Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Are the Olympics for real?

There may be some rain (and doping) scheduled for this year’s Olympic parade, writes Nick van der Leek

So the countdown continues to the opening ceremony at 8 minutes past 8, on the 8th of the 8th, 2008.  Even the Chinese are resorting to luck to guard against air pollution, terrorism and other possible nuisances. 

45 athletes from 11 countries have already been ruled out of this year’s Olympics – for doping or other contraventions.  This includes about a dozen Greek weightlifters, and the entire Bulgarian weightlifting squad, and a smattering of swimmers, fencers, cyclists and runners.  Three of these are Chinese athletes: Song Hongjuan (a race walker), Ouyang Kunpeng (swimming) and the wrestler Luo Meng.
The American swimmer Jessica Hardy has attracted a lot of attention so far.  She had a positive test for clenbuterol – an agent which increases muscle protein and is prohibited as an anabolic agent. Clenbuterol is prescribed to treat asthma (and Beijing’s pollution is likely to induce a lot), working as a decongestant and bronchodilator. Jessica Hardy – in fact many swimmers – suffer from exercise-induced asthma. Ryk Neethling, South Africa’s swimming star (now at his fourth Olympics), uses Cipla to treat chronic asthma.  Dara Torres, the 41 year old mother swimming at her 5th Olympics, is also an asthmatic.  Torres uses Symbicort, containing formoterol and albuterol, both active ingredients, both banned.  Torres has applied for therapeutic use exemption, but Hardy has not.  In any case, any therapeutic use of these asthma medications increases lung capacity, which can provide swimmers with breathing space vis a vis their rivals.
Nevertheless, there are restrictions on these banned substances.  Albuterol, for example, may not exceed 1,000 nanograms per millilitre.  Some writers postulate that asthmatics may try to ‘stay just below the limit, say at 990’.
The result of this is that at least 10% of swimmers applying for exemption were found not to be asthma suffers.  L.A. Times:After doing a series of articles in 1993 that used statistical anomalies to suggest strongly that China's performances in women's swimming owed to doping, I weighed the opinion of Chinese officials who said such analysis owed to Western ignorance of Chinese culture. In 1994, Chinese swim stars began testing positive in droves.”

Whilst the uneducated TV audiences cry foul, the point is, it is well nigh impossible to draw a line in the increasingly grey space that exists between what is considered to be doping, and what isn’t.  It’s also apparent that in the modern era, the average person uses artificial means to conduct their affairs more effectively (from aspirin to quell stress headaches to caffeine to hold back fatigue).  Lines are drawn, but the pharmaceutical environment is changing so rapidly, that morphing on both sides of the line means that revisions need to made far more frequently.

The intention ought to be to encourage performance, not to engage excessively in finding ways to prevent athletes from taking part (as in the Hardy example).  While Hersh cynically queries Torres’ asthma diagnosis 18 months ago (admittedly quite late for a 41 year old 5 time Olympian), the flip side of the coin is that all the athletes who compete at the Olympics, or the Tour de France, or any other major event, have to work hard against stiff competition.  You don’t get to that level by sitting on the couch and ingesting drugs.  Personally I feel the authorities that adjudicate ought to take a balanced view, and on merit, each individual case.  Once again, the intention ought to be to find ways to allow the athlete to perform, not to seek to punish or ban them unnecessarily.

One of the reasons for this is the sheer complexity of administering doping controls. (writing for Slate+) asks:What counts as artificial? Training at high altitude boosts your red-blood-cell count; the code says it would be absurd to ban this practice just because it enhances performance. Yet the IOC bars athletes…from using hypobaric tents, which simulate high-altitude air…Athletes from flat countries say they need the tents to match the conditioning of athletes from mountainous countries…If Mohammed can't go to the mountain, why shouldn't the mountain come to Mohammed?”

Saletan also queries blanket prohibitions on "exogenous" (synthesized outside the body) performance enhancers rather than “endogenous."  He quite correctly points to the use of ‘autologous’ blood, which is endogenous, it is in fact ‘synthesized by the organism’, except it’s banned.

