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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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COVID-19 reactions doing more harm than good?

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Occasionally, I encounter threats (or even “threats”*) where the counter-measures, on the balance, do more harm than good. A prime example is nuclear power, where the extreme “anti” stances have left us with a very considerable increase of damage both to the environment and to human lives, because the energy not coming from nuclear power has to a large part come from fossil fuels.

*Depending on how lose criteria are used, the list could be made very long, including a great many of the things politicians do. However, also see an excursion at the end.

The current COVID-19 epidemic might well be another example. Obviously, no discussion, the death of a few* percent of the world’s population would be a great disaster, worthy of very far-going counter-measures. However, the current death-toll is in the thousands (!) and the clear majority is still in China, with e.g. Germany having 11 and Sweden 2 deaths.** Despite this, we have schools being closed, air flights and sports seasons being canceled, some shortages appearing, the stock exchanges crashing, news reporting on other topics being neglected, … Then there is the impediment to economic growth.

*There appears to be a great uncertainty around the actual death rate, but the numbers that I have seen so far have typically been 2.x or 3.x percent of the infected.

**Data from Wikipedia on the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic in version 945690424.

Are the counter-measures and reactions truly in proportion to the threat—or would lesser or alternate counter-measures, doing less damage, be better? Moreover, if we react this way to one epidemic, what will happen when the next one comes around? (Especially, if we are taught to react with panic.) From another perspective: what about all the other dangers that costs so many more lives per year at the moment—and does so year in and year out?* A chain-smoker, e.g., would be a fool to fear the current epidemic while continuing his smoking habits. Averaging** over a life-time, the risk of death is already above one percent per year, which is the same order as COVID-19 among those infected (and currently much lower when we look at the overall populations).

*Here a very wide range of issues can come into play, natural, societal, and individual. Consider, e.g. and respectively, deaths through extreme floods and droughts, deaths through air pollution and traffic accidents, and deaths through smoking and poor diet.

**The risk is obviously very different at e.g. 20 and 80, but this applies equally to those infected, in that the chance of surviving at 20 is much higher than at 80. Exactly how the distributions compare is beyond my knowledge; however, having the first approximation be the same in both cases does not seem unreasonable. Of course, the reduced risk of death at younger ages is also something to consider when looking at e.g. the risk of visiting a sports event below.

Consider, for a more specific illustration, sports: The current attitude seems to be that all events and seasons must be canceled immediately (or, on the outside, be postponed)—and anyone who is not in favor of this is a cold-hearted villain, prioritizing money over human lives. However, there are other alternatives, including a more controlled reduction that still allows a fair choice of e.g. league champions, reductions of the number of visitors* to reduce the risks, moving the events from a “live audience” to a pay-per-view one, and likely quite a few others. Especially, if we do not take any specific counter-measures, then any risk will typically be on the individuals own head, in that no-one actually forces him to e.g. go to a soccer game—he can go or not go as he sees fit.** A significantly increased risk for players need not be present either: have them travel by private bus or plane and reduce the contact with fans (e.g. by keeping physical buffer zones between the two groups). This assuming, of course, that there is a risk of infection to begin with, which might or might not be the case in any given country at any given time.

*Cf. excursion. Note that this could go hand-in-hand with a price hike, partially neutralizing the loss of revenue, because a smaller supply allows for higher prices for the wealthier or more hard-core fans.

**In a twist, this might well be why the cold-hearted villains are in favor of termination—with the season terminated, there is no risk of losing money on events with too few paying customers.

Excursion on non-lethal outcomes:
Obviously, even a non-lethal infection is not be to be trifled with, as this is a severe disease for the patient and an extra burden on hospitals. However, the same line of argumentation holds even if we look at COVID-19 infections in general, especially as many are low on symptoms. For instance, consider the negative health consequences on the patient and the burden on the health-care system from chain smoking.

Excursion on size of gathering:
The size of a gathering plays in two-fold: The more people are present, the greater the risk that someone will carry the infection; and the more people are present, the greater the number of people at risk. (Where the latter effect grows through the risk that the personal closeness increases with the size of the crowd, but shrinks through limits on how many others that any given person can infect, by e.g. distances involved.) Not having a giant stadium filled to the last seat might make great sense even if the risk of infection is low—but does the same apply to the same stadium with e.g. only one seat in ten occupied? Does it apply to a class room with two dozen children, or even a school with a few hundred children? Only for a considerable larger risk of infection.

Excursion on a flawed attitude towards sports:
Obviously, here we see another issue that I have complained about in the past: a faulty prioritization of athlete vs. audience, athlete vs. sports organization, winning and/or competing vs. earning money, etc. If what truly counted was the sport and the competition, then the various leagues and championships would still take place even if there was no audience of any kind.

