January 31, 2005

Doping News Update

I haven't talked about doping much lately, so I figure that it's time for an update on the latest developments. You can think of this as an update to my previous entry Doping News (November 16, 2004).


In the it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren't-so-sad department, this Reuters story outlines the who's who of recent doping allegations in track and field. Here are the latest news stories on each case.

  • Greek sprinters Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou have officially been charged with faking their motorcycle accident on the eve of the Athens Olympics. This week, they also testified at a hearing to investigate doping tests that they missed in Athens, Tel Aviv, and Chicago. The Telegraph is reporting that Kenteris has admitted missing the Tel Aviv test, but is disputing the other two allegations. The two athletes, and their lawyer, are still hoping to escape sanctions.
  • Chryste Gains and Tim Montgomery are still awaiting their appeal hearings at CAS, scheduled for June.
  • Michelle Collins, former world indoor champion at 200 m, has been suspended for eight years by USADA based on evidence unearthed in the BALCO case. Collins has not admitted to illegal drug use and has not had a positive test. She will also appeal to CAS.
  • Speaking of BALCO, Marion Jones is suing Victor Conte for defamation, seeking $25M in damages. Conte, in his interview on 20/20 and elsewhere, has stated in no uncertain terms that he helped Jones administer an extensive regime of illegal performance-enhancing substances leading up to the 2000 summer Olympics (see also Victor Conte on 20/20, December 9, 2004). He has also stated that he saw her inject herself with BALCO's designer steroid 'the clear.' Conte, in response to the suit, has hired himself a high-powered lawyer.

Obviously I don't have any insider information on the Marion Jones case, but I think she is in serious trouble here and will not escape. In addition to Conte's detailed allegations, former husband C. J. Hunter has stated that he saw her use illegal substances in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympics. There is also the damaging association with Montgomery. The IOC itself has now launched an investigation into the allegations against Jones, and Dick Pound at WADA is out to get her.

As for Conte's allegations, I have a hard time seeing what his motivation is to lie. Although the statements against Jones have given him a lot of publicity, that can't be his only interest. After all, he has had plenty of opportunities to directly implicate Barry Bonds, but has refrained from doing so, saying only that he provided illegal substances to Bonds' trainer. Any direct evidence against baseball's home-run king would surely have made an even bigger splash than the allegations against Jones, at least in the American press.


Cycling continues to build its reputation as a dirty sport, at least among the pros on the road race circuit. In December, Olympic time trial gold medallist Tyler Hamilton escaped his positive blood doping test on a technicality. Hamilton's A sample allegedly showed signs of a blood transfusion, which is a no-no. Fortunately for Tyler, his B sample was frozen before it was tested, which means that he can't be punished for a doping offense and will keep his gold medal. Greek prosecutors are pressing criminal charges against the testing laboratory for allegedly destroying the sample. Dick Pound of WADA (see also Dick Pound Stays On At WADA, November 20, 2004) told VeloNews that Hamilton "dodged a bullet" at the Olympics, but he will still face a two-year ban for being caught blood doping at the Vuelta in September. Hamilton vehemently denies the charges and claims that the new blood doping test is unreliable.

Meanwhile, French authorities have opened an inquiry into doping allegations against 2000 Olympic cycling time trial bronze medallist and six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. The allegations were made by Armstrong's former assistant, Emma O'Reilly, in a book that was released just before the 2004 Tour. Like Hamilton, Armstrong has vehemently denied the allegations.

Personally, I will be very disappointed if the persistent doping allegations against Armstrong turn out to be true. I am a big fan and I find myself wanting to believe that he is clean.

One odd note about the book, incidentally. It is available in French on Amazon.fr, and in English on Amazon.ca, but is not available on either Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. I am not sure what to make of that, but the English version is ranked 100,500 on the Amazon.ca sales list, so perhaps there is not enough demand to support an Amazon offering in England or the US. The French version got lukewarm reader reviews.

Other Sports

Finally, an update on the horse doping story. Goldfever and his rider have been disqualified for using a banned substance, although clearly the horse is an innocent bystander in this case. Germany will have their 2004 Olympic gold medal in team show jumping downgraded to bronze after Goldfever's results are stricken from the record. The U.S. will be promoted to the gold.

January 23, 2005

Canada to 'Own the Podium?'

Earlier I mentioned that the COC had set a goal of finishing first in the medal table in 2010. Well, this Saturday, Canada officially unveiled its plan for 2010, called "Own the Podium." The story was widely reported in the media (for example this story in the Toronto Star), but without much critical thought.

To me, "Own the Podium" looks pretty good. I think that the mainstream media may have missed an important point here, though. As noted in the offical release, the program sets Canada's priorities for medal potential, so that flat ice sports have the highest priority, snow sports have second priority, and everything else (shooting, sliding, and jumping) has a lower priority. What that's probably going to mean, in practice, is that some of the lower-priority sports are going to see a funding cut. In essence, Canada is going to give up on ski jumping and some other winter sports, and this obviously isn't going to sit well with everybody. I predict that we'll see some outrage in the press in the next twelve months, as the consequences become clear.

Some have commented that there might be cuts on the horizon for summer sports, too, in order to afford "Own the Podium." But I don't expect that's the case. Actually, that's not quite right. I expect that the exact same approach is going to be applied to summer sports; those sports where we think we can win medals can expect to see more money, and those sports where we don't are going to see big cuts. Again, we can expect to see lots of negative press about this when the papers realize that this is a dramatic change in philosophy.

