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.”

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts

Timothy Muttoo (University of Waterloo) with clay filter

Low tech water filter

Christine Bezruki | July 27, 2015

It may use the most simple of technology, but a new water filtration system is transforming thousands of lives in the Dominican Republic. Designed by University of Waterloo Masters of Public Health student, Timothy Muttoo, in partnership with the non-profit organization FilterPure, the new filters use locally-sourced clay, sawdust and particles of silver to remove 99.99 per cent of all water contaminants. “It really is an engineering innovation,” says Muttoo, who redesigned the composition of FilterPure’s original product to lower production costs and make the filters more affordable in the Dominican. “So many well-intentioned projects fail in developing countries because they aren’t sustainable or affordable.” Water is first step out of poverty One of the Caribbean’s poorest countries, 1.6 million people in the Dominican Republic do not have access to safe, clean water. UNICEF estimates that 50 per cent of children live in poverty, with 30 out of every 1000 dying before the age of five as a result of impure water and unhygienic living conditions. “Without a safe, accessible water source, communities get trapped in a vicious cycle: poverty contributes to access problems; access problems perpetuate poverty,” says Muttoo, who launched his own non-profit, H2O 4 ALL, in 2008. “The effects of unsafe water and poor sanitation are devastating, but it is a completely solvable problem.” The innovative bowl-shaped filters work by distilling dirty water through a porous clay membrane and into a clean receptacle bucket.  The water is brought to safe drinking quality standards and is easily accessed from a spigot. Working with, not for, communities This year Muttoo and FilterPure plan to distribute 4,000 filters to families across the Dominican. Each filter can produce up to 30 litres of clean water per day. As part of the initiative, Muttoo will study the social uptake of the technology as well as work alongside community health leaders for training and monitoring of the filter usage and evaluating health impacts within impoverished communities. “A key to sustainability is working with the communities, not for the communities,” said Muttoo. Since its inception, H2O 4 ALL has led projects in 10 different countries around the world— all with the mandate of working with local partners on the ground. Last summer Muttoo partnered with Save the Mothers and United Nations University in Uganda to drill a borehole well for Kawolo hospital, which serves Lugazi’s 1.2 million inhabitants. The well is an expansion of a rainwater filtration system he installed in 2012 for the hospital’s maternity ward — the hospital’s first ever access to safe water. As a result of both projects, infection rates at the hospital have plummeted to almost nothing. “Thousands of people are alive and healthy because of collaborative projects like these and the people that reached out to help,” said Muttoo. “Sustainability, empowerment and health. That’s the power of giving people clean water.”   A  version of this story was originally published by the University of Waterloo.  It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission. 

Braking for water

Sharon Oosthoek | July 22, 2015

A strenuous workout should be accompanied by frequent water breaks, right? Not so fast, says Brock University physiologist Stephen Cheung. While that certainly is the received wisdom, Cheung points out that top-performing athletes almost always speed past water stops in an effort to shave seconds off their time. "Elite marathon runners barely touch water, even on a hot day," he says. "And they lose more body weight through sweat (than others) and have higher core temperatures at the end of a race." In the mid-1990s, the American College of Sports Medicine recommended at least the full replacement of sweat loss during exercise. In 2007, it revised its guidelines to 400 to 800 millilitres of water per hour, and recommended dehydration be kept to less than 2 per cent of body weight for health and performance. Yet when Cheung looked more closely at the studies backing these guidelines, he found a crucial flaw: they didn't distinguish between being dehydrated and being thirsty. Instead, studies denied participants water while exercising in the heat, making them hyper-aware of their lack of hydration. "Doing that changes not only your physical hydration status, but your psychology," says Cheung, a competitive cyclist. "You are setting up a mental template for how hard you're going to cycle or run." Wiping the template clean So Cheung set up his own study, putting 11 competitive cyclists and triathletes through a 90-minute bike ride at half their aerobic capacity, followed by a 20 kilometre time trial. All participants had an IV in their arms, but only some received saline to replace lost sweat. The saline was warmed to body temperature so they couldn't tell. All participants also sweated out at least 2 per cent of their body weight before the time trial. Crucially, neither the participants nor the researchers knew if they were being hydrated. A paramedic tasked with monitoring their vital signs was the only one who knew, and he remained carefully hidden behind a curtain so as not to influence the outcome. The results? There was no difference in performance between those receiving saline rehydration and those receiving nothing. And there was no difference when Cheung further divided the group into those who were hydrated and not thirsty, hydrated but thirsty, dehydrated and thirsty and dehydrated but not thirsty. The takeaway message, says Cheung, is that losing 2 to 3 per cent body weight due to dehydration after two hours of exercise does not impair performance. “So drink according to your thirst, but don’t obsess about drinking or worry that you can’t perform at your best without fluids,” he says.
River rapids

