Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Drugs and further mistreatment of athletes / Follow-up: Various

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I have written repeatedly about mistreatment of athletes, in particular in the area of drugs, testing protocols, and similar. (Cf. e.g. [1], [2], [3], [4]; and, outside of drugs, e.g. [5].)

In light of events since then, and especially recent events, it is time for a follow-up:

  1. Most recently:

    Sha’Carri Richardson won the U.S. Olympic trials in the 100m dash, after a season that made her a strong gold candidate in the upcoming Olympics.

    Now, it appears that she has tested positive for cannabis, a drug of very disputable relevance to her performance, and she seems set to miss the Olympics. Notably, even to the degree that cannabis has had a positive effect, mere performance enhancement is not enough to make the ban of a particular drug ethically justifiable—there has to be some actual problem with it, e.g. a non-trivial threat to the health* of the athlete (cf. excursion).

    *I have argued for even lesser restrictions in [1] (and I stand by that text), but such a reduction is unlikely to happen for the foreseeable future.

    Here, I cannot suppress the suspicion that various organizations are trying to enforce a particular way of life upon the athletes, which, then, shows a potential for disastrous developments, e.g. that athletes be forbidden from doing this, forced to do that, and maybe even coerced into holding or professing certain opinions to an even higher degree than today. (You drink alcohol or refuse to sign our “diversity and inclusion” statement? No Olympics for you!) Note that, even should this destructive and unfair road not be taken, the current situation shows the risk that it could be taken, which emphasizes the need for the equivalent of civil rights for athletes, that a “either you ‘voluntarily’ agree to this-and-that or you are not allowed to compete” must be reduced to a “this-and-that” which is reasonable and proportionate, that the presumption of innocence must hold, that the burden of proof must always be on the “prosecution”, etc.

    To make matters worse, there might be an additional lottery component, in that the currently claimed suspension of a mere 30 days would have allowed her to compete, had the time from the trials and/or* the date of her suspension to the Olympics been just a little longer.**

    *The sources that I have seen have not made a clear and informed statement about what the exact modalities are.

    **This with the additional uncertainty of whether she is not allowed to run because she will be suspended during the Olympics, or because her victory at the U.S. Olympic trials has been invalidated. However, if the latter, it again shows the problems associated with the idiotic only-three-athletes-per-country-rule. (Cf. [6].)

  2. Very recently, Christine Mboma ran a fabulous junior world record in the 400 meters, faster than all but six seniors in history, and sailed up as a very strong gold candidate in the Olympics. Now, she has withdrawn (or has been withdrawn) under mysterious circumstance, with speculation that she might exceed certain “legal” testosterone levels—with the apparent option that she might still run the 200 meters. Either she is a biological woman, who has not taken illegal drugs, but who might or might not be an extreme outlier* in some regard, and should then be allowed to compete in any women’s event; or she is not a biological woman and should not compete with women at all;** or she is a drug cheat and should not compete at all, with anyone.

    *If extreme outliers are banned, we would also have to ban athletes who, in some sense, are “too tall”, have “too many fast-twitch fibers”, or similar. There is nothing magical about testosterone. Also cf. [4] for a similar discussion around Caster Semenya.

    **While I have my mind on situations like the one that might have applied to Stella Walsh here, the general idea does apply to the recent phenomenon of gender transitioning. Note that a man who transitions to a woman might have a great number of advantages even after extensive operations and hormone treatments, including a greater height and more athletically suitable limb proportions, compared to e.g. a sister-born-as-a-woman.

  3. Just a little while earlier, Shelby Houlihan, who was at least a medal candidate for the Olympics, received a four-year ban and missed the U.S. Olympic trials for testing positive for nandrolone.

