Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Lab Times Exchange on Problematic Doping Conviction of Steven Colvert

Today, Lab Times has published an exchange between WADA (Christine Ayotte) and the team of Norwegian scientists who first raised questions about the problematic doping conviction of Irish sprinter Steven Colvert. For background see: here and here and here.

WADA's response comes in the form of a version of the letter first posted on the WAADS website last month, which I discussed here. Ayotte's main response is to appeal to authority:
While it may sound seemingly insignificant to refer to 'WADA’s credibility', this oneside vitriolic opus is a charge against skilled, experienced scientists. The SAR-PAGE and IEF data presented are of excellent quality, the results clear and convincing. The methods, the interpretation of test results were published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature (more than 40 research articles from anti-doping scientists) and so were the criteria for issuing positive findings that are available on WADA’s website.
Let me point out what should be obvious: everyone in this issue is an expert. All have impressive degrees, publications and long CVs. Appealing to authority doesn't get you very far. In fact, with various WADA labs suspended around the world, including for improper false positive results, now is probably not the time to appeal to WADA's authority. Ultimately, what really matters here is evidence and procedure.

The team of Norwegian scientists (Jon Nissen-Meyer, Erik Boye, Bjarne Østerud,Tore Skotland) respond in the same issue of Lab Times.  They note the appeal to authority presented by Ayotte, and push back against the idea that it is improper to discuss this issue in the academic literature:
It is fair to say that Ayotte presents no scientific arguments against the assessments we make in our article. She claims that the scientists involved in analysing Colvert’s urine sample were highly competent and that the methods applied (PAGE, IEF) are widely used and have been the subject of many publications. We are not convinced that these matters determine whether the data were correctly obtained, interpreted and presented. More importantly, they certainly cannot determine whether or not problematic and inconsistent results should be subject to public discussion.
The exchange does get into some very important substance.

First, Ayotte criticizes the Norwegian scientists for not presenting their own data. This is of course ironic because WADA destroyed the original samples and has thus far refused to make available the original images from the case to either Colvert or the Norwegian researchers.

But the original data is probably not even necessary to resolve this case. The most important aspect of the exchange is that Ayotte repeats her claim that WADA scientists made mistakes in their evaluation of the data in Colvert's case:
If the laboratory expert was correctly quoted, he made a mistake when he stated that the amount of recombinant was small when compared to the endogenous EPO.
The Norwegian scientists, in their response to Ayotte, document that indeed the expert was correctly quoted making this claim, as was a second WADA expert. They write:
Ayotte clearly states in her letter that the laboratory experts are incorrect in their judgments of the PAGE results, and thus there is a disagreement among WAADS experts in the interpretation of the results used to convict an athlete for doping. We maintain that if the experts in the hearing are correct about the low level of rEPO in the PAGE analyses, the hearing should have concluded that the analyses are not consistent with one another and the case should have been dismissed. Alternatively, Ayotte’s interpretation is correct, in which case she has to explain how she can see such a large amount of rEPO in a gel where other people experienced in interpreting PAGE tests, including experts from two WADA labs, see little or nothing.

Either way, something is not right here.
The Norwegian researchers are correct. With WADA scientists in open disagreement on the data in this case and a team of independent researchers having published a critique of the application of WADA guidelines, that should provide sufficient evidence to overturn the Colvert judgment.

I don't know if Colvert doped and neither do you. Nor does WADA. At this point proof of guilt or proof of innocence is probably not forthcoming. But that is the point. Colvert should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and WADA's evidence does not prove him guilty.

Here is a big problem that Colvert and other athletes falsely convicted face: An expert familiar with the case tells me that for Colvert to take on WADA with a legal challenge would cost him more than $200,000, just to start. That would appear to be prohibitive for Colvert, based on media reports.

So even as the scientific literature and the court of public opinion appear to indicate that Colvert was wronged by anti-doping authorities and procedures, he essentially has no recourse to right the wrong. His athletic career has been derailed and that won't change. But it is not too late for Irish Sport, in particular, to do the right thing in support of one of its athletes.

