Sep 072013
 

Malcolm Gladwell continues to argue against the ban on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in elite athletic competition. Since he is such an intelligent person and such a good writer, he should be held to a much higher standard than he’s managed to meet so far.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

One of the problems with Gladwell’s New Yorker article questioning the ban on doping in sports was how vague it was. He strongly hinted that he was in favor of legalizing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) but chose not to say so directly. Fortunately, he has removed all doubt about his position in a follow-up interview.

In the interview, we learn that Gladwell is in favor of “bringing PEDs in out of the cold” by “liberalizing” the rules against PED use. He supports legalizing and then regulating PEDs according to “medically appropriate principles.” He is also in favor of bringing “total transparency” to elite-level competitive sports by instituting “complete bio-passports for everyone” documenting the PEDs each athlete is taking and what the effects have been on, for example, their hematocrit levels.  According to Gladwell, his proposals will help to remedy the terrible unfairness that exists now, where athletes born with unfavorable genetic characteristics are not allowed to use all of the miracles of modern pharmaceutical science to remedy the disadvantages they face when competing against others with natural genetic gifts.

But won’t the average athlete then feel pressured to dope? asks the perceptive and probing interviewer. “I would never imagine that [PED use] would spread to weekend warriors,” replies Gladwell. Practically begged by the interviewer to acknowledge that critics of Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong are correct to condemn these athletes as “cheaters” who willfully flouted the rules against doping, even though those rules might not seem rational to him, Gladwell declines to do so. He prefers instead to call A-Rod a “rebel.” At the end of the interview, Gladwell plays the “that’s-just-the-way-it-is” card, suggesting that our current ban against PEDs is equivalent to pretending that we still live in the nineteenth century.

Does Gladwell imagine that this last barb will sting? If so, he’s mistaken. His entire position is nonsensical at best and for me at least, aesthetically (athletically?) ugly. Some of his critics have suggested that Gladwell’s value system is “messed up,” but that’s actually just fine. His logic is a complete mess.

Item 1: Imagine that we do what Gladwell suggests and legalize all “safe” forms of doping, regulating it according to “medically appropriate principles.” We collect and publish biopassports on all elite athletes, including whatever measurable physiological parameters Gladwell wants to include — hematocrit, VO2 max, lactate threshold, length of Achilles tendons — whatever. What will have changed? There will still be regulations prohibiting “unsafe” PED use that doesn’t adhere to “medically appropriate principles,” and these regulations will need to be policed. There will still be “rebel” athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will disagree with where the line has been drawn, and take it upon themselves to surreptitiously cross the line without admitting it. (Will Gladwell then be willing to call these athletes “cheaters”?) There will continue to be technological innovations that allow athletes to artificially increase some parameter that isn’t measured by the biopassports of the time. I can think of several plausible scenarios off the top of my head. How about glycogen storage? Will we measure that in the biopassport, and can we feasibly measure it? What about lung function? What about when a lab comes up with a pill that allows athletes to do the mental things that Gladwell recognizes are so important for elite athletic success but are nevertheless functions of genetic inheritance that Gladwell finds so unfair? Will we (can we?) assign athletes a “willpower” number, a “concentration” number, a “smile all night and focus on your own race a-la Rory Bosio” number for their biopassports? What should we do about the innate intelligence that allows athletes to strategize during a match, to learn from past competitions, and to outthink opponents? What if there were a pill that allowed all of us to become, like Rafael Nadal, the “Leonardo da Vinci of tennis“?

My point is that since Gladwell is still willing to say that he’d draw a line between permitted and forbidden PEDs, the regime that he advocates won’t be any different for the things that mattter to Gladwell than the one that exists now. Natural differences will still exist and will still make competitions “unfair.” If Gladwell imagines that technology can level the natural differences that make up the “great menagerie” and which prevent athletics from being a “contest among equals,” he’s going to have to go a lot further than allowing PEDs. Surgery for everyone to make their calves the same length. Frequent, documented VO2 max testing for all athletes. To imagine trying to eliminate natural differences between athletes is to reject it as impossible. The simple difficulty of distinguishing between differences arising from factors that Gladwell presumably can tolerate (better training, more willpower) from differences that are randomly assigned by genetic luck is enormous and will resist Gladwell’s liberalized PED-with-biopassport system. And so long as there are prohibitions, there will be athletes like Armstrong and A-Rod who will lie and cheat to get around them. These athletes will be “rebels” against Gladwell’s regime of rules, too, but at what point will Gladwell be willing to condemn them as cheaters?

