Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The realities of Sport: The only win is the fair win

"The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, ‘unbelievable’, history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved" - John Leonard, Executive Director of the World Swimming Coaches Association
Over the years, "doping" - the use of performance-enhancing drugs or other treatments - has become recognized as a wide-spread problem in many sports.  Certain professional sports leagues are rife with it, and it has become a shadow which hangs over international sports competitions.  It used to be assumed that the best performances were the consequence of natural talent, dedication, hard work, and endless training.  Now, there's a tendency to jump to the conclusion that someone must have cheated.

The controversy surrounding Chinese gold medallist Ye Shiwen is an excellent example of this.  Smashing world records and Olympic records, she swam the 400 metre individual medley on Saturday in a time that beat her performance at the Worlds last year by 7 seconds.

7 seconds is a huge improvement.  To put it in perspective, the second place through eighth place finishers ranged from 2.83 to 7.19 seconds behind her.  A lot of media sources are speculating that she might be doping.  It's being remarked everywhere that her last 50 metres were completed faster than the last 50 metres of American gold medalist Ryan Lochte in the men's individual medley.  It has been remarked that, whenever something 'unbelievable' happens in international athletic competition, it's usually later revealed to be the result of doping.

Of course, she's also 16.  Is it that surprising to see marked changes in performance at that age?  And Ryan Lochte himself admitted that he may have pushed a little too hard at the beginning, suggesting that he was running out of gas at the finish, so yes, perhaps it makes sense that her final sprint was faster.  And there's nothing inherently suspicious about breaking world records.  We keep building our athletes stronger and faster - world records get broken all the time.

I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt.  It has always seemed to me that real sportsmanship means being gracious in defeat, and people who argue that the winner must have cheated...well, it seems petty and small-minded.

That being said, I've had to eat those words before.  Ten years ago, at Salt Lake City, I remember watching an interview with Canadian skier Rebecca Scott, who finished third in her event.  She was a distant third, and in a tight race for third, and she was very proud of her accomplishment...but in her interview she clearly implied that she was the winner among those who played fair, that she was proud to have accomplished what she did without doping, and that the first- and second-place finishers had used performance-enhancing drugs.  Sounded like sour grapes to me.  Lo and behold, her bronze medal was eventually upgraded to gold, as the IOC concluded that the first- and second-place finishers had used performance-enhancing drugs, and stripped them of their medals.

Most athletes love sport, and yes, people are people, but in general one would think that most athletes would appreciate that, if you've cheated, your win is hollow.  If everyone cheats, the winner is just the most effective cheater.  If only you cheat, it means you haven't really defeated anyone at anything.  Cheating derogates the competition, and demeans the sport itself.

Nonetheless, professional athletes have bills to pay - often a lot of bills - and there is a great deal of pressure to succeed.  Doing your best isn't enough; you have to win.  Because a win means sponsorships, government funding, national pride.  A loss means that the accolades and the money go elsewhere, and when you've spent years and years training for a sport, your other options may be limited.

In Canada, nobody goes into sport for the money.  Not that Canadians never cheat, but it's relatively rare, because the stakes aren't all that high.  I know many athletes, even Olympic athletes, who never expected to get rich, or even to make back all their training and competing expenses.  The Olympians I know competed in sports in which Canada has never medalled, and they never really expected to change that.  They went out to play their best, because it was what they loved to do.  And most of them *always* knew and accepted that they would need to go to do something else when they grew up - i.e. hit the venerable old age of 30 and developed more joint problems than their grandparents.  A handful go into coaching, but many retired Canadian athletes become professionals in some other field - lawyers, doctors, bankers, etc.  In other words, in Canada, for most people, sport comes second.  If you can compete on the world stage, great, but you also need to go to school, get an education, become well-rounded.  In March I had a conversation with one of our athletes currently in London who explained that she plans to return to school full time in the fall to finish her degree.  (Incidentally, at the time she and her partner were in the middle of Olympic qualifiers, competing for a single Olympic berth in a tight race against another Canadian pair and an American pair.  However, to protect her government funding she had to break from international competition to play a domestic tournament, while her rivals continued to play international competitions.)