Mistakes can be made, even in the best run processes. How organizations respond in the face of evidence of mistakes says far more about the integrity of those organizations than the mistake itself.

Irish Sport, do the right thing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

My November Daily Camera Column: Going Pro in Sports


In my column this month for The Daily Camera I look at data on prospects for top-level men's basketball and football players to make it to the pros. The NCAA, in its ubiquitous commercial (shown above), tells us that the vast majority of college athletes go pro in something other than sport.

While this is true, it does not accurately represent what happens at the highest levels of college sport. It turns out that in top-level football and basketball programs scholarship athletes have a considerable chance to "go pro" in their sport. In the article I show numbers indicating that perhaps 20% of Power 5 football players go pro and 59% of D1 basketball players go pro.

These numbers raise some important questions about how we at universities structure athletic programs. We are in fact preparing such students for professions in athletics. They are not simply college students who do sports on the side.

Here are some links for those interested in digging deeper.

  • The analysis depends on the excellent work done by Nick Harris (@sportingintel)  in the Global Sports Salaries Report. Here is the latest version. The data that I use comes from the 2015 edition.
  • I developed the analysis over the past few years via several blog posts and commentaries: NFL analysis (here) and NBA analysis (here and here), 
  • Here is the NCAA data on basketball players that go pro, and here is the data for several other sports,
  • Finally, here is a recent op-ed I had in the NYT on the idea of degrees in sport in big-time athletic programs.
Comments/questions welcomed!

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Summary of Olympic Drug Re-Testing So Far

This is a guest post by Bill Mallon (@bambam1729), Past President and Co-Founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians, and Hilary Evans (@OlympicStatman), a founding member of the OlyMADMen - an Olympic statistics group. Both are incredible resources on Twitter and worth a follow. This post appears on their blog here as well.

A Summary of Olympic Drug Re-Testing So Far

Over the last few months, the media has been awash with stories about positive doping findings from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) mandated re-testing of the samples from the London and Beijing Games, using more modern methods of detecting performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). It has been difficult to follow, as the press releases from the IOC have come in flurries, and there is confusion as to how many athletes have been affected and how many medals will be re-distributed.

To date, however, there has not been a summary of the number of positive tests, the types of substances used, and which sports and nations were most affected. Although there were some suspicions based on the press releases, it seems appropriate to produce such a summary, although admittedly, it may well be a work in progress, as the re-testing is ongoing.

First of all, our sources are mainly the IOC press releases and releases from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). All of the IOC press releases can be found here. The IOC press releases contain summaries of the decisions, but at the end of each summary they note “The full decision is available here” with a link to a PDF of the full decision. CAS decisions are available on their website here, under Jurisprudence --> Recent Decisions, or Database. Only cases that have been appealed to the CAS will have a ruling by that body. In a few cases, in attempting to find the specific substances named, we have relied on press reports, although that has been rare.

Now to the summary. The decisions have been coming from the IOC since April of this year, with the most recent one released on 25 November 2016. During that time 99 athletes from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics have been sanctioned on re-testing for PED use. There are actually 104 cases, as 5 athletes have tested positive for both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, as follows:

Hripsime Khurshudyan (F¬¬–ARM / WLT)
İntiqam Zairov (M–AZE / WLT)
Oksana Menkova (F–BLR / ATH)
Ilya Ilyin (M–KAZ / WLT)
Maiya Maneza (F–KAZ / WLT)

Here is the breakdown by nations of the 104 offenses:
Of note, fully 86 of the 104, or 82.7%, come from nations from the former Soviet Union.

Which sports have been the most affected? If you’ve been following this, you surely realize that athletics (track & field) and weightlifting seem to have been mentioned the most, and that is accurate. In fact, 92.3% of the sanctions have come from those two sports, with athletics having 49 offenses, and weightlifting 47. The others sanctions have come from wrestling (5), cycling (2), and swimming (1).

