Feeling the pressure

June 11, 2015

I tend to avoid fixed, singular goals. I spread risk to mitigate disappointment. A lot of academics find solace in the short term shifting of attention from one priority to another, and become frustrated when they are managed too directly or become unable to do this due to sheer volume of work. Last year I committed to completing a Super Randonneur series – and when I failed to start my 300 I filled the gap with a late-season DIY by GPS ride. This season has thus far proceeded in a more orderly fashion, pointing threateningly but inexorably at the start (or end) of Paris Brest Paris in August. Although each ride on the way is an achievement in itself there is a tendency to subordinate these successes to the larger and more singular goal. Anything apart from success starts to look like failure.

640px-No-DozUnderstanding cheating on a personal, rather than an academic level, requires immersion in the high stakes of goal oriented behaviour: cheats become blinded to the larger consequences of their actions because their focus on outcome and often seem surprised by the impact of their dishonesty on others. For them, doping is a personal thing: for others it is an attack on the order of things, calling into question the assumed truths of competition. So, am I becoming susceptible to the temptations of assuring myself through the abuse of medication? And would it matter? On my last qualifier I took a few caffeine gels with me and attempted to deploy them in my battle with my prior lack of sleep. In retrospect I should simply have prioritised my sleep before the event but I have a busy job and family life – it’s easier to pack a few gels than manage my sleep. Of course, there are in fact no anti-doping regulations for PBP (EDIT – see John’s comment below, I am mistaken) AND no testing (although doping is illegal in France) but for me caffeine gels crossed a line (over which are caffeine tablets and then almost anything goes…) regardless of any written rules or laws (I have written elsewhere about doping and medication in randonneur events). I should have taken my own advice from last year:

I finished my first 600km Brevet on two cups of sugary tea (the only caffeine I ingested), water, caffeine-free sports drinks, gels and energy bars; I may have had a can of coke, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t. Real food: cheese sandwiches, fish and chips with mushy peas, flavoured milk… and a vegetable samosa. After the ride, I took some ibuprofen to calm the inflammation affecting my shoulders and hands, but not for long, because it makes me feel vile. I am still in pain four days after finishing, and suffering from altered sensation in both hands, although I am now much improved. It may be that my approach is unnecessarily puritan, or not puritan enough (get rid of the space food) but it wasn’t really considered: like the lovely guy riding a Pashley roadster I just did my own thing. You may choose a different path…

More importantly, my recent experience of sleeplessness has led me to question what I am willing to sacrifice. On the Monday morning after my 600 at 0900 I will be serving on a disciplinary panel – I’m not willing to let this affect my ride but that’s going to be a challenge. I start PBP (if I qualify) straight after a torrid week at work but that’s not yet led me to back out. I am proud of my new ability to avoid self-sabotage but there’s some danger of heading the other way and risking my health or safety (or my competence as parent or manager) by being too goal-focused. I will try to employ common sense and prepare to work around adversity, but as I noticed in my last qualifier the lack of stress can be a factor in my performance – I need a fair amount to be optimally aroused and alert and a few disasters on a ride seem to perk me up. With that in mind, my 600 is on the very last weekend for PBP qualification. No second attempts. I could really do with a load of support to ensure I get round, and if I fail, to deal with my disappointment. Fortunately I have that at home but every extra bit helps.

And I may not even like it if I qualify….

Here’s the link to the AUK calendar page for the East and West Coasts BRM600 which I will be riding on the 20th and 21st of June.


Sleepless in Goole

May 29, 2015
IMG_20150529_110902

The Marie Celeste at Leven: still light but getting late.

I never thought I had a problem with sleep – or should I say its lack. I’ve ridden a fair few overnight rides, and spent about 6 years chronically sleep deprived as a parent. On 400 km audaxes I often feel a little sleepy around dawn, and I managed my first 600 on just one hour. I had planned for about 2-3 hours on that one, and although I became a little anxious when my plans unravelled I felt pretty awake for most of the ride (despite audax fury trying to find a working cashpoint as proof of passage in the night). Read the rest of this entry »


Beating the cheating: plagiarism and doping

October 14, 2014

Many have argued that anti-doping requires increased funding to improve its impact. This argument, although tempting, may not present value for money, even if it is valid. Although recent empirical studies suggest that the prevalence of doping in sport far exceeds current detection-levels (see e.g., Striegel, Ulrich and Simon, 2010), and an increase in the funding for (and frequency of) testing might increase the hit-rate, I have yet to see a business case to demonstrate the cost of raising the hit-rate to an acceptable level, or even a clear statement on what such a rate might be.