Gladwell’s athletic PED-driven utopia will remain a fantasy. So the practical issue that requires debate is: Gladwell thinks the place where the line between permitted and forbidden athletic augmentation is currently drawn, isn’t drawn in the right place. He wants to draw one someplace else in order to permit more PEDs. But is he persuasive about the need to do this? No he isn’t.

Item 2: If Gladwell has an irrationally rosy view of what PEDs can do to eliminate natural differences between athletes, he has an equally rosy view about the consequences of liberalization for non-elite athletes. As a non-elite athlete myself, I can speak from personal experience that so much of athletic culture arises out of attempts of weekend warriors to emulate the elites. I’ll spend $170 for a pair of Salomon S-Lab Sense trail running shoes because that’s the shoe that Kilian Jornet wears! And Salomon knows this; their enormous budget for athlete sponsorship depends on this being true. Whatever your sport of choice, you don’t have to think for more than a second to know that this is true. Tennis? You want Rafael Nadal’s racket. Cycling? If you could drop five figures in cash for one of the bikes Mark Cavendish uses, you’d do it. We already rush out to the store to buy Udo’s Oil because our favorite runner is adding it to their cottage cheese — if that runner was publicly adding microdoses of epo, only the financial burdens would keep the weekend warriors from using it, too. And anyone who’s seen some fat corporate lawyer pedaling along Lake Michigan in Chicago on a Saturday with his corpulent self perched upon the same bike model Chris Froome rode up the Alpe d’Huez will realize that this financial barrier doesn’t apply to all weekend warriors. Would it really matter if everyday schlubs were taking epo? Maybe, maybe not, but Gladwell is prosaically wrong when he says that they won’t.

Item 3: The safety of PEDs isn’t a binary thing, such that one set of PED regimens are safe, and another set are unsafe. Gladwell imagines that we should permit “safe” PED use, but how do we identify which uses are safe? There are no clearly agreed-upon “medically appropriate principles” that separate reasonable, prudent use of PEDs from unreasonable and imprudent. Like all drugs, the magnitude of the risks from PEDs exist on a spectrum, and the point at which anyone draws a line between “safe” and “unsafe”, “medically appropriate” and not, is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. Gladwell in his interview mentions the current UCI cutoff for a rider’s hematocrit level in cycling – 50%. There is a limit because in the recent past riders have died after their blood sludged in their vessels and stopped flowing because their hematocrits were so high. So the UCI drew an arbitrary line at 50% hematocrit and declared that riders would not be permitted to race if their hematocrit was higher than this. That doesn’t mean that a 50% hematocrit is “safe” while 51% is “unsafe.” 50% is safer than 51%. It is more dangerous than 49%. The safety and risk profile of elevated hematocrit levels is gradually sloping, not binary. The UCI’s limit is, inevitably, an arbitrary one. Perhaps it’s appropriate and perhaps not, but it is arbitrary, and reasonable people will disagree about where to draw the line. If Gladwell is unsatisfied with the current limits, he can’t just say “increase the limit until it becomes unsafe.” He’s got to make the more difficult argument that the inevitable loss of safety he’s proposing will be worth it. He hasn’t made this argument.

Item 4: “Fairness” in sports isn’t the kind of “fairness” that Gladwell says he wants. Gladwell’s use of the word “fair” when applied to sports is very odd. To say that a sporting competition is “fair” usually means that all of the competitors are required to play by the same rules. That they all know what those rules are and that they all abide by them. Gladwell, by contrast, thinks that natural differences in athletic ability between athletes renders the competition “unfair.” This is true in a simplistic sense, and we already do a good job of correcting for this. Sumo wrestling contests between 350-lb men and 35-lb girls are “unfair” in this sense. It is “unfair” to expect a 50-year-old runner to outsprint Usain Bolt over 100 meters. We have age-group awards in marathons because we understand that our athletic ability waxes and wanes over the course of our lives, naturally. We have weight classes in boxing to ensure that fighters with roughly equal physical attributes fight each other. But we don’t prohibit on grounds of “unfairness” someone with a naturally low percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers in their legs from sprinting against Usain Bolt. We’re prepared to say, simply, that this guy just isn’t as good a sprinter as Bolt is, not that Bolt wins “unfairly.”

Our common understanding of what “fair” competition means makes sense. Lance Armstrong was the perpetrator of “unfair” competition when he chose to race the Tour de France using dope. He was not the victim of unfairness because his un-doped hematocrit may have been less than Jan Ullrich’s or Iban Mayo’s.