What have they been taking? The various sanctions have been for 14 different substances, in many cases with the athlete(s) taking 2 or more PEDs, but by far the most frequently used PEDs were Turinabol (64 cases) and Stanozolol (36 cases). The full breakdown is as follows:
The total is much more than 104 because of the athletes taking multiple substances. Also note that 14 cases are for abnormalities in the biological passport, in which cases we do not always know the precise substances involved.

Of the above, Turinabol, Stanozolol, Oxandrolone, Drostanolone, Methandienone, and 3a-hydroxy-5a-androst-1-en-17-one (there will not be a pop quiz on this) are anabolic steroids. GHRP-2 is a type of growth hormone releasing peptide, a stronger analogue of the older GHRP-6, with fewer side effects. 

EPO is erythropoietin, which increases red blood cell volume, and thus may increase oxygen carrying capacity by the blood, and is usually used by endurance athletes. One of these cases was used by a mountain biking cyclist, Blaža Klemenčič (SLO), but the other case was in a Russian weightlifter.

Ipamorelin is not often detected but stimulates growth hormone secretagogue receptors, which then stimulate growth hormone release. Methylhexanamine is a sympathomimetic drug, meaning it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system – the section of the nervous system responsible for the “fight or flight” phenomenon. It is used as a stimulant or dietary supplement and may be helpful in keeping weight down.

Acetazolamide is a diuretic which increases urine formation. It has no performance enhancing effects, but is used by athletes to dilute the urine, and thus decrease the concentration of other drugs in the urine, ostensibly to allow them to defeat the tests.

Finally, tamoxifen affects estrogen receptors and is best known as a treatment for women with breast cancer. It is used by athletes to mask the effects of anabolic steroids, especially gynecomastia, or production of breast tissue in men.

By far the two biggies above are Turinabol and Stanozolol. Turinabol was invented in the former East Germany (GDR) – no big shock there. It’s chemical name is variably known as dehydrochloromethyltestosterone, or chlorodehydromethyltestosterone. It is a derivative of testosterone, the male anabolic-androgenic steroid, which has been modified by attachment of a hydroxyl group (-OH), a choride ion (-Cl), and a methyl group (-CH3) to the basic sterol molecule. Turinabol was the main drug used the East German state-sponsored doping program, as later revealed by the release of documents from the Stasi, or East German secret police.

Stanozolol is another anabolic-androgenic steroid created by modifying the testosterone molecule by the addition of a hydroxyl group and three methyl groups. Stanozolol was best known by bodybuilders and other strength athletes as Winstrol, and was the drug that caused Ben Johnson to have a positive doping test after the 1988 Seoul Olympics 100 metre final.

It should be noted that despite many rumors about poor drug testing programs in Kenya and Ethiopia, which could benefit their outstanding distance runners, there were no positive re-tests from either of those nations. Now, it should be noted that those athletes would be most likely to use EPO, and tests for that are difficult, and involve checking for reticulocytes (a type of immature red blood cell) in the blood. After 4 or 8 years, it’s not certain how valid that test would be.

One question many people have is how many medals will be lost and who will they go to? The second part of that is difficult to answer and we’ll address it in a bit. In all, 52 medals have been lost because of the re-testing – 14 golds, 18 silvers, 20 bronzes. The most affected athlete is Kazakh weightlifter Ilya Ilyin, who loses gold medals from both 2008 and 2012. In this case, weightlifting is much more affected than athletics, losing 35 medals (8 golds, 7 silvers, 18 bronzes) to athletics’ 17.