Tribal waters

Noreen Fagan | July 20, 2015

Dan Walters is interested in water — especially in its emotional, spiritual and social connections to First Nation communities. A professor of geography at Nipissing University, Walter's current project assesses risk levels in drinking water and wastewater in the Dokis First Nation, located on the French River near Georgian Bay. Walters' anthropological approach examines the community's physical and cultural relationship to its tribal waters. It is, he admits, an approach at odds with Ottawa's focus on the technological aspect of First Nations' water systems. “It goes beyond understanding about water that comes out of taps, " he says. "The water quality in the ground affects medicinal plants and animals the Dokis Nation consume.” Walters's research is about making clear the gaps in assessments carried out by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), and offering suggestions for filling them. Muddied waters For example, AANDC research is based on scores which distort what communities value and muddy the impact policies and funding have on water systems, he says. A high score means a community has potential health and safety concerns while a low score implies the opposite.  The scores are important because communities with high-risk levels are given priority funding. But in the 2003, 2006 and 2010 federal assessments across Canada, First Nations' risk scores changed with each new assessment. In 2003 there were 218 high-risk systems, in 2006 that number fell to 178, while in 2010 there were 314 high-risk systems, out of a total of 807 communities. Lost in these numbers was any understanding of whether individual community scores had changed over time, to say nothing of why some water systems improved while others were high-risk. “We have no idea how many of those high-risk systems in 2006 are still high risk in 2010,” says Walters. “It is not clear whether the policies and funding have a direct influence on a community’s risk score.” In Walters’ opinion, the government’s technical assessment is limited and contradictory. For instance, in some communities, drinking water was declared safe but the community still received a high-risk score. “This creates a sense of fear in the community,” says Walters, adding that federal assessments also fail to recognize the multiple connections First Nations have with water. In Dokis First Nation, he highlights the importance of spiritual and emotional perceptions of water. Along with Carly Dokis and Benjamin Kelly, anthropology and sociology professors from Nipissing University, Walters has been exploring the cultural and social connections that the Dokis’s have with their water. Walters and his co-investigators are trying to create a new methodology for understanding these connections. It involves assessing how youth learn about the land, how community members are empowered, and how elders are encouraged to share stories about the past, all through community members’ connection with their territorial waters. “I think that our method needs to be used in addition to the federal technical surveys,” he says. " It is about respecting and understanding the value of water beyond just the technological  understanding of water.”
Bay of Fundy

