August 29, 2006

In the Wind

This weekend CBC Sports broadcast the ICF World Flatwater Championships from Szeged, Hungary. The broadcast was not live — competition was held the weekend before — but that's about the only complaint I can come up with about the coverage. Commentators Scott Russell and Scott Logan did a very good job putting things in context. They made a few factual slip-ups, but you would have to be a real know-it-all to point those out. Best of all, we got to see every final Canada was in — two and a half hours in all.

The local organizing committee should also be commended for giving the championship some good exposure. There were two things that I wanted to mention in particular. The first was the use of some unusual camera angles during the races. There was one mobile overhead camera in particular that gave a few fabulous shots from right on top of the boats. It provided some very dynamic views of the athletes as they passed by during the races.

The second item that was very cool was the event web site. If you go to the Results page and click on "Download Full Results," you can download a CD Image file of all of the race results — heats, semis, and finals, including all of the finish photos. The .iso file can be burned onto a CD and you will then have a web-browser-ready database of all of the race results.

Speaking of race results, there were lots of interesting things that happened at the World Championships this year. I won't talk too much about the Canadian team results, except to say congratulations to the team and all you sports fans should be ashamed of yourselves for the attention you don't give our amateur athletes.

Kidding, I'm kidding. But since I have all those results on CD now, let me try to dig something interesting out of the data. Specifically, I wanted to take a look at the influence that the wind conditions had on some of the races, since that point was raised a few times by Russell and Logan during the broadcast.

Flatwater canoe-kayak races are seeded from the middle out, just like swimming races and athletic sprints. The course has nine lanes, and the (nominally) fastest crews are put in the middle lanes, with the (nominally) slower boats in the outside lanes. When everything works properly, you get a photo finish that looks like this:

Finish photo from 2006 world flatwater canoe-kayak championships, showing typical pattern of lanes

In Szeged, lane 1 is furthest from the judges' tower, at the top of the photo, and lane 9 is closest, at the bottom. If we look at the ensemble of all races at the World Championships, including preliminary rounds, we can see that the seeding is generally pretty good:

Position of finish versus lane: all races at 2006 world flatwater canoe-kayak world championships

This picture is arranged to mimic the photo finish above; position of finish goes from first place on the right, to ninth place at left, and the lanes go from 1 at the top to 9 at the bottom. The brightness of the image at each point represents the percentage of competitors racing in each lane who finished in each position. The green numbers on the right-hand edge show the percentage of competitors in each lane who finished first in their race. The green curve shows the average position of finish for each lane (1-9) for all 220 races.

You might wonder exactly how this seeding works. For the first round of races, known as heats, competitors are seeded based on prior season results (World Cups etc.). As you can imagine, this is not really an exact science, but the people who do the ranking are pretty effective. Seeding for the semifinals is based on performance in the heats, so the athletes self-seed themselves for the second round. That works even better:

Position of finish versus lane: heats and semis at 2006 world flatwater canoe-kayak world championships

In this picture, the top image includes the 103 heats, and the bottom image shows the 68 semifinals. You can see that the seeding in the heats and semifinals is a very good predictor of performance. In these preliminary rounds, more than 60% of winners come from lane 5, and only a few from lanes 1, 8, or 9.

In fact, over two and a half days and 171 races, there wasn't a single winner from lane 9. And then came the afternoon of Saturday, August 19.

The finals don't go quite as strongly according to seed as the preliminary rounds, even when everything goes right. That's because the separation between the fastest and slowest paddlers shrinks when you get to the final. It's also because the seeding has a random component to it. For example, in men's K-1 there are four semifinals, and the winners go into the four middle lanes; only one of them can have lane 5, and that selection is made in a pseudo-random manner so that athletes can't easily choose their lane for the final.

