Category Archives: Drugs

You don’t need to be racist to believe in a Chinese drugs conspiracy; but it helps

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A hundred years ago, a staple character in British and US fiction was the Chinese drugs trader who preyed on innocent young women, bending them to his control by limiting their access to narcotics. It was a remarkably useful myth as it  retrospectively justified the role of the West in the nineteenth century Opium Wars, when of course we fought the Chinese to compel them to accept a private British drugs trade that they were fighting to suppress.

Its chief literary product was Fu Manchu, holder of four doctorates from Western Universities, and possessor of such vile substances as an elixir of life, enabling him to live to a fabulously advanced criminal age. I recall that the Fu Manchu films were still an occasional staple of daytime television in my youth. They have largely faded away as a cultural product, and are not much missed (save perhaps in the wilder longings of the tabloid imagination).

Of all the various arguments behind the suggestion that Ye Shiwen, the 16-year-old winner of the women’s 400 metre individual medley, is a drugs cheat, the most compelling is that she has reduced her time for the 100m freestyle in a year by 7 seconds.

US coach John Leonard says this is an impossible rate of improvement and compares Ye Shiwen to Michael Phelps, Leonard rejected comparisons to Michael Phelps, who broke the 200m butterfly world record when he was just 15, saying the American got “consistently faster every year on a normal improvement curve”.

These are Shiwen’s best times for the 100 metre freestyle at ages 14, 15, and 16: 2010 4:33.79 / 2011 4:35.15 / 2012 4:28.43

You will notice that Shiwen’s 2012 time is quite a bit faster than her 2011 time, but barely faster than her 2010 time, i.e. like quite a lot of professional sports people her progress has not been continuous, but punctuated, with (presumably) a growth spurt coming at just the right time.

These are Phelp’s best times for the 200 metres butterfly at ages 14, 15, and 16: 1999 1:55.42 / 2000 1:56.50 / 2001 1:54.58

You’ll see exactly the same pattern of a fast time, followed by a year’s regress, followed by a world best performance.

You’ll also see that in 2011 when he broke the world record, Phelps was about 1.6% faster than he had raced as a 15 year old, and about 0.9% faster than he had been 2 years before. In Shiwen’s case the improvements were 2.5% and 0.5% – i.e. her progress is a little bit faster than Phelps’ if you compare them over 1 year but slower than him if you compare them over two.

I don’t see any significant difference between their improvement rates at all.

“You can’t turn around and call it racism to say the Chinese have a doping history,” Leonard said. “That is just history. That’s fact.”

It is “fact” in the same way that Fu Manchu is “fact”: almost all the doping history at the top level of Chinese swimming relates to athletes caught in the mid-1990s and not since.

Nor is US elite sport exactly drug free – at the climax of the athletics, in the men’s 100 metres, American eyes are expected to turn to Justin Gatlin, winner of the US Olympic trials, and banned in 2006 for 8 years (reduced to 4 on appeal) after a positive drugs test.

I would urge you to cheer the Jamaicans on the track and Ye Shiwen in the pool. That’s unless you really do believe that China was and is still a society of drugs bosses, led no doubt by some moustachioed evil overlord…

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Dwain Chambers: why BOA lost

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The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Geneva has now published the reasons for its decision in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s complaint against the British Olympic Association (BOA). The case was WADA’s complaint against BOA rules that ban an athlete caught taking drugs for life. WADA said these rules are unhelpful, and it was inappropiate for different national associations to divert from the global rules set out in the World Anti-Doping Code which precribe a two-year ban. The case, as will be clear from the above summary (and contrary to the impression given by the UK press in particular), was not brought by Dwain Chambers, who did judicially review the BOA prior to the 2008 Olympics, but lost at an interim hearing (the litigation is described in detail in Chamber’s memoirs, about which I’ve posted before; the decision itself is on bailii here). 

