Ramblin’ On

by Rant on September 3, 2013 · 8 comments

in Doping in Sports

More than a few interesting stories out there at the moment. Here are a few that I’ve run across.

Oldest Known Doper?

Long-time reader William Schart posted a link to this story in a comment on the previous post. Turns out an 80-year-old masters weightlifter named Don Ramos tested positive for steroids and will now serve a two year ban from competition. If this guy isn’t the oldest person ever sanctioned for doping, he’s in the ballpark.

Maybe he should have gotten a TUE from his physician. With all those late-night TV commercials touting the benefits of testosterone, surely this guy was just trying to keep his old virility. Yeah, that’s it. The doctor said it would restore his … ahem … energy. Yeah, that’s the ticket. ;-)

Beating the Tests Naturally

Meanwhile, our hapless Mr. Ramos might wish he had this gene amongst his personal genome. According to a Gizmodo Australia  article (drawing on this Daily Mail article), people who possess the gene UGT2B17 can pass the usual pee-in-the-cup tests that the anti-doping agencies use to detect steroids. That’s because the gene supposedly enables those blessed with its presence to test for a low testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E) ratio, regardless of whether they’ve used steroids or not.

Which just goes to show, testing for the presence of banned substances isn’t infallible. Even mother nature has figured out a a way to beat the vampires at their own game. Or, as Gizmodo Australia notes:

[I]n addition to the very slightest precautions being enough to skirt by the test, there’s a whole segment of people out there that can just take steroids and pass the most common steroid test in use.

I know, the authorities could just use the carbon isotope ratio tests and skip the T/E test entirely. That might be better at catching the dopers, but it costs a whole lot more money. And people like the IOC, who rake in literally billions in cold hard cash from the Olympics, don’t really want to catch the cheats. They only want to make it look like they do. Cue Alfred E. Neuman. What? Me cynical?

Gene Doping, Of A Sort?

For years, one of the bugaboos of the anti-doping authorities has been gene doping, or the manipulation of a person’s genes to enhance their athletic performances. One example that gets trotted out from time to time has been research on treatments for muscle-wasting diseases, which could modify a patient’s genes to produce more muscle tissue, effectively counteracting the disease. In the wake of stories of this sort, researchers have said they were contacted by a number of athletes who were volunteering to be testing guinea pigs. Healthy athletes, mind you. Athletes looking for an edge on their competitors. People who merely want to help pursue the advancement of science, don’cha’know.

And now, NPR tells us, one or more compounds in a new class of drugs called myostatin inhibitors may eventually receive FDA approval for the treatment of muscle-wasting diseases. Like EPO before it, this new type of drug could launch a whole new era of doping. Just as EPO enhanced the performance of endurance athletes by increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of their blood, this new type of drug could enhance the performance of athletes in sports where strength matters. As the article asks:

Will drugs that inhibit myostatin become the next EPO?

“It’s possible,” says [Carlon] Colker, the physician and bodybuilder. Athletes and bodybuilders are constantly looking to medical research for the next product that will give them an edge, he says. And once a new product is widely used, people start looking for the next new thing.

The doping arms race is a bit like a cartoon, Colker says. “Daffy Duck comes out with a slingshot. And then Bugs Bunny comes back with a bat. And then Daffy Duck goes off and comes back with a gun, and then Bugs Bunny goes off and comes back with a bazooka, and then Daffy Duck goes off and comes back with an Army tank,” he says. “It just keeps going and going and going.”

I’d say it’s pretty much of a sure thing that these drugs will start being used for doping even before they are officially on the market. Just as cyclists managed to get their hands on EPO when it was in clinical trials, athletes will find a way to get hold of this new drug in the same manner. And at least a few members of this current generation of athletes will become living test cases for how the drug performs on healthy people, and what side effects its abuse might cause.

The Ethicist

The New York Times Sunday Magazine features a weekly column called “The Ethicist,” written by Chuck Klosterman. You might have heard of him. He’s written such books as “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” and “Fargo Rock City,” among others. This week’s column is titled  There Are No Sound Moral Arguments Against Performance-Enhancing Drugs. Klosterman takes on a question about whether or not doping is moral and/or ethical. Most of his short response is well written, but at one point he goes off the rails. Klosterman says:

Though it’s difficult to explain why, we’ve collectively agreed it’s O.K. for an injured football player to take a shot of Toradol to help ignore an injury, but not a shot of testosterone to help that injury heal faster.