Excursion on threats that disappeared:
There have been quite a few cases of apparent threats that proved far less harmful than originally claimed. To automatically classify these as misunderstood non-threats or “threats” might go too far, however: it might be that the threat was overstated to begin with; it might be that the counter-measure taken are what neutralized the threat; it might be some combination of the two. AIDS, e.g., was painted as doomsday disease when I first encountered reporting in the early or mid 1980s. The actual spread and damage done was far smaller, but this reporting very likely led to more cautious sexual habits. What would have happened without this change of habits? (Similarly, if COVID-19 were to silently disappear over the next few weeks, this would not automatically imply that the threat was overrated.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 15, 2020 at 7:56 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

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

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

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Examples of simplistic reasoning (and Sjöström rocks)

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Over the last week, a complete fiasco for my fellow Swedes at the ice-hockey world-championships was ameliorated by the continued swimming success of Sarah Sjöström—arguably, the greatest swimmer Sweden has ever produced.

One article even speculates that she could be the first woman to break 55 seconds in the 100m butterfly, first accomplished among the men by Mark Spitz in 1972. “If that summer back in 1972 you’d have suggested a woman could match him, Spitz might have been forgiven for laughing. After all, the ladies had just celebrated their first moment inside 1min 04.”

So far, so good. However, this reminded me of two border-line ridiculous lines of reasoning that I have encountered in the past, and that provide good illustrations of why simplistic reasoning and lack of critical thinking is a danger. See e.g. a previous post on science and reason, my website category on thinking, or any number of my posts on feminism or the politically correct. The world would look rather different from what it does, were the ability and willingness to actually think common.

Firstly, extrapolation that women are/were over-taking men in long-distance running*: In, I believe, the early 1990s**, I read a news-paper article that noted how the world records of women were improving much faster than those of men and how women were bound to move ahead within some years or decades. I looked at the accompanying graphic—and saw, immediately, from the graphic it self, with no additional thinking or background information needed, that women allegedly were over-taking men at an earlier time, sometimes noticeably so, the later they had taken up a particular distance. A journalist or scientist*** comes to and publishes a conclusion that is so obviously flawed that a teenager immediately saw that it was flawed!

*Note very carefully: The notion that women could over-take men is not the problem. There can even be a few good arguments raised, e.g. regarding fat reserves or average weight, which would make this plausible a priori. The problem is the simplistic (not to say “simpleton-istic”…) reasoning used. Being right for the wrong reason is often as bad as being wrong.

**At any rate, with several repetitions over the years, until it became obvious that the idea did not pan out.

***It is always hard to tell whether a case of “bad science” reported in popular journalism is bad because of the scientists or because the journalist distorted the claims. Considering the extreme incompetence of the average journalist, I would tend to give the scientists the benefit of the doubt—but there are also plenty of bad scientists out there, especially in the softer sciences.

The problem here is obvious: The newer a discipline is, the lower the standard tends to be, and the record development correspondingly faster. Consider e.g. “the female Bubka”: I heard this epithet applied to at least three different women (Emma George, Stacy Dragila, Yelena Isinbayeva) in the space of likely less than ten years. George (as the first) is by now a nobody on the all-time lists; Dragila is still very good, but not really remarkable, with several women a year jumping on a comparable level; and Isinbayeva lost her indoor world-record earlier than Bubka lost his—but with him setting his far earlier. To make matters worse, George was by no means the first woman to break the world record at a Bubka-esque frequency—just the first to make headlines in Sweden.

In addition, new events often have a certain “hipness” or can be attractive through being new, the greater ease that athletes have at reaching the top, etc., which can also contribute to the faster record development.

Only after an event has reached a certain degree of maturity are extrapolations like in that idiotic article sensible—or the extrapolation has to be done in a far more sophisticated (and still error prone) manner to compensate for the relative youth of an event

In effect, this was a comparison of apples and oranges. History has proved the prediction utterly wrong—but even if the prediction had turned out to be true, the reasoning behind it would have remained so flawed that the scientists (or journalist) might just as well have been tossing coins.

Secondly, an almost derisive article by Douglas Hofstadter*, who claimed (likely correctly) that the female swimmers of some college or high-school matched the times of their male counter-parts just a few decades earlier.** He now concluded that if women could match men physically after so short a time span—how ridiculous would it then be to even contemplate that there was a mental difference worthy of mention***.

*His book “Gödel, Escher, Bach” impressed me immensely as a teenager and I would long have considered such nonsensically reasoning unlikely from him. However, what I have read by him since has impressed me less—as has “Gödel, Escher, Bach” in each subsequent reading (possibly five by now). Remove the funny stories, the dumbing-down, and the “pedagogical scaffolding”, then what remains could be abbreviated into a fraction of the book’s actual length and remains solidly in the undergraduate, usually freshman, curriculum. While it remains a strong accomplishment, those of Gödel (and, in their own ways, Escher and Bach) utterly dwarf Hofstadter’s, and I have come to see him more and more as a self-promoter, possibly even a pseudo-intellectual, than a true thinker.

**I do not recall the exact years and circumstance, but it might have been the early 1980s vs. the early 1960s. Beware that my analysis below can conceivably be off in detail too, seeing that I read this article more than ten years ago.

