Sunday, March 24, 2013


The extraordinary hullabaloo surrounding the sanctions handed down to Lance Armstrong, a man who never once in his career failed a drugs test, brings to mind the question of doping in tennis.  Yannick Noah and James Blake appear to be the only people in the game willing to concede what is painfully obvious to anyone following what passes as anti-doping controls in tennis: that we're all being duped.

One can criticize the manner in which Noah has focused his energies and commentary on Spanish tennis players, which can only be characterized as groundless and absent of any intelligence or evidence.  Or we can look to Blake's more blanket and simultaneously tempered approach, which casts doubt on the entire field.  But both men essentially allude to the absurdity of the existing doping controls in tennis, and how brilliantly inept it has proven itself to be in doing anything coming close to controlling doping in the game.

First and foremost, tests for doping need to catch those players not only who may have some controlled/banned substances in their system, but more importantly those players who have done so with the intent to gain a competitive advantage.  A brief look at the history of players caught up in the ridiculous web of drugs testing in tennis reveals that a very blunt instrument is being wielded, and the players that have suffered the consequences thereof, are clearly not the philosophical target of the controls - assuming of course the intent of the controls is sincere.

That being the case - what is the point of doping controls?  We'll get back to that later, but here is a list and brief analysis of those players caught up in this wicked farce.

Kristina Antoniychuk

Alex Bogomolov, Jr.
Juan Ignacio Chela
Guillermo Cañas
Guillermo Coria
Antony Dupuis
Mariano Hood

The common link among this list of players is that they tested positive for banned substances that the ITF ultimately concluded was the result of medicine prescribed by a doctor for a verified condition, and as such, none of these players could be adjudged to have sought a performance enhancement.

Antoniychuk tested positive for furosemide (banned as a masking agent for PEDs).  It was prescribed by doctors for a condition that was undisclosed, but a brief look at the conditions for which it is typically prescribed does not reveal an obvious treatment for an athlete. Normally that should raise some eyebrows, but incredibly while the ITF accepted her explanation, they still banned her for fourteen (14) months!

Why? After all, if it was a legitimate use, and not for performance enhancement, did it make sense to punish a player so severely for not knowing the contents of a prescribed medicine?  Wouldn't a probationary period make more sense for this kind of offense?

Bogomolov and Dupuis tested positive for salbutamol, which they admitted, and the ITF accepted, were ingested through inhalers to treat asthma. Incredibly, if either had filed for, and received, a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), they wouldn't have been banned or forced to return their earnings. So, here we have two cases of merely a negligence to do some paperwork resulting in a ban and loss of earnings for two players who everyone agrees in no way attempted to gain a performance enhancement and could have legally taken the substance anyway!

Is this the objective of the anti-doping? To punish athletes for failing to file? Doesn't this sort of thing merit a warning?

Canas tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide (another banned masking agent) which was present in a substance provided to him by tournament officials (not prescribed medicine by a doctor) to treat cold symptoms - in other words, the tournament was responsible for putting the substance in the player, and then the ITF and the ATP Tour banned him for taking it. There was no trace of any PED in Canas' sample, and his samples were clean of the masking agent when he was tested at Roland Garros three months later.  But in their brilliance, after a year of wrangling, the ITF reduced his ban from two years to 15 months.  All this does nothing to eliminate the absurdity of banning a player for taking substances provided by the tournament (and thus by association the very authorities that sought to ban him).

Coria, a player nobody would suspect of taking PEDs, tested positive for nandrolone, but his ban was reduced from 2 years to 7 months, after his family independently tested the multivitamin which he showed a doctor had given him (not prescribed, however), that contained the steroid.  Nandrolone was a high profile substance for which many athletes at the time, in many sports, tested positive - and sympathy was in short supply for those who did.  But Coria sued the manufacturer of the multivitamin he took and won an out of court settlement, ostensibly because even if he had done his due diligence to check the ingredients of the multivitamin, he wouldn't have known it contained nandrolone. So why hold him responsible for not taking measures that, even if he had taken them, he wouldn't have known about the presence of a banned substance anyway?