It’s the last part of the sentence where he goes wrong. If an athlete’s doctor could produce a legitimate reason for why testosterone would help an injury heal faster, the athlete (in most sports) could apply for a therapeutic use exemption to use the drug. Though I’m not fully conversant with the rules for the NFL, I suspect that there is some system in place for the granting of TUEs, as there is for the whole range of Olympic sports. Using testosterone or other steroids because you believe it can speed recovery, but without any doctor’s supervision or prescription, on the other hand, would be banned. So Klosterman is partly right.

And Then There’s Malcolm Gladwell

You know a subject has “arrived” when it gets the Malcolm Gladwell treatment. Think “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” just to name a couple of his books. Gladwell pens an article on The New Yorker’s web site riffing on the new book from David Epstein (The Sports Gene), in which he asks, “Why should an endurance athlete whose body naturally creates more blood cells than other people be treated differently than those who would artificially build up their red blood cell count?”

Good question. The answer, in part, boils down to biology and ethics. On the biology side, there is a Finnish family (who Gladwell refers to) that has a genetic mutation that results in a higher hematocrit than most people. And that gives them an advantage in endurance sports, like cross country skiing. Of course, we don’t get to choose our genetic “gifts.”

Gladwell posits that athletes like Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton looked at cycling with “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” In other words, “may the guy with the best doctors, scientists and drug connections win.”

Interestingly, the answer to Gladwell’s question dovetails nicely with what Chuck Klosterman writes in The Ethicist. According to Klosterman:

The motive is to create a world — or at least the illusion of a world — where everyone is playing the same game in the same way. P.E.D.’s are forbidden because that’s what our fabricated rules currently dictate. In real life, that’s a terrible, tautological argument. But in sports, arbitrary rules are necessary. The rules are absolutely everything, so the rules are enough.

Unlike our genetic makeup, we do get to choose whether or not to follow the rules of a sport. Yes, the rules are inherently arbitrary. While life may confer a certain genetic advantage on one person and not another, to play a sport is to agree to abide by the rules, no matter how capricious they may seem. If you don’t like the rules, then get them changed. In the meantime, suck it up. Gladwell notes:

Hamilton and Armstrong may simply be athletes who regard this kind of achievement as worthier than the gold medals of a man with the dumb luck to be born with a random genetic mutation.

Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. By their actions, they certainly seemed to endorse the idea of “do whatever it takes to win — including drugs.” Winning by cheating is just that, cheating. Breaking the rules for personal fame, glory and enrichment. Is that worthier of a gold medal than someone who had the good fortune to win the genetic lottery and then put in the hard work to excel? Not in my book.

 

 

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{ 8 comments }

Millard Baker September 4, 2013 at 1:46 am

Success by working smarter and working harder is generally seen more favorably than success by genetic luck. That is true is practically every aspect of society except when it comes to (the stigma of) doping.

Dan, you’re right when it comes to the rules. And you’re right when it comes to the arbitrariness of the rules.

But you’re really asking the wrong question.

Should a sport reward genetic luck over desire+effort? Does the person born with the best genetics, through no effort of their own, deserve such an advantage codified by the “rules”?

The real question is whether or not the anti-doping rules are good rules.

Rant September 4, 2013 at 7:53 am

Millard,

I didn’t exactly say this in the post, but regardless of genetic luck or not, my perspective is that it takes a whole lot of desire and effort to get to the top of a sport. Good genetics certainly help, but without the training and desire, I doubt it would be enough to succeed. So, regardless of how someone gets to the top, I’d say that person has plenty of desire and has put in the effort.

You’re right. Should one group of people enjoy an advantage codified by the rules? Rules, by their very nature, are somewhat arbitrary. They draw a line and say one thing is acceptable and something else isn’t. So the challenge is where to draw the line.

At the same time, are the anti-doping rules good (and realistic) rules? One can make the case that at least some of the methods that are classified as doping could just as easily fall in the “train/prepare smarter” category.

One question to ask about performance enhancing methods is the question of access. Suppose these methods are allowed. If athletes of limited means don’t have access to the methods because they can’t afford the cost (as my wife pointed out to me this morning), then the unfair advantage wouldn’t be genetics as much as it would be money. Those who’ve got the ability to pay would reap the benefits of these methods, and those who don’t would go without.

So somewhere in the rule-making, one group or another may unintentionally (or intentionally) be favored over another. The trick, I guess, is to strike the best balance — which is not an easy task.

These questions could be the basis for a couple of good, long discussions, methinks.

Millard Baker September 4, 2013 at 9:43 am

Dan,

Indeed there are many questions that can lead to long, complicated but thought-provoking discussions. I can clearly see why so many people like to keep it simple and say “it’s wrong because it’s against the rules”! :-)

While I appreciate talent (i.e. unearned genetic advantages), I have a bias favoring hard work (i.e. training harder/smarter). These athletes really impress. This leads to one inescapable fact for me – among elite athletes, the steroid- and PED-using athletes are usually the ones who work the hardest simply because they can. It is not because they necessarily have any more desire than their “clean” counterparts. It is because PEDs increase their recovery ability enabling them to train harder.

