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A Swede in Germany

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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

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Follow-up II: Further mistreatment of athletes / a call to revisit the illegality of large groups of drugs

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Almost a year ago, I wrote about long-distance runner Meraf Bahta and the controversy that ensued after she failed to use a tool for tracking her whereabouts correctly—with not one shred of evidence that she had actually taken illegal drugs… (Cf. [1], [2].)

In light of a recent conviction, an update on the case drawing on a Swedish source:

  1. Through the remainder of 2018, Bahta abstained from most competitions, including Finnkampen*. She did, however, set a new Swedish record for the 10 km road-race.

    *A Swedish–Finnish dual meet of great national prestige.

  2. January 4th, 2019, Bahta is originally cleared of the charges. She resumes competition and later improves upon the aforementioned record.
  3. June 24th: An appeal of the original verdict now sees Bahta convicted. (Further appeals are possible, so this need not be the last word.)

The above is extremely unfortunate on at least two counts: Firstly, in terms of e.g. planning and mental pressure, the impact on Bahta is much worse than if she had received a timely conviction shortly after the accusations arose, or if she had been convicted already in the first judgment. Considering the short careers of athletes, such proceeding must be sped up. In addition, some thought might be needed to reduce double jeopardy through appeals.* Secondly, the actual punishment seems like a half-baked attempt at punishing while not punishing: She received a (largely) retroactive suspension from September 1st, 2018, until August 31st, 2019. This conveniently implies that her medal (cf. [1]) from the European Championships remains and that she is allowed to compete in this years World Championships,** which take place exceptionally late in the year. Due to her reduced competition schedule, she loses little more than the aforementioned records—and records in road running are not that important to begin with.*** While I do find it fitting that previous damage is considered in the punishment, just like a convict in the regular courts will typically see “time served” subtracted from the punishment, this pushes the border. I come away with an impression that this was less of an attempt to find her guilty or not guilty and more an attempt to find a compromise acceptable to all parties.

*There are different jurisdictional takes on whether an appeal (absent e.g. new evidence) implies double jeopardy or a mere continuation of the same jeopardy. From the point of view of the accused, the difference is not always large. Here, a compromise might consist in requiring an appeal for an acquittal on the national level to be made on the international level. (Both “courts” involved here were Swedish.) This increases the security for the athlete while preventing cheating or careless countries from giving their athletes unfair acquittals that are both unappealing and unappealable.

**With reservations for her actually qualifying. Here the suspension at least reduces her chances. Going by Wikipedia, the deadline is “6 September 2019”, which would be narrow indeed. (The page also says “The qualification period for the 10,000 metres […] runs from 7 March 2018”, which might give her some leeway in that event. I have not investigated her previous results.) However, the fact that she still has an opportunity increases my suspicion of a “compromise punishment”—had the suspension been shifted by even one week…

***Reservation: I go only by what is mentioned in the source. There might be something unmentioned that she would consider significant, which I also missed in other news or have since forgotten.

As a special note: If the tracking failure had been in conjuncture with actual drug use, then the effects of this drug use would have manifested earlier than the time of suspension. In other words, if she were a true cheater, this verdict fails to give remedy to whomever missed a medal behind Bahta in the European Championships… Moreover, this could give incentives to true cheaters to try to use a similar trick—get to the championship with an unfair advantage and take a punishment for a lesser crime after the championship… A fairer solution, assuming that the offense is at all punishable,* would be to suspend her retroactively from the time of the offense or of the first competition after the offense (or similar).

*Note that I argue in [1] that things have gone too far and that the restrictions on the athletes are unconscionable. I stand by that text. I am especially skeptical to a one-year punishment for such a minor offense (except that the circumstances in this specific case make even one year fairly toothless).

Written by michaeleriksson

June 26, 2019 at 4:32 pm

More problems in sports: Faux-sexism accusations vs. real problem

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Over the weekend, I encountered two interesting and contrasting sports events—Serena Williams levying another sexism charge and track-and-field athletes encountering true problems. These form an interesting contrast.