Gladwell is in a tiny minority of people who evidently derive no pleasure from seeing naturally-gifted athletes demonstrate their natural advantages in competitions against other gifted athletes. It’s a beautiful thing to watch Usain Bolt run precisely because of his natural gifts of speed, which Bolt has augmented to the maximum possible level with training. When I watch Bolt sprint, I’m not rueing how unfair it is that some other sprinter wasn’t born with the same combination of fast-twich muscle fibers, oxygen-utilizing capacity, leg shape, and lung size of Usain Bolt. I feel sad for Malcolm Gladwell that he, apparently, fails to see beauty in Bolt’s running, and sees unfairness instead.

Item 5: Seriously Mr. Gladwell, the nineteenth century? This is the kind of rhetorical device that makes me cringe, and someone with the intelligence and insight of Malcolm Gladwell shouldn’t stoop to using it. Obviously, it’s untrue. Because we prohibit some technologies that improve athletic performance and prohibit others, does not mean we’re somehow anti-technology in general, or that we prefer to live in the past. Even Malcolm Gladwell, presumably, would retain some limits on PED use, and not allow athletes to use any and every technology to help them win, but that doesn’t mean Gladwell is some kind of Luddite. Obviously, neither are Gladwell’s critics who would like to retain the current bans on PEDs in sports.

Sep 042013
 

Malcolm Gladwell asks a provocative question about doping in sports — why not?

He imagines baseball player and accused doper Alex Rodriguez asking why, if pitchers can use the technological marvels of Tommy John surgery to prolong their careers, why shouldn’t he be able to use the technological marvels of endocrinology (e.g. erythropoetin injections) to prolong his own career? Gladwell also imagines Lance Armstrong, cyclist and serial doper, asking why “one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not?” when the only difference between the two men is that one has lots of red blood cells from birth, because of genetics, while the other achieves the same physiological condition by doping.

Lance Armstrong (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Dope: Lance Armstrong (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Gladwell suggests that we embrace a “vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” The implied suggestion is that we legalize doping as a form of science that can compensate for natural differences. We embrace much of this technological vision already, so long as the science and intelligence extends to better shoes or better surgeries for injury, but not to erythropoetin or anabolic steroids. Gladwell is provoking those of us who oppose doping to explain why we don’t like it — and that’s a lot more difficult than it might seem at first.

I am disappointed that Gladwell seems unable to explicitly state that he’s arguing for a legalization of doping in sports. I’m disappointed that he seems unable to bring himself to acknowledge that most of the moral condemnation of athletes like A-Rod and Armstrong comes not from the fact that they doped, but from the fact that they violated explicit rules against doping and then lied about it. Set those things aside, though, and what’s left is an interesting question: why not allow athletes to dope? That would give us the kind of athletics Gladwell seems to pine for, the kind of sports where there are no restrictions on “taking the body that nature [has] given you and forcibly changing it.”

As an athlete, I aspire to bring out the best performances I can given the limits I was born with. I like training for competitions not just because I want to beat people in races but also because I enjoy optimizing my own performance, given my natural talents and limits. For me, it’s not all about forcibly changing my body through any means available, it’s about becoming more healthy and fit. I don’t think that goal is compatible with taking epo. But this is a deeply personal reason why I don’t dope.

As a spectator, I’m opposed to doping on aesthetic grounds. I just finished pulling an all-nighter refreshing iRunFar’s live coverage of the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. 2469 mountain runners started this race around the base of Mont Blanc, but as usual, by 80 kms into the race, the expected elites were running well in front of the enormous field. It wasn’t surprising that people like Julien Chorier, Miguel Heras, and Timothy Olson were among the few athletes contending for podium spots. These elite runners were at the front because they had done the arduous training for a race like the UTMB, but also because they almost certainly have the genetic characteristics that enable them to excel at long mountain trail races.

For me — and this is where I seem to differ from Gladwell — these advantages conferred at birth don’t make it less interesting to watch these athletes perform. In fact, I enjoy watching how much better these naturally gifted people can run precisely because of these genetic differences that the athletes themselves had no control over. My appreciation for watching Kilian Jornet run up a hill faster than anyone else is increased, not decreased, by my knowledge that Jornet has such a high VO2 max, a physiologic characteristic determined in part by training but also in large part by genetics. So that’s what a high VO2 max looks like!