But Dwain Chambers is the best-know athlete whose current Olympic ban will be determined by the CAS proceedings, and for that reason it’s worth recalling the context to his current ban. Chambers is 34. His best distance is the 100 metres and his fastest time was recorded in 1999, at 9.97 seconds. He came fourth at the Sydney 2000 summer Olympics. In August 2003, Chambers tested positive for Tetrahydrogestrinone (“THG”) a banned substance. Chambers admitted to using THG, indeed went further and admitted to having used it for 18 months before it was detected, with a cocktail of six other banned drugs: testosterone/epitestosterone cream; erythropoietin; insulin; human growth hormone; modafinil; and liothyronine.

The drugs were administered to him as a salve (“the clear” – THG) and a cream (“the cream” – testosterone). Chambers was advised by other athletes not to take drugs, but ignored their advice. He lied about drugs use to his friends, even his physiotherapist. And the drugs had a relatively modest effect. They did not directly increase his body mass, but they enabled him to recover faster from heavy work and thus train dramatically harder. After 18 months of drugs use and an intensified fitness regime, Chambers was able to reduce his best time over 100  metres from 9.97 to 9.87 seconds. As a result of his positive test, Chambers was stripped of all the medals he won during the period when he ran on drugs. He reimbursed over £100,000 in prize money he won during the period of his drugs use.

After his ban ended he returned to athletics in the 2006 season and won gold with the 4 x 100 relay team at the European Championships. After an unhappy spell during which he experimented with becoming a professional athlete in other sports, in 2008 he returned to track athletics and he won the silver medal in the World Indoor Games. He won a gold over 60 metres at the 2010 World Indoor Championships and silver in the European event in 201o. Chambers is fast; no so fast that he will win the Olympics if selected, but fast enough so that he has a realistic expectation of making the final.

I’ve written before previously – here and here – that I hoped WADA would win its case and Chambers woudl be selected. My reasoning was essentially this: that Chambers has admitted his guilt and apologised for it. It is clear from his memoirs that he is honest about the reasons he took drugs and he has insight into the selfishness and stupidity of that original decision. Where a person is contrite, I believe their punishment shoudl be less. And I find his case morally no worse, but if anything rather more sympathetic than the myriad British athletes, in many different sports, who have found ways to avoid drugs tests.

Chambers, in his memoirs, makes much of the hypocrisy of certain former athletes who have campaigned against him – he names in particular Lord Moynihan, the (other) 2nd-rate Conservative politican at the head of UK sport, whose record within British rowing, Chambers argues, is very different from the simple anti-drugs stance Moynihan takes when asked about Chambers. He gives other examples, some of which I have also used in my previous piece.

The decision

Reading the judgment, the following considerations struck me:

Although the BOA ban is officially, an immediate life-time ban, without exception (para 8.24), for all UK athletes caught taking drugs, in practice the rule is applied leniently in the extreme against athletes who say that they failed a drug test accidentally: 24 of the last 25 athletes who have sought to challenge the ban have been successful. (para 2.7)

The effect of appealing to the BOA is to generate relatively minor sanctions – Christine Ohurougu who failed to attend 3 drugs tests was punished with just a one year ban (para 2.8).

CAS’s position is that in order to get all national bodies to implement the anti-doping codes, it is better to have a single consistent sanction rather than a multitude of different rules, “the international anti-doping movement has recognized the crucial importance of aworldwide harmonized and consistent fight against doping in sport” (para 8.41). Under the present system, it followed, BOA had to lose.

Finally, my own view: I have already stated my opposition to the present ban. The one real relevation for me, on reading the judgment, was the generosity of the BOA to other UK athletes who have appealed. This does reinforce the sense I had already that Chambers was being treated differently – not because he was a drug cheat, but because he admitted that he did something wrong.

In the tabloid-generated ethical universe that is British sport, it is better to deny cheating and to give a shallow and unconvincing excuse than to face your fault directly. Chambers’ route is a different one. Personally, I would rather live in a moral universe that allowed for both fault and contrition.