But on average, you would still expect my probability diagrams to be fairly symmetric around lane 5, even if they're not as strongly peaked as they are for the semis. The upper image in the plot below shows the statistics for the 33 finals held on Sunday, August 20 (all 500 m and 200 m finals). I wasn't there in person, but from the broadcast it looked like pretty ideal conditions on Sunday — flat calm or slight headwind. There is not a strong asymmetry in the expected position of finish, which supports the idea that the wind conditions were fair.

Position of finish versus lane: finals at 2006 world flatwater canoe-kayak world championships

On Saturday afternoon, though, it was pretty clear that some lanes were better than others. The lower plot shows the statistics for the 16 finals (A and B finals) held on Saturday afternoon. As you can see, the distribution of finishes was significantly altered. Competitors in the near lanes had enhanced performances relative to competitors in the far lanes. There were even three winners out of lane 9, one in a 'B' final and two in championship finals.

From the broadcast it appeared that there was a significant cross-headwind during the 1000 m finals. Again, it's difficult to assess the conditions from the pictures on TV, but the statistics seem to show a pretty clear advantage for the high-numbered lanes, where the Szeged course is more sheltered by the shore and the grandstand. My point here is not to make excuses for anybody, nor to discount the two world championships earned by paddlers in lane 9. Canoe-kayak is not like swimming, where most environmental factors can be rigorously controlled. That's just the nature of our sport; sometimes the conditions work in your favour, sometimes they work against you, and hopefully most of the time it's neutral.

August 22, 2006

All Those Who Have Achieved a World Record …

… please step forward. Not so fast, Mr. Gebreselassie!

From the guilty-until-proven-innocent-department, here's a little fact (courtesy of the People's Daily — read past the part about the Gatlin case) that I did not know about world records in athletics:

"We are very specific. Any record from 100m to 100km must have been tested for EPO. This has been the case for two years now, but it seems that not all the laboratories know about it," said [secretary general of the IAAF Pierre] Weiss.

According to the same article, the IAAF has refused to ratify at least three world record performances in 2006 because the testing laboratory failed to test an athlete's urine for EPO. You heard that right; not for a failed test, but for a failure to perform the test properly.

The section concerning world records in the IAAF Rulebook is seven pages long. Athletes are required to submit an application form, signed by numerous officials who certify the course, conditions, equipment, etc. A doping control officer also has to certify that a sample was collected from the athlete and sent to the laboratory for analysis.

The most recent record to be rejected was for the men's 25 km road race, where Ethiopia's legendary Haile Gebreselassie recorded a time of 1:11.37 in the Netherlands earlier this year. That accomplishment will not stand as a world record, thanks to bureaucratic incompetence.

August 20, 2006

World or Olympic Champion?

King Kaufman, one of my favourite sportswriters, writes about his lack of interest in the ongoing Basketball World Championships:

Because of the alchemy of what we care about, the Olympics are thrilling in a way the exact same competition is not if it's not the Olympics. The difference is the rings. … In the big picture, sports are important. Anything that can draw crowds of 20,000 or 50,000 or even 100,000 on a regular basis and that gets its own section in every newspaper and several TV networks to itself is pretty important. But individual games are only important to the extent that we collectively buy into the fiction that they're important. The fact that so many of us care which of two metal rings a ball goes through more times on a given night is significant. It says something about us as a society. But the actual ball going through the actual hoop is just nonsense. All of the meaning comes from us. We, and by we I mean me, but I don't think I'm off on an island here, don't put much meaning in these international tournaments, except the Olympics.

King is speaking as a sports fan here and trying to explain why certain events draw much more interest than others, even though the sporting competition may be exactly the same. I think he's hit the nail on the head; the truth is, there isn't really any "reason" behind it at all. Certain sporting events are more important because the world pays attention, and the world pays attention because the events are more important. There's not much point in arguing that people "should" pay attention to the world championships the same way that they do the Olympics.