WADA and the NADOs have other tools at their disposal, such as reliance on law-enforcement approaches (which they do not directly fund), and athlete education, but the majority of anti-doping effort (and expenditure) still goes on analytical approaches and creating the legal and scientific basis for a testing and punishment regime. Take for example, as an example of a NADO which has been applauded for its educational programme, UKAD: the budget from 2011-2015 was set at £29m: out of this only around 2m was assigned to educational activity, as opposed to 7m on athlete testing and a further 7m on results management. Similarly poorly off is the scientific activity supported by UKAD, set at 1m; even intelligence efforts are pegged at only 2m. Just under 50% of the UKAD budget (14m) goes on testing and results management (although the latter would also include management of non-analytical positives).

In order to better understand what an increased spend on anti-doping might look like, and why things are not that simple, imagine that all athletes covered by WADA are tested for blood and urine across a range of banned substances every time they compete, and at some agreed level of random out of competition testing. In addition all other efforts ramp up proportionally. Now imagine this has a much lower level of false negatives (i.e. approaching 8x as effective in detecting doping). Leaving aside the enormous cost and practical issues this might bring it is certain that this would not eliminate doping, merely reduce it, and would bring with it an increase in false positives. Would this be an end worth aiming for?

Of course, testing and punishment are not designed to catch everyone, they are intended to be sufficiently sensitive and draconian to offset the potential gains of doping. Anti-doping is intended to scare cheats into compliance, or at least to reduce incidence to such low levels as to be acceptable. I would speculate that current levels of sensitivity are insufficient to achieve this, but it is not clear that greater sensitivity would ever eradicate doping, even with the penalties currently imposed.

It is instructive to turn to another area of applied ethics to better understand these issues. In some universities it is expected that every piece of assessed work by every student be checked for plagiarism, both using automated and human techniques. Estimates of the incidence of plagiarism vary wildly, but Park (2003) argues that around half of a given student population might be expected to cheat in some way during their studies, and plagiarism is the most common form of cheating. There is a large investment in software to help detect plagiarism, and additional and substantial investment in ensuring that plagiarism is not a result of any misunderstanding of good academic practice. Penalties for plagiarism vary between institutions and are often nuanced to reflect the perceived seriousness of an offense: a first offense might receive a warning, but a second offense or aggravated example might to lead immediate expulsion. These measures demonstrably reduce the incidence of plagiarism.

Despite all this, students still plagiarise, sometimes with full conscious awareness of what they are doing and the probable consequences if caught, sometimes out of ignorance. This is probably because whereas for most students the decision to either intentionally cheat or fail to attend to instruction is driven by a fairly rational cost-benefit analysis, there is a minority that can both be identified as fitting a particular type of personality and will probably persist in repeating similar offences even if caught and given a minor penalty, additional academic support and education about the consequence of re-offending (Caruna, Ramaseshan & Ewing, 2000; also see Park, 2003 for a broader consideration of personality considerations). If this is true, then the most intent on cheating simply need to be identified and removed from a social context to which they are unsuited. This does not mean that the efforts to identify the remaining ‘strategic’ cheats are best replaced simply by better pro-active education. The fear of being caught and punished is for this group a significant motivation to comply as long as the detection rate is sufficiently high. Moreover, such detection techniques can themselves be used to educate students about good academic practice.

