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Johan Kriek’s “Drugs in Sports” — A Masterclass Perspective

Mr. Kriek wrote a wonderful article on this site in his Johan Kriek Drugs in Sport blog entry. He is to be commended for having the courage to write it.  It goes a long way in demonstrating why one should not accept performance enhancing drug (PED) use or doping as part of any sport, and how the penalties should be severe to discourage the doper.

However, as much as I admire the article, I believe more needs to be said.  One cannot only place blame on the athletes, though they of course make their own decisions on whether to dope or not.  But let’s get real, the risk right now of doing time for doping is minuscule compared to the potential reward.  Let’s see.  “Hmm, I’m a good athlete, but I could be much better, even the best, and make millions, have fame, and with my smart doping program and the current testing regime, I won’t get caught. In fact, if I’m near the top who will want to catch me and destroy the sport?”  Well, perhaps players with high moral standards will refuse such a temptation. But how many will not?

Discuss this blog post and the subject in the discussion forums.

The management of the sport and management of anti-doping controls share in the responsibility with the players in keeping the sport clean.  But I firmly believe that no sport’s organization should be responsible for anti-doping control within their own sport.   There is an obvious conflict of interest with those who manage it, market it, and promote the players, also being given the responsibility of controlling management and testing of anti-doping in their own sport. The trouble is that no sport wants to give up this control.  Why would they? They are the proverbial fox managing the chicken coop.  If some independent international authority were given control over managing anti-doping, who knows what would happen? Some top athlete or many might actually get caught and publicly be outed.  What would that do to the sport?  A sport may claim to be diligent in their management and may produce examples of such, but the inherent conflict of interest is too great.

The best response from a sport’s organization would be that they shouldn’t have the responsibility for managing anti-doping in their own sport in the first place and hand it over to an independent authority.  But which sport would have the courage to do that?  As long as each individual sport has control over anti-doping nobody will know what is actually happening. Transparency is kept at a minimum, ostensibly to protect players’ rights, but in the eyes of the sport’s management, it obviously protects the sport if the sport can control what kind of testing is done, how often, at what times both in and out of competition, who gets tested, and how much of what is known is released to the public.

WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) should do all they can to separate the interests. I don’t know if they have the power to do this. Maybe they need to get individual governments where the sport is being played to mandate the separation of interests.  See their most recent report on the lack of effectiveness in testing programs. Please pay particular attention to Appendix A and #2. International Sports Organizations.

Obviously, the sport of tennis is not immune.  Drugs won’t make a major champion out of someone who has little ability in the sport, but among the top 500 players, there is not a great deal of difference in the abilities of players that play the sport.  The differences are small, especially within each tier – Top 10, 20, 30, etc.  Use of drugs for extra power, for endurance, recovery, and growth can obviously give the edge to that player within his tier level,  or perhaps even a few levels difference.  And not only in the actual physical effect like strength and endurance, but moreover in confidence and therefore mental strength, which, as any top player will tell you, is what mostly differentiates the players at a certain level.

Additionally, when one combines the drug effects with the conditions present in the sport, the effects can be augmented or diminished.  Ask yourself, “Are playing conditions generally slower today, or faster?  Will they favor those with artificially increased endurance, recovery ability, power, etc., or those that play with better tactics and aggressive shotmaking skills?”

Someone who is making superior shots should be able to win points without having to hit three or more winning shots, only to see them come back back again and again, point after point.  Superior shotmaking and tactics over the match should be able to tire the other player sufficiently to win the match.

As an example, I am disturbed when I observe a match like yesterday’s men’s semifinal at the 2013 US Open between Stanislas Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic.  Here are some relevant quotes from the players in their post-match interviews or press conferences that also disturbed me.

Stan Wawrinka [about Novak]:  “He was f*****g strong.”

Novak Djokovic:  “Wawrinka was a better player for most of the better part of the match because he was aggressive and played better tennis. Other hand, me, I just tried to hang on and fight and be mentally tough and believe all the way through I can actually win.  And I sincerely believed that as the match progresses and longer it goes, I felt I have maybe that physical edge over him…”

Sadly for many tennis purists, strong endurance and almost endless retrieval ability on these slowed hard courts of the US Open triumphed over tactics and aggressive shotmaking yet again.  It’s generally accepted that a clay court should have these attributes, but the US Open? Traditionally one of the faster hard courts?  Not only does the slowing of hard courts or grass (by causing a higher bounce) diminish a player’s superior shot making results, it also can produce more injuries.  The hard courts are not as forgiving on the joints as the natural surfaces.  Long matches on hard courts are not conducive to a player’s well being in the short term, and the effect is probably cumulative over the long term.

