Four Years to Life

by Rant on November 16, 2013 · 4 comments

in Doping in Sports

Athletes who are doping better hope that if they get caught, it happens sometime between now and the beginning of 2015. Why? Because in just over a year, the ban for a first doping offense will double — from the current two years to four years.

So what will that accomplish? Well, as an Associated Press article on the New York Times web site states:

Drug cheats will be kept from at least one Olympics now that the ban for a first offense has been doubled from two years to four, the key change in the global fight against doping in sports.

This is both the lead of the story and the most important reason for the change. In the recent past, the IOC had a rule barring athletes convicted of a doping offense from competing in the next Olympics. This was above and beyond the normal suspension imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s affiliates. So an athlete could serve a two-year suspension, be eligible to compete again, and that person would be barred from the Olympics — even though the suspension was over.

If memory serves me correctly, the IOC lost a case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport where an athlete challenged them on the rule. So their rule was effectively negated. The IOC, however, had a problem. Given the CAS ruling, how could they keep dopers who’ve served their time out of the next Olympics?

What to do? Well, in the time-honored WADA/IOC tradition, when one loses a case, change the rules.

Now why would the IOC care about keeping athletes out of their events if they’ve served a doping ban? Simple. Doping controversies — even the appearance of past dopers who are done serving their time — cast a bad light on the Olympic brand. And given the amount of money on the line, in terms of sponsorships and in terms of putting the events on, there is one huge incentive to put on a show that is free from minor distractions like known/former dopers in their midst.

Of course, there will be dopers competing in the competitions at any Olympics (or, for that matter, just about anywhere else). The urge to cheat is just too great, and the potential fame and fortune from Olympic victory too tempting. There will always be some who will break the rules in their quest for athletic and personal glory.

Beyond keeping dopers out of the next Olympics, what are the benefits of increasing the first-time punishment to four years from the current two? The AP article says that this change is “the most obvious new deterrent” among the changes to the World Anti-Doping Code that go into effect in just over a year.

However, deterrence is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, an increased penalty might keep some athletes from crossing over to the dark side. But not an athlete with a “do whatever it takes to win” mindset, ala Lance Armstrong. For those people, the calculus hasn’t changed much.

The choice to cheat depends on the likelihood of getting caught. If the drug testing is neither made more accurate, nor the testing more frequent, then the possibility of catching a cheat through analytical means is unchanged. So if someone can avoid testing positive today, that person will still be able to avoid testing positive in 2015.

The article mentions an increased emphasis on using investigations as a way of catching and punishing dopers. And “added to the revised code were stronger powers for anti-doping authorities to punish coaches who help athletes dope.” Of course, the problem with investigations is that first you have to suspect that someone is up to no good. But how does an agency determine who to investigate? Some cases might be obvious. A person who suddenly goes from a minor figure in a sport to totally dominating their competition might draw attention. A coach consistently producing athletes who beat their rivals, perhaps. Rumors, maybe. Tips from whistleblowers.

In the end, though, for all the imperfections of the drug testing program, investigations have the potential to be woefully inefficient at rooting out cheating, too. Sure, you can have some major successes (think USADA’s case against Lance Armstrong, or against various people associated with the BALCO scandal). But just as it’s expensive to test every athlete at a high degree of frequency in the hopes of catching them red-handed, it is also expensive and time-consuming to conduct serious inquiries into an athlete/coach/team/sport.

So will the change be an effective deterrent? I doubt it. If deterrence really worked to modify individual behavior, wouldn’t places that impose the death penalty on murderers have homicide rates bordering on non-existent?

What of the effect on the athletes? Well, those caught will now get a four-year “vacation” from competition. So one obvious question to ask is whether an athlete could come back from a suspension and compete again at the same level, or even close. For that to happen, the athlete needs to continue training at a high level until he or she is able to compete again. But in the meantime, whatever endorsement deals, sponsorships or subsidies he or she receives to help with training will be gone. Rare is the company that will continue to support an athlete who’s actually serving a doping suspension. (They might after the suspension is over, but that’s not guaranteed.)

Who can afford to do that? Only athletes with their own financial resources to carry on. That would be two groups. The big-name stars who have banked millions and can live just fine without any major income for the duration, or those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum — no sponsorships to begin with, therefore nothing to lose. Anyone who depends on income from their athletic pursuits who doesn’t fall into either of those groups, however, is in for some serious financial pain. Whatever the case, the athlete has to maintain the motivation and the training for a long period of time before being eligible to compete. The reality is that very few may be able to do so.