Even with all this effort, the detection rate does not nearly approach a zero rate of false negatives. This is why many institutions have actually chosen to downplay efforts to directly combat plagiarism and instead work towards education about ethical practices, embedding this within all educational activities. Students sign up to agreements which positively identify work as their own, and more general agreements on good conduct (honour codes, student contracts, partnership agreements). Such approaches seem to be effective in reducing the incidence of academic misconduct of all kinds (Park, 2003) especially where such efforts are the result of a partnership between students and faculty, but there is an implicit assumption that there are two types of offender – one that will respond to pro-active or reactive influences, incentives or penalties; and one that will wilfully continue to offend.

I am becoming persuaded that although detection and deterrence are important, and can play a role alongside education, pro-active positive identification and reinforcement of ethical behaviour is more fundamental. It is for this reason that we teach students about good practices in attribution before we teach them about malpractice, and I hope that this is why I see few cases in the work I assess. Of course, as with doping, it is near impossible to judge how good our efforts are without accurately judging the incidence of academic misconduct, and this is as yet unclear, partly because the incidence of plagiarism is related to an institution’s efforts to combat it.

How does this help us with competitive cycling: I wonder whether personality-screening should play a bigger role in anti-doping. There are ethical issues to overcome, but a voluntary approach such as that proposed by the Clean Protocol might go some way towards thinking outside what seems to be an unwinnable war of post-hoc detection and punishment. Alongside education about ethical values there is an opportunity here to work with the psychological aspects of cheating long before someone first dopes or tests positive.


Medication and long-distance cycling: post 600 thoughts

June 19, 2014
Desgrange on a bike

Henri Desgrange rides a Brevet Randonneur

I have written a lot about doping here, especially in relation to competitive cycling. Since I do not race, this is fairly neutral territory, and I can at least maintain a degree of objectivity. Recent discussion of the use of strong pain killers such as Tramadol, and of medical interventions for asthma and other respiratory issue in professional cycling, and my recent encounter with pain and injury has brought this all a little closer to home. Any medication can enhance performance, and the ethical issues here are complex: many athletes could not compete at all without asthma medication, and there are many situations where anti-inflammatory medication or an analgesic would be perfectly reasonable to enable someone to continue with a minor injury. I would suggest that there are three issues that limit such medical intervention in competition, notwithstanding chronic conditions which require maintenance:

  1. the injury or condition should not be made worse by the use of medication;
  2. the medication should not enhance the athlete’s performance above their baseline without such medication; and
  3. the medication should be within the rules of the sport.

Read the rest of this entry »


Frustration

April 24, 2014

It is easy to become frustrated with the limited success of anti-doping. What with the post-EPO world of xenon-therapy and AICAR, seemingly bizarre inconsistencies of sanction, and the fact that riders, team-staff and management still reflect a past which is surprisingly present it would be easy to respond by

  1. giving up watching
  2. advocating legalisation
  3. posting pictures of veined legs in an attempt to fight doping with humour

Although I have, to my regret, already resorted to approach #3, I am not ready for #1 or #2, but that time may come.

I’ll try to outline a some issues that have been on my mind recently, in an attempt to shed some light on how my thinking is evolving.

We are winning the war on doping

No we are not, and indeed it is arguable that eradicating doping is a foolish, quixotic errand (cf. alcohol prohibition/recreational doping). There is evidence that certain kinds of doping are being used less, or at least in smaller doses, but there is also evidence that other kinds of doping are becoming more widespread. As EPO becomes more detectable, along with blood transfusions, it does not disappear. Riders and doctors begin to consider new methods of performance enhancement, some already banned but hard to detect if administered carefully, some yet to be banned and as yet impossible to detect. The bio-passport, like the 50% rule before it, limits the extent of blood manipulation, but does not eradicate it. Even supposedly anti-doping teams consider the ethics of methods that artificially raise natural EPO production before rejecting them, and the boundaries between ethical, unethical and forbidden become increasingly blurred. This is not a cleaner sport, it is a more conservative one. It is possible that fewer riders are doping, but it is also possible that the same number are, with more care to avoid detection. What is known is that far more doping exists than is detected, and now one cannot even used reduced racing speeds to argue that cycling is cleaner (the arguments the other way are equally strong).