Let us start with Williams:

Williams played the U.S. Open final against Naomi Osaka. She clearly lost the first set. At the beginning of the second set, she received illegal coaching—and, in accordance with the rules, was given a formal warning by the umpire.

This warning, in and by it self, had no practical effect, except through opening the door for further penalties. Still, Williams reacted very negatively, appearing to take the warning as a personal insult and arguing with the umpire—the odder, as her own involvement was not necessary for the accusation to hold.*

*The infraction actually being committed by her coach, with her as an intended beneficiary. Indeed, in my understanding, her coach has since explicitly admitted to the infraction… We can discuss whether such punishment of the player is fair (in general), but that is a different matter entirely—as is the question of whether coaching should be banned in the first place.

As the events continued to favor Osaka, Williams smashed her racket in anger—and was now, again in accordance with the rules, given a point deduction* for a second infraction. Even this point deduction likely had no effect on the outcome, however, seeing that Osaka was clearly playing better and proceeded to win the next three points after the deduction became effective. Without out it, she would have had a 40–0 lead and three game points; with it, she had the game.

*It might be more accurate to say that Osaka was awarded an extra point.

This ultimately resulted in Williams starting a major row and calling the umpire a “thief”… She, again in accordance with the rules, received further punishment. With this third infraction, she lost an entire game without play, allowing Osaka to secure the set and match two games later. Even this penalty, however, likely did not change the outcome of the match: In order for Williams to win (all other events equal, assuming no injuries, etc.), she would have had to actually take the game that was not played, win the rest of the set,*and proceed to win the third set. Assuming a rough probability of 1/2** for each of these three events, her chance at winning the match was 1/8.

*Assuming that she took the contested game, we probably would have had a 4–4 (instead of a 5–3). They each did win one of the two following games, leaving a counterfactual 5–5 (instead of 6–4) and no-one with a numerical advantage. I make some reservations for memory errors.

**Discounting the respective level of play and the server’s advantage, this would be true. However, the higher level of play of Osaka would have given her an advantage with all three, barring lack-of-experience issues. To boot, I believe that the contested game was in Osaka’s serve, giving her a natural additional advantage. All-in-all, an estimate of 1/2 is likely too kind to Williams.

Of course, there are the mental effects to consider, but the only infraction that was even disputable (cf. below) was the original warning—and someone with Williams’ experience should not have been thrown to such a degree by such a minor event. Indeed, my personal suspicion is that she was already out of balance due to losing badly, which gave the event more fertile ground than it otherwise would have. Still, this second set was “only” a 4–6 loss, while in the other three sets that they have played (at all?, this year?) Williams has done even worse—including the first set of this match. It might even be that Osaka was hurt more by the mental effects…

After this Williams raises accusations of sexism… To my understanding (which might be incorrect, considering the nonsensical nature of the accusation in context), she believes that she would not have received the original warning, had she been a man. However, even if we assume* this to be true, it would (a) not automatically be sexism (just a very mild form of sexual discrimination), (b) it would not have given her any disadvantage. To see the latter, note that she was playing another woman and that the main issue is to keep a level playing field between the actual competitors; that this was just a question of in-game opportunities (unlike e.g. issues of who receives what prize money); and that the difference caused is likely to have been very minor. To boot, if men and women were to play by exactly the same standards, her own career might have suffered—imagine playing her many majors under best-of-five instead of best-of-three, with the increased wear-and-tear, the greater disadvantage of carrying all that bulk, and the risk that someone else’s playing style would have been better suited.** Then again, even if the events had been motivated by sexism, she still only has herself (and her coach) to blame: Illegal coaching might often be tolerated, but it is still illegal. No-one forced*** her to smash her racket, and if she had not she would not have received that point deduction, even with the warning. No-one forced her to insult the umpire, and without doing so she would not have defaulted that game, even with the warning and the preceding point deduction.