But I don't think King's right when he says that all the meaning comes from us, the fans. For the athletes participating, there is intrinsic meaning in the competition that has nothing to do with the number of fans in the seats or the number of reporters in the press box.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not here to argue that athletes believe that a world championship is just as important as an Olympic championship. For most sports that are in the Olympics, the Olympic championship is the pinnacle of achievement, and of course that has everything to do with the fact that the whole world is paying attention.

But almost nobody pays attention to the World Championships in many of those same sports. So if all the meaning came from the fans, then the world championship would be very nearly meaningless. And to an athlete, of course, it isn't. After all, the Olympic champion is still only the best in the world. Can there be a more meaningful title? One of my experienced teammates used to describe the Olympics as a World Championship held in the middle of a World's Fair; in other words, the most meaningful possible competition, surrounded by a festival of meaningless hyperbole.

Successful amateur athletes derive meaning from sports through their performances, and not through the attention of others. In fact, athletes care a great deal about their performances even when nobody is watching at all. I lived with three of my teammates for four years and every training session had meaning in that household. Some of the most memorable moments of my entire career came during those training sessions! Even a pickup basketball game would be remembered and performances dissected into moments of glory and shame.

That's not to say that athletes don't want recognition for what they do. In Canada this is a very common lament: the Canadian public only pay attention to amateur sports every four years, and the athletes toil in anonymity the rest of the time. The media get their fair share of the blame for this attitude, too. I am all in favour of constructive efforts to increase public awareness of amateur sport — efforts like — but I don't like it when the lack of interest is treated as some kind of moral failure of the Canadian people.

And if the Olympic Games didn't draw the dominant part of the public's attention, what do you think would happen to sports funding in this country? Sport Canada's excellence funding strategy is based entirely on the Olympic Games. In 2004-05 Sport Canada provided more than $51M to national sport organizations (NSOs) for Olympic and Paralympic sports, and is starting to give an increasing fraction of that money to sports that have a good chance of Olympic success. In contrast, non-Olympic NSO's received less than $2.6M (about 1/20th). You can win fistfuls of medals in the Pan American Games, Commonwealth Games, and Jeux de la Francophonie, but if your sport isn't in the Olympics, even the federal government isn't that interested. (It's interesting to think about what this means about the reasons that governments support amateur sport, but that's a topic for another day.) If public interest was more evenly spread out, instead of being so concentrated on the Olympic Games, I suspect that sport funding would also show more balance. And of course that would be to the detriment of the Olympic sport NSOs.

POSTSCRIPT Speaking of constructive efforts to increase awareness, the 2006 ICF World Flatwater Championships just wrapped up in Szeged, Hungary. Lots of Canadian crews did very well (including our K-4 heros), so you will be able to see some highlights next weekend on CBC Sports Saturday.

August 19, 2006

More Than One Way Into the Olympics

Mark Keast wrote a piece in the Toronto Sun last week about the IDBF World Dragon Boat Club Crew Championships held in Toronto last weekend. The article was titled "Olympic hopes a long shot" and described some of the hurdles that the sport of dragon boat faces in gaining inclusion in the Olympics.

I wanted to point out that there are some interesting facts missing from the discussion about dragon boat racing in the Olympics. Here's what Keast wrote:

Haslam [executive president of IDBF] thinks it will take at least 20 years to get into the Olympics. The sport needs recognition as an Olympic federation first. Before that, it needs 75 national federations around the world under its umbrella. Dragon boating currently has around 60, Haslam said.

Indeed, the IDBF has a lot of hurdles to clear before it can get dragon boat into the Olympics. Even if it can gain recognition as an IF, the IDBF will still have to get the sport elected onto the list of Olympic sports; as we've seen before, the Olympic Charter says that this requires two-thirds support of the IOC membership, and that's a very tough standard to meet.

What the article doesn't mention, however, is that there's another possibility for dragon boat.

The sport of drachenbootrennen was in fact already included in the 2005 World Games. If you've never heard of the World Games, its a competition that the IOC supports as a sort of audition for the Olympics. Triathlon and taekwondo are both sports that entered the summer Olympic programme after a try-out at the World Games.