Dwain Chambers and the politics of drugs use

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The Mail and the Guardia are reporting this morning that the World Anti-Doping Agency has won its challenge the British Olympic Association’s lifetime ban on some athletes found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs. Knowing that the decision was due, I recently read Dwain Chambers’ biography Race Against Me.

I write “some” deliberately. Of course, the BOA would strenuously deny that it applied its policy selectively. One compelling theme of Chambers’ book however is the arbitrariness of the BOA’s enforcement of the ban. He shows that where a person accused of drug use tells the BOA that a banned substance was in their body accidentally, as a result of a one-off fluke (which was Linford Christie’s line in both 1988 and 1999) or insists that they had innocent motives for repeatedly missing drugs tests (e.g. Christine Ohuruogu), the BOA does not impose a life-time ban. In practice, the ban is applied only to that smaller group of athletes who accept and admit their guilt.

The lawyer in me knows that there are all sorts of reasons why you might get to this situation. If a person says that they deliberately took drugs then the wrong they have committed is greater than that of someone who did so accidentally. In court cases about motive, juries always struggle to deciphere what a person intended. Because a positive drugs test will inevitably lead to suspension, it is usually open to any drugs user to say they were caught the very first time they cheated. Without a culture of whistleblowing in the sport, inevitably decision-makers have to take what they are told with a certain degree of trust.

But, however you get there, it’s offensive to penalise those who admit to drug taking while not penalising those (not Christie, of course, and not Ohuruogo, but others must exist) who take drugs and falsely deny that they did so deliberately.

The most interesting sections of the book are the one which deal with Chambers’ motives for drug-taking. A key moment for him was the 2001 World Championships at Edmonton, at which an injured Maurice Green won the 100 metres with a time of 9.82 seconds (three hundredths of a second outside his own world record), with another American Tim Montgomery in third. Chambers describes thinking: “By the time I’d run the first twenty metres I was done! What was happening? Within those first twenty metres the Americans Maurice Green and Tim Montgomery had taken yards out of the field … What were the Americans doing that I wasn’t?”

The following year, Chambers accepted an invitation to work with a Miami-based coach Remi Korchemny: as he explains the decision, to catch up with the American sprinters. Kirchemny introduced him in turn to the nutritionist Victor Conte, who told Chambers “You need pharmacology, Dwain.”

John Regis warned Chambers but he refused to listen.

Chambers met Conte again and told him that he had been clean all his life. Conte’s replied; “They’re cheating you, Dwain … You’re a very talented athlete, but you are not competing on a level playing field, my friend. Most of the top sprinters are on steroids; every time you race them, you are at a disadvantage.”

Chambers recalls: “I was thinking I had been conned and cheated; I felt as if I’d been mugged off since I’d started competing as a junior. At that point in the proceedings I was seething and I was thinking how many medals and how many championships I’d been cheated out of because the men who I was running against had been able to train harder, longer and smarter than me. thanks to the help of THG and other undetectable substances.”

Reading this passage, I believe it is an honest description of the mental state of false victimhood which allows someone to cheat, steal, etc. It’s not an attractive admission – on Chambers’ own account, he did not quiz Conte on what he was saying, but accepted it as truthful (when probably it is not). In all of this, Chamberlain, was very clearly lying to himself. As people do.

Chambers says that in 18 months of drug use he was training harder than he ever had before, but his track best for the 100 metres was reduced by just 0.1 seconds, from 9.97 to 9.87 seconds. This is the sort of improvement that a sprinter might well achieve anyway, by training and competing at the top level for an extra year.

A number of people come out badly from this book. One is Seb Coe, who Chambers describes as having encouraged him privately, before later condemning him publicly, in order to play up to the image the media likes to have of him.

The BOA apparatus also comes over badly. Chambers says that he made considerable efforts to offer his, and Conte’s, services in order to give drugs testers an insight into the techniques used by drugs cheats and to improve enforcement. The BOA took no interest in his offer. It may be that they felt that they already knew all they could need to know about the circumstances of his drugs use. Chambers’ own conclusion is while athletics officials undoubtedly care about their sport looking clean, they do not care in the least about the actuality of drugs use.