Oihana Kortazar atop the Zegama-Aizkorri podium (photo: iRunFar)

No dope: Oihana Kortazar atop the Zegama-Aizkorri podium (photo: iRunFar)

In contrast, as soon as I know or suspect that Lance Armstrong is climbing Mont Ventoux so well because he’s injecting epo or taking steroids, I lose interest. His performance loses any ability to inspire or awe because what I’m seeing is his body’s response to dope and not his naturally given talent. One way to state my objection is that I’m not interested in seeing what Gladwell seems to want to see, what he describes as “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.” Instead, I’d like to see “a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to make the most of the natural differences we’re given from birth.” For me, the beauty of competition is exactly the revealing and display of those natural differences which seem to bother Gladwell so much. (Set aside the likelihood that “sheer will” is itself a natural difference — why does Gladwell not object to competitions on this ground?)

So I have an aesthetic difference with Gladwell, but I also think his vaguely-stated argument for doping is weak on its merits. Assuming doping is legalized, presumably athletes would then have to rely on other differences between them in order to win competitions. But are those other differences so different from the ones Gladwell thinks would be erased with doping? Armstrong’s defenders often make the plausible argument that he won races not because he doped, but because he doped better than anyone else in a peloton where everyone was doping. But how did Armstrong manage to do this? He might have been smarter (a natural difference), more unscrupulous (presumably a natural difference), or he might have just been luckier (which is exactly the kind of natural difference when applied to muscle strength or VO2 max that Gladwell wants to eliminate with dope). Or it might turn out that Armstrong was simply blessed with a body — from birth — that responded better than his rivals’ to erythropoeitin and steroids. If Gladwell is objecting to the unfairness of natural differences per se among athletes, allowing for doping isn’t going to solve the problem. Competitions between doped athletes will simply shift into a different arena where other natural differences become important.

And what of Gladwell’s point that a ban on doping seems arbitrary when other means of “taking the body that nature [has] given you and forcibly changing it” are allowed? Why ban doping but allow reconstructive surgery? Why ban erythropoeitin but allow iodine supplementation? There’s an easy version of this question, when surgery is used to repair an injury or iodine supplementation is used to reverse a deficiency that causes goiter, but what about the hard case? Why not have surgery before any injuries in order to prevent them? Why not acknowledge that taking steroids is similar to taking nutritional supplements?

Almost any line you can draw between methods of improving performance that are allowed and those that are not will be somewhat arbitrary — there will be methods that could arguably fall on either side of the line. But that’s not an argument for not drawing a line, that’s just an acknowledgment that at the margins the interpretation of rules and laws is subtle and requires judgment that will always be somewhat arbitrary. We can argue about where exactly to draw the line, but only after we agree that a line should be drawn somewhere. I think the current line allowing athletes to supplement their diets with fish oil but not with anabolic steroids is a good place to draw the line. Fish oil is more like food and less like a drug; fish oil has few negative side-effects, steroids have many dangerous side effects. Perhaps it’s merely an aesthetic difference that I have with Gladwell and maybe Gladwell will condescend to arguing more specifically where he’d like to see the line between permitted and forbidden drawn.

But Gladwell — with allowances for his vague hinting and his beating-around-the-bush — seems to want to say that there ought not to be any lines, that any means at all of “forcibly changing” the body that nature has given you should be permitted. That’s certainly one vision of athletic competition, but not one that I want to see.

If Gladwell is right that allowing doping really would level the playing field and narrow arbitrary natural differences, it would drain competitions between elites of the beauty that the revelation of natural differences through training and competition reveal. It would make the top performers even more freakishly different from the rest of us who don’t dope than they are now. Gladwell might revel in that torturing of nature, but I wouldn’t.

But if Gladwell is wrong (as I think he is) that doping would eliminate natural differences between athletes, then we would still be stuck with the “fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity” that Gladwell thinks is a such a problem. In addition, though, legal doping would subject elite athletes to more of the unpleasant and dangerous side-effects of the technological tortures that would be required to win top events.

In the interest of communicating some of the revulsion I feel about removing limits on doping, I’ll reach for florid language. Gladwell’s regime would turn the Tour de France and the UTMB into a freak show between cyborgs with “thin papery skin” who can’t sit still in a chair because they have no buttocks. In Gladwell’s regime, the beauty of seeing a supremely healthy Kilian Jornet or Sage Canaday run off the front of the pack would be obscured by Jornet’s or Canaday’s muddling along amid a pack of amped-up products of Amgen and Glaxo with buffalo humps and tiny testicles (and that’s only the best-case scenario, where doping works as intended and Kilian and Sage don’t dope). We’d certainly do more to take the bodies nature has given us and forcibly change them. But instead of shaping a healthy Kilian Jornet or Ellie Greenwood with training and diet that revealed those athletes’ beautiful biological gifts that they received from birth, much like Michelangelo revealed a beautiful David by shaping marble, we’d likely manufacture a pack of freaks that resemble Michael Jackson in the years just before he managed to overdose on that other technological marvel, propofol.

