Play­ing the dop­ing game

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Satur­day was the be­gin­ning of the Tour de France, one of the world’s premier sport­ing events. This year’s race may be one of the most, if not the most, epic in its 97-year his­tory, with no fewer than a dozen con­tenders for the podium’s top spot, in­clud­ing the le­gendary Lance Arm­strong and his chief ri­val and last year’s win­ner, Al­berto Con­ta­dor. Un­for­tu­nately, the pall of dop­ing hangs over the event, es­pe­cially since the dis­graced 2006 win­ner, Floyd Lan­dis, re­cently ac­cused Arm­strong and sev­eral other rid­ers in this year’s race of sys­tem­atic dop­ing in pre­vi­ous years.

Ac­cord­ing to Lan­dis, the per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs of choice are re­com­bi­nant ery­thro­poi­etin to ar­ti­fi­cially stim­u­late the pro­duc­tion of oxy­gen car­ry­ing red blood cells; steroids and hu­man growth hor­mone for re­cov­ery and the devel­op­ment of lean mus­cle mass; and blood boost­ing, the with­draw­ing of your own blood early in the sea­son and then re-in­ject­ing it dur­ing the tour to boost your red blood cell count.

Af­ter the scan­dals of the last dozen years, most peo­ple be­lieve that many, if not most, pro­fes­sional cy­clists dope. The deeper ques­tion is why? And why did Lan­dis come clean af­ter all these years of vo­cif­er­ous de­nials?

The an­swer comes from game the­ory and some­thing called the Nash equi­lib­rium, con­ceived by No­bel Prize-win­ning math­e­ma­ti­cian John Nash (of “A Beau­ti­ful Mind” fame), in which two or more play­ers reach an equi­lib­rium when none has any­thing to gain by uni­lat­er­ally chang­ing his or her strat­egy, as long as the other play­ers do not change their strate­gies.

Here’s how it works in sports. Play­ers will do what­ever they can to achieve vic­tory, which is why well-de­fined and strictly en­forced rules are the sine qua non of all sports. The rules clearly pro­hibit the use of per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs, but the in­cen­tive to dope is pow­er­ful be­cause the drugs are ex­tremely ef­fec­tive, the pay­offs for suc­cess are so high, and most of the drugs are dif­fi­cult if not im­pos­si­ble to de­tect. If tests can be beaten with coun­ter­mea­sures, or if the gov­ern­ing body of the sport doesn’t fully sup­port a com­pre­hen­sive anti-dop­ing test­ing pro­gram (as in the case of Ma­jor League Base­ball and the Na­tional Foot­ball League), the in­cen­tive to cheat in­creases. Once a few elite ath­letes in a sport cheat, their com­peti­tors must also cheat, lead­ing to a cas­cade of cheat­ing through the ranks.

If ev­ery­one is dop­ing, there is equi­lib­rium if and only if ev­ery­one has some­thing to lose by vi­o­lat­ing the code of si­lence. In crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Cosa Nos­tra in 19th cen­tury Si­cily and the Mafia in 20th cen­tury south­ern Italy, the code of si­lence is called omerta, an agree­ment among mem­bers that if you get caught, you keep your mouth shut and fall on your sword. Some­thing like the omerta code op­er­ates in the dirty un­der­belly of dop­ing in sports, in which a pos­i­tive test leads to an oblig­a­tory state­ment of shock and de­nial by the guilty party, fol­lowed by a plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for how the drug mys­te­ri­ously ap­peared in the blood or urine, end­ing in fines paid and/or time served and of­ten even­tual re­turn to the sport, no names named.

Dise­qui­lib­ri­ums can arise when not ev­ery­one is dop­ing, when the drug testers be­gin to catch up with the drug tak­ers, or when some cheaters have noth­ing to lose and pos­si­bly some­thing to gain by turn­ing state’s ev­i­dence. Which brings us back to Lan­dis and his for­mer team­mates, who, if Lan­dis’ charges are true, have been in a state of rel­a­tive Nash equi­lib­rium for a decade. Lan­dis said in his ad­mis­sion: “I don’t feel guilty at all about hav­ing doped. I did what I did be­cause that’s what we (cy­clists) did, and it was a choice I had to make af­ter 10 years or 12 years of hard work to get there, and that was a de­ci­sion I had to make to make the next step.” But when Lan­dis lost his sav­ings, his home, his mar­riage and his liveli­hood, he reached a state of dis­e­qui­lib­rium, and he ap­par­ently de­cided he had noth­ing left to lose and now wants to clear his con­science and clean up his sport.

Can sports be freed of dop­ing? Yes, but it won’t be easy.

From my 20 years as ei­ther a racer in, or as the di­rec­tor of, the 3,000-mile non­stop transcontinental bi­cy­cle Race Across Amer­ica, I have five rec­om­men­da­tions:

Im­mu­nity for all ath­letes pre-2010. If the en­tire sys­tem is cor­rupt and most com­peti­tors have been dop­ing, it ac­com­plishes noth­ing to strip the win­ner of his ti­tle af­ter the fact when there is a high prob­a­bil­ity that the run­ners-up were also dop­ing. Im­mu­nity will en­able re­tired ath­letes to work with gov­ern­ing bod­ies and anti-dop­ing agen­cies for im­prov­ing the an­ti­dop­ing sys­tem.

In­crease the num­ber of com­peti­tors tested, in com­pe­ti­tion, out-of-com­pe­ti­tion and es­pe­cially im­me­di­ately be­fore or af­ter a race to pre­vent counter-mea­sures from be­ing used. Sport sanc­tion­ing bod­ies should cre­ate a base­line bi­o­log­i­cal pro­file on each ath­lete be­fore the sea­son be­gins to en­able proper com­par­i­son of un­usual spikes in per­for­mance dur­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

An X Prize type of re­ward to in­crease the in­cen­tive of anti-dop­ing sci­en­tists to de­velop new tests for cur­rently un­de­tectable dop­ing agents.

Sub­stan­tially in­crease the penalty for get­ting caught. Manny Ramirez’s 50-game sus­pen­sion out of a 162-game sea­son last year was a joke. Play­ers will not take that se­ri­ously as a de­ter­rent. Pro­fes­sional cy­cling has a twoyear ban, which is a good start. But it’s not enough.

A re­turn of all salary paid and prize monies earned by the con­victed ath­lete to the team and/or its spon­sors and in­vestors, and ex­ten­sive team test­ing of their own ath­letes.

Cy­cling is ahead of all other sports in im­ple­ment­ing these and other pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures, and still some dop­ing goes on, so vig­i­lance is the watch­word for fair­ness.

The pack passes a cob­ble­stone sec­tion dur­ing the third stage of the Tour de France on Tues­day.

Christophe Ena

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