organizations or their leaders will be much harder to push through than something that is harmful to the athletes.)

To boot, there would be tricky coordination and persuasion* issues: What if e.g. IAAF drops the ban now and the IOC only after the 2020 Olympics? Should IAAF athletes be forced to forego the Olympics or should they risk being less competitive at the 2019 World Championships? What if one country drops the ban and another does not? What about the extremely uneven playing field this would create? Such issues imply that any fair change could take many years to implement; and even a gradual change would take a similar time to be completed.

*If everyone was on-board at the same time, the coordination would not be that problematic. However, convincing not only various organization but also various law-makers around the world is very tough.

Excursion on drug use in the general population:
Restrictions on use in the general population are even more disputable than for professional athletes. The latter has at least some (if not necessarily strong) justification through the effect on others. Private use by a non-athlete affects the user, not the rest of the world. There might, obviously, be indirect effects on e.g. other family members, but those can be both positive* and negative, and are within the scope of how any action affects close-ones: Should a pizza lover be legally forbidden from indulging in that love, because a premature death could leave the spouse a widow[er]? Certainly, the often proposed specter of “roid rage” and physical violence against the family is a sufficiently rare exception to be classified as a scare tactic, and is only even relevant to some drugs in the first place. Also see parts of [2].

*For instance, a better body might be appreciated by the significant other.

Excursion on the right to set rules:
Note that arguments like “it is X’s competition; ergo, it can set whatever rules it wants” might be technically true, but are also irrelevant to the above. The point is not what rules X is allowed to set—it is what rules are better with an eye on the overall situation and reasoning. To boot, not everything legally allowed is also ethically allowable, and when sports organizations ignore the best of the sport and the athletes in favor of what is best for the organization, forgetting their raison d’être, they are acting unethically. (Whether they have done so in the case of doping is open to discussion, but there are plenty of cases where the issue is clear-cut, e.g. with advertising, or when the competition format is manipulated to the disadvantage of the athletes in order to be more “viewer friendly”, as e.g. the IAAF has repeatedly done.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

July 28, 2018 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. […] e.g. what I wrote a week ago (when I did most of the thinking for the current text): On a superficial inspection, the text might […]

  2. […] As a brief follow-up to a recent text around doping in sports: […]


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