*I am highly skeptical, but I cannot rule it out without having done considerably more research. Possibly, such warnings are given to men just as often as to women; possibly, Williams’ case was unusually blatant; possibly, Williams had a history of such problems making her risk of being warned higher; possibly, other aspects of her own behavior influenced the matter; possibly, it was more a matter of who the umpire was than what sex the players had; …

**It is also notable, if not relevant to the immediate topic, that Williams herself has received special treatments, including, over the last few months, artificial improvements to her seeding relative what applied to everyone else. Her success during this time period give these artificial improvements some justification, but others in a similar situation have (to my knowledge) not received them, and they are potentially contributors to this success—what if she had been up against Kerber in an earlier round of Wimbledon or Osaka in an earlier round of the U.S. Open?

***I am well aware of how anger can get past our deliberate control, and I am no position to throw the first stone. However, (a) the rules were the same for both her and Osaka, so she had no objective reason to be angry, (b) the ability to control anger is a part of the game, just like the ability to re-group after losing a tie-break, the ability to keep fighting when two sets and break down, and the ability to keep focused when winning easily.

On to track-and-field, specifically the IAAF Continental Cup, which gives yet another example of the incompetence and contempt for the athletes that the IAAF displays:

This event took place between four teams, roughly corresponding to continental groupings, with two competitors for each team in each discipline. Looking at e.g. the throws, the field was halved to include only the best competitor from each team after the first three throws. Then a one-throw (!) “semi-final” between the remaining four was held, discounting the old results. The a one-throw (!) final was held between the top two from the semi-final, again discounting the old results. The resulting list of positions and throws in the discus* was

*The situation is similar or even worse in the other throws. The discus was my point of entry, because one of the victims of this idiotic system was my compatriot Daniel Ståhl, who ended up fifth, despite having the third longest throw—and who might very well have won the competition, had the regular six-throw format been used. (He is the number one in both season’s best and personal best.)

Position Mark
1 67.97
2 63.99
3 66.95
4 63.49
5 64.84
6 63.49
7 54.03
8 27.15

Note how the third-placer actually had the second longest throw and would normally have come in second and how the fifth-placer had the third longest throw and would normally have been third—together bumping the second-placer down to fourth. Normally, the fourth and sixth-placers, both with a 63.49, would have been in the other order, seeing (cf. source) that the latter had the better second throw… This looking only at artificial re-orderings through the flawed system, and discounting the improvements through giving everyone a more equal* and fairer number of throws, which could have lead to a completely different order—especially with an eye on the cut based on best-of-team, instead of top-four. Indeed, the system is so absurd that when (“first three’, “semi-final”, “final”) a certain throw is made can have a great impact on the outcome—the (otherwise) exact same series of throws can lead to a radical different classification when in a different order. To boot, the ideal order of a given series will depend on how the other competitors throw…

*In most competitions, a group of eight would have been given six throws each. In a larger group, everyone would have received three throws and the top eight after these another three.

Another problem with this system, especially with the very chancy discus, is that the competitors have to find a middle-ground between throwing long and throwing safely in a manner that favors those who throw later. Consider the “final”: We now have two throwers, with one throw each. If the first thrower goes out too hard, he risks a foul; if to meekly, he risks giving up several meters of length. The second thrower can relax, look at what the first thrower achieved, and act accordingly—and this can range from just putting out an extreme 30m safety-throw to going all out in attempt at breaking 70m. The advantage of throwing last is enormous.

Someone might argue that this was a team competition and that the individual placings were secondary. However, even discounting the risk that these idiocies are later implemented in non-team competitions, there are similarly weird effects on the teams. Notably, a team can have the two best throwers and end up with places four and five instead of one and two,* and going better than one and five is impossible. This is particularly bad, as the same does not apply to e.g. the track events, skewing the relative benefit of having good athletes in various events. Notably, it can make sense for a team to let its weaker thrower tank the competition.** Notably, once in the semi-final, the situation is as bad for the teams as for the individual athletes.