Here are the nations most affected in terms of medals lost:
So who will these medals go to. Sorry, can’t help you there yet, at least not officially. The way that medals are redistributed is Byzantine and complex. First, the International Federations (IFs) are responsible for changing results, not the IOCs. But it is the IOC that re-distributes medals, so we often have to wait for word from both the IF and the IOC. It is not always as easy as moving up the next placed athlete to a medal position, although that is the most common scenario. But the IOC has left medal positions empty in the past, going as far back as 1972. Further, not every athlete who competes is drug tested, so for the famous example from weightlifting where the 9th-place finisher (Tomasz Zielinski [POL]) in the 2012 94 kg class could move up to bronze medal position, was Zielinski even subjected to drug testing? We don’t know as that is not always released.

These athletes did break the rules and this certainly looks terrible, but it’s important to remember one thing about this. The IOC tries to catch the drug cheats, more so than in most professional sports, notably in the four major pro sports in the United States (although baseball has gotten much better in recent years). Further, the WADA penalties are far more punitive than those in US professional sports, notably the NFL where a positive drug test costs you 4 games, or ¼th of a season, versus 2 years or more in Olympic sports. It is easy to criticize the IOC for this plethora of positive tests, but one should also note that they took the trouble to do the re-testing, something we will almost never see from the NFL or most professional sports.

The game goes on. The athletes will often look for an advantage, or “The Edge,” and the drug testers will continue to try to catch them. This is certainly far from the last we will hear on this problem.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Guest post: Are Funding Opportunities in Anti-doping Restricting Knowledge and Debate?

This is a guest post by Paul Dimeo, University of Stirling.

Those of us who work in Universities are faced with the on-going challenges of attracting research funding, publishing, and demonstrating that our research has impact outside of academia. Which in some ways makes a lot of sense; public funds should be utilised in purposeful ways. There is little point in entrenching ourselves in esoteric debates only of interest to a handful of like-minded colleagues. There are many challenging social issues that research might help to address.

However, there is long-recognised risk that we lose sight of the many attributes of independent research and thinking. Chomsky articulated these as: ‘fostering creative and independent thought and inquiry, challenging perceived beliefs, exploring new horizons and forgetting external constraints.’ He even argued that the extent to which these are ‘realized is a good measure of the level of civilization achieved.’

Pursuing external funding is an expectation now, but it might come with certain costs; the result of meeting the aims of the funder, which may well contradict the orthodox aims of open-minded, objective inquiry.

The scope and scale of research into anti-doping has dramatically increased over the past 20 years, coinciding with the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999. Ostensibly, we are in a fruitful period where policy and research have a potentially beneficial relationship. WADA, the IOC, and other organisations like The Partnership for Clean Competition (PCC), have dedicated research funding schemes offering scholars the opportunity for attracting much-needed resource, publishing findings and impacting upon policies that have lofty ambitions: clean sport, health and the ethical virtues inherent in fair play.

Anti-doping research: using funding to shape knowledge

Any scientist hoping to work in this field needs to relate their research to the purpose of anti-doping.

The PCC defines their objectives as:
‘Every day, the PCC acts to protect the integrity of sport and public health by engaging and supporting the world’s top scientists and innovators in high-quality anti-doping research and development. The PCC also facilitates adoption of these methods into the WADA-accredited laboratories. We aspire to help generate the world’s most influential, effective and coveted methods and resources for detecting and deterring the use of performance enhancing substances by all athletes in all sports at all levels. Through this work, we demonstrate the value of science, collaboration and innovation related to doping control in sport and ensure the benefits of sport participation.’ 
They provide annual funding of over $2m.

WADA are another significant funder of scientific research; since it was formed, it has committed $65m to finding the best scientific solutions to anti-doping problems. Much like the PCC, the aim is to develop ‘new and improved detection methods for prohibited substances and methods.’

As an indication of the growing relationship between WADA and the scientific community, its President has been fund-raising from international organisations and developed a stronger relationship with the IOC. Last year, it was announced that the IOC would contribute $10m, and WADA had secured pledges of $6.45m.

