Olympics: science fair, science fairness
August 6, 2012
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.”
The whole package
Teresa Pitman | September 26, 2014If you’ve ever bought ready-to-eat sushi, you may have noticed a blob of wasabi on the tray. It’s a convenient way to add pungent flavour to your lunch, but it also serves another purpose: it protects your food from micro-organisms. As food science professor Loong-Tak Lim explains, wasabi contains allylisothiocyanate, (AITC) a natural and potent anti-microbial that kills yeast and bacteria. Of course, not every food is enhanced by the strong flavour of wasabi, so Lim has developed a packaging system that offers the same antimicrobial benefits . Lim derives his AITC from ground mustard powder, and uses a patented nanotechnological process to spin tiny fibres that encapsulate the naturally sourced agent in the packaging. “The conventional approach to adding preservatives has been to add them to the food,” says Lim's research colleague Suramya Mihindukulasuriya. “But processing the food may break down the preservative. By having the preservative in the packaging, we don’t need as high a concentration to enhance the shelf-life, safety and quality of the food.” So-called “active packaging,” responds to changes in the environment and the food itself, Lim says. In this case, the membrane responds to a certain level of moisture and releases a preservative to prevent spoiling. Other active packaging materials respond to heat and light. Mihindukulasuriya works with a preservative called hexanal, the volatile organic compound you smell when you cut grass or slice a cucumber. Hexanal helps preserve cell membranes of fruits and vegetables so they don’t become soft or soggy as they ripen. The preservative also has some anti-microbial properties, which are activated by heat and humidity. Mihindukulasuriya calls her technique of enclosing the preservative using ultra-high electrical forces “electrospinning.” Lim jokes that “we are like Spiderman, spinning tiny fibres.” And the fibres are tiny – about 400 times smaller than a human hair. When exposed to humidity or water, these fibres become permeable and release the hexanal. During her PhD studies, Mihindukulasuriya also developed an oxygen indicator that is activated by ultraviolet radiation. When there is little or no oxygen in the package, the indicator is white, but if the package is damaged or torn, allowing oxygen to enter, the indicator turns blue. This matters because oxygen causes rapid deterioration of some foods, and higher levels of oxygen encourage the growth of more micro-organisms. These foods are sealed in vacuum packs or in packages flushed with nitrogen to remove the oxygen, but if the package becomes damaged at some point, oxygen can get inside. That’s where Mihindukulasuriya’s product comes in: a label with a blue line would indicate that the package should not be purchased. What’s next in active and intelligent packaging? Mihindukulasuriya is planning to develop a compound that will detect the volatile compounds produced by food when it spoils and indicate to consumers that the food should not be eaten. The technique would supplement expiry dates, which are only estimates based on typical situations. Not only would such packaging warn people that food had spoiled, it could also reassure them when it was safe to eat – even if the expiry date had passed. “People throw away lots of food that has expired but is still perfectly good to eat,” says Lim. This article was originally published by the University of Guelph. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and style, and is republished here with permission.