And for those who can’t maintain the motivation and the training, the initial suspension is pretty much the end of the line. It becomes an effective lifetime ban from elite competition.

So, if they’re guilty, you ask, don’t they deserve whatever they get? Sure. If you knowingly break the rules, and you know the punishment that will be meted out when you’re caught, then that’s the way the game is played.

But what about an athlete that gets a suspension for a false-positive test? Remember, once an athlete is accused of a doping violation, the presumption is that he or she is guilty. The science of the test is deemed to be valid. So it’s up to the athlete to prove why the test result is wrong. Due to a number of rule changes, that is an ever-increasingly hard nut to crack. In other words, it’s very unlikely that someone in this situation will be able to prove the result is a false positive. Hence, he or she will be slapped with a four-year suspension.

Now, you may say, the number of false positive results is small or non-existent. With any type of biological test, there are false positives and false negatives. What makes a test effective is to minimize both. (One also has to consider these rates in terms of the true positives — those who really are cheating — among a population, but that gets even more complicated.) However, even when false positives and false negatives minimized, both types of results can still happen. The one that’s of most concern is the false positive, because that implies that an innocent person will be punished. In the case of a false negative, the person may escape punishment today, but he or she may not be so lucky the next time.

With the new rules, someone who is punished for a false-positive result will, in all practicality, suffer a lifetime ban from elite competition. You can approach this situation from one of two angles. Some would argue that this is an acceptable price to pay, as long as we can catch and punish everyone who cheats. Others would argue that this is a very high price (at least for the individual involved) in the effort to rid sports of doping.

From my point of view, I sure wouldn’t want to be the victim of a false-positive test under the new rules. (And if you don’t think they happen, consider that the anti-doping lab in Russia is now in hot water because they produced both false positive and false negative results when being accredited for the Sochi Olympics in just a couple of months time.)

So what does this new rule actually accomplish? It helps protect the Olympic brand, clearly. And those who are caught from 2015 onwards will be spending a good, long time away from competition. Will it deter anyone from doping? Doubtful. What will work to minimize doping in sports is a combination of better testing, more frequent testing, and the use of investigations to catch dopers and those assisting them. And all that could have been done without a change in the sanction for a first-time doping offense.

[Hat tip to BuzzyB for tipping me off to the change, in a comment on the previous post.]

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William Schart November 19, 2013 at 8:16 am

Athletes who dope are gambling that they won’t be caught and to date it appears that this isn’t all that bad of a gamble. While over the years a number of athletes have been caught by various means, the total percentage compared with the total number of athletes subject to WADA is pretty small. Our two “friends” AL and FL doped for years and didn’t get caught until late in their careers. Pending final resolution of potential cases against him, my bet is that AL is way ahead financially, and FL might have been ahead too, if he hadn’t faught the charges as vigorously as he did.

Gambling can be highly addictive. Big payouts tend to outway potential losses in many peoples minds, and the occasional payout, even if minimal, tends to reinforce this. This is why slot machine, for example, have fairly frequent but small payouts. So a rider who dopes and gets a good contract, or a good race result is reinforced to continue doping. He got a reward and avoided a loss.

So I don’t see that increasing the penalty is going to have much effect on doping, except for removing dopers from the pool of athletes, probably for good since it isn’t too likely that someone will come back after four years.

MattC November 19, 2013 at 9:44 am

It’s all window dressing…trying to show the world just how serious they (WADA) are about stopping the dopers. But it’s all for show….as you said Rant (and William): I doubt very much that the extra 2 years will stop anybody who is already (or thinking about) doping. If it would, then there would be zero crime of any sort in the world.

I’d venture to say that any punishment system only keeps the honest people honest. Human nature being what it is, along with the fact that the VAST majority of people who do illegal things in any walk of life get away with it, mean that nothing will really change. There will be a few heralded triumphs as a very few evil-doer-dopers are caught, put in the media-stocks for their public humiliation, and evicted…and everybody can hold their heads up high knowing the peleton is now squeaky clean (until the next scandal anyway).

BuzzyB December 6, 2013 at 10:35 am

Rant — how is the healing going? We need an update!

And really, would ANYONE go to see a movie about Lance Armstrong? Can you say direct to DVD?

Any scuttlebutt about LA’s settlement terms with Acceptance Insurance? I’d love to be a fly on the wall…

Liggett junkie December 7, 2013 at 9:16 am

Right here and now, I refuse to see any cycling movie unless the role of Jens Voigt is played by Christoph Waltz.

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