I think the term “performance-enhancing drugs” is misleading and conveniently used to stigmatize anything defined as a prohibited doping method. I would argue that PEDs, such as anabolic steroids (and even EPO), are primarily “recovery drugs”. Rather than being a “magic potion” that gives an athlete an instant performance boost, they enhance recovery after bouts of intense training. The enhanced performance only occurs because the body recovers more efficiently and the athlete can train harder and more frequently.

Conceptualizing these drugs as magical substances that allow athletes to succeed by taking “shortcuts” and avoiding hard work is one of the biggest lies I’ve seen in the PED debate. At every level, the athletes at the top (who use PEDs) generally work harder than their “clean” counterparts. It is not a slight to those who choose to be clean; they just physiologically can’t work as hard “naturally”.

The “cost” of access is an interesting question that applies to so many of the disparities seen in sports competition. When it comes to the issue of doping, in most sports cost is not a significant issue. Take one of the widely use PEDs in sports history, past and present – anabolic steroids. USD $100 per month will give most athletes all the steroids they need to maximize their performance even in an environment where the non-medical use of steroids is criminalized. What makes steroid use costly is the requirement for undetectable steroids and/or methods and the costs of obtaining the drugs while going undetected by WADA, etc.

I do see cost as being an issue when it comes to other drugs such as EPO. But even in sports where EPO is the drug of choice (e.g. cycling), doping isn’t the only area, and probably not nearly the most important area, where money gives an unfair advantage.

William Schart September 5, 2013 at 3:45 pm

“Genetic luck” plays some role in almost every human endeavor. But hard work also plays a significant role. Einstein wouldn’t have gotten to where he did if he didn’t have the brain he did, but it also took a lot of hard work, studying physics and math and so on. How about (showing my age here) Van Cliburn? He needed both the manual dexterity as well as some degree of mental ability in order to become a top concert pianist, but there was also hours and hours of scales, arpeggios, etc. I doubt that there is really much that doesn’t require some inherieted ability. Well, ok, maybe not to cook burgers at McDonald’s (which I have done), but then you can’t go to far doing that.

To some extent, in my experience, the most generically blessed people often end up falling short. It’s too easy for them at lower levels of sport or music or whatever, and they get used to getting by without the hard work necessary for anyone to reach the top. It’s often the second rater that comes out on to: in order to get anywhere he has to work harder and so ends up on top. YMMV

Some years ago I used to officiate high school sports. In the training sessions they used to make much of the idea that rules exist to make sports fair. But I disagree: the rules define what is fair or unfair but the rules only make sports fair in that the rules specify some mechanism to enforce the rules and penalties that, in theory, make it unprofitable to break the rules. Now, just don’t get me on the subject of tactical fouling in basketball games!

But one thing rules do define in sports is the nature of any particular sport. When the UCI banned fairings way back when, in part it was because the nature of cycling included the consideration of the effect of pace, which fairings significantly altered. It would probably be just as fair to make fairings legal, everybody would get one and all would be equal, but the sport would be considerably different.

As the the unfairness of being able to buy a leg up on your competition, that horse is long out of the barn. How many of us can afford a stable of bikes like the pros use: one for the road, another for cries, another for the mountains, oh and don’t forget that TT bike. And just see how keeping them all in tires erodes your bank balance, when top racing tires cost as much as the tires I put on my car, but only last for 1000 miles or so.

William Schart September 13, 2013 at 11:36 am
William Schart October 17, 2013 at 7:19 am

Just to stir things up a bit here: Lance the Movie may be coming to your theater sometime:

http://apnews1.iwon.com//article/20131017/DA9FRFQ00.html

Rant October 17, 2013 at 8:29 am

William,

Thanks for stirring things up. I’m recovering from a broken hip I suffered in a bike crash about 11 days ago, and have been rather inattentive to the blog. Also of interest might be Reed Albergotti’s and Vanessa O’Connell’s new book Wheelmen, which chronicles “Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the greatest sports conspiracy ever.”

Bill Hue sent me a copy, and I’ll start digging into it today. What with the rest and recuperation I’m in for for the next five or six weeks, I suspect I’ll get this book and plenty of others read, too.

William Schart October 24, 2013 at 5:31 am

Sorry to hear about your crash. Is there a jinx on bloggers who blog about doping? As I recall, TBV also suffered a crash. Get well.

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