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net.wars: Anything worth having is worth cheating for

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 28 September 2007


How can you tell if someone is lying? The American civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz said during the OJ Simpson trial that even though we all want to believe we can, most people can't. That, he said, is why we must always look at the evidence.

Wendy M Grossman

I was thinking about this last week, when the cyclist Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after an arbitration panel ruled two to one to uphold a two-year suspension after testing positive for synthetic testosterone. In his book, Positively False, Landis does a better job than you might expect of casting doubt on the test's validity. But the ritual public shaming will proceed unabated.

These morality plays cover no one with glory, least of all Dick Pound, the self-righteous, moralizing head of the World Anti-Doping Agency who sees all things in black and white.

Take, for example, his comment in the case of tennis player Mariano Puerta, the 2005 French Open finalist: ""You're dealing with somebody who's tested positive twice in less than two years and clearly doesn't think the rules apply to him."

Puerta's second positive test, which got him a two-year suspension and forfeiture of the money and ranking points he won at that French Open, was for traces of etilefrine so slight that the tribunal hearing the case agreed there was no performance-enhancing benefit he could have derived from it. The tribunal was slightly skeptical of Puerta's story, which was that etilefrine is a component of a medication his wife takes for low blood pressure and they must have switched glasses. But there was enough doubt to reduce his suspension from eight years to two.

Puerta's first positive test was for clenbuterol, administered for an asthma attack. The tribunal agreed that the only performance-enhancing benefit he derived from it was not being dead. Under the rules they had no choice but to suspend him. They made it as short and painless as possible, given the circumstances.

Pound's attitude does nothing to win hearts and minds.

There's no question that a lot of lethal stuff is going on: this week the Drug Enforcement Administration mounted a comprehensive steroids raid that shut down 26 underground labs, made more than 50 arrests, and identified major suppliers in China. Surely high-profile top athletes with million-dollar endorsements are not buying their steroids online via hot tips from strangers on MySpace. The military and police that Pound, in his book Inside Dope pegs as heavy users also surely have better sources. It's worse: these steroids are (or were) being sold over the Internet to amateur bodybuilders and high school kids.

But it is arguable that this underground distribution network is a logical by-product of the anti-doping empire that has been built up since Ben Johnson's 1988 disqualification from the Seoul Olympics, just as Prohibition created the Mafia in the form of friendly bootleggers. The steroid message boards now are filled with warnings not to buy anything for a while.

Landis has, I think legitimately, pointed out flaws in the anti-doping system as it's presently constituted. For one thing, its courts are not governed by the due process and civil liberties that normally apply. The testing regime is privacy-invasive: urine or blood samples may be demanded at any time, without notice, and a missed test is treated as a positive test. In the case of a positive test, athletes can only call on assistance from experts who are not part of the WADA system – which means almost all the experts on the subject. Finally, the system is set up to presume guilt.

Based on experience, that may seem reasonable.

There's no doubt cycling has a serious drug problem: Reading the former soigneur Willy Voet's 2000 Breaking the Chain is sufficient to show that. If you need more, read David Walsh's From Lance to Landis, Paul Kimmage's Rough Ride, or Werner Reiterer's Positive. Baseball player Jose Canseco's Juiced makes it clear that underneath many sports welcome the results. In baseball, club owners have shrunk the size of parks to increase the rate of home runs – more excitement, more paying fans. Steroids do this, too, by as much as 50 to 100 percent, according to this calculation.

Professionalism in sports has brought with it early entry, better training methods, and better nutrition, plus the freedom from other work that allows full-time effort. But American team sports like football, baseball, and hockey have been professional for a long time, and yet the change in body shapes in the last decade or two is striking.

Even so: in other areas of law enforcement it isn't enough to know someone is guilty, and the technicalities of how the law is applied do matter.

Every year WADA expands its reach, into new sports, into new tests, into new areas of sport, including amateur competitions. We are creating the framework for an international legal system in which any legal issues to do with an ever-changing list of drugs and doping techniques are controlled by a single non-democratic organisation with multinational government funding that makes and administers its own laws.

Is this what people mean by "clean sport"?


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).