Tuesday, August 30, 2016

EPO Deaths as Urban Legend?

On Twitter, Dr. Michael Joyner asks the question above. Are oft-repeated stories of an epidemic of EPO-related deaths just urban legend or is there some substance to them?

In 2011, Professor Bernat López took a close look at the claims of an EPO death epidemic based on a review of deaths of elite cyclists in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Here is what he concluded:
The available evidence rather suggests that this series of deaths has been artificially concocted and even inflated in absolute terms and, most importantly, that it is highly improbable that EPO had anything to do with these cases, principally because there is very little, if any, scientific evidence that EPO causes sudden death. It should therefore be considered more of a myth or an invention than a historical fact. A myth which in the last years has played a central role in the ‘scaremongering tactics’ of the anti-doping campaigners, who until the early 1990s were rather short of casualties that might be attributed to doping ‘abuse’. In this sense, EPO could be labelled as the drug of mass destruction in the war on doping.

A total of 61 academic and journalistic texts have been reviewed that mention these deaths. My own research has recorded 17 sudden deaths among cyclists being reported in the six years between 1987 and 1992, including 9 Dutch and 6 Belgians. I have argued that, given the lack of statistical reliability of these data and the ‘Dutch and Belgian’ bias resulting from the news focus of the time and the search premises themselves, it cannot be reasonably said that they constitute a ‘suspicious statistical aberration’. But even if awarded credibility, this idea can be refuted after a comparison with data from other, statistically-based studies on sudden death in athletes.

Arguably, then, what has really been going on here is a double process of invention. One invention concerns the achievement of a ‘suspicious’ statistical series of deaths through the aggregation of isolated cases from two different countries during an elastic time span. The second one consists in isolating EPO as a ‘key suspect’ on the basis that it began to be released by the time this ‘spate of deaths’ was taking place. No further evidence is brought forward other than this coincidence and the common-sense-based contention that if EPO thickens the blood, too much thick blood ‘will kill you’. When going into more detail, most of the experts sustaining these theories explain that EPO abuse might cause blood clotting, hyperviscosity and hypertension, which would provoke fatal heart strokes or embolisms. But the truly scientific literature, the one based on experimental case studies, reviewed in this research does not support these claims.

López, B. (2011). The invention of a ‘drug of mass destruction’: Deconstructing the EPO myth. Sport in history, 31(1), 84-109.
What is going on here? The pattern appear to be an example of what Norwegian researcher Ole Bjørn Rekdal calls an "academic urban legend." He writes:
Many of the messages presented in respectable scientific publications are, in fact, based on various forms of rumors. Some of these rumors appear so frequently, and in such complex, colorful, and entertaining ways that we can think of them as academic urban legends. The explanation for this phenomenon is usually that authors have lazily, sloppily, or fraudulently employed sources, and peer reviewers and editors have not discovered these weaknesses in the manuscripts during evaluation. 
 López suggests that the EPO myth is also a convenient one for anti-doping agencies. However, as Paul Dimeo has written about the myth of Knud Jensen:
WADA holds itself out as being a bastion of ethics, promoting health and fair play, protecting athletes, and tackling unethical behaviour. The way in which Knud Enemark Jensen has been treated since 1960 and the contemporary refusal to redress that mistake (now that we have a revisionist perspective) undermine the essential qualities about humanity and sport that the anti-doping movement claims to uphold and promote.

It casts a shadow over WADA’s reputation, and that of the previous generation of anti-doping doctors, authors and academics. Any movement becomes compromised if its acolytes come to imagine the cause to be greater than the individuals and when they are prepared to undermine their own ideals in order to make a point.
In anti-doping, evidence matters.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Brilliant Rio Wrap from the BBC

University of Washington Investigating Ellenbogen, NFL and COI

I'm late to this, but it is worth noting. Last month the University of Washington announced that it was investigating Richard Ellenbogen, co-chairman of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee and chairman of UW’s Department of Neurological Surgery, according to the Seattle Times:
The University of Washington has formed a special committee to investigate claims made in a congressional report that Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, chairman of UW’s Department of Neurological Surgery, tried to influence a major research study on football and brain injuries.

Ellenbogen also serves as chairman of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, and Congress named him one of the NFL’s “primary advocates” in an effort to strip a $16 million grant from a Boston University researcher who had been critical of the NFL, according to ESPN.

