Olympics: science fair, science fairness

Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen shocked the world with her medal-winning performances in London.

Are the Olympics Games an athletics competition or a science fair? And at what point does applying science to sport cross the line into cheating?

In 1968 at the Mexico Olympics, American track and field star Bob Beamon broke the world long-jumping record – not by a little, but by more than half a metre. His record would stand for nearly 23 years, and his name became an adjective that describes an out-of-the-blue, act of extreme excellence. People the world over said, “It was the leap of a lifetime.”

In 2012, China’s Ye Shiwen left all other swimmers in her wake, setting world records in the 200 and 400-metre Individual Medley events, and having lap times that better than male competitors in the same event. People the world over said, “It must be doping.”

Leave aside, for a moment, the question of whether it’s fair to accuse Ye of cheating when there are (as yet) so few data other than her times to suggest it. Whether the accusations are valid or not, it says something that people now instinctively attribute miraculous performances to science, rather than athleticism.

It’s also interesting to consider which applications of science are considered cheating, and which just get folded into the competition. Carbon fibre vaulting poles: not ok when they weren’t widely available, but ok now. Full-body hydrophobic polyurethane swimsuits: not ok. Ionized shirts: ok for now.

And then there are performance enhancing drugs (banned), and more subtle body chemistry alterations such as blood doping, which involves artificially increasing an athlete’s red blood cell count, thus, increasing the oxygen in their system.

I spoke to Brock University’s Hilary Findlay recently about how officials decide to charge someone with cheating. Of course, the science of catching dopers is as extraordinary as the science of getting away with doping. But Findlay, an associate professor of sports management, says there is a surprising amount of subjectivity in how the data are interpreted.

Consider one of the latest anti-doping programs, the Athlete Biological Passport. The ABP is an ongoing electronic record of an athlete’s blood tests. Obviously, if someone tests positive for a banned substance, this becomes part of the record, but the ABP can also pick up anomalous changes that might indicate sneakier forms of artificial enhancing.

“When somebody uses some banned performance method such as blood doping, parameters that were historically very stable, become destabilized,” says Findlay. An unexpected change suggests that there might be jiggery-pokery afoot. Such statistical evidence can raise strong suspicions, but it isn’t always proof.

“The science is good,” Findlay says. “What we’re not so good at is translating the science into understanding what it means in reality. If an athlete goes outside what’s expected in their blood profile, it goes to an expert panel. Well now we’ve introduced a subjective element.”

Because the science is proceeding at such a breathtaking pace, the practices of interpreting the information are lagging behind. Currently, what often happens is the expert charged with recommending a disciplinary doping hearing is then called to testify at that hearing. In the first instance, their role is to heed their own suspicions and raise a flag. But in the second, they are meant to provide impartial testimony, including information about innocuous alternative interpretations of the data. So, while they are the first to cry “Doping!” they then are supposed to put aside those suspicions at an inquiry.

“Nobody’s really been questioning the role of the expert,” says Findlay. “The role of the expert is old school stuff within law, but it’s new stuff within the court of arbitration for sport.”

It takes an expert to pick out suspicious data from an ABP, but such experts need to be able to discuss other possible causes of a blip. Illness, high-altitude training and other non-illegal phenomena could also cause some of these variations.

“I’m not suggesting that cases have been found inappropriately,” Findlay says. “But the procedural system needs to be appropriate. Fairness revolves around these matters being heard appropriately.”

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