*Scenario: These two are first and second after the first three rounds. The leader joins the four “semi-finalists”, the second-placer is relegated to fifth place as the “best of the rest”. The leader does not get a valid throw in the semi-final, while the other three do; and is thereby relegated to place four. Note that this would apply even if the two went well over 70m on each of the first three throws and no-one else broke 60m during the entire competition.

**Scenario: The team has throwers with season’s bests of 70m resp. 65m, while all members of the other teams have a season’s best between these marks. The first round sees a foul from the former and a 63m by the latter, while all competitors land between 65m and 70m. The second round starts with a foul from the former, leaving him with one attempt to get a valid mark. As it would, with minor reservations for details, be better to have the 70m-thrower in the semi-final, the best strategy now is for the 65m-thrower to deliberately tank his second and third throws, so that the 70m-thrower can put a safety throw beyond 63m. If this succeeds, the better thrower is in the semi-final; if it fails, little harm is done. (On the outside, the 65m-thrower misses a chance to move past the lesser three members of the other teams; however, needing a new season’s best to do so, his chances would have been very poor to begin with.)

Written by michaeleriksson

September 10, 2018 at 10:03 pm

Follow-up: Further mistreatment of athletes / a call to revisit the illegality of large groups of drugs

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As a brief follow-up to a recent text around doping in sports:

Further controversy around the Meraf Bahta issue was caused by the Swedish federation allowing her to compete in the (just concluded) European Championships, under the assumption that she, possibly excepting incompetence, had done nothing wrong and had not* gained any artificial advantage.

*While someone who unknowingly uses some form of illegal drug can still have a such an advantage.

Through the course of the Championships, she won (with reservations for the ongoing disputes around her status) a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters, and chose to forego the 5,000 meters (and a presumed greater medal opportunity) based on the controversy, personal pressure, or whatnot.

In this situation, the sport and/or some individuals will lose, irrespective of what the eventual outcome of the investigations are:

Either Bahta is cleared, has lost her 5,000 meters chances for nothing, and the medals of that event have been devalued through the absence of one of the medal favorites; or she is suspended after the fact, and then the 10,000 meters has to be re-ordered, with a new Bronze medalist (who lost early positive publicity and whatnot), and the remaining risk that the results would have been different in other regards without Bahta (e.g. through changes to race tactics or coincidences).

I still, broadly speaking, support the Swedish federation, seeing that depriving Bahta of the chance to compete entirely would have been a greater injustice towards her. To boot if she eventually is cleared, we would now have two devalued events instead of one.

Instead, I see this a further indication that my general proposition (that the overall stance on doping in athletics should be changed) is the way to go.

(However, there might be other ways to at least reduce the secondary problems, e.g. in that there are internationally clear rules that an athlete is allowed to compete and gain preliminary results while investigations are pending—with no room for national decision making, criticism of the involved, or other possible sources of controversy. Alternatively, but less fairly, that such competition is forbidden by internationally clear rules.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 12, 2018 at 11:24 pm

Me too five: Swedish Track-and-Field

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During the “me too” campaign, Swedish Track-and-Field hit the spotlight after Moa Hjelmer*, former European Champion, claimed** to have been raped. An investigation into sexual and physical abuse in the area of Track-and-Field was launched, and a report published.

*I have no idea whether she is included among the survey respondents (see below).

**To preempt outbursts from an irrational reader: I have no deeper knowledge of the matter, and neither deny nor confirm the event. However, experience shows that it is very important to approach matters relating to rape, sexual abuse, child abuse, …, agnostically and to use agnostic formulations until considerable proof is present.

At the time, I downloaded the report, fully intending to give it a thorough read and, if needed, comment upon it—but put this off again and again, expecting it to contain dozens upon dozens of pages. It does not…

It has a whopping four (4!) pages and a cover, most of the contents amounting to “look how seriously we take this”.

Looking into what is said about the investigation, I find:

  1. A survey had been sent to 404 Swedish athletes, of which 192 had actually answered.* The survey included both men and women, but neither their absolute numbers nor their proportions are mentioned.**

    *Note, below, that the low answer rate could imply that the percentages claimed in the report could be exaggerated by as much as a factor two for the overall survey addressees, seeing that those who have been victims tend to be disproportionately likely to answer.