Changing tides

Sharon Oosthoek | July 13, 2015

Tidal speeds in Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy can reach a staggering five metres per second.  By comparison a very fast river flows at about two to three metres per second, "and you wouldn't want to fall into a current like that," says Queen's University professor in coastal engineering Ryan Mulligan. So it stands to reason that anything slowing that flow would have significant impact on the ecosystem. That includes tidal turbines affixed to the ocean floor, a form of renewable electricity under consideration by Nova Scotia's department of energy. Mulligan's research is providing important insights into how such a field of turbines might affect the bay's powerful currents and its resulting impact on the environment. Tidal turbines work much like wind turbines, the key difference being that tidal currents, not wind, drive the blades that generate electricity. Also, tides are reliable and predictable, unlike wind or solar power, making this form of renewal energy hugely appealing, says Mulligan. Nova Scotia has been operating North America's only tidal power generating station near the town of Annapolis Royal since 1984. But critics say its design is not as environmentally-friendly as it could be. The system relies on tides to fill a human-made reservoir from which water is released as needed to generate electricity. The reservoir has caused river bank erosion and the dam has created a lethal trap for some marine wildlife. Turbines affixed to the ocean floor are a more appealing option. They don't involve flooding a basin and can be designed to allow marine life to swim past. Even so, they are not without environmental consequences. Forecasting tidal flows The difficulty is that there are only a few such installations in the world — most of which are in the United Kingdom — and research into their impact is still in its early stages. This makes Mulligan's work all the more timely. He has developed a sophisticated computer model using existing data on tidal speeds and suspended sediments in the Bay of Fundy. This gives him a baseline against which to measure the impact of a field of turbines on the bottom of the bay. His computer model estimates the turbines' impact by simulating a semi-permeable barrier across Minas Passage, an area of the bay where currents are particularly strong. At their maximum, the currents in the passage could generate about seven GW of power, enough to power roughly 2.5 million homes. That would require a full-scale array of several hundred turbines, which Mulligan's model estimates would result in a drop of nearly 30 per cent in the speed of tidal flows. "This is not a negligible change," he says. The problem with settling sediments Mulligan has calculated that the reduced flow is likely to lead to a decrease of about 70 per cent in suspended sediments in the water rushing through the passage. Those sediments will instead settle out, leading to silting in adjacent channels, shipping harbours and ecologically-productive tidal flats. This is crucial information for other researchers — marine ecologists, harbour engineers and fisheries scientists — who can now build on Mulligan's findings to fine tune predictions about local environmental impacts. "Taking energy out of the system impacts the physical environment," says Mulligan. "It will change the habitat and the species that can live in these places. It could also affect the socioeconomic environment — fishing, aquaculture, navigation. We need to know these things."
Curiosity Crew at Event

Stories from the road

Sarah Binns | July 9, 2015

Sarah Binns is part of our Research Matters team touring the province this summer to spread  the word about research breakthroughs at Ontario's 21 publicly funded  universities.  This summer Alex, Katie, Badri, and I have been travelling from Thunder Bay to Ottawa, and Windsor to Sudbury to promote the amazing research happening at universities across the province.  We’re highlighting 50 game-changing innovations from the last 100 years through fun research-themed trivia. There are some truly impressive game-changers on our list, but the innovations that people feel most connected to are often the ones we least expected. The most memorable moments happen when someone shares with us a personal connection to the research we’re promoting. In Sudbury, we were amazed by the city’s pride about the inclusion of the SNOLAB in our list.  It seems everyone either knows someone who worked there, worked there themselves, helped construct, or visited the underground lab. We’ve also met potato breeder Gary Johnston’s neighbour, and UOttawa law students who took classes with Michael Geist. And countless professors and researchers have dropped by to talk with us about future game-changing discoveries they are working on. For me, the most impressive feature of our list of game-changing research is that its showcases the full breadth of research from a wide variety of disciplines. As classics graduate I am incredibly pleased with the inclusion of historians and theorists, as they most accurately reflect my own research experience. Historian Margaret MacMillan has helped us understand the influence of past events on present policy and international relations, while literary critic Northrop Frye revolutionized the field when he outlined a highly structured, systematic theory of criticism that exists independent of literature itself. Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan made his mark by examining how media changes our behaviours and perceptions according to the way information is structured.  I have enjoy sharing their stories and the unexpected ways in which their work has impacted Ontario, Canada, and the world. Which of our game-changers do you most connect with? Stop by and share your research stories with us at one of the following upcoming festivals: Sunfest in London- July 9th-12th Kingston Farmers’ Market- July 18th Ennismore Shamrock Festival- July 19th Muskoka Ribfest in Gravenhurst - July 24th-26th Kempenfest in Barrie- July 31st- August 3rd We hope to see you there and in the meantime #staycurious!
More Blogs »