But you might ask yourself how a sport gets a place in the World Games when the IOC doesn't recognize its IF. That's the part that Mr. Haslam of the IDBF didn't mention: the IOC already recognizes the International Canoe Federation as the IF responsible for dragon boat.

And the ICF is not just a recognized IF — it also has two disciplines already on the summer Olympic programme. If the ICF decided that they wanted to add dragon boat as a new discipline of the sport of canoe-kayak, it would only require approval of the IOC Executive. The IOC members wouldn't get to vote on the idea, at least not directly. So if dragon boat really wants into the Olympics, then going in through the ICF would significantly reduce some of the political hurdles.

Of course, it would increase some others. Mainly, the dragon boat lobby would have to deal with the internal politics of the ICF. Those two Olympic disciplines I mentioned (flatwater and slalom) would not be too keen to give up any of their events to dragon boats, and the ICF is probably not strong enough to wrestle extra medals from the IOC's quota. Trying to strike out as an independent IF allows the sport of dragon boat to be, well, independent, with an IF that is looking out for its interests alone.

So although the ICF has an "official" responsibility for dragon boat's Olympic destiny, that's currently not worth very much. The IDBF-sanctioned competitions are much better attended, and more prestigious, and the ICF World Championships are a poor cousin to the IDBF event. Without a credible World Championship, the ICF couldn't get dragon boat into the Olympics even if it did want to, and without recognition by the IOC, the IDBF can't either. It isn't entirely clear whether the IDBF will ever be recognized. The Sun article makes it sound like it's a simple matter of having 75 member national federations, but the existence of the ICF within the IOC will complicate matters. At any rate, the acrimony between the two federations doesn't help either side, and trickles down to the competing national federations as well.

I'm not arguing that the sport of dragon boat would be "better off" under the ICF umbrella. But I do think that this is an interesting example of the politics of Olympic sport. I will be watching to see how this power struggle plays itself out as competitive dragon boat racing continues to grow.

August 11, 2006

The Best Rider With Two X Chromosomes

Michelle Dumaresq and the 100% Pure Woman Canadian Champion

Canadian mountain biker Danika Schroeter has been suspended for three months for inappropriate behaviour at the Canadian downhill championships. The women's title was won by Michelle Dumaresq, her third. Schroeter finished in second place, losing to Dumaresq by one second. For the medal presentation (pictured at right), Schroeter wore a sponsor's white t-shirt with the words "100% Pure Woman Champ 2006" scrawled on the front.

Schroeter's claim of 100% purity might be a bit puzzling if you don't know the back story here, and you might assume that she's making an allegation about doping. But Schroeter isn't claiming to be more virtuous than Dumaresq; she's claiming to be more female. You see, Michelle Dumaresq does not have two X chromosomes. She was born a male, and underwent sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) in 1996.

This is not a secret. The IOC now allows individuals who have had SRS to compete under the reassigned sex under certain circumstances (more on that later). The international governing body for cycling, the UCI, has adopted those same rules for international competitions (including downhill, even though it is not an Olympic discipline). And the Canadian Cycling Association naturally uses the same eligibility criteria as the UCI. Michelle Dumaresq has been open about her sex reassignment since she started competing in 2001, and her participation in women's mountain biking is perfectly legal. In fact, it would almost certainly be illegal to try to stop her.

Dumaresq's story is pretty fascinating, actually, and worth a read. Here's a long piece in Outside Online, describing how she was "discovered" Free-riding in BC in 1999, and her subsequent struggle to gain acceptance from her Canadian rivals. She has also been covered several times in Sports Illustrated, and you can read her story in her own words here. She is also the subject of a recent Canadian documentary film titled (did you guess?) One Hundred Percent Woman.