The IOC describe their aims as: ‘The priority is then innovative and novel research in all areas of anti-doping, which have the potential to lead to a significant change in the way anti-doping programmes are carried out and will have a direct impact on the daily life of the clean athlete.’
By prescribing the type of research they will fund, these organisations have structured the global environment for research.

Important research outside this remit

It may be understandable that a large, wealthy organisation seeks supporting evidence to enhance its own goals. In this instance, those goals are supported by Governments, sports organisations, athletes (in the main), and the watching public. However, behind the image of clean sport lies a lot of potentially interesting and valuable issues for which scientists would struggle to get funding.

For example, research on the nature of the drugs that are banned: do they enhance performance?; are they a risk to health, and at what specific dosage levels? That sort of information might lead to a reconsideration of the Prohibited List, which is not in the interests of the PCC, WADA or IOC.

Critical work that looks at potential flaws in the current system would not get funded. There have been concerns expressed by independent researchers about false positives, false negatives, sanctions based on competing interpretation of laboratory data, and the efficacy of the Athlete Biological Passport (the longitudinal blood profiling method that does not detect drug use, but instead highlights changes to blood values).

In the social sciences, it is hard to get funding for projects that critically assess the policy as defined by the World Anti-Doping Code. That is not within the interests of any anti-doping agency. Arguably, important and strong projects could be funded by other agencies, such as those interested in public health. This would be a high risk strategy given the competitive nature of health funding, and without the support of sports organisations would look light on potential impact. Yet there is a need to understand the negative consequences of anti-doping.

By offering lucrative but narrowly defined opportunities, anti-doping funders draw talented and committed researchers towards a specific policy goal, distracting them from more critical or broader approaches. This risks the loss of objectivity, creativity, cross-disciplinary learning, and innovation. If research is driven by policy aims then it can only work in the interests of reinforcing the nature of that policy. Critics are outside of the system, marginalised and under-funded. This sucks the life out of the debate on the ethics of anti-doping, as there are very few opportunities for meaningful engagement between policy leaders and ‘detached’ academics.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Talk on Wednesday at CU Athletics on Prostheses & Olympics

Do leg prostheses provide an advantage or disadvantage to Paralympic athletes?

Professor Alena Grabowski
Integrative Physiology Department
CU Boulder

Wednesday, November 16, 2:30
CU Athletics
Champions Center Auditorium, 3rd floor

Abstract: Running-specific leg prostheses (RSPs) are comprised of carbon-fiber, designed to emulate the spring-like function of tendons during level-ground steady-speed running, and allow considerable elastic energy return; however, unlike biological legs, passive-elastic RSPs cannot generate mechanical power anew, vary stiffness, nor allow foot-ground clearance during the swing phase. The international association of athletics federations has banned the use of RSPs in non-amputee track and field competitions. Thus, understanding how use of RSPs affects performance is paramount to decisions of inclusion or exclusion in sport. I will present a series of studies that assess the biomechanical and metabolic effects of using RSPs during running, sprinting and jumping to determine if use of such prostheses augment or impair performance for athletes with leg amputations.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

My October Daily Camera Column: College Athlete Compensation

With more and more money pouring its way into college sports, college athletes and their representatives have been pushing for a bigger slice of the growing pie. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court decided not to take on a case brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon over the rights to athletes' names, images and likenesses. O'Bannon, who played in the 1990s, first brought his case after seeing himself in a video game and realized he wasn't being compensated.

The Supreme Court could have used the O'Bannon case to make a landmark decision on college sports, but chose not to. So that means debate will continue, especially about big-time athletic programs with annual revenues over 100 million dollars. The debate isn't about whether or not athletes should be compensated — they already are — but how and how much.

I see a framework already emerging for answering these questions. It has three parts: stipends, prizes and intellectual property. Let's briefly look at each.
Read the whole thing here, and please feel free to come back and comment.