That doesn't mean that there's no pressure.  Nobody likes to lose, especially if that means they may not be able to continue doing what they love.  So a competitive athlete getting Federal funding might be playing a 'make or break' match for their funding in the national championship - if you lose, you'll lose your funding, and have to stop training and get a job.  Of course that's pressure.  But there are alternatives.

That is different from some other countries, including China, where they have a huge population - so large that they have significant depth to draw on - and are less concerned with health, safety, education, and well-roundedness.  If you're training to compete on a Chinese national team, you train to the point of breaking, because that's the only way onto the team.  If you aren't the best, you get cut.  If you become injured, there's someone who can replace you.  And then, because your education has been subordinated to your training, your options are limited.  Failure is simply not an option.

Of course, that has many of the same public policy concerns as doping - we don't want athletes to compromise their health for the sake of victory.  Sport is about promoting health, activity, and camaraderie - not about promoting self-injuring cutthroat competition.  But that's not the entire point here.

The point is that, when there's so much pressure to succeed, it is not surprising that many would turn to performance-enhancing drugs for that extra edge.  This remains so even with the risk of getting caught, because, no matter how seriously we take the problem and come down hard on those who are caught (long-term suspensions from competition, stripping of rewards, not to mention the stigma and international embarrassment), science is always developing to the point that people can be relied upon to try to build a better mouse.

While there are those who believe that China may be quietly helping its athletes to dope, I have real doubts about that.  It was a major scandal in the 90's when it was revealed that China's remarkable gains were the result of doping, and China is concerned enough with its international reputation that I would be quite surprised if they were taking anything other than a serious hardline approach to doping nowadays.  Still, the pressure remains for the individual athletes.

I want to believe that Ye Shiwen is clean and that her performance is nothing other than the stunning display of athletic achievement that the Olympics is meant to showcase.  I truly hope that, when we have the benefit of hindsight, her doubters and naysayers will have to eat their words from today.  I hope that she continues in her already-impressive career and, four years from now in Brazil, makes Saturday's performance look slow.

But the IOC's protestations that it is "very sad" that people would assume that cheating is going on...well, they're half right.  The true shame of it is that people have good reasons to expect to find cheating.  That people cannot necessarily be faulted for thinking so.  That John Leonard can seriously and honestly make the statement quoted above.

1 comment:

  1. The last day has seen a huge controversy arise in badminton, as well, including several disqualifications, but for a rather different reason.

    This year, Olympic Badminton used a 'round robin' format for the first round. In Ladies' Doubles, the round robin was a round of 16, with four groups of four, and the top two from each group were to advance to the quarter-final, in a manner determined by their wins and scores from the round robin.

    Which is all well and good, except that it happened in both Groups A and Group C that, by the time the top two teams played each other, they had already both secured a place in the quarter-final. So why expend a lot of energy trying to win?

    But this went a step further. The Danish team had upset the second-seeded Chinese team in Group D, which changed the seeding for the quarters and semis, meaning that, if the Chinese team from Group A went in undefeated, they would face their compatriots in the semis rather than the finals (ie - they couldn't take both gold and silver). So they figured it was better to lose. This snowballed, and at the end of the day all four teams - including the reigning world champion Chinese team, the Indonesians, and both teams from South Korea - were actually doing their best to lose.

    It was obvious - repeatedly serving or returning into the net, intentionally hitting it well out - to the point that the crowd was booing and jeering and the officials came out to warn them.

    It was a scandal. It was unsportsmanlike. It was a real disappointment for the crowd - at least wrestlers put on a show.

    And it involved a startling lack of foresight, because neither the IOC nor the Badminton World Federation could simply ignore it. So all 8 players were disqualified.

    It's a different type of corruption, and in some ways draws a harsher reaction, because it actually hurts the business of the sport. Though some are arguing, and not without reason, that the format itself is flawed - where you can do better by losing, that's a formatting error. True. But it doesn't excuse the truly shameful display of these so-called athletes.

    Incidentally, a side effect of this scandal is that the disqualifications meant that all four of the otherwise-eliminated teams from Groups A and C advanced to the quarters, including Canadians Alex Bruce and Michelle Li, who are from the GTA. And they just managed to defeat the Australians in a nail-biter of a quarter-final, which makes them, I believe, the first Canadians ever to make an Olympic Badminton semi-final.