    **Some speculation might be possible based on answer rates (or other numbers); however, the claim that 48 % of everyone, 53 % of women, and 48 % of men had answered makes this tricky: Either the rates are misreported or the proportion of male addressees must have been considerably higher than for female addressees. That 192 / 404 is roughly 47.5 % (48 % only with maximal rounding) makes the combination even less plausible.

    The athletes have been pre-filtered with the constraint that they were active in the Track-and-Field national team at some point in the range 2011–2017. While this ensures some degree of currency (and is generally not unreasonable), it could skew the overall results by including many events too far back to describe the current situation—e.g. that someone did a last tour in 2011, at age 35, and describes an event that took place when 15, i.e. around 1991. Here it might have been helpful to include some younger athletes without previous national-team experience and/or to restrict the survey to e.g. events during the last ten years. (Note that at least the “physical abuse” part below appears to be dominated by experiences pre-adulthood.) With regard to an athlete’s younger years, it should also be noted that Swedish Track-and-Field has seen a number of “imports” and that their prior experiences could skew the situation further.

  2. The survey uses the following definitions:

    Sexual abuse (“sexuella övergrepp”): Exposure* to some of the following against own will** (“Utsatthet för något av följande mot egen vilja”):

    *The Swedish original uses a very awkward wording, which is actually only partially reflected in the awkward translation. “Utsatthet” usually refers to a more persistent state and often has further going connotations of e.g. lack of protection than would be expected in this context. (In contrast, a formulation like “att bli utsatt för”/“to be exposed to” would have been more reasonable.)

    **It is not clear from context whether this is restricted to non-consensual activities or whether voluntary-but-reluctant activities are included—be it with regard to the intention of the survey makers or the reading by the survey takers. In another context, I might have given the former interpretation a nod, but in light of the common malpractice of including exactly voluntary-but-reluctant activities into abuse, or even rape, I urge caution. (Also note the absence of references to force and threats.) Similarly, it is not clear how e.g. welcome actions that took place without prior or implied consent are to be handled. No word is said about reasonable expectations of the other party (e.g. when two sexual partners are in bed together and the one makes a grab for the others genitals; cf. the first sub-item).

    • someone has touched your genitals* (“någon har berört dina könsdelar”)

      *It is not clear whether the genitals had to be naked, whether accidental touching is included, and whether non-sexual contacts are included (for instance, should it be considered sexual or physical abuse when someone is kicked in the groin?). An additional danger is that some might misinterpret this to include e.g. breasts or buttocks—a more explicit formulation would have been beneficial.

    • you have masturbated for* someone (“du har onanerat åt någon”)

      *The use of “for” preserves an ambiguity in whether the sense goes in the direction of “giving a hand-job” or “giving a show”. Unlike “to masturbate”, “att onanera” would imply a self-pleasing act (i.e. “giving a show”); however, “åt” points in the other direction (as does the general context).

    • you have had vaginal intercourse (“du har haft vaginalt samlag”)
    • you have had oral sex (“du har haft oralsex”)
    • you have had anal sex (“du har haft analsex”)

    (In the three last items, there is no specification of whether as “top” and/or “bottom”. Both could be intended or the survey could be skewed to exclude many abuses of men, which would not be unprecedented.)

    Physical abuse (“Fysiska övergrepp”): Exposure* to some of the following against own will** (“Utsatthet för något av följande mot egen vilja”):

    *The same remarks as for sexual abuse apply.

    **Somewhat similar remarks as for sexual abuse apply. Consider e.g. someone who gets into a fight with the intent of hurting someone else and is willing to pay the price of some reciprocal damage—but would prefer not to. The practice of hazing poses another problem: While some hazing is entirely involuntary, even physical abuse can occur on a voluntary-but-reluctant basis in other cases.