These days, Arthur Ashe Stadium’s DecoTurf 2 court in Flushing Meadows, New York, plays barely faster than Rod Laver Stadium’s Plexicushion court in Melbourne, Australia.  When they repaint the court before the event, they use enough grit in the top layer of paint to slow it down from its standard medium-fast pace.  There is also a lack of transparency in advertising the conditions.  In my opinion, the adjusted court pace rating  should be displayed prominently, say on the court’s scoreboard,  at every ITF/ATP/WTA event.  There are standard machines that calculate the pace and bounce characteristics, as well as a formula to adjust the calculation based on weather conditions (temperature and humidity).  It should not be a guessing game for the fans and players.

But those in power (ITF, ATP, WTA) realized there is more money in having marathon matches, so what else can one expect?  Tournaments and sponsors are also culpable in this regard.

In slower conditions, if a player has sufficient skills to hit the ball back in the court decently, and possesses an extraordinary ability to run balls down for as long as it takes, then he can be a winner.  He doesn’t have to play better tennis.  He just has to run more and outlast his opponent.  When two such similar players play against each other, it’s anyone’s guess who will be the last one standing — the winner.

Worst of all, one can’t be sure if athletes naturally have superior endurance and recovery attributes via genetics and hard training, or are being artificially enhanced.

Why can’t one be sure? Because those who currently manage anti-doping controls hardly test off-season when the drugs’ benefits can be used to their greatest affect, they rarely use blood testing, sometimes don’t test top players at all, or test using known methods with loopholes. For example, the T/E test used for steroid-testosterone detection won’t catch dopers that use micro-dosing or other methods to fly in under the established limits, or those genetically predisposed to not exhibit a high ratio, instead of using more definitive but more expensive tests like CIR (carbon isotope ratio).   The lack of funding argument to perform better and increased testing doesn’t fly with the millions being earned by the sport.  With the lax or inept management, a doper with knowledge and common sense or with access to a knowledgeable professional will not get caught via the current testing regime.  You don’t have to look further than the USADA report on Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Team for how canny the doper culture can be in avoiding getting caught.  And if a doper makes a mistake (usually those that may not have the best professional advice), there is every chance that they may be able to serve their time quietly (provisional ban) while their case is argued, and under the right circumstances it won’t be publicly revealed.  At worst, an occasional scapegoat not in the top echelon may be exposed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the testing regime and be publicly banned for a time.

If a doping athlete is accused or suspected of doping based on his appearance or incredible performances, he can simply say that he has never used anything illegal and never tested positive.

On the other hand, if someone is not doping, but they have the natural strength/endurance attributes and/or excellent training programs, they may still be suspected of doping due to their performance, and it’s difficult for them to prove themselves innocent to a suspicious public, because the anti-doping controls are so suspect for all of the reasons already given.

Victor Conte, the former BALCO head who served time in prison in 2005 for his part in a conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering, but since then has admirably educated people about doping methods and joined the fight against doping in sports, said that PED use in tennis is “likely rampant because testing is inept.” I believe he has used figures of 30% or more when describing rampant.  Thirty percent or more of the top players are doping?  Shocking to us perhaps, but not Victor Conte.  He’s been around and has usually been on target with his assessments.

There are remedies for all of this, and one doesn’t  pretend to have all the answers, but it will certainly take time and the will to make changes.  The public also has a responsibility.  We have to do our part to convince those in charge that we don’t want doped athletes cheating those who do not dope, even if the former provide great entertainment.  We cannot turn a blind eye to this.  We cannot be conveniently naive or bury our heads in the sand and say it’s not happening.  Athletes that don’t use PEDs are being cheated by those that do.  It discredits all involved in all sports from all eras if we cannot be sure who is doping and who is not.

Credits: Cover Photo: Russell Bernice (Creative Commons License)

Comment below, or you can also discuss in detail with fellow tennis fans on the Tennis Frontier Message Board Forum


About John Masters

U.S.A. Tennis player/fan for 40+ years. Software Engineer. Tech. writer. Tennis analyst. You can contact John via: admin@tennisfrontier.com
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