Friday, December 26, 2008

The Winnowing: Larry's Last

Larry, the loquacious, has been a frequent contributer and commenter here and at Rant. He's taken full advantage of the lack of length restrictions here in the blogosphere. A banking attorney, his calling card here was "Larry's Curb Your Antitipcation", a researched series considering various legal issues, anticipating things in the CAS appeal.

He originally wrote most of the following in comments at Rant, though this is revised here.

[Back to the Introduction]

I was sorry to hear about the end of the blog, but I guess it’s time.

My primary emotion is a certain kind of relief. Like most legal disputes, the Landis case dragged on past the point where it made any sense. Floyd deserves credit for finally putting an end to this chapter in his life. Sometimes it takes more courage to end a fight than to continue it.

I am grateful to Floyd Landis for providing us with a detailed examination of the anti-doping system at work. It is the closest such examination we’re ever likely to see. Whatever you may think of the outcome of the Landis case (and my thoughts on this are on the record), Landis and USADA funded millions of dollars of legal process, producing a considerable body of information, most of which is publicly available. This body of information is not complete (and no body of information is ever complete), but with enough time and background knowledge, anyone can dive into this information and reach a reasonably informed conclusion about the Landis case, and about the anti-doping effort in general.


I come away from this experience convinced that the anti-doping effort is a failure. For the most part, the ADAs do not catch the dopers, nor do they deal fairly with the athletes they accuse of doping.

I think the main reason the ADAs are failing is that their science is not up to the job of catching dopers. In the Landis case, the media was fond of saying that the ADAs “found” artificial testosterone in Landis’ system, but this was not even close to the truth. Artificial testosterone is chemically identical to natural testosterone, and even on a subatomic level, you cannot tell the difference between a molecule of artificial testosterone and a molecule of natural testosterone. This is the way it works with the current crop of performance-enhancing drugs: they mimic natural human biochemistry, and they look for all the world like stuff that humans produce naturally. Finding performance-enhancing drugs in a human body is NOT like finding a plum in a pie, or a fly in a bowl of soup.

It turns out that the anti-doping tests rely heavily on statistical analysis. The tests look for a statistical anomaly – a measure of stuff found in an athlete’s system that is supposed to be so unusual that it could not have occurred by chance. Then the scientists try to prove that the measurement would NOT be unusual if the athlete doped. This is not a bad way to conduct science, so long as the scientists proceed carefully.

But as we’ve seen, the ADA scientists have not proceeded carefully. The measurements they took of the stuff in Landis’ system (even if these measurements were reliable and believable) turn out NOT to be so unusual after all. It turns out that the scientists have not done the testing they needed to do to determine what is usual and what is unusual … and worse, the scientists have drawn improper conclusions from the little testing they HAVE performed.

An optimist might conclude that the ADA’s science will improve in time, and that the anti-doping effort will improve along with the science. But I am not an optimist. It is obvious that performance-enhancing drugs are “improving”, becoming both more performance-enhancing and more difficult to detect. Even today, the use of most performance-enhancing drugs goes undetected, and many of these drugs are simply not detectable by any means. It may simply be the case that the science does not exist for the detection of some of these drugs. Moreover, even if there is a scientific means to detect the current drugs and the new drugs, there is no present ability to fund the development of this science. Contrast the budget of an outfit like USADA with the billions and billions of dollars spent each year for research and development of new drugs.

There is no realistic hope that sport can be made drug-free by urine testing, or by blood testing, or by any variety of scientific test. All that’s left for the anti-doping effort is to deter drug use by other means, by ramping up the punishment for athletes sanctioned for drug use (or alleged drug use), and by relying on traditional police efforts (wiretaps, informants and criminal penalties) to catch the dopers. The criminalization of anti-doping may have its advantages, but I have no interest in being a fan of any sport that relies too heavily on criminal law to stamp out cheating. It is not my idea of entertainment to watch cyclists being carted off in handcuffs. I’d rather tolerate the doping than watch the Tour transformed into some kind of multi-national “sting” operation.

We’ve talked about how the anti-doping system can be improved, but in the current state of the anti-doping movement, the only change being considered is how to get “tougher” on dopers. There will be no reforms to improve fairness to the accused athlete, or testing accuracy.

Where does this all lead? It is obvious that doping is an integral part of nearly every sport, as is anti-doping. Most athletes will get away with doping; a few athletes will be caught and will face different degrees of punishment, depending on the sport. A few athletes will be wrongly accused of doping, and will have no realistic avenue for self-defense, nor will we have any way to tell (short of an honest confession) which accused athletes are guilty and which are innocent. Those of us who are sports fans will have to put up with this situation as best we can. Those who choose to become athletes may have to dope in order to earn a living, and will have to live with the unfairness inherent in the anti-doping effort.

As for me, while I’ll probably never enjoy being a fan as much as I used to, I will take the attitude that every athlete is competing clean, except for a handful conclusively proven to have doped. If I’m unable to take that attitude, then I won’t watch, because what would be the point?

Take care and see you down the road.


Russ said...


Great to read from you again.
Thanks for all your hard work and
your pains taken! You should feel
well about fighting the good fight.

Warm Regards,

Larry said...

Russ, it's been great conversing with you. I hope to see you on Rant's site or elsewhere in cyberspace.

JMP said...

Larry, I give you credit for not flinching in making the statement:

"I’d rather tolerate the doping than watch the Tour transformed into some kind of multi-national “sting” operation."

It's a contrarian position to adopt in the current anti-doping climate, but one that should be recognized nonetheless.