Ellenbogen had been part of a different group that made a failed bid for the $16 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, according to the congressional report.

“Dr. Ellenbogen is a primary example of the conflicts of interest between his role as a researcher and his role as an NFL advisor,” the report read.
I discussed this situation back in May. The only thing really surprising about this case is that it took so long for the university to look into it. Lots of money at issue here, and UW is not without its own conflicts.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Phelps and Ledecky Drafted into Brexit Campaign

Sport and politics are overlapping categories. The latest example, a silly one, but instructive nonetheless, comes from several passive-aggressive Tweets from the European Parliament and a UK member of parliament.

First, the European Parliament official Twitter feed sent out this:
That was soon followed by this Tweet from British MP, Heather Wheeler of the Conservative Party.
Wheeler's Tweet prompted a lot of reaction, summarized by the BBC.

An interesting side note is that Wheeler's tabulation of medals includes what appears to be the British North American colonies, which became the original 13 US states. OK. These include Maryland, which by itself accounted for 23 medals in Rio (18G, 4S, 1B).  I'm not sure how Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky feel about being drafted into the British Commonwealth in support of Brexit, but that is how politics works.

Another side note: The original 13 states accounted for 74 total medals meaning that MP Wheller needed the US medals to get a count greater that that of the EU.
  • EU = 325 medals
  • British Empire (with US states) = 396
  • British Empire (minus US states) = 322
Perhaps MP Wheeler was sending a hidden message that to succeed, Brexit needs the US to prop it up?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Calling Time Out on the Team Time Trial

This is a guest post from The Outer Line.

Pro cycling’s association of teams, the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP), recently issued a strong rebuke to the sport’s ruling body – the UCI.  Generally fed up with the pace of reforms and with the economic pressures they face in trying to field teams for all of the WorldTour’s far-flung races, the teams voted to boycott the upcoming UCI World Team Time Trial (TTT) Championship in Doha, Qatar in September.

This potential walkout highlights the teams’ growing discontent with the UCI – specifically the expansion of the WorldTour calendar in future years – and the frustration of not having enough input in how they run their own businesses.  This is just one more contentious development in the fractured business world of pro cycling - and a threat which may not hold anyway - but the teams have a legitimate beef here.  They are rightly worried about how additional expenses may further hurt their ability to attract and keep the all-important sponsors - without which the whole sport would collapse.
As we have noted elsewhere, cycling’s tenuous hold on key sponsors is a central challenge to the future of the sport; it is in the interests of all stakeholders - particularly the UCI - to confront and address this challenge.  To read more about this specific issue, and broader issues it represents, click here.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Excerpts from The Edge in The Guardian

Over the past weeks I have been pretty busy with pre-publication stuff related to the Edge, which ships to readers tomorrow (Yay!). That means this blog has been a bit neglected. I expect to back to it next week.

Meantime, here are links to the three excerpts from the book whic have appear in the Guardian over the past month.

I also had a piece drawing from The Edge at the Sports Integrity Initiative, titled, Punishing Athletes for the Mistakes of Sports Administrators.

More to come, stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Academics and Anti-Doping: A Commentary

A guest post by Steve Maxwell, from The Outer Line

After USA Cycling recently fired the anti-doping researcher Dr. Paul Dimeo of Stirling University, as the head of its anti-doping committee, the appropriate role of academia in elite sports governance has again been questioned. While some academic research in the anti-doping field may seem unconventional or disagreeable to everyday participants in sports, academia is nevertheless where new technologies, innovative approaches or radical restructuring of ideas often originate.  And there is an active and vocal community of scholars around the world studying the subject of anti-doping methods. While formal anti-doping policy continues to focus simply on catching the cheater, this academic research is beginning to utilize new data and modeling tools, in subject matter areas as diverse as public health and pharmaceutical manufacturing, to identify and suggest broader policy change.

Stopping the proliferation of cheating in sport is a goal no one in cycling would disagree with.  In the short-term, USAC’s decision to fully commit to and communicate zero-tolerance is an important statement for American cycling, and reinforces the organization’s public image.  At the same time however, academic researchers are trying to become more active in the actual sport – to leave their ivory tower and test ideas in the real world.  And for this process to work productively, says Dimeo, there needs to be an acceptance “that research requires objectivity, and objectivity requires freedom of expression.” Unfortunately, this is where academia and the real world sometimes collide – and with real-world consequences like those observed in the USAC-Dimeo conflict.