Of course Dumaresq's openness about her sex reassignment creates an incredibly complex and difficult issue for her competitors. Namely, is it fair that a sex-reassigned female is allowed to compete against athletes who were born women? I talked about it with my wife, who was a varsity rower in university, and her opinion was that Dumaresq's advantages were unfair. I suspect that the majority of female athletes would instinctively agree, and from Schroeter's verbal comments I do not get the sense that she feels more resentment about it than most. Many of Dumaresq's Canadian teammates have been less than warm to her, to say the least. According to those who know Schroeter (including her father), Schroeter and Dumaresq are at least respectful acquaintances, if not friends. By all accounts, Schroeter has struggled with this issue without getting personal, until now.

And, wouldn't you know it, it turns out that there's a 100% Pure Man behind this circus. Schroeter's boyfriend, John Starcevic (also a downhill racer), has confessed to setting Schroeter up in Whistler. After Starcevic posted an apology to "anyone who was offended" on a Canadian Cyclist forum, an editor posted this e-mail he had received from Starcevic. I added the emphasis, and deleted a few irrelevant bits, but the rest of this is 100% Pure manly man:

befor you guys and gals start beaking off about something you know nothing about you should learn the facts. Danika nor her sponsers knew anything of the shirt. If you were there you would have seen that i, a male name:John Starcevic ran on stage and put the shirt on her. I caught her off Gaurd and told her to take off her jersey, when she Questioned me i told her to just do it. I basically betrayed the six years of trust that we had built up. She was extreamly embarrest and angry. I chose to use her to make my stand. it is pathetic how fast people will jump on someone with out knowing the facts. … [more about how Schroeter is being unfairly blamed] … as far as knowlage on Transgenders you read a quote and its the truth to you. What have you done on your own to find info on transgenders. I have gone to see Michelle do her speach on why she chos her path, I have talked to other transgenders with well over half believing what Michelle is doing is wrong. I have also Scedualed appointment and talked to other specialists on the subject most who said they nor anyone else could prove if a transgender had an advantage or a disadvantage. … [tangent about how poorly the Canadian Cycling Association treats the downhill discipline] … I hope you are happy that after all the embarresment i put Danika threw you jumped all over her befor knowing the facts.
Joe Louis and the 100% Pure white heavyweight champion of the world

It seems that Mr. Starcevic has spent a considerable amount of time and effort researching the issue, and he should be commended for that — but I can't help asking myself why he cares so much. It's not like he has to compete against Dumaresq. Except for attention. And as far as making a stand goes, that usually requires putting your own reputation and status at risk. Not your girlfriend's. At any rate, I don't think that this particular act is a valid political statement, although some would like to frame it that way. You play the game in the categories that are provided; you don't get to make up your own categories just so that you can call yourself a champion.

But I'd like to leave this incident behind, and get back to the bigger issue of fairness. The root of the problem here is that the categories we use in sports are binary. Either you're a woman, or you're a man. Real life, unfortunately, doesn't really follow that model.

When I went to the Olympics in 1996, all female competitors had to submit to a gender verification test. A buccal swab was taken from each athlete and subjected to a DNA-based test for detection of Y-chromosomal material. I was struck by the statistics I found in this excellent article about the history of gender verification in sport. In 1996, samples were taken from 3387 female athletes. Eight of those — more than 1 in 500 — "failed" their gender test. All eight of the women were certified as females and permitted to compete at the Olympics. In other words, their gender verification test results were ruled to be false positives.

Seven of these eight women had androgen insensitivity syndrome. I'm not a medical doctor, but from what I understand, a person with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) is born with normal female external genitalia even though she has XY sex chromosomes. She develops as a female because a mutation in the androgen receptor gene makes her insensitive to the effects of testosterone. There are other medical conditions that can lead a "born female" athlete to test positive for Y chromosomal material, but AIS appears to be the most common.