    Her explanation for this, that she had eaten a contaminated burrito bought from a food truck, has mostly been derided—and I am highly skeptical, myself. However, her explanation is not impossible, as such contamination is known to occur. In combination with the “strict liability” and “guilty until proved innocent” approach used today, athletes play the lottery every time that they eat food that has not been strictly controlled. This, of course, is not restricted to burritos from a food truck—even a high-end restaurant might, if with a lesser likelihood, be a source of problems. Consider, e.g. and to tie in with the first item, a disgruntled employee who takes his leave by the (in his eyes) mostly harmless prank of smuggling in some “funny” brownies among the regular ones. (What is the worst thing that could happen? That some stuck-up rich lady has a bit of fun? Oh, oops, someone just lost an Olympic gold, her reputation, and millions in lifetime earnings.)

    Similarly, there is a risk of deliberate sabotage from the competition or fans of the competition. (Consider e.g. more sophisticated versions of the Harding/Kerrigan situation and the stabbing of Monica Seles.)

    These are yet other signs that the impositions on the lives of the athletes are too large and that strict liability (etc.) is too unfair.

  4. There has been a number of new cases of “whereabouts” problems, as e.g. with Christian Coleman, where, as with Meraf Bahta (cf. [1], [2], [3]), the problem is not an actual drug finding, but a mere was-not-at-the-right-time-at-the-right-place.

    I grant that the excuses used by specifically by Coleman seem to have fallen apart;* however, the sum of the athletes hit or almost hit show that the system is too error prone. Note the earlier discussions of Bahta for more details.

    *He is likely the most famous of those fallen to this rule, however, and he was arguably the best sprinter in the world at the time.

In sum, I can only reiterate that the current system is unfair and disproportionate; puts an undue burden of knowledge, effort, and sacrifice on the athletes; is incompatible with the judicial norms applied in “real life”; and contains too large elements of chance.

Excursion on performance enhancers:
I occasionally see an automatic reaction of “enhances performance; ergo, must be banned”. However, there are many things that enhance performance without having any major side-effects and the use of which is often quite uncontroversial. Strictly speaking, this naive attitude would require that e.g. vitamin and mineral supplements be banned. Taking it to an extreme, we might even have to ban training … (Indeed, Olympic-level training can do more damage to the body than limited use of e.g. anabolic steroids.)

If we look at e.g. cannabis, some might want to argue that living as “cleanly” as possible is in the athletes best interest, but neither is that a given nor can perfection be demanded of athletes. Work–life balance applies to athletes just as it does to office workers. Maybe an occasional joint makes life a little easier, just as it does for some office workers,* which makes it easier to keep up with all the other sacrifices, which leads to better performance, etc.—while the relaxation might increase happiness in life. If in doubt, an athlete must not be obliged to sign away his life choices to a third party.

*I have, indeed, repeatedly played with the idea of using it myself, both as a way to relax and as a “mood smoothener”. So far, I have been deterred by the combination of the German ban, which is still in place, and claims of issues with memory retention and brain speed; however, I do not by any means rule out that I will use it in the future.

Even cigarettes, which are almost always a bad thing even for office workers, might have a limited place. At least historically, many high-jumpers have smoked in order to keep their weight down and their results up. For them, it is an indirect performance enhancer, and it is widely considered harmful to overall health. Should we then ban all athletes from smoking? If we do, then why not from dieting or having a too high or too low BMI? Why not from this and why not from that? The results would be (even more) preposterous, the regulations would be too complicated to keep up with, and the athlete’s lifestyle would be too ridiculously reduced relative non-athletes.

Excursion on (truly) illegal drugs and behaviors:
Note that a reasoning like e.g. “cannabis is illegal; ergo, it should be banned in sports; ergo, WADA (or whoever) should test and extend bans for it” is fundamentally flawed (even discounting differences in legality between jurisdictions). WADA is not a law-enforcement agency, and it should not meddle with law enforcement. It should not check for illegal-but-not-banned-in-sports drugs anymore than it should check the homes of the athletes for illegal firearms.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 2, 2021 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

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