To read The Outer Line’s detailed overview and analysis of this situation – both in microcosm and in the big picture – please click here.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Me vs. Tucker on Testosterone Regulations

At the Mail on Sunday, Ross Tucker and I take opposite sides of a debate over whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to participate in the Rio Olympics. I take the YES side and Ross takes the NO. We each had about 300 words to make our cases.

Here are each of our pieces:
NO - Ross Tucker - Professor of Exercise Physiology 

Protecting the line dividing sportspeople into men's and women's competitions is essential for the integrity of women's sport.

Doing so using testosterone is logical and scientifically valid and should be reinstated. As it stands, Caster Semenya and other 'intersex' athletes benefit from an unfair advantage.

Testosterone has a profound effect on athletic performance and thus cannot be compared to any other physiological advantage elite athletes must possess to win.

Categories in sport exist for fairness and must be defended for competitive integrity. Consider boxing. In Rio, male boxers will compete in 10 weight categories. They 'protect' smaller boxers — and competitive equality.

This does not mean size is the only factor influencing performance, just that it is significant. Now consider women's sport and the enormous performance gap between elite men and women.

At least 8,000 men have run faster than every women's track athletics world record. Without the 'protection' of a women's category, women would disappear from most elite sport.

Why do men have this advantage? Testosterone. It directs development of the reproductive system, increases muscle mass and strength and reduces fat.

Testosterone is why boys and girls can play physical sports together at the age of 11 but cannot by 13. This is why, in seeking to defend the women's category for fairness, authorities identified testosterone as a measurable marker and set an upper limit for women with conditions that would elevate it.

It was to ensure fairness with a limit that was still three-fold higher than 99 per cent of women's testosterone levels. The defence of the category remains imperative for fairness for the majority of female athletes.

Ross Tucker is Professor of Exercise Physiology at the University of the Free State, South Africa. He has followed Semenya's career and studies limits to exercise performance.
And mine:
YES - Roger Pielke Jr, directs the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado

Caster Semenya looks strong. She runs fast. She is a woman. She has followed the rules. Of course she should run with women.

Here's why: For more than half a century sports officials have asked scientists to come up with a simple way to identify women for purposes of eligibility in competitions.

We've seen the use of visual inspections, chromosomal tests and, most recently, testosterone levels.
But it turns out human sexuality is not readily distinguished into two categories.

Instead, there is a spectrum, coloured in shades of grey. Distinguishing men's from women's categories means drawing a bright line across that spectrum.

Testosterone levels are associated with greater performance of most men over women and overlap almost completely with the male and female genders. Almost. And that is the problem.

Testosterone does not successfully distinguish in all cases. Because an individual's testosterone levels are not always readily available, athletics officials have provided criteria to help identify women who might be in violation of regulations.

These include physical characteristics associated with conventional notions of femininity. What was supposed to be a rule on biology became about judging female athletes on how men expect a woman to look.

If people want sport to be divided into high- and low-testosterone groups, that would be a practical way to divide sport by biological characteristics. But sport is divided into men's and women's categories.

And so long as being a man or woman is not entirely characterised by biology, sport must accept that biology alone will not always work to identify who fits where.

Roger Pielke Jr directs the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado. He is the author of The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports.
Both Ross and I, and many others, will have plenty more to say on this topic in the coming weeks.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Women's 400IM, Again in 2016

Back in 2012 Chinese swimmer Ye Shi-Wen caused heads to turn by breaking the women's 400IM record, Last night, Hungary's  Katinka Hosszú broke Shi-Wen's record by just over 2 seconds. My Twitter feed saw some "Hmmms" pop up.

The graph above has been updated with the latest medal times. The version through 2012 also appears in The Edge.

After a big series of improved times by the, ahem, East Germans in the 1970s, there has been a steady decline in times since then. Better athletes? Better pool technology? Doping?  It is likely impossible to tease such factors apart.

One point worth highlighting: Since 2000 the men's world record for the 400IM has dropped by about 8 seconds and the women's by about 7 seconds. Whatever suspicions anyone wants to raise about the improvement in women's times, well they probably have to bring along the men as well.

The only change I'd make from my 2012 conclusion would be to rephrase it. Back then I said: "Did Ye Shiwen Dope? Evidence Says No." Today, I'd write: "Did Katinka Hosszú Dope? Evidence Does Not Say Yes." Such is sport in the 21st century.