Jesse Owens and the 100% Pure Aryan Olympic champion

This doesn't have anything to do with Danika Schroeter, really, except to underline the often-ignored fact that it is not trivial to define a test that categorizes everybody as either a woman or a man. A woman with CAIS may have inguinal testes, but her body has no ability to use the testosterone that they produce. Other people have partial AIS, meaning that they have "overmasculinized" external female genitalia, and some people with partial AIS have "undermasculinized" external male genitalia. Michelle Dumaresq went through puberty with testes, but hasn't had them for ten years, and in fact receives the female hormones artificially that Danika Schroeter's body produces naturally.

So what percent pure woman do we assign to all these cases?

Obviously, by 1996 rules, Michelle Dumaresq would test positive for male genetic material in the IOC's gender verification test. But it turns out that 1996 was the last summer Olympic games where gender verification testing was performed. At the end of 2003, an ad-hoc committee convened by the IOC Medical Commission issued a consensus on the issue of sex reassignment and sporting competition. The statement (PDF) and accompanying Expanatory Note (PDF) included the following recommendations:

  • Any individuals undergoing SRS before puberty should be regarded as members of the reassigned sex.
  • Any individuals undergoing SRS after puberty should be eligible for competition as members of the reassigned sex if: surgical changes have been completed, including gonadectomy at least two years ago; legal recognition of the reassigned sex has been granted by the authorities; and hormonal therapy appropriate for the assigned sex has been administered in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimise gender-related advantages.
Mark Tewksbury and the 100% Pure heterosexual Olympic champion

You might read the committee's report and interpret it as an argument that gender-related advantages completely disappear over time — perhaps as short as two years' time. It doesn't really say that, though; it talks about "minimizing" the advantages. Going through puberty as a hormonal male means that boys, on average, grow up bigger and stronger. It also means that they get treated like boys throughout their childhood, which might lead to a big difference in athletic ability as an adult. It seems unlikely to me that either of these advantages is completely erased by SRS.

But even if we admit that Michelle Dumaresq has an advantage over her competitors, so what? The fact is that some humans have physical and psychological advantages over others. Is the unfairness of Dumaresq's advantage so overwhelming that she should be barred from competing against other women? What would be fair to Michelle Dumaresq? As you think about that, consider this: Michelle Dumaresq gets beaten in races all the time. By 100% Pure women. Who were never men. In fact, outside of Canada, she has never been on an international podium. Her best-ever finish in a World Cup downhill was a ninth-place finish in 2005. I would argue that whatever "unfair" advantage she retains from having been a man ten years ago is small compared to the "natural" advantages that all elite athletes have over the general population. I would bet that Danika Schroeter is taller, stronger, and more aggressive than the average woman, too — and that's part of the reason why she's a good downhill racer.

Let's look at this another way. Let's consider SRS as a performance-enhancing method. Would it be banned under the WADA Code? As we know, WADA uses a two-out-of-three criterion for determining whether a substance or method is prohibited. If it is performance-enhancing, then it is prohibited if it is either (a) bad for your health, or (b) contrary to the spirit of sport. SRS, unless it was done specifically for the purpose of joining and winning sporting competitions, doesn't fall into either of these categories.

And even if it was determined that SRS was contrary to the spirit of sport, what would be a just punishment? Just suppose that Michelle Dumaresq had been born a woman, but was given testosterone injections all through puberty and into her twenties. And suppose that she admitted that to the CCA, so that they suspended her for a doping violation. What would happen to her? Well, in two years — an interesting coincidence, no? — she would be eligible for competition again. And she wouldn't be told that she had to race with the men.

August 08, 2006

Por Falta de Água

The Pan American championships for canoe-kayak slalom are being moved to Madawaska, Ontario, por falta de água — for lack of water.

The competition had been scheduled to be held in September, on Brazil's Itaipu Whitewater Canal. The Itaipu canal was opened in May of this year on a part of the outflow from the massive Itaipu Hydroelectric Dam.

The Amazon River basin is entering its second consecutive year of severe drought, and reservoirs are at 25% of capacity. Last week the Brazilian government declared a state of emergency across the region.