Saletan goes on to ridicule what he calls ‘nonsensical’ rules that differ from sport to sport.  “In billiards,” Saletan writes, “you're allowed two-tenths of a gram of alcohol per liter of blood. In power-boating, you're allowed three-tenths. At a quarter of a gram per liter, you're sober enough to operate a flying death machine but not a cue stick.” Saletan also cites odd (and shifting) alcohol levels for skiing and motorcycling.

I reiterate: the intention ought to be to allow the athlete to perform, not to seek to punish or ban them unnecessarily.  And the vital question to ask is: “What harm does it do?”

While the above might seem to constitute an almost blasphemous statement, consider South Africa’s ‘blade runner’ Oscar Pistorius.  The double amputee would not be able to run at all without the use of artificial limbs, carbon fibre blades known – ironically - as Cheetahs.  Pistorius challenged a decision to ban his participation at this year’s Olympics, and won the appeal.  Unfortunately it has turned out to be moot, as he was unable to run the 400m in the 45.55 Olympic qualifying time (he ran a 46.25).
Pistorius’ case is useful.  It illustrates that what we want to see, and experience, is the excitement of human beings pursuing excellence.  That his artificial limbs put him in the ballpark (rather than far ahead or behind) of a standard of excellence only makes his participation more compelling.  But there is no question, Pistorius has an artificial advantage that allows him to compete and nevertheless he should compete.

In the same way, all other athletes ought to have the benefit of the doubt, unless the infringement is gross.  Gross infringements would include the use of substances that are obviously detrimental to human health, and certain acts of subterfuge aimed at masking the abuse of substances.
A list of banned substances should be updated on a regular basis, and specifically for events like the Olympics, coaches and athletes competing for events ought to specify which substances are being consumed (or blood samples voluntarily supplied) well in advance of the event in order to ascertain a possible violation.  A violation ought to have a concurrent opportunity to remove the substance from the system.

Unfortunately, the level of competition is so extremely high, that the likes of Marion Jones and Floyd Landis have appeared.  The onus ought to be on athletes also to take responsibility for crossing the line by mistake.  What then, to do about the obvious liars and cheats?  Landis, who won a Tour de France, defended exhaustively a positive test for testosterone – a process he finally lost effectively bankrupting the cyclist.

Meanwhile, five Russian track and field Olympians (now ex-Olympians) have recently been suspended by the IAAF.  Two of the five caught swapping urine samples included Yelena Soboleva and double world champion Tatyana Tomashova.  This was an obvious effort to beat doping controls, and Soboleva and Tomashova were both gold medal candidates. In cases such as these, of willful violation, lifelong bans ought to be introduced.  This is something like the death penalty for sport – intended as a deterrent.

In Athens the number of doping cases reached a new record, at 26.  In Beijing 4500 tests will be performed, an increase of 20% from 2004.  IOC President Jacques Rogge predicts 30 to 40 athletes will be caught at this year’s Olympics**.  This begs the question: ‘are the Olympics for real?’  Because the emphasis ought to be in weeding out the cheats before the Games, not once they get there, or worse, are standing on the podium with a medal dangling over their hearts.  Whatever the Chinese do to court lady luck, rain is scheduled for Friday’s Olympic parade at 8pm.

+The nonsense of Olympic doping rules

Another View: In London, the world is seeing a sprinter doing things that no one has done before, in terms of both his leg-swing times and his personal perseverance.
"What Oscar has done represents for a lot of people an unwillingness to accept expectations others might impose on you," Weyand says. "And that part is inspiring and makes you feel great about human nature."
On that, all can agree.

Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/olympics/2012/writers/david_epstein/08/03/oscar-pistorius-london-olympics/index.html#ixzz2LOz1fpgA

Pro-cycling's omerta [GQ MARCH 2013]

Note: omerta means 'code of silence'