I hope, as I’ve written before, that the challenge to the BOA life-time succeeds. I do so because in my professional life I am confronted repeatedly with people who are punished more than once for a wrongdoing which they acknowledge (people who are jailed and lose their house, people who do something stupid and lose access to their child), and I am very strongly of the view that – in general – people should get second chances.

But there’s more to it than that.

Let me end with what may seem like a detour, but isn’t:

In my teens I began to read up on the history of the British left. Imagine my disappointment to discover that the first British Marxist, Henry Myers Hyndman, was a former stockbroker and that Hyndman’s standard device when he spoke to public audiences was to attend dressed in a frock coat and top hat. Hyndman would thank the audience for so generously supporting “my class”, i.e. the boss class. But socialism, if it is to mean anything, should mean the majority of people taking control of their lives. How could they do this, if they had to be led by a boasting toff? Hyndman’s approach struck me as flagrantly wrong.

Somewhere around my mid-thirties, my view of Hyndman changed. I didn’t stop being a socialist; I hadn’t read any more of Hyndman’s work. The penny that dropped was rather this: Hyndman was far from the only middle-class socialist in the 1880s or 1890s (his party the Social Democratic Federation included at various times George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and dozens more of a similar stripe). The style of most left-wing journalists, teachers, etc was – even then – to “prole up”, speaking in regional accents, emphasising their supposed personal poverty (think Ken Livingstone’s tax affairs but 120 years earlier), etc. Hyndman could not by himself solve the problems of poverty and class which really explained why many workers deferred to the middle classes even in the meetings of the socialist groups, which tried to be better and failed.

Simply from the vantage of personal integrity, HM Hyndman’s approach was truer to who he was. And this has increasingly seemed a virtue to me.

Chambers has been brutally honest about his drug use; and it is that honesty which explains why he, unlike other athlets (Christie, Ohuruogu) is still being punished, years after he stopped doing anything wrong.

Should drug users be banned from the Olympics?

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Mark Richardson
The most brilliant athlete I’ve ever seen close up was Mark Richardson. My age; a specialist in the adjoining event (400 metres to my 800 metres), I remember him from school championships.

He was a charismatic runner; from the gun, he would immediately be in contention. At 50 metres, he would allow himself to ease to the front. The next 50 metres were the key part of the race. Briefly, he would allow his body to reach its maximum acceleration, establishing a four or five metre lead. And then, for the rest of the race, he was ease personified. Often he was barely jogging by the time he reached the finish line. I never saw another runner come close to him. Even forcing him to sweat would have been a challenge.

Mark went on to be one of the very few athletes ever to beat the quadruple Olympic champion Michael Johnson.

Holder of gold medals of his own for the 4 x 400 metre relay at the World and European Championships, Mark failed a drugs test in autumn 1999 for use of the steroid nandrolone. He blamed the test result of dietary supplements but did not contest the ban, and returned to competitive activity in 2001 before achilles injuries forced him out of the sport.

Was Mark a drugs cheat? He had said that he was not; rather he accepted that he been negligent in taking supplements without knowing their contents but denied intent. I don’t believe that this put him in a very different position from Dwain Chambers whose case is before the Court of Abritration today.

Had Mark not been injured; would I have liked to see him run at the Olympics? Yes. Because I have an understanding that the circumstances under which a serious athlete can blur the line are closer than some people seem to think; that in a humble chemists’ shop there are any number of chemicals which can make an athlete faster, and the temptation is always there.

Because I know that there are already all sorts of legitimate ways in which the richest sporting federations can purchase better outcomes for their preferred athletes: altitude training, buy-outs from paid employment, access to the very top advice in terms of nutrition, training etc.

And because I believe that people deserve a second chance. Mark Richardson did his crime, but he also served his time. And that should be the end of it.