Rivers and lakes have become sand and mud. Millions of fish rot in the sun. Boats are stranded. A massive fire rages out of control along Brazil's eastern coastline. Hundreds of towns receive emergency deliveries by the Brazilian Air Force, including water-purifying chemicals to counter the threat of disease. The Amazon rain forest is drying out as the worst drought on record lingers into its second year. … Scientists do not consider the Amazonian drought to be temporary or local. Scientist Carlos Nobre, of Brazil's National Institute of Space Research (INPE), said, "This drought has no parallel in the last 103 years" since the water levels began to be measured.

The Pan American event will be held on August 19 and 20 in conjunction with the Canadian national championships.

"It's ironic that I heard about the Amazon drought because an email about a sports event" said 18 year old Sara Potvin-Bernal of Chelsea, Quebec, one of the kayak athletes looking forward to the National Championships, and now to the PanAms. "With all the war news dominating headlines right now, it seems hardly anyone has noticed that the Amazon ecosystem is in the middle of a collapse."

August 06, 2006

Landis' Goose Is Cooked

It looks like Floyd Landis will soon be Tour de France champion no more.

Landis' B sample confirmed a very high ratio (11/1) of testosterone to epitestosterone. Furthermore, both his A and B samples were subjected to carbon isotope ratio testing, and came back positive for the presence of exogenous (synthetic) testosterone in the urine.

The carbon isotope ratio test is quite definitive. The New York Times ran a nice description of the test last week, when rumours leaked out that Landis' A sample had been positive. The test measures the ratios of two different naturally occurring isotopes of carbon in urinary testosterone. 13C and 12C are chemically identical, but can be distinguished by their mass, for example, in a mass spectrometer. Since bodies get their carbon supply from food, the actual ratio of 13C to 12C in the body is slightly influenced by diet. However, it should be the same for any chemical that the body produces. The test procedure controls for this effect by using some other hormone in the urine as a reference:

The test determines whether the testosterone in the athlete's urine has less carbon-13 than another naturally occurring hormone in the urine, like cholesterol. The test is considered positive when the carbon isotope ratio — the amount of carbon-13 compared to carbon-12 — is three or more units higher in the athlete's testosterone than it is in the comparison hormone. It is evidence that the testosterone in the urine was not made by the athlete's body.

Landis' slim hopes will now rest on the defense that either his body was tampered with (somebody slipped him a dose of testosterone without his knowledge, a.k.a. the Trevor Graham defense), or his sample was tampered with. From my own experience, I can tell you that there are a number of safeguards in place to prevent tampering between the collection point and the laboratory. After that, I can't say very much.

Of course, it is always possible that somebody at the lab intentionally or inadvertently contaminated Landis' sample. Conspiracy theories will continue to thrive, I am sure. It is also possible that the isotope ratio test result is simply a statistical false positive — it would be foolish to claim that any detection tool has a false positive rate equal to zero. The long and the short of it, though, is that Landis has failed the tests under the rules that the UCI plays by, and he will be unable to prove contamination unless he finds somebody who wants to confess. This isn't like an American-style court of law, where Landis only has to raise a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof in this defense is very high, indeed almost impossible to meet.

The doping case against Floyd Landis has been an opportunity to learn more, and write more, about the anti-doping procedures that WADA and its labs use for detecting testosterone. A few weeks ago, before the Landis and Gatlin positives, I looked at the testing statistics for 2005 and decided that the current testosterone test has a significant false positive problem. I have learned a bit more about the issue by following Landis' case. I still believe that most of the "positives" for testosterone in those statistics are false alarms; however, I now understand that most of those cases do not result in doping sanctions, which mitigates somewhat my concern about the test threshold. I'm going to look at the WADA numbers again, as well as some references that other bloggers turned up because of the Landis case, and see if I can refine my conclusions.

