The Ghost in the Machine: underneath the tinfoil hat.

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)

Beating the cheating: plagiarism and doping

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

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 issues 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.

Continue reading

Beyond truth and falsehood

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

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.

Change Cycling Now: observations

In response to a call from @cyclingfansvox, a twitter account set up to develop and channel the views of cycling fans, I made some brief comments on twitter about the output of the recent Change Cycling Now meeting in London. The document in question is downloadable as a PDF at the bottom of this post.

Here I expand on these comments, and welcome some constructive discussion. The thoughts are a bit raw and immediate, but that seems to be the spirit of the times.

Zero tolerance

The charter strongly opposes a zero tolerance, punitive approach to doping, and advocates a truth and reconciliation approach. I have argued here that anti-doping is not served by punitive scapegoating of individual riders, and the proposals might fit with this position. However, no amount of truth-telling by past perpetrators will improve detection of doping infractions unless it improves detection, education or deterrence. I am surprised that the charter does not explicitly link a measured approach to sanctions with steps towards improved detection, although one might argue that outsourcing anti-doping might improve detection if one believes that the UCI actively or passively fails to meet its obligations in this regard.

I have also argued that although disproportionate penalties for doping, especially where they dissuade openness, should be avoided, that the threat of criminal prosecution for doping or trafficking acts as a necessary component in deterrence, and that a criminal law enforcement approach has proved much more successful in bringing doping to light than traditional sporting law. The charter does not touch on these issues.

Independent approach to anti-doping

The approach to improving anti-doping proposed is a separation of investigation and enforcement from governance and promotion. This seems eminently sensible, and is in line with many national anti-doping approaches. However, given such a separation, it is interesting to consider where educational approaches might sit, or more importantly how to develop a joined up strategy to control doping that takes into account structural issues of reward. Points systems, remuneration policies, volume of racing and other drivers for doping would not be controlled by such an external body and there is a danger of the two entities running at loggerheads. The separation of USADA from USOC and USA Cycling has brought many benefits, but also much divided and arguably negative conflict.

Representation

The charter will stand or fall not just on its content but on perceptions of how well it represents the views of many stakeholders. It was pleasing to see two familiar stakeholders from the parallel world of twitter, and a mix of commercial, scientific, academic and sporting interests represented. It was also good to see two ex-riders, with rather different experiences of doping involved. However, the lack of current rider representation, and the bias towards riders who have doped was really puzzling, and will provide a serious barrier to any positive ideas being accepted by a crucial group. In relation to spectators too, neither of @velocast or @festinagirl (despite the initial press release) purported to represent fans: I would argue that for any real representation to happen a properly constituted fan body would need to first be created.

Focus on doping

As mentioned above, one cannot really tackle doping simply through testing and enforcement. Similarly, a focus on doping as opposed to taking a holistic approach to a sport might be hugely counterproductive. Moreover, this focus seems to assume that anti-doping is the major ill that faces competitive cycling. Many would disagree with this, perhaps selecting gender inequality or the professional focus. I would contend that to build a better sport attention to the whole journey from junior to masters competitor needs attention, across the sexes, amateur and professional.

Interests

A charter like this needs a clear and transparent declaration of interests from its authors. Here are mine: I hold no racing license and gain no financial or other benefit from cycling. Other members of my family race on an amateur basis. If you wish to take issue with my anonymity, then do read this and this. One of the fan delegates posted a useful positioning statement (the open letter below), but it is all too easy to portray some of the delegates as having revenge, or some other selfish motive behind their actions. I cannot judge this as I was not there, and cannot read minds, but this will always be a tricky issue to address.

open-letter (Scott O’Raw)

Charter-of-the-Willing (Cycling Change Now)

Welcoming doping into the home?

Paul Fournel is one of my favourite writers. ‘Need for the bike’ ranks alongside ‘The Rider’ as a paradigm of attentive, illuminating observation: that its topic (like that of Krabbé’s masterpiece) is cycling, is a bonus.
I wrote previously that although I respected and understood Fournel’s essay on doping in ‘Need’ I did not share his conclusions. He has a longer and more embedded understanding of the European tradition of competitive cycling than I, and a healthy dislike of false oppositions and hypocrisy. However, I fear the acceptance of doping as normative, however rational this might be: maybe my Anglo-Saxon lust for fairness and ‘truth’ is too deep, however hard I try to be more philosophical on such matters.
In the most recent edition of Rouleur (Dec. 2012: 86-7), Fournel responds predictably to recent revelations about Armstrong, and their place in our developing understand of doping in sport. He calls for us to ‘welcome’ doping, noting that perhaps only this will enable us to rationally control and assess its impact.
I am not yet ready to welcome doping. However, I welcome Fournel’s critique of the often hypocritical approach to anti-doping we are in danger of adopting. We have a choice: either sign up to legalisation and control, or properly fund and support a huge and multi-faceted prohibition, with the attendant complexities: ethical, legal, psychological, medical and scientific.