    • hit her/him* with the hands (“slog till henne/honom med händerna”)

      *Why the perspective has been changed from the first to the third person is unclear. The order of the pronouns is interesting, however, seeing that men are more likely to be victims (both a priori and in light of the actual survey results).

    • kicked, bit, or beat her/him with fists* (“sparkade, bet eller slog henne/honom med knytnävarna”)

      *Attacks like kneeing appear to be excluded. Why this and the above item is divided is unclear; one possibility is that the above item is intended for slapping and poorly formulated.

    • hit her/him with an object* (“slog henne/honom med tillhygge”)

      *“Tillhygge” has no obvious English translation, but would, at least in this context, likely imply any “wielded” object.

    • burned or scalded her/him (“brände eller skållade henne/honom”)
    • tried to suffocate her/him (strangulated*) (“försökte kväva henne/honom (tog struptag)”)

      *It is not clear whether this is an illustration, a clarification, or a restriction. My translation is simultaneously wider and narrower than the original: The original is restricted to using hands, but need not include actual or prolonged strangulation or choking. In both languages some ambiguity as to eventual intent could be present—are we talking e.g. pain, unconsciousness, or death.

    • Attacked her/him physically in another manner* (“angrep henne/honom fysiskt på annat sätt”)

      *This claim is so vague that it invalidates the earlier attempt to restrict, enumerate, whatnot. Either this should have been the whole or it should not have been present at all. I note that e.g. that the common Swedish practice of throwing a team captain into the water-grave for the steeple-chase upon victory could be construed to be included…

    The definitions suffer from a vagueness and completeness problem, and there is no discrimination concerning e.g. severity or who started what. (For instance, if a man jokingly and lightly beats a woman with a rolled up news paper and she retaliates by beating him senseless with a discus, it counts the same.) There is also no information on context (including age of the involved, previous provocation, whether the intent was to protect someone else or to apply discipline, whatnot). A deeper analysis might show further problems*. The definitions are certainly not the conscientious work of a competent scientist.

    *Indeed, I found myself adding new objections every time I read through the lists…

    (I make the reservation that the actual survey might have contained additional clarification. However, it is the responsibility of the report makers to include sufficient context for a reasonable interpretation.)

    Not including a section on emotional violence (and similar types of behavior) seems like a missed opportunity, but is not strictly speaking an error. (And emotional violence has a far greater subjectivity.) I would have let it go unmentioned, except for speculation about mobbing (cf. below) as a motivation for the physical violence, with mobbing usually being more non-physical than physical.

  3. Almost 12 % claimed to have been sexually abused, by the above definitions, independent of a Track-and-Field context. Considering the great vagueness of the overall formulation and the first sub-item of the definition, this number is nothing remarkable and could possibly largely arise even from a significant portion of the survey takers going with a wide interpretation. For instance, more-or-less everyone has at some point had voluntary-but-reluctant sex—and if only 12 % chose a “feminist” interpretation, the entire number is explained in one go.*

    *Note that I am not saying that this was the case—I merely point to the resulting low informative power of the reported number, as well as a fairly wide range of numbers around it, had they occurred instead.

  4. A whopping five (5!) survey takers (or 2.6 %) claim to have been sexually abused in a Track-and-Field context. Of these, two were drunk* and none claims to have talked to the authorities**.*** No statement was made as to which item of the definitions applied—are we talking groping or all-out rape? No statement was made as to the sex of the individuals.

    *Which (a) shows that “Track-and-Field context” (“friidrottssammanhang”) is given a very wide meaning, (b) implies that there is a fair chance that the other party was drunk too, (c) opens the door to the perpetrator being someone from “outside” (e.g. in that a group of team-members went to a party open to non-athletes/non-trainers/non-whatnots, one of which performed the abuse).

    **Which is at least an indication (but not proof) that the events were of a less severe nature. However, possibly indicating severity in two (!) cases: “Shy of half of the exposed claim that the abuse had consequences for their athletic activities; less energy to train, avoided some training elements and worse results during competition”. (“Knappt hälften av de utsatta uppger att övergreppet inneburit följder för friidrottandet; mindre energi att träna, undvikit vissa moment i träningen och sämre resultat på tävling.”) Then again, looking at the original storm, I suspect that much of it was directed at the fear of exactly such cases—and of 404 survey takers and 192 respondents, there were … two.