I still think that the media, in general, did a poor job reporting the facts of this story. Unfortunately, most of the off-the-cuff conclusions that the press jumped to have turned out to be correct! There are unlikely to be any lessons learned on that front.

Furthermore, I still am not comfortable with the way Landis' case has been handled by the UCI or by Landis' team (Phonak). As I wrote back here, Landis was being tried in the press before due process had been completed; before the results of the isotope ratio test had been provided to him (and perhaps before it had even been performed), and before the B sample results had been confirmed. As Landis himself has pointed out, Justin Gatlin's case was handled using a very different set of rules. And even though the process eventually confirmed Landis' guilt, that doesn't excuse what happened.

August 03, 2006

Fluffy White Stuff

One of Canada's most famous athletes is suing CTV, and it has nothing to do with the broadcast rights for the 2010 Olympics.

Ross Rebagliati, who won an infamous gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics, has taken issue with the characters and plotlines in Whistler. One of the characters on the show, which is set in Whistler, BC, is Beck MacKaye, who won the first-ever snowboarding gold medal in Olympic history.

At a press conference announcing the suit, Rebagliati stated that "The similarities between my personality and the central 'Whistler' program character Beck MacKaye are overwhelming and a clear misappropriation."

The executive producer of the show responded that "You know, lots of people ski, lots of people snowboard, a lot of them look the same. That's where it ends."

Mmmm hmmm. I won't pretend to know enough to predict how all this might come out in court (or settlement), and I'm not sure I can see any harm being done to Mr. Rebagliati here, but I will say this: every time I see a promotional spot for Whistler, I think of Ross Rebagliati. Maybe it's just me.

August 01, 2006

Has it Been Ten Years Already?

I happened to run across an interview with Donovan Bailey on the National last week, and as I was watching I realized that the whole point of the interview was the tenth anniversary of Bailey's Olympic championship in the 100m. That means that it has also been ten years since I stopped being a competitive athlete.

One of my most vivid memories of the 1996 Olympics is actually of Donovan Bailey winning a gold medal. His win in the 100 m came prior to my own competition, and although I recall watching it on television, the memory is somewhat muted. But his role as the anchor of the 4×100m relay lifted me out of my seat. That event was held on the evening of August 3, 1996, the same day as my own final race. I watched it with the rest of the team at the house we rented near Gainesville during the Olympics.

Photo by Anita Patrick

In a moment of reflection, I dug my old training diary out of the basement. Most of it is of interest only to me, so I'll spare you the details, but one thing struck me as I read through the entries for the last few months. After all the years of training and competition, I was still learning new things, and we were still learning new things as a crew. That continued right through the week of the Olympics — I had post-race notes from the heat that were about things to do differently in the semi-final.

Another thing that comes through in the entries from 1996 is that I was still having a lot of fun in the sport, and in particular I really felt good about that last few months.

So why did I quit when I did? I guess part of the answer is that there's just more to life. Of the sixteen athletes on the flatwater canoe-kayak team in 1996, nine of them retired at the end of the season or soon after. Of those I've kept in touch with even a little bit, one is an orthopedic surgeon, one a firefighter, one a chiropractor, and one an engineer. Of course, there are others who have found that their greatest rewards are still as paddlers; three of my 1996 teammates are still on the national team today.

Mainly, I retired because I wasn't enjoying the grind of training any more. Taking a leave of absence from school and spending four months in warm-weather training camp in Florida, that's fun. Touring around Europe on the World Cup circuit, that's fun too. And the lead-up to the Olympics, yeah, that's a lot of fun. But to get to the fun parts, you've got to put in a lot of slogging. Actually, it shouldn't feel like slogging, and when it does, I think that's a good sign that it's time to move on.

Another thing, which I'd forgotten until I started re-reading my training diary, is that being part of a team is hard work. It took a lot of effort, from all of us, to stay positive and pointed in the same direction. I do think that we had still more to learn, but we would have had to fight for every additional inch. And I know that I'd lost some of the will for that fight.