Monday, August 7, 2017

The Latest Anti-Doping Hysteria, And The Problem Of Reducing Complicated Issues To 140 Characters

When I started this blog in 2010, I had the intention of including lots of original content.  I did a pretty good job at first, but inevitably work took precedence.  But I had some extra time this weekend, giving myself a bit of a break after 3 anti-doping arbitrations in a 6-day stretch.  So after an enjoyable morning bike ride, I settled in to watch the IAAF World Championships.  Having recorded the coverage so I could fast-forward through much of the commentary and pre-race hype, I studiously avoided social media so that I could watch without knowing the results.  I watched two remarkable finals:  Almaz Ayana absolutely crushing the field in the second half of the women’s 10,000 meters, and Justin Gatlin's shocking win over Usain Bolt in Bolt’s self-proclaimed last 100-meter race ever.

Then I decided to check the twitter response, which was as predictable as it was illogical:

“Until Ethiopia follow proper doping procedures I for one do not accept these athletes performances”

“All those expressing dismay that a doper won must be in denial about the fact that evidence shows >40% of elite athletes dope”

“Gold medal to any advertising executive with convincing pitch to attract fans to watch athletics where Almaz Ayana & Justin Gatlin are stars”

Here is the problem with social media rhetoric:  sound bites and tweets are compelling in their simplicity, but anti-doping is complicated.  When you reduce anti-doping to 140 characters, illogic is inevitable.  I could write or talk for days about the complexity of the issues in anti-doping, but let me illustrate the illogic of the latest hysteria with a few questions raised by these simple tweets, questions that are easy to ask and much more difficult to answer:

If performances can only be trusted by athletes who live or train in countries that have strong and independent National Anti-Doping Organizations, then why is there such skepticism over Justin Gatlin’s performance, when he has not tested positive or had any known anti-doping issues since returning from his 4-year ban in 2010, while living and training in a country that has one of the strongest and most independent National Anti-Doping Organizations?

If entire nations such as Ethiopia are to be singled out as “not following proper doping procedures,” then how can you justify the fact that Russia remains the only country that is precluded from competing at these World Championships?

If more than 40% of elite athletes dope, which presumably would mean that 40% or more of the 2017 IAAF World Championships women’s’ 10,000 meters were doping, then how did Almaz Ayana completely dominate the field and win by 46 seconds?

If more than 40% of elite athletes dope, but less than 2% of all anti-doping tests result in either an Adverse Analytical Finding or an Atypical Finding [see], does this mean that more than 38% of elite athletes are doping and not being caught?  And if this is the case, how can you continue to justify the exclusion of all Russian athletes from these World Championships while at the same time believing that a significant number of competing athletes from all countries are doping and not being caught?

It is frequently claimed by the anti-doping authorities, as one of the justifications for their pursuits, that if people don’t believe that what they are watching is real (i.e., if they believe most competitors are doping), they will stop watching.  This is a consistent narrative, that anti-doping threatens the very existence of sport.  Without in any way meaning to minimize the anti-doping fight, history shows that there is little, if any, correlation between people’s belief as to the prevalence of doping and their decision as to whether or not to watch.  In fact, for the most dedicated fans, it could be argued that the debate about who is or is not doping is simply part of the conversation, in the same manner as the debates over who will win a particular game, who is the best, etc.  Sport fuels a 24-hour media industry, which depends on controversies to generate interest.  The doping debate has simply become one of those controversies which makes fans more engaged, not less.

Anti-doping is complicated.  Certainly, athletes who “cheat” are not always caught.  But at the same time, athletes who test positive are not always “cheaters,” let alone villains.  Attempts to encapsulate anti-doping in a sound bite or a tweet – to say that you do not accept extraordinary performances from athletes from certain countries or to use the pejorative phrase “drugs cheat” indiscriminately or to simply declare that the majority of athletes are “doping” - may help build hysteria, it may even help to build interest, but it will inevitably be over simplistic and prone to illogic.

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