    ***The report makes several other subdivisions, which, however, are entirely pointless with so small numbers—40 % this, 60 % that, … Also see the “half” in the preceding footnote: Slightly less than half of five persons, implies two persons—why then not just say “two”?!?! The reason is likely that “half” sounds much better… (Or, depending on who is behind the survey, it opens the possibility for a Woozle after dropping context—“in a survey given to 404 athletes, half said that sexual abuse had negatively impacted their training or competing”, which would imply exactly the type of problem scale that the report thoroughly refutes…)

  5. The reporting on physical abuse is confused, but it appears that 8 % of the women and 13 % of the men have been “abused”* by an adult, most usually the father or a teacher, which in the overall context** gives me the impression of disciplinary or order-restoring action, e.g. that someone acted out as a child and received a slap or was forcefully brought to his room.***

    *As will be seen, I have great doubts that the majority of these cases refer to true abuse (but some of them might).

    **Including the above discussion of the definition and the considerably higher rate among male survey takers.

    ***In all fairness, even some such actions could be illegal by Swedish law—but that does not automatically make them abuse or “wrong” in a sense that matters (e.g. by causing lasting physical or emotional pain). We would have to look at the individual cases in detail to determine that.

    44 % of the men and 18 % of the women claim to have been “abused” by a minor, which “could also be interpreted as an indication of mobbing” (“kan även tolkas som indikation för mobbing.”). Yes, it could: It could also be a sign that some kids occasionally got into a fight… (Note the far higher number for the men.)

    Unfortunately, only the age categorization of the “abuser” is mentioned—not of the “victim”. To boot, the “minor” category would need a better subdivision, e.g. to differ between those who might have been in a fight (or mobbing incident, or whatnot) at ages 5, 10, and 17.

    Unlike with sexual abuse, there is no mention of whether a Track-and-Field context was involved in any given case.

All in all: In as far as a problem exists, it is basically unrelated to Track-and-Field, and the Track-and-Field related part of the “me too” storm has obviously taken place in a tea-cup.

Excursion on whom to blame for the report:
In situations like these, it is often hard to tell whether the authors of the report, the survey makers, or other parties yet, are to blame for any specific short-coming. I make no such assignment of individual blame—but I do note that the end result is a complete fiasco not worthy to be considered science.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 12, 2018 at 6:55 am

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.


[…] 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.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 28, 2018 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Usain Bolt and his place in history

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Yesterday, Usain Bolt had his last major competion. Predictably, even in light of mere bronze, there were many superlative statements made, many naming him the greatest sprinter of all time or even greatest (track-and-field) athlete of all time.

Depending on the exact claim, I am not certain that I agree, the main obstacle being Carl Lewis and the problems of making comparisons with earlier generations: Many greats of old competed in one Olympics and then retired to actually make a living, and world championships are a comparatively recent innovation*: What would e.g. Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, or Tommie Smith have done had they had the realistic opportunity for a longer, professional career? (And what times could they have run on modern tracks?) Looking at athletics in general, many of the greats simply had no realistic opportunity to “double”, making comparisons in e.g. golds or number of world records misleading: For e.g. Al Oerter, Sergey Bubka, Viktor Saneyev, Jan Zelezny, …, to win even a single major gold in a second discipline would have been more impressive than Bolt winning a handful. Similarly, Michael Johnson’s 200m/400m career is likely worth more than a mere medal comparison would indicate.

*First held in 1983 and then at distances of four years until 1991/1993. Bolt has had them two years apart through his entire career. Carl Lewis, e.g., missed out on the opportunities in 1981, 1985, and 1989—where he would have been a clear favourite in both the long jump and the 100m. To boot, other athletes, including Lewis and Owens, have missed potential Olympics due to boycots or wars; Owens 1940 off his 1936 could conceivably have replicated Lewis’ 1988 off his 1984; Lewis would have been a very strong medal candidate and at least a weak gold candidate in the 1980 long jump.