But by far, the most absurd case was that of Mariano Hood, who was banned after testing positive for finasteride, which was prescribed in the treatment of male pattern baldness - so here a guy who is desperately trying to cover the fact that he is balding, is outed by a process that is supposedly looking for PEDs.  The interesting thing is that he had been taking the drug for years, but never tested positive for it...because the drug was only added to the banned list the year he tested positive for it! Now one can argue that it's his responsibility to know what's on the list, but if he were truly seeking a performance enhancement, would he provide evidence that he had been taking it for years - essentially admitting to doping for years?  That's not exactly the defense of someone who is hoping to conceal the taking of a performance enhancing drug! Obviously, Mariano Hood is not the philosophical target of anti-doping controls...or is he?

All this is a kind of madness that only sporting bureaucrats could possibly comprehend. How could players possibly know more than doctors, sometimes doctors designated by the tour, by the way, about the possibility of banned substances in medicine they've ingested? This is clearly another case of the ITF wanting to look tough at the wrong time, at the expense of a player that has a low profile, so the reputation of the sport remains in tact.  Is it really fair for the reputation (and livelihood) of these journeymen to be sacrificed at the altar of this charade?

In all likelihood, the ITF wants to have their cake and eat it too, in that they either 1) don't buy these players' explanations, but don't want to admit that doping is rampant in tennis or 2) they do buy these players' explanations, but want to look tough on doping by banning an unknown player that won't cost the game any money or prestige. And since the doping control authorities and the tour accepted that there was no attempt to enhance performance, isn't the whole affair an enormous waste of time? Because it is artificial performance enhancements that we are trying to identify. Speaking of which, the next list hardly fall in that category, even for the substances found in their tests.

Andre Agassi (methamphetamine)

Lourdes Domínguez Lino (cocaine)
Richard Gasquet (cocaine)
Martina Hingis (cocaine)

Now, I'm not in favor of players taking cocaine or crystal meth, etc., but at the end of the day, what they do in on their own, is none of my business and most importantly, in the case of these particular drugs, doesn't enhance performance, which is supposed to be the point of drugs testing. To prevent players getting "artificial" performance enhancements, and not to legislate personal/private behavior.

Robert Kendrick

The case of Robert Kendrick is a strange one - he was banned after testing positive for methylhexaneamine, a substance banned as a stimulant, readily accessible in many over the counter products, but is considered no more potent than a strong cup of tea.  It is often used as a nasal decongestant because of its properties of increasing blood pressure and blood flow, but Kendrick admitted using it to combat jet lag - in other words, he admitted using it as a stimulant, which is precisely why it is banned!

Now we can argue whether it really ought to be on the banned list, or if it's just there for show, but it is on the list, and even though he admitted using it for the exact reason for which it was banned, and derived a performance enhancement from it (as opposed to other players also suffering from jet lag that didn't use it or other banned stimulants), the ITF decision included a reference to him being able to use the medicine in which the substance was delivered, under a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE).  But why would that have been the case if he was using it as a stimulant, and not as a nasal decongestant? It's almost as if they're giving him, and any other player for that matter, a blue-print for how to game the system.

And then there are the cases of Yannina Wickmayer and Xavier Malisse (who both happen to be Belgian) who were banned, not for testing positive, but for failing to report their whereabouts 3 times in a calendar year - presumably giving them the opportunity to avoid drugs testing on those three days.  But could those three days where they went dark honestly give them an opportunity to avoid positive tests if they had, in fact, doped? I understand this rule is intended to prevent players avoiding testing, but couldn't they simply test them on the next day and see if any drugs were in their system? Then their intent to skirt the test would be more likely or more clear?

At the end of the day, the one glaring example missing from this charade that the ITF expects us to accept, is the case of Wayne Odesnik.  Here is a guy who was caught with enough human growth hormone on his person to turn a mouse into a bull, and what was his penalty? A self imposed hiatus from the game and "cooperation" with the authorities that presumably would assist them in catching others doing the same thing as Odesnik.

To date, no such information has resulted in any such identification.  And he's back on tour again, by the way.  Not getting nearly the results he was getting before he was "banned", before I forget.

So although Noah and Blake don't have any positive specifics of players they know are doping and weren't caught, the evidence of the players who have been "caught" is so weak as to suggest that the one thing the anti-doping program doesn't do is...well, catch dopers.

So isn't this all much ado about nothing?  And isn't that Noah and  Blake's point?

1 comment:

keith said...

Really good comment and analysis.