Gladwell might want to see more of that, but I don’t.

 

Oct 272012
 

UCI President Pat McQuaid (Stephen Farrand)

Pat McQuaid, President of the UCI, whom Greg LeMond has said should “f##k off  and resign,” apparently thinks Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton are “scumbags.”

Mc Quaid is entitled to his opinion, of course, on these kinds of esthetic character judgments.  But I have to admit that, if given the choice of sitting down for a beer with Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, or Pat McQuaid, I’d be inclined to choose the disgraced doping former cyclists over the current UCI president.

It’s not that I have any particular love for scumbags.  It’s that Pat McQuaid is one of the last people I’d ever trust to pick out the scumbags from any crowd.  Why?  McQuaid, even if he isn’t actually corrupt, may just be irredeemably stupid.  Being a mere scumbag isn’t a bar to an interesting conversation.  Stupidity, sadly, often is.

I don’t know Hamilton, Landis, or McQuaid.  But from what I’ve seen over the past few weeks, McQuaid’s bulb doesn’t burn very bright.

The UCI, in ratifying the USADA’s decision to strip Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories and ban him for life, admits by that action that USADA’s reasoned decision is persuasive on the question of whether Lance Armstrong won those Tours by cheating and using PEDs.  If it is persuasive about that question, it cannot but be even more persuasive on the question of whether doping was prevalent and widespread during the years Armstrong was racing.  Armstrong himself has never admitted to doping, but riders like Hincapie, Leipheimer, Zabriskie, etc. all confessed to repeated doping, with the assistance of a support network of doctors and directors sportif who looked the other way or encouraged the cheating.

Who was supposed to be in charge of policing these riders and teams?  The UCI.  Clearly, the UCI failed miserably in that mission.  That’s point one.

Point two is that since the USADA investigation was made public and the UCI was forced to strip Armstrong of his victories, Pat McQuaid has done only the bare minimum required to convince the sponsors and fans of cycling that the Armstrong affair won’t just be another repeat of the 1998 Festina affair, where a big stink was made about doping and then everyone got right back to it when the fuss died down.  He’s giving every appearance of kicking and screaming the whole way.

Point three: Pat McQuaid refuses to drop his lawsuit against Paul Kimmage.

Point four: Pat McQuaid publicly accuses Landis and Hamilton of being “scumbags” at the very moment that the problem of an omertà in the professional cycling peloton is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.  That, Pat, will do nothing to squelch that rumor.  It would be stupid of you not to realize that.

Point five: Pat McQuaid, after finding the USADA reasoned decision persuasive enough to strip Armstrong’s titles and impose a lifetime ban, goes on about how flawed the USADAs investigative techniques were, about how the USADA report included “animated or overstated language,” and implies that the USADA had a conflict of interest in investigating Armstrong. “It would have been better that the evidence collected by USADA had been assessed by a neutral body or person who was not involved in collecting the evidence and prosecuting the defendant.”  REALLY?  The USADA is the neutral body who was investigating Armstrong, because the conflicted body, the UCI, wasn’t doing it.  The breathtaking stupidity of this statement boggles my mind.  Travis Tygart of the USADA responds succinctly: “We set forth our position on why they were conflicted in this case on many different grounds. They accepted money from him (Armstrong), they accused us of a witch-hunt (without seeing any evidence), they sued the chief whistleblower, they discouraged witnesses from participating. They simply are trying to divert attention away from their own failures in this whole sad saga, and those that love the sport of cycling and clean sport should not allow that to happen.”  Exactly.  But Pat McQuaid says the USADA is the conflicted party.  That’s not just defensive; that’s stupid.

Point six: Pat Mc Quaid, if he wasn’t so stupid, would realize that the cloud of mistrust and suspicion that hangs over the UCI will not go away if he, Pat McQuaid, does not resign.  His failure to see that is the stupidest thing he’s done so far.

Tyler Hamilton may be a scumbag; I don’t know.  I’ve never met him.  But he’s certainly correct about the Armstrong affair and the role of Pat McQuaid: “Pat McQuaid’s comments expose the hypocrisy of his leadership and demonstrate why he is incapable of any meaningful change,” Hamilton said in a statement released on Tuesday.  “Instead of siezing an opportunity to instill hope for the next generation of cyclists, he continues to point fingers, shift blame and attack those who speak out, tactics that are no longer effective. Pat McQuaid has no place in cycling.”

Pat McQuaid should do as LeMond suggests.  Resign.  Perhaps it won’t save cycling and its fans from his corruption, but it will save them from his stupidity.