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Friday Five: On doping and tennis

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Wayne Odesnik

Wayne Odesnik was caught trying to import HGH into Australia and was suspended from the game. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Performance-enhancing drugs have been a growing eyesore in sports. From baseball to cycling, increasing allegations of doping have led to stripped titles and asterisks in history books. Tennis has stayed relatively off the radar on the issue as a sport that relies on intelligence and hand-eye coordination more than pure strength, but the game is evolving into a much more physical task. Now, USADA’s report on Lance Armstrong has some parts that the tennis world can’t ignore.

Here are five thoughts on tennis’ relation to doping, why we should care and why reckless speculation gets us nowhere.

1. Implications of the Armstrong report: In its 202-page “Reasoned Decision,” USADA paints a clear picture of how the sophisticated, far-reaching doping ring flourished in cycling, a sport in which endurance and recovery are everything. The doctors who allegedly helped the athletes outwit and out-maneuver testers didn’t dabble solely in the cycling world. Most notably, Dr. Luis García del Moral, one of the alleged masterminds of the doping program, has ties to a tennis academy in Valencia, Spain, where David Ferrer, Sara Errani, Marat Safin and Dinara Safina have trained.

The report also discusses the use of hypoxic chambers to help cyclists fool EPO tests. These are the same hyperbaric chambers that have been used by numerous tennis players, from Novak Djokovic to American Christina McHale. None of this alone means anything, and drawing conclusive links is both dangerous and irresponsible. But they don’t mean nothing either. The Armstrong report puts every sport under the microscope.

2. The facts say tennis isn’t clean: In the last 10 years, the ITF has reported 37 doping cases, according to USA Today. While the cases have generally focused on lower-level players who aren’t household names, it’s still enough to cast a shadow on tennis. Consider, too, the case of Wayne Odesnik, the American who was caught trying to bring HGH into Australia in 2010. The ITF reduced his two-year ban in half, noting Odesnik provided “substantial assistance” in uncovering other offenses. When asked about it at Wimbledon this year, Odesnik vehemently denied ratting anyone out. If you choose not to believe Odesnik, then you buy into the notion that there are more players out there who are doping, that the players know about it and that the ITF, regardless of its testing policies, isn’t catching them.

3. The ITF lacks the resources to keep it clean: It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that tennis players are constantly being monitored. Follow your favorite players on Twitter and complaints about anti-doping tests are common. Andy Murray and Caroline Wozniacki are just two of the high-profile names who have been woken up by testers at their homes to submit to an unannounced test. But as USA Today reports, the testing regime in professional tennis is underfunded, undermanned and insufficient for such an international sport. Robson reports that the ITF’s anti-doping budget is a mere $1.6 million, a paltry figure considering the hundreds of millions of dollars in prize money awarded throughout the year.

For the last four years, the ITF has conducted roughly 2,000 drug tests annually, according to the ITF’s published statistics (2012 numbers are not yet available). The majority of tests occur within competition. All in-and out-of-competition tests are done with no advance notice, said Miller.

Last year 1206 men and 944 women underwent in- and out-of-competition urine and blood tests. For the top 150 ranked players, that works out to about eight per man and six per woman annually. Just 21 were out-of-competition blood tests.

It makes sense from a financial perspective that the majority of testing takes place during tournaments. It’s an easy way to keep the cost of testing low because all the players are on-site. But the doping culture has evolved since the days of simple pill popping the night before a game or injections during competition. The fact that the ITF can’t put in the resources to meaningfully implement out-of-competition testing, with unannounced tests on any given day, is a big problem. You can’t point to a paltry number of positive tests and claim the sport is clean when the testing regime is full of holes. For the integrity of the sport, tennis needs a more thorough and vigilant methodology. Until that day comes, the whispers will continue.

4. Does doping matter?: I was asked this earlier this week and my answer has haunted me ever since. If it were to come out that a high-profile player was doping, would that alter my enjoyment of his or her tennis up to that point? Would my memories of their epic conquests, the thrill I felt watching them compete, suddenly turn sour and cold? My answer at the time was “no,” reasoning that for those few hours on that day I was thoroughly entertained by what I saw and what I saw was something I had never seen before. I thought back to the ’98 home run race and how Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball, which had been struggling since the 1994 strike, with every swing of the bat. I still have fond memories of that summer even though I know what I know now. It remains an untainted memory for me, and to be honest, in light of everything we’re supposed to believe — that doping undermines the integrity of sport — my response to my friend’s question worries me.