***As above, the problem is not the claim it self but the reasoning behind the claim. (However, it is no secret that I argue both for the existence of differences in mentality and distribution of abilities, as well as a clear tendency for men to do better in almost any area when we look at “the best of the best” and, likely, the average individual or the group aggregate due to biological factors. Not, however, automatically any individual man compared to any individual woman, due to large individual variations—a point that the politically correct appear to be utterly unable to comprehend.)

There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning, including:

  1. Comparing results from two groups so limited in size is misleading. In order to make a reasonable comparison, the groups have to be so large that the effect of individual variation does not hide the group characteristics. If in doubt, the best women in virtually any sport will be better than a very clear majority of all men in the general population and than most hobby and amateur players; for some sports they might even be better than most professional men.
  2. Comparing using such a limited measure is misleading. It could simply have been that women were naturally better* at swimming (e.g. through having a better buoyancy), but that this fact was hidden in the past due to lower participation numbers—and that they would still have lost out in other physical areas, e.g. power lifting.

    *While men have many physical advantages and are naturally better at the vast majority, possibly all, common sports of today, it would be naive to assume that they are naturally better at any and all conceivable sports: A prime Michael Jordan would have beaten most grown men in most sports—but would have had his ass handed to him by many children in a limbo contest.

  3. Even if we accept the premise that women were equally good swimmers as men (or better power lifters, for all I care ) once equal opportunity was given (or some other change of a similar character), it does not follow that they would be equal in other regards that have little or no connection to the ability to swim. In contrast, if women were as good chess players* as men, the case would have been far, far less weak (but by no means conclusive: Chess is more relevant, but still only covers a small area of all what would need to be covered).

    *From what I have seen so far, they are not even close: The famed Judith Polgar topped out at number 8 on the world ranking and the current female number one ranks as number 73 (at the time of writing, according to the given link). I have heard the claim that female success would be proportionate to their participation and, therefore, the difference is not biological. This too is an example of flawed and simplistic reasoning, although more subtly so than the above examples, because it assumes that the difference in participation is not based in biology; however, both different preferences (e.g. a greater interest in games that require thinking or a greater competitiveness) and different abilities (we tend to enjoy doing things that we are good at; too poor players might not had the opportunity to play in the long-term) contribute to the degree of participation and both are likely to have a strong biological aspect. By analogy, if we find that the success of NBA players of various heights match the expectation based on their proportion of the overall number of players, we cannot conclude that height is irrelevant to success in basket ball.

  4. The circumstances of athletes and within sports change over time and these changes must be considered before comparing different times. Swimming, in particular, appears to be very strongly influenced by issues like bathing suits and pool construction. Other factors include understanding of training methods and diet, level of competition (if someone wins in weak competition (s)he will lack the incentive to train harder of someone who narrowly looses), state of technique*, and, sadly, what drugs are available.

    *With the four established swimming techniques and their separation into different events, there is less revolutionary change and more improvement in detail, but even such detail can make a tremendous difference in the end. Sjöström, e.g., is known for her exquisite technique. In other sports, however, game altering changes have taken place, including in the high jump, shot put, cross-country skiing, and ski jump.

  5. If the women had caught up not only with the men of “yore”, but also with their contemporaries, this would have been far more impressive and had supported the claim less weakly. They had not… Correspondingly, it is unlikely that the times posted by these women were a sign of a removed difference in opportunity—but rather a result of factors like the above.

    For a further comparison with Sjöström, let us look at the world-record progression according to Wikipedia:

    Sjöström’s current 55.64 is roughly equal to Spitz’ 55.7* from 1967. The women’s world record in 1967 was 1:04.5 or 15.8** % slower. The current men’s world record is at 49.82, making Sjöström 11.7 % slower. Not only is the gap still very large, but it has not diminished by very much, when considering the aforementioned arguments about the age of an event. The 1980 world records actually differed by noticeably less with 9.4 %.***

    *Presumably, timing was in tenths of a second back then. Additional differences might exist, notably with regard to hand timing vs. automatic timing.

    **With the potential flaws in the measurements, 15–16 % might be a better statement, but let us keep it simple for now.

    ***1980 was picked as a round number when women’s swimming might have had a reasonable time to mature, in order to have an additional comparison. Going to 1981, the difference is far smaller yet, due to an extreme outlier. The presence of such outliers make a comparison with e.g. the tenth best time of the year more sensible—but I simply do not have the time to do the leg work. Even 1980 might be somewhat misleading due to PED issues, which tend to affect women more strongly, or the systematic selection programs of the GDR, which had dominated the 1970s. (However, the 1980 world-record holder, Mary T. Meagher, was from the U.S.) On the other hand, the current men’s recording might be misleading too, due to now banned swimming suits. The point remains: Differences might be smaller or larger than in the past, but they are still far too large to claim that women would have caught up with men in swimming; which kills Hofstadter’s premise.

And, no, as much as I enjoy her success, the claim that Sjöström’s times “match” those of Spitz is, at best, misleading: For the reasons discussed above, comparing their times is another case of comparing apples and oranges. (Not to mention that she still is far from Spitz’ career best.) The same is not unlikely to apply to the students of Hofstadter’s example.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 22, 2016 at 5:58 pm