The Ghost in the Machine: underneath the tinfoil hat.

February 2, 2016

I have been struggling for a while to decide how to continue to write about cheating in sport given its state of anomie. Scandal after scandal in athletics, soccer, tennis (and even cycling) have helped normalise the view that sport is actually inherently fraudulent, whether or not that is in any sense ‘true’. Nonetheless, two developments in sporting fraud have emerged which suggest a post-humanisation of sporting fraud. Neither are entirely new in concept, but both engage with human performance in ways which question the boundary between technology and the body, and create a gap between our inquisitive nature and what we can comprehend as either human- or machine-like.

  1. Gene Doping
    The ability of products to manipulate the inner workings of our cells isn’t all that new, and many journalists have latched onto the warnings about dangers (turning something on doesn’t mean you can then turn it off) or the potential for such products to be both potentially undetectable and incredibly powerful. One such product which has never exited testing or been brought to market is Repoxygen, which causes an alteration to cells which then produce higher than normal levels of EPO. Whether this exists as a black market product is unclear but it is certain that athletes, coaches and sporting authorities believe that to be likely. The crucial difference between Repoxygen (or a similar product) and rEPO is that whereas doping with rEPO decreases the production of EPO by our bodies whilst boosting red blood cell production, Repoxygen acts directly on the cells increasing their production of natural EPO. The trick is to do so without creating chronically and dangerously high hematocrit levels. That does not happen with rEPO – which suppresses natural production of EPO and is therefore relatively short lived in effect.
  2. Technological Fraud
    The second development, which although highlighted by recent events at the U23 Cyclocross World Championship event, has been posited for much longer, is the use of small concealed electric motors to boost cycling performance by a marginal, but significant quantum. There is a suspicion amongst some that Femke Van den Driessche used such means to achieve her gains on the climbs at the 2015 Koppenbergcross – a suspicion that may have helped motivate what looked to be a targeted operation to detect the motor using an EMR application in the pits at the World Championships.

What links these two techniques is their invisible testing of our assumptions about what it us to be human. Of course, all cycling is technologically enhanced, but whereas an illegally light bicycle is only quantitatively illicit, the motorised bicycle is qualitatively illicit. We assume the power input which the drive train converts comes from the rider and if this is no longer the case we are watching a motorcycle race, not a bicycle race. With gene doping it is not the undetectability or effectiveness which chills, it is the categorical shift from human to… not human. In both cases there is an uncanny valley effect where in the absence of better preparation, whether natural or pharmaceutical, the athlete goes beyond what is possible for their physiology. The results of doping can look odd to the naked eye, but the result of gene doping or technological fraud create a categorical shift. This is no longer enhancement by degree, but a new sport which goes well beyond the metaphorical Lance-as-cyborg narrative.

Human beings are fairly inquisitive: I’d guess around .7 on the cat scale. Their desire to gather and interpret data is not always matched, however, with the intellectual capacity to come to conclusions that bear much relation to reality. Whether it is rappers thinking the Earth is flat, or the mistaken belief that there is a causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine, our desire to explain what we observe can outstrip our ability to interpret. Of course, it’s worse than this: the desire for an explanation may not drive us to seek information upon which to ponder; and it can be manipulated by the unscrupulous. It may drive us to select information which reinforces our existing beliefs; or to reject information gathering and rely upon solipsistic deduction of a kind Sherlock Holmes would be distinctly uncomfortable with. And sometimes, the explanation is so seemingly crazy it can lead to madness…

The detective novel plays with this desire for explanations, and also the pleasure we gain from being just one step ahead of the detective (or one step behind). And although we often look to be searching for the smoking gun, its discovery often disappoints as well as befuddles. The reveal undoes the setting up if explanations, unless through shock (Seven) or unexpected confusion (Usual Suspects) it itself sets up a new set of questions. It takes a deft artist to tell a tale which simultaneously unfolds into a rational state of closure yet still leaves us questioning: perhaps this is why the confusing “reality” of time travel narratives, whether hysterical (Interstellar) or creepily whole (Predestination) are so fascinating.

So where does this leave the inquisitive cycling fan? All sports fans have some degree of fascination with the causes that sit behind winning. However, many of these factors are hidden, either because they are forbidden by law or rule, or because they are too complex for any but an expert to really grasp. These ghosts in the machine of sporting excellence lead many of us to express our inquisitive nature in fantastic, ill-evidenced speculations worthy of the X-Files. The truth is indeed out there, however, and it isn’t our fault that the UCI have to use ghost detectors to combat technological fraud. Who can blame us for retaining our tin foil hats when if turns out that a form of cheating much derided as fantasy turns out to be both actual and invisible, yet needs only the right tool (a free EMR detector app) and a tip-off to find.

 

Further reading:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15157120 (paywall – a review from 2004 of the state of the art in gene doping in sports)

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/sports/playmagazine/0603play-hot.html?_r=0 (NYT from 2007)

http://www.wired.com/2010/02/gene-doping-detection/ (WIRED from 2010)

http://cyclingtips.com/2016/01/more-details-emerge-about-motorized-doping-at-cyclo-cross-worlds/

http://cyclingtips.com/2016/02/cyclocross-motor-scandal-belgian-rider-blames-mix-up-claims-bike-belongs-to-a-friend/ (Two CYCLINGTIPS articles on the Van den Driessche affair)


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.


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