From my point of view, it was also interesting to see the summary of the conversion analysis by Cathy Priestner-Allinger. Even though she used a different definition of "medal hopefuls," her results for the 2002 winter Olympics weren't much different from mine for the 2004 summer Olympics. So it's probably not just bad luck — Canada is consistently poor at converting world-class international performers into Olympic medallists. Priestner-Allinger has some ideas about why that's the case, which are now going to be used to drive the plan.

There's nothing like having a solid quantitative analysis to back up your strategy!

January 17, 2005

Athens COG President Tackles Obscenity Complaints

Just another quick one (I've got my hands full with other matters these days). Earlier I wrote an entry about the indecency complaints received by the FCC about NBC's coverage of the 2004 summer Olympics.

Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who was the president of the Athens organizing committee, has written this editorial on this issue for the L.A. Times. Happy reading!

January 16, 2005

2012 Host Candidates to Debate — Not!

Early in the new year, the AP ran this story noting that BBC World was planning a televised debate between delegations from the five candidate cities for the 2012 Olympic Games. I haven't even gotten around to mentioning it and already the IOC has pulled the plug on the idea. Too bad; it sounded like it might be kind of fun.

In other bidding news this week, IOC president Jacques Rogge encouraged African nations to put in bids for 2016. Then, to his apparent discomfort, Kenya announced that they would take him at his word. When Rogge put out the call to "Africa," he probably meant South Africa, who are pretty much the only country on the continent with any experience hosting sporting events of comparable size. But if South Africa decides that they want to pursue it, they probably have a decent shot; at least some IOC sentiment will be on their side.

January 08, 2005

Medal Predictions Part I - Debunking Bernard & Busse

The last couple of weeks I have been thinking about the question of China. As they emerge as a sporting power, are they going to overwhelm the rest of the world? In other words, how good can China be?

I am going to get to that question, eventually, but not today. My investigation has led me down some other paths, though, one of which I thought was worth sharing. Earlier this summer you may have seen some news stories about a pair of American economists who were making predictions of Olympic medal totals. An example from the popular financial press can be found at CNN Money.

If you just read the news articles, it sounds pretty impressive; a couple of eggheads can accurately predict national medal totals using just a few simple statistics, and without knowing anything about sports. Wow. I figured that this was going to make it easy to answer my original question; all I would have to do was collect some economic forecasts for China's future, and presto, out would pop a predicted medal total. If only it were so easy.

The two economists in question, Andrew Bernard and Meghan Busse, have published this peer-reviewed article, including a description of their methods and their 2000 predictions. Bernard also has this "executive summary" of their 2004 predictions on his web site.

I'm not an economist, but I have trudged through the article, and I think I get most of it. The authors have attempted, using the last 30 years of Olympic medal totals, to create a model that will predict Olympic medal totals based on:

  • Population
  • Per-capita gross domestic product (GDP)
  • Host effect (whether a country is a host country or not)
  • "Sport economy" type (e.g. Soviet-bloc management)
  • History of Olympic performance
The predicitive power of the resulting model, as noted in the press, is actually fairly impressive. It appears that the dead-on predictions mentioned in the CNN Money article were actually wrong, due to an error in the implementation of the model, but even when the model is corrected the results are still good enough to be interesting.

Unfortunately, the predictions of the model are almost completely dominated by the last factor in my list, the history of Olympic performance. As Bernard and Busse note in their article, without the medal history, "the overall predictive power of the current model is lacking."

Let me illustrate how much history dominates the predictions. I decided to do some predictions of my own, to compare with the Bernard and Busse model. My model is called the "status quo" model, and it has one assumption: that every country will win the same fraction of the total medals that they won last time. Since there were basically the same number of medals awarded in 2004 as there were in 2000, this makes the prediction especially easy. Just look up the number from the 2000 medal table, and you've got your 2004 prediction. How did I do?

Figures 1 & 2

Figure 1: Total medal predictions (2004).

Figure 1 – Total medal predictions by Bernard & Busse and by status quo model, with actual totals, for 2004 Olympics (click to enlarge).

Figure 2: Total medal predictions (2000).

Figure 2 – Total medal predictions by Bernard & Busse and by status quo model, with actual totals, for 2000 Olympics (click to enlarge).

Figure 1 (inset) shows my "status quo" prediction, Bernard & Busse's "economic factors" prediction, and the actual totals for 2004. As you can see, the two predictions are about the same. I actually do better at predicting Greece, which apparently didn't get much "host effect;" we both underestimated Japan and Spain. Statistically speaking, my prediction was better overall, with an r.m.s. absolute error of 5.0 medals versus 5.3 for Bernard & Busse. Figure 2 shows the exact same thing for 2000, using 1996 as the status quo; in this case, I scaled the 1996 total by the fractional change in the total number of medals awarded (927/842). For 2000, Bernard & Busse did slightly better than my dumb model (6.4 r.m.s. error versus 6.5).

It's not that the Bernard & Busse model isn't a good predictor, because it actually does fine. It's just that the predictions aren't very illuminating. Essentially, we can conclude that a country wins lots of Olympic medals because it has won lots of Olympic medals before.

It would be fascinating to find a model that can give you a rough prediction of how many medals a country will win based on a small number of truly independent indicators. This model isn't it. To be fair, Bernard & Busse have identified a positive correlation between medal performance and some economic factors, which is interesting. But by their own admission, these correlations aren't strong enough, by themselves, to lead to useful predictions.