USADA’s approach to the Armstrong case was wrong-headed

A number of commentators, whether professional journalists or interested bystanders have asked yet again why Armstrong should still be such a focus for anti-doping activity and debate – surely he is a scapegoat, and simply serves to absolve the future of cycling for its past sins? There is some truth in this, but there is more to the USADA case than Armstrong. Contrary to Bruyneels’ protestations, Armstrong and his co-defendants are not the only parties in professional cycling to be so ejected from the fold: the machinery of many other teams has been dismantled (one way or another) in the past when the evidence has presented itself. The crucial thing about the USADA case was that, regardless of inconsistencies on the length of some bans (both because of cooperation and legal arguments over the statute of limitations), staff still working, or potentially working with cyclists, were banned from doing so. Bruyneel would probably still be managing a cycling team now without this case, and the doctors and team-helpers banned alongside him would be also. There are certainly many still working in cycling who are equally culpable, but no-one has yet collated, presented and acted on the non-analytical evidence against them yet. Maybe their time will come, but I am convinced that by acting against the entourage and management of riders USADA were taking a useful step.

It’s all in the past

As cycling reaches new audiences it seems many want to collude in hiding its rich past of corruption and spectacle and pretend that we are in some Jerusalem of young, pure and ethical sport. I say Tramadol and Xenon to that, so there.

And that’s all folks, I’ve run out of ideas, and energy for writing this post properly – I would provide extensive reverences but no-one ever follows them, and I am just too tired!


Beyond truth and falsehood

September 13, 2013

Last night I watched Chris Horner win back the leader’s jersey in the Vuelta. I already knew it had happened, and there wasn’t much to see related to his performance, unlike his quite miraculous climbing the day before. Much has been written on Horner in the last few weeks. I won’t add to that. Instead, listen to A. L. Kennedy talking about lies and truth, in a short radio programme broadcast just after I watched Horner pulling on his red jersey:

Great Pretenders

I don’t care about the truth any more for itself. But I do want people to stop lying, cheating and manipulating. In sport there is a space within which artifice falls away. This space is now corrupted, as is its surrounding context. This situation is not new, but it has become heightened by our realisation that we are being lied to and yet do not really want the truth, or have any confidence that we can recognise it. Only the athlete knows the truth of their preparation, and even there self-deceit can blur reality. This is why anti-doping is always about ethics, and if based solely on detection and punishment will fail. I care about Warren Barguil, not Horner. If Barguil tested positive I would be saddened: another false dawn. If Horner tested positive I would just shrug: he’s a product of a different age.


The paradox of internal blood testing

March 8, 2013

One of the more mysterious aspects of recent revelations about the prevalence of oxygen vector doping is the role of internal testing of blood values. One might ask how it is possible such testing failed to identify the level of blood manipulation that is now becoming clear from evidence provided to the Puerto trial. The decision by Armstrong not to enter into an official internal testing programme with Catlin during his comeback is often seen as a signal that his interaction with Catlin was just a public relations game. Of course, Catlin is well aware how internal testing programmes can be perverted into early warning systems that actually facilitate doping, and still possesses in his infamous fridge the evidence that would demonstrate how dirty US athletics had become at at a time of intense internal testing. Of course, there is no paradox here, individuals and teams use blood testing to ensure they do not get caught by the official testers. Rasmussen’s recent interview on NOS (here in English with Dutch subtitles) confirms yet another purpose for such internal controls: to manipulate and maintain internal hierarchies within a team. As we know from the Hamilton book, and from Voet’s book on Festina, access to doping products is often controlled in such a way as to create a hierarchy of performance enhancement, with a group of favoured riders entitled to dope. Of course riders can choose to dope without the support of a team, but this presents logistical problems, and may be seen to be a deviation from a script. This where the Rasmussen interview becomes interesting. He notes that CSC stopped him from racing because his haematocrit was too high, and implies that one reason he switched to Rabobank was to be permitted to manipulate his blood as he saw fit. Indeed his difficulties at Rabobank revolve around discussion of how the team management retained control of blood doping to (probably) ensure that performances did not become too suspicious. In this way, internal testing becomes the enemy of anti-doping, not its friend.

Edited 09032013 to clarify testing of blood values, not for specific substances.


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