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

Why Does the USADA Want Convicted Dopers to Win the Tour de France?

Lance Armstrong may be stripped of his 7 Tour De France wins after he announced today that he will mount no defence against USADA’s charges of doping throughout his career.

USADA have claimed this as a victory, calling the result “a reassuring reminder that there is hope for future generations to compete on a level playing field without the use of performance-enhancing drugs”.

If Armstrong is stripped of his Tour victories, the new list of “winners” will contain many names familiar to those who have followed cycling’s infamous doping scandals: Jan Ullrich (banned for doping), Ivan Basso (banned for doping), Andreas Klöden (accused of blood doping- the case was closed when he made a 25000 Euro payment to settle the charges, without an admission of guilt. NADA, the German anti-doping agency, have recently expressed an interest in re-opening the case),  and Joseba Beloki (implicated though not charged in Operacion Puerto investigations). Of the new victors, only Jaan Kirsipuu has been neither implicated nor proven to be doping. If he is the hope that USADA is banking on, it is a slim one. Along with many who have previously been banned for doping, Basso and Klöden are still riding, still performing at a competitive elite level (5th in Giro d’Italia 2012 and 11th in Tour de France 2012 respectively). The Olympic gold medal in road cycling was won by Vinokourov, another convicted doper.

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A Lack of Olympic Spirit

This morning, the men’s Olympic under 80 kg Taekwondo competition takes place. However, the British competitor widely regarded as the world’s best fighter in that category will not be taking part. Instead, a competitor ranked 59th in the world will be fighting in his place. Neither the British Taekwondo Association, nor the British Olympic association, nor the World Taekwondo Federation come out of the affair looking good. In particular, the latter two bodies seem to have shown either a basic ignorance of human nature, or a wilful refusal to resolve a gross injustice.

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The Philosophy of Bad Badminton: Another Look

Julian Savulescu brings an interesting and characteristically uncompromising philosophical perspective today to the Badminton scandal in which four pairs were disqualified from the Olympics for intending to lose their matches in order to obtain a preferred draw in the next round. The players were ejected for violating parts of the Players’ Code of Conduct that is set by the governing body of the sport: the Badminton World Federation (BWF). In particular, they were found to have violated sections 4.5 and 4.16 of the Code, which respectively prohibit “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”

Savulescu argues that the players should not have been disqualified, and that the rules for the draw should be changed. He is right the rules for the draw should be changed: they should be designed so that winning a match always confers on the players some advantage in the tournament, or at least never a disadvantage. Why not, for example, simply let the most successful teams choose first who they will face in the next round? One questionable feature of this week’s events is that the badly formulated rules for the format of the draw were instituted by the BWF. So the BWF, acting as legislator, judge and jury on the conduct of the players, itself had a vested interest in shifting the blame for the fiasco of non-competitive games onto the players themselves.

Still, it is reasonable to ask whether it would have been right for a properly impartial judging body to disqualify the players in this case. Savulescu’s post suggests, as far as I can see, four arguments against:

A) The players were using a strategy to win the tournament, and logically, a strategy cannot be abusive or detrimental to the sport.
B) The rules are not clear.
C) The rules are absurd.
D) The rules depend on a distinction between intending and foreseeing which is philosophically unsustainable.

So let’s assess these four arguments.

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Philosophy and the Badminton Scandal

I was emailed by a journalist yesterday from Bloomberg for a comment on the Badminton expulsion scandal. Several teams have been expelled for deliberately losing to gain better places in the draw to increase their chances of winning.

Here is the story that came out in Bloomberg

Here is the actual quote I sent the journalist:

“The players were ejected for violating the Players’ Code of Conduct, Sections 4.5 and 4.6, for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”

However, many competitors fail for various psychological reasons to use their best efforts to win a match. Having a temper tantrum is hardly using your best efforts. And since when is strategy abusive to sport. If there is a problem, then the rules for the draw should be changed. This is typical of the puritanical moralism that is infecting sport. First it was a war on performance enhancement because it was against the spirit of sport – nonsense, it is the spirit of sport. Now we see the same moralists trying to define a good sport and enforce some anachronistic account of the spirit of sport. Boo them by all means, but don’t disqualify them if they have not broken clear rules. This kind of subjective code of conduct belongs to Victorian times. It is absurd to have a rule that you have to try to win in competitive sport. It’s like having a law that you have to try to love someone in a marriage. Of course you should do it, but it’s absurd to have rules that require it. You can get dropped from the team, or booed, or divorced, for not trying hard enough – but this is not the place for these kinds of rules or laws.”

One thing I did not write was that there is another philosophical diagnosis of this scandal. That is, attachment on the part of Olympic officials to the so-called “intention-foresight” distinction that also grounds the famous Catholic Doctrine of Double Effect. According to the intention-foresight distinction, there is a moral distinction between the effects of our actions that we intend and those that we foresee, but don’t directly intend.

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Should Men and Women be segregated in professional Sports?

When I zapped into the Olympics opening ceremony on Saturday, I had the doubtful pleasure to see the German sportspeople entering the stadium in ridiculously gendered jackets – pink for the girls, light blue for the boys. This renewed an admittedly rather old question in my mind: Should men and women be segregated in professional sports?

There are some mixed-gender sports, like Equestrian. Many others, however, ranging from Boxing and Football to Golf, Bowling, and Pool Billiard are gender-segregated at a professional level.

Different arguments are mentioned for why men and women should be segregated in sports. These range from pub debate level (“I would not be able to concentrate if my opponents were girls in such tight tricots”) to more complicated matters (“Forcing men and women together excludes people whose religious views prohibit having mixed-gender competitions”). However, in every case the main argument seems to be: Due to physical differences, women cannot compete with men in sports.

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