Certainly, I would still view Carl Lewis as the greatest overall. His dominance in the long jump was immense, with one of the longest unbeaten streaks of all times and events, four Olympic golds (and gold/gold/silver at four-year-apart world championships), and a revolution of the non-altitude* world record. He did to the world record what Bubka did in the pole vault; to the medal record what Oerter did in the discus throw. Even without his additional sprinting efforts, the choice between Lewis and Bolt would be tricky; with them, it should be a no-brainer for Lewis.

*Unfortunately, the effects of altitude on results was realized too late; and where there is a limit on how much tail wind is allowed for a record to be valid, there is no such limit on altitude. This severely distorts the official record histories and those in the know prefer to look at non-altitude records. Lewis had to compete with high-altitude records in all three events, including Bob Beamon’s monstrous 8.90—which also has been questioned as potentially aided by an illegal amount of wind and a faulty wind reading. Lewis took the non-altitude record from 8.54 (Dombrowski) to 8.79 (and with an additional 8.87 in the same competion that Mike Powell set the current 8.95)—an improvement by almost 3 % or, correspondingly, almost 3 tenths in the 100m/6 tenths in the 200m. (I have not been able to find a list of non-altitude records on short notice. The numbers are taken from http://www.alltime-athletics.com/mlongok.htm, which has an exhaustive list with altitude indicators.)

Looking at greatest sprinter, I too would likely favour Bolt, but it is not as clear cut as some seem to see it. Apart from what has been already mentioned, we have to keep in mind that the 100m/200m combination, with the possible exception of 5000m/10000m, is the easiest around. Virtual any top 100m-sprinter has also been a top 200m-sprinter, although some have chosen to only rarely run the 200m. (Say to maximize their chances in the more prestiguous 100m; or to avoid an “embarassing” bronze medal in the 200m.) Indeed, the comparison with Carl Lewis is made harder because he deliberate skipped the 200m at world championships where he did win the 100m (and scored gold/gold/silver in the long jump). Looking at times*, (non-altitude) world records, and superiority, Lewis actual fares quite well in the comparison even in the 200m**; and arguably has an edge in the 100m**. The main argument in favour of Bolt over Lewis is the latters “weak” record in the 200m, with just an Olympic gold/silver—but since Lewis had less opportunities to build his record, this partially amounts to whether ability or accomplishment is prioritized in the comparison.

*Comparing times directly, as in Bolt ran X/Lewis Y is of limited benefit, due to e.g. changes in tracks. Instead we have to look at times in their historical perspective.

**I looked into the numbers a few weeks ago, but did not take notes (not having an intention to write anything at the time).

As for the 100m, Lewis took five out of five possible golds in the nine year span from 1983 to 1991 (two Olympic, three WC). With a different schedule, this could* have been eight out of eight (WCs in 1981, 1985, 1989; eleven year span). According to Wikipedia Bolt has a total of six out of seven (one miss!) in the nine year span from 2008 to 2016. Bear in mind that Lewis did this while also doing the long jump on all occasions and the 200m on at least two; Bolt also had a second event, the 200m, but never a third and the 200m is easier to combine with the 100m. Lewis improved the non-altitude world record more often, including the first 10.00 in history, and by roughly the same overall amount; Bolt has a larger difference down to the second best. Their respective greatest winning margin in a major championship (in my recollection) was identical. In my book, this is a narrow victory for Lewis; on the outside a tie.

*Note that I am not saying “would”. While he would have been the favorite, there are no guarantees, he could have gotten injured, had an off year, lost motivation with the more intense schedule, …

As an aside, Bolt’s winning record could conceivably have been a fair bit weaker, had Gatlin and Gay not suffered doping suspensions; but Lewis’ would have been weaker (in the 100m) had Ben Johnson not been caught.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm