Political Change and the Olympic Games

by Luke Davies

The upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi has been in the news a lot recently. The controversy, as you will already know, is a result the introduction of another law discriminating against the LGBT community in Russia—Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation, the so-called “gay propaganda” law. [1] This law will allow the government to fine anyone who spreads propaganda about “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. (The meaning of “propaganda” and “nontraditional sexual relations” is left quite ambiguous.) Given the insistence of Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko that competing athletes and visiting spectators must obey the laws of the country, there has been some disagreement about what to do. There are different levels of concern being given priority in the media, some more pertinent from an ethical perspective than others.

Here’s a spoiler: The trivial concerns have to do with the politics of the Olympic Games themselves; the real concern is with the harm to people’s lives in Russia. Continue reading

Doping…When Will We Learn?

The second fastest runner of all time, USA’s Tyson Gay, has reportedly tested positive for a banned substance, along with the Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell, and Sherone Simpson making for shocked headlines across the world.

But this is just one high profile story amongst a recent rash of news stories across sports and across countries. In athletics, 24  Turkish athletes are confirmed to have tested positive this year; Australian Rules Football is still reeling from the ongoing Essendon scandal; and over in the United States, inquiries into an anti ageing laboratory said to supply human growth hormone to top baseball players are ongoing. Whilst the 100th Tour de France is so far untainted by positive tests, cycling doping cases have continued this year with two Giro D’Italia riders testing positive.

Still there is a sense that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Chris Froome, now tested at the end of each stage as the yellow jersey, has been relentlessly hounded over whether his recent impressive performances are due to doping.

1. The Failure of Zero Tolerance

We don’t know which individuals are doping and which are not. One thing we do know is that the zero tolerance ban on doping has failed.

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Forced Physical Exercise as an Intervention for Mental Disorders?

Studies have shown that regular physical activity has benefits for mental health: exercise can help people to recover from depression and anxiety disorders. However, not all people like exercise, and a mental disorder like depression can additionally decrease motivation for physical activity. So the disorder itself might inhibit behaviour that helps to overcome it.

We would assume that pressurising people is no solution here: several studies have shown that restricting freedom of choice or control increases stress in both humans and animals. However, new research tentatively indicates that controllability might play a smaller role than expected when it comes to exercise, and that even forced exercise might protect against depression and anxiety symptoms:

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Football scandal shapes the future of a one world government

A recent football scandal has broken to the surface of what is likely a deep swamp of corruption. At least 680 matches are dubious, probably many more. But how come law enforcement haven’t been able to stamp out this epidemic? Well, as stated:

We are organized in Singapore, I flew from Budapest, the match is in Finland, we’re wagering in the Philippines using masked computer clusters from Bangkok to Jakarta. Our communications are refracted across so many cell networks and satellites that they’re almost impossible to unravel. The money will move electronically, incomprehensibly, through a hundred different nowheres.

No current legal system can cope. But legal football is huge business – if the current scandals persist, and start biting into the clubs’ bottom lines, they will put huge pressure on legal authorities to clamp down (or to seem to clamp down). And if not football, then the next major industry suffering from organised crime more than they benefit from it. Continue reading

Yet Another Reason to Legalise Doping in Sport: Organised Crime

Unsurprisingly, the Australian Crime Commission has found widespread use of performance enhancing drugs in sport in Australia and the involvement of organized crime in its distribution.

I have given many arguments for why it would be better for athletes, spectators and sport to liberalise laws currently banning performance enhancing drugs. I have also argued that they are likely to be involved in all sports – football, baseball, rugby, soccer, and so on, and not merely in athletics and cycling.

The Australian Crime Commission report suggests another reason to legalise drugs in sport – that would be the most effective way of reducing the involvement of organized crime in the doping market. As experience with recreational drugs has shown, bans inevitably fail, harm the user and invite crime. The way to put drug lords out of business is to legalise the substance.

When prostitution, alcohol, abortion or recreational drugs are banned, organized crime moves in to deliver the desired product or service. The best to deal with these issues is not through some fanatical moralistic war but through legalization, oversight, regulation, monitoring and harm reduction.

When will we learn?

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Armstrong Confesses: What Now?

On the eve of his confession, Armstrong is apparently ruined. The International Cycling Union (UCI) has stripped Lance Armstrong of his titles. Sponsors and Tour organisers want millions of dollars returned. UCI president Pat McQuaid said, “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling. He deserves to be forgotten.”

But doping will always be present in sport. A zero-tolerance approach will always fail. But so too will any policy which attempts to restrict access to performance enhancing drugs and interventions in competitive sport. The question is what kind and how many failures will there be. We should choose the policy which best promotes the values of health, spectator interest, enforceability, fair competition and human excellence. That is a policy of regulated access to performance enhancing drugs.

The zero tolerance ban on drugs in sport is an example of the spectacular victory of ideology, wishful thinking, moralism and naivity over ethics and common sense. Human beings have limitations. Lance Armstrong is no god, but he is also no devil.

We should change the rules, and take Armstrong off the bonfire. There will, after all, be more like him

For a more detailed discussion, see this (draft) paper

An opinion piece on Armstrong is forthcoming in this Saturday’s Age

The Fable of Speeding and Prance Legstrong

Imagine that the Teetotaler party came to power. They stood for family, safety and old fashioned values. Their first target was the car and the speeding culture. They wanted driving to be as safe as possible. Indeed, they would have preferred it if there were no driving cars at all and people returned to bicycles or horsedrawn carts. But they knew that was impossible. People were used to driving cars.

So they slashed the speed limits from 100km/hr to 50 on open roads, and 60km/hr to 20 in built up areas. This, it was proven, was a safer speed to drive at.

Nearly everyone, however, sped. It was just more convenient – you could do so much more. And it cut down travelling times for work, so people could get a competitive advantage by getting to work earlier and leaving later.

Some professions involved speeding. Couriers, truck drivers, and salesmen all sped. There were a few speed cameras but they picked up people only rarely and many had camera detectors installed in their cars. People continued to drive at 100km/hr, just as they always had. Those who were caught were punished heavily – banned for a couple of years.

However, the benefits of speeding, or going at what was the previous limit, vastly outweighed the punishments.

One particularly successful courier was Prance Legstrong. He used to speed and deliver packages quicker than any other service. He established DEEHL, a courier service that became more successful than US postal. Pretty soon, he was a multimillionaire.

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The Ban on Doping, Not Armstrong, Is the Problem with Cycling: Armstrong Is a Scapegoat for Cycling’s Hypocrisy

The International Cycling Union has stripped Lance Armstrong of his 7 Tour de France wins . UCI president Pat McQuaid said: “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling. He deserves to be forgotten.”

The UCI is acting in response to a “Reasoned Decision” by USADA , which claims Armstrong presided over “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”.

The decision includes the findings that:

“He was not just a part of the doping culture on his team, he enforced and re-enforced it.”

And the conclusion that, with their disposal of Armstrong:

“So ends one of the most sordid chapters in sporting history.”

Public condemnation has been swift, and harsh:

“Lance Armstrong has made it hard for anyone to trust cycling”

(British Cycling boss Dave Brailsford) .

“LANCE Armstrong is a creep. A liar, cheat and a bully. So awful is Armstrong, you are right to question whether all his work for cancer patients is not just calculated camouflage to protect his abuse of drugs, his competitors, teammates and supporters.

He is not just part of the drug regime that saturated cycling when he was at his peak, but he has been that culture’s bodyguard. Its enforcer. And he remains so today, arrogantly dismissing the US Anti-Doping Agency findings by telling the world through Twitter that he was “unaffected” by the release of the 1000-page investigation findings. No one in sport has lived a bigger lie.”

The Australian

It is hard in the face of the evidence presented to imagine that Armstrong rode clean. Nevertheless, he has become a scapegoat for endemic problems in cycling and sport that go far beyond the purview of any one rider, however successful and charasmatic.

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Armstrong and Hesch: A tale of two athletes

Last week, shockwaves went through the sporting media as Nike officially cut ties with Lance Armstrong and Armstrong stood down as chairman of his Livestrong charity in the light of a massive swathe of damning evidence released by USADA, the USA’s anti-doping agency. Lost in the waves were the ripples of another doping story: little-known US runner Christian Hesch admitted to two years of EPO (erythropoietin; hormone controlling red blood cell production) use. Little needs to be said about the achievements of Armstrong, the most celebrated cyclist in modern sporting history. A ‘road warrior’, Hesch is a member of a sub-elite class of athletes who earn their living travelling from road race (running) to road race picking up small winnings, sometimes with a little travel/equipment support from racing teams. With a 3:58 mile best, he has never and will never make the Olympics; he is unknown outside of the USA’s running community where he made himself visible with flamboyant racing outfits and finish-line stunts.

In 2010, Hesch was hit by a car, picking up minor injuries and putting him ‘out of business’ for 5 months. With no workman’s comp, he turned to EPO to speed his return to racing fitness. While Armstrong was retiring from competitive cycling, Hesch was making trips down to Tijuana, Mexico, and smuggling EPO vials back into the USA, stuffed into his pockets. Armstrong was part of what USADA has referred to as “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that the sport has ever seen”; Hesch was architect of his own doping programme, injecting himself 54 times over the course of two years. He was rarely tested; eventually team-mates from Nike Team Run LA found evidence of drug use in his possession and presented him with an own-up-or-we’ll-tell ultimatum. They contacted USADA on September 6th and Hesch promptly confessed. While breaking the news himself on popular running forum, he posted “I want to make it clear that I don’t blame anyone for any & all feelings against me, it’s my bed that I’ve made and I will sleep in it… hopefully, someday I can earn your respect back.”

When it comes to the very top level endurance sport athletes, where the bar is set in terms of legal vs. illegal enhancements appears largely irrelevant. The current legal list currently includes altitude tents for the ‘natural’ EPO effect, high doses of caffeine, medication to correct previously undiagnosed asthmatic and thyroid conditions and a lot more. The USADA evidence suggests that in many cases where illegal doping is happening in combination with these legal supplements, it is being very closely monitored by medical teams. The argument for saying “make everything legal and be damned with it” is clear.

Is the same true for athletes coming through, and athletes on the cusp of the professional ranks? Is a scenario where, to compete with the pros or even be noticed it is a requirement to be on EPO and HGH, in the best interests of athletes; especially young athletes? Become a top athlete and you have a medical team to monitor you; until then, the choice may end up being between Tijuana, a syringe and a bathroom stall, or being an also-ran. Consider also the implications for athletes in developing nations like Kenya (where reports of more widespread doping are starting to appear); drugs with significant risks attached like EPO can be fairly cheap and easy to procure, medical supervision can be less so.

Given that we cannot protect all athletes with medical monitoring, is it better to protect them with a culture in which use of these drugs is wrong,  and with the knowledge that even the mightiest and best-protected of cheaters can fall?

Hillsborough, Heysel and the Availability Bias

One of my clearest childhood memories is of seeing images  of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster on the television news. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died in the crush, with an estimated 766 injured. I lived on the other side of the world, had never been to see a football game, and presumably had little comprehension of what the victims had gone through, yet the images of the crush, and of a few people being hauled to safety from it, made a strong and disturbing impression. Continue reading