5. The danger of speculation: It’s impossible to ignore the fact that tennis has been elevated to, at times, a seemingly super-human level. The men, at all levels, are playing a grueling style that leaves fans chugging Gatorade just to keep up. Meanwhile, the women’s game has seen a spike in power and its own share of three-plus-hour marathon matches. After this Armstrong ordeal, it’s tempting for fans and pundits to batten down the hatches and openly speculate as to which players may or may not be doping. No one wants to be fooled again and everyone wants to be the first one to be right.

But if we’re going to operate under the rubric that doping is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, if not the deadly sin in sports, then we have to recognize that throwing around names of suspected dopers with nothing more than an ill-timed muscly action shot as evidence is simply irresponsible. Nothing is gained from watching a sport with that level of unfounded cynicism and the rampant speculation — attaching baseless innuendo to faces — is far more harmful than helpful. 

  • Published On Oct 19, 2012
  • 14 comments
    usable.thought
    usable.thought

    My own thought is that doping is only one avenue for top athletes in high-paying sports to obtain unfair competitive advantages over athletes in the same sport who don't earn as much and thus don't have access to the same kinds of resources. I know this may seem crazy, but compare a top-10 player's resources, financially, to those of a player ranked 100 or lower. Federer can afford to fly by private jet to matches. Rafa can afford some extremely exotic procedures, from what I read, to help rehab his knees, in addition to the standard treatments of anti-inflammatories and so forth. Djokovic has been quoted as saying he only used the hyperbaric "egg" chamber "a couple of times" and I trust him on that - he seemed to think the device was too awkward and the benefits unclear - yet this is a similar kind of issue, where a top athlete, whether because of status or financial resources, gets to use a training or conditioning method that lower-ranked athletes don't have access to. I'm not a fan of doping, I just think we live in a complex world. 

    damien.bourdin
    damien.bourdin

    " Follow your favorite players on Twitter and complaints about anti-doping tests are common". Nadal has long been one of the most vocal ones, what a pity. You didn't mention the fact that all countries are not equal in the fight against doping. I remember all the bashing that has been done by US sport journalists against the French anti-doping  agency during the "Armstrong" years. By the way, why do you think the american USpostal team members regularly went to Spain to prepare for the Tour de France? In which countries do the creepy doctors work?..

    divnadagmo
    divnadagmo

    CN: "None of this alone means anything, and drawing conclusive links is both dangerous and irresponsible. But they don’t mean nothing either."

     

    This could be a sentence straight out of Alice in Wonderland from that ominous Cheshire Cat!

     

    So what DO they mean? Could you please take a stance on this pressing issue and not duck down?  Why do you shy away from offering an interpretation? How about you talk to people involved and actually make up your own mind. Here is a start: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904787404576532854267519860.html

     

    You don't have to go down the speculative road and toss out names - no need to do that! But how about connecting certain obvious dots? I am sure you would easily find crticial voices for an interview, l would suggest Michael Ashenden or maybe Paul Kimmage who would certainly volunteer to give an interpretation what those "gadgets" imply and will kindly help you to find out that they can indeed be part of a doping scheme.

    Alvaro
    Alvaro

    Speaking of "a more thorough and vigilant methodology," there are basic syntactical and spelling errors in this article:

     

    "...increasing allegations of doping HAVE led"

    "...bits of USADA’s report on Lance Armstrong HAVE some parts" (or just revise the sentence)

    "...tennis’ relation to doping..." ("the relation of tennis and doping")

    "...THEN you buy into the notion..." 

    "...the ITF, regardless of ITS testing policies, ISN'T catching them."

     

    That's only halfway through. Review and revise?

    divnadagmo
    divnadagmo

    So do you actualy have an opinion? This is so evasive and half-assed.

     

    It seems like that most of the factual work of this article has been done by others - why has SI not been able to read the annual ITF doping reports & stats, I wonder, and report on them? Their obvious loopholes in the testing regime are available for everyone who is interested to read them. Why did it need the Robson article from USA Today, I wonder, to have them finally appear here.

     

    Is there a slight chance for an informed piece on the usage of pod's, tents and hypoxic chambers and the like on this site and not some evasive statement.

     

    How about you start looking closer into the del Moral issue once the Valencia tournament starts, next week.

