Written By Dr Christopher Gyngell
The 7th of February 2013 was described as the “darkest day in Australian sport”. On this date the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) released results from a 12 month investigation detailing the extensive use of performance enhancing and illicit drugs in professional sport. Continue reading
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:
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
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.
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 http://www.letsrun.com, 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?
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.
FIFA want referees to be tested for drugs: delegates at FIFA’s medical congress were told by FIFA officers that referees in the future might be tested for doping. “We have to consider referees as part of the game,” said FIFA’s chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak. “We do not have an indication that this is a problem but this is something we have to look at. The referees are a neglected population.”
One might of course wonder whether this is typical extension of regulations beyond where they make sense, perhaps driven by Parkinsonian expansion of bureaucracy. If there has not been any indications of a problem, it doesn’t seem rational to try to solve it. To investigate whether there is an undetected problem in the first place and then try to solve it if there is one is rational, but starting out with banning doping in judges regardless of whether it matters sounds a bit like a “everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer” mindset from the anti-doping organisations.
Maybe some doping of referees might actually make the sport better?
In an interesting article, “Why we’re the best”, Oliver Poole writing in the Evening Standard yesterday claims:
Culture, environment and genes are all cited as reasons for sporting success. But it is practice that really makes perfect.
He cites evidence that it not some genetic advantage that makes Kenyan runners so great but the fact that they run barefoot from an early age. Usain Bolt? It is not that he is biologically very different – his brilliant performances are apparently due to eating yams.
It is a mistake to draw the conclusion that genetic factors are not important in sporting performance from the fact that science has not so far identified genetic contributors to sporting performance. Our understanding of our own biology is exponentially increasing but still limited. We don’t know what most genes do or even really why humans age. How much of a sporting performance is the result of innate talent, mental determination or training is difficult to say.
It’s certainly true to be a good high jumper you have to train a lot at high jump. But you also have to be tall. And how tall you can be is limited by your personal biology. It may be that elite athletes could come from any country in the world, if only they had the specialized training to bring out the potential of their gifted citizens. But one of the myths of elite sport that many of us cherish is that anyone could be the best, if only he or she tried hard enough. That, I believe, is sadly not true.
Sporting performance is likely to be mixture of innate biological capacity, training and mental application. The opportunity to be the best, or even self-supporting professional, is likely to be open to a small minority. This drives some to take dangerous performance enhancing drugs or give up or be a spectator.
If we were concerned about human well-being, we would shift our concern from elite sport to making sport a part of culture and everyday life, like tai chi. We have become a culture of elite sportspeople, investors in sport, and unhealthy spectators. Sport should be fun, good for you, the opportunity to develop talents and social. And most of all, something which is really open to all. Elite sport is not.
A great sporting performance is a beautiful and admirable thing. But it is better to be a player than a spectator, in sport and in life.
Nitrates in food reduces the oxygen cost of some forms of exercise and improves high-intensity exercise tolerance. So the researchers gave half a litre of beetroot juice (which is rich in nitrate) or a nitrate depleted placebo to club-level competitive cyclists. The nitrate juice produced better cycling performance when compared to the placebo. On a 16.1 km race beet juice reduced the total time by 2.7% – not much, but presumably enough to matter in a competition.
In any case, this is fun for doping discussions. Should we ban athletes from quaffing beet juice?