    Tehaspe
    Tehaspe

     @usable.thought I think your view is very naive given the contents of the USADA's decision (and cycling in general) and Tyler Hamilton's book. The teams/athletes with a lot of financial resources had the best doping regimes.

     

    Given the choice between a private jet or EPO, which do you think a athlete would pick, if winning was the objective?

    lloydsed12
    lloydsed12

     @damien.bourdin well said! I think athletes exploit countries with weak regulatory regimes ... more like a corporation that looks to operate business in a country with poor labour and environmental laws in order to maximize profit. In all governments, shady organizations/groups and doctors are often complicit in helping of these athletes circumvent a testing program.

     

    We CANNOT make a determination of whether an athlete is doping by just looking at them and being suspicious. If we do then Amstrong & Odesnik & Kendrick wouldn't have been caught, they werent as buffy as McGwire or Sosa,they were just as skinny as Djokovic or more like Murray.

    usable.thought
    usable.thought

     @Alvaro Uh, Alvaro - looking at your list here, these don't seem to be errors. E.g. "increasing allegations of doping" is a plural subject, thus "have" is correct as the helping verb. Same for the next item in your list "bits of USADA's report" - "bits" is plural, thus "have" is correct for the verb. There's nothing wrong with "tennis' relation," and for your next item, "then" is correct, not "than." Your last item, same thing - in the U.S., organizations such as the ITF are considered as singular, not plural as they would be in U.K. English, thus "its" and "isn't" are correct. 

     

    In addition, your kvetch would seem misplaced to me even if you were right and had spotted some actual errors. It's a commonplace that blogging online results in more typos, misspellings, misplaced words, etc. than usual. Go to tennis.com, for example, and you'll often see errors in copy by Peter Bodo and other longtime journalists. Ditto if you go to si.com and look at the columns churned out by Jon Wertheim. These writers have to crank, their deadlines are far hastier than in the old days of print, and they get less editing help than in the old days, too, thanks to the comparatively poor revenue model for online journalism (i.e. there are fewer paid editors per paid writer these days). 

     

    What does matter, still, are errors of fact, or errors of style or syntax that interfere with clarity enough to the point that they should be corrected just for the sake of good communication with readers. If you spot such an error, the kind thing to do is post a comment pointing it out gently rather than harshly. And if it's an error of fact that really stands out, you could even email the journalist to point it out - they would probably be grateful for your catch.

    usable.thought
    usable.thought

     @Tehaspe I guess another way to put what I am saying is this: There are all kinds of ways that "teams/athletes with a lot of financial resources" can gain competitive advantage over teams/athletes without those same resources. It's just that some of these ways are deemed "unfair" by society, while others are deemed "fair." No one criticizes Federer for taking a private jet to matches, nor do they criticize Nadal for having access to advanced medical care unavailable to lower-ranked players with less $$ to spend; and yet these are still huge competitive advantages. 

     

    I think realizing this puts doping into a sharper perspective: it's "cheating" only because society says it's cheating - NOT because it makes for a playing field that is not level. The playing field is already not level, due to the economics of sport and how those economics change things.

     

    Along these lines, we can say that the debate over doping is actually very close to the debate (now long over) as to whether professional athletes should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. The Olympics started out as being for amateurs only. Amateurs were seen as pure, professionals as impure. Yet at some point society changed its view. It's possible that at some point, doping may become legal in some sports. Who knows? The argument could be that everyone should have access to doping so as to make it more of a level playing field, and that doping should be medically supervised to keep it as safe as possible. 

     

    All sorts of training that is considered okay now was once considered unfair and despicable. Remember the movie "Chariots of Fire"? It was fiction based on fact that one of the runners in that move hired a coach to help him improve, but that this was a highly unusual tactic at the time (1924) and was viewed as contrary to the spirit of amateur athletics. Now coaching is viewed as completely fair, in amateur sports as well as professional sports. Times change. 

    Alvaro
    Alvaro

     @usable.thought 

    Oh, I don't think I was so harsh.  I didn't mock, chastise or demean the writer.  It's just that, you know, mistakes were made.

     

    I should have clarified that I wrote each example out properly in my list (except for "tennis' relation to doping"); to see the errors you had to refer to the blog itself at the time I posted.  It's nice to know that the fumbles have since been corrected.

     

    You are probably right that the demands made of online journalists and bloggers are unreasonable, and likely explain these and similar slipups.  And I applaud Courtney Nguyen, or whoever gave it another look, for the revision.