Here are some resources for additional reading if you'd like to go deeper:
There is also an enormous academic and legal literature on issues surrounding compensating college athletes. Here are two papers that I had on my course syllabus earlier this year:
And you might also have a look at this debate between Jay Bilas and Oliver Luck, two smart and thoughtful experts with different views on this topic:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Your Input Requested: A New Sports Governance Professional Masters Degree at CU Boulder

At the University of Colorado Boulder and CU Athletics, we pride ourselves on our engagement with the broader community. As such, we’d like to solicit your thoughts on a cutting-edge Master’s degree program we have under development.

We are developing a highly exclusive, intellectually rigorous, 12-month professional Master’s degree, with the goal of preparing students for careers in sports governance. The proposed program aims to focus initially on four themes:

-Amateurism
-International sports governance
-Anti-doping
-Paralympic sports governance

You can learn a bit more about our proposal by having a look at this one-pager in PDF.

If you have an interest in athletics performance, the rules, values, and institutions that govern sport, we invite your feedback. If you are interested in contributing to the development of the program, please use the comments here or email roger.pielke@colorado.edu with your thoughts on the questions below.
  1. If you were to consider enrolling in a professional master’s degree program, would you consider enrolling in a 1-year professional Master’s degree program in athletics governance? What factors are important to you in making such a decision?
  2. What sorts of skills, knowledge and networking opportunities would you expect from such a program?
  3. Where do you envision future employment with such skills, knowledge and opportunities provided by such a program?
  4. Are you a:
    • Current student
    • Professional athlete
    • College athlete
    • Current professional
    • Other
Thank you.

Sincerely,

The Athletics Governance proposal team
Sports Governance Center
CU Athletics
University of Colorado Boulder

WADA Research Project on Problems with EPO Detection

At the same time that WADA was arguing for the sanctioning of Steven Colvert, based on the robustness of EPO testing, it had funded a group of researchers in New Zealand to work of problems associated with those same tests.

The project described above is listed on the WADA website (here in PDF) and was funded for the period 2013-2014 (according to a research report of the University of Otago Heath Sciences department here in PDF). Colvert was sanctioned in 2014.

Here is a key passage:
Reliable, sensitive and specific measurement of the hormone EPO + related analogues, used to illegally enhance sports performance, is a continuing problem for WADA. To date, immunoassay tests for EPO suffer sensitivity and specificity problems due to the multiple forms of EPO normally present in blood and also from newer synthetic short forms that can be used by competitive athletes. 
Sensitivity refers to false negatives (dopers who escape detection) and specificity refers to false positives (innocent athletes wrongly accused).

Uncertainty and Cherrypicking in the Colvert Doping Case

The figure above shows results from three identical tests (SAR-PAGE) applied to the same batch of urine, in the doping case of Steven Colvert.

Yesterday, I was able to deduce that the WAADs response to Lab Times used the middle panel to make an argument in support of his conviction in response to the recent Lab Times critique. However, the WADA experts who testified against Colvert did not use or refer to that middle panel in their testimony, but instead focused on the Screening Test which appears as the left panel above. The panel on the right is the SAR-PAGE result from the B sample, that is the second batch of urine from Colvert's drug test sample.

Here is what these panels show: On the right side of each panel is a sideways bell-shaped curve, which reflects the concentration of EPO in the sample. The blue line is a threshold value, above which indicates the presence of synthetic EPO, that is, doping. If the bell-shaped curve extends above that blue line, then it is an indicator of the subject having doped.

Much of the discussion in the disciplinary hearing on Colvert's case focused on the Screening Test. There is almost none of the bell-shaped curve above that blue line, which led a WADA expert to explain that one has to be an expert to be able to see it as evidence of doping.

In contrast, the WAADs response to Lab Times published yesterday focused instead on the middle panel, which indicates a more substantial amount of synthetic EPO above the blue line. Note that the SAR-PAGE results are a subset of the full scientific evidence of this case.

Us non-expects can take away a few key conclusions here:

  • Neither in the Colvert hearing nor in the WAADs response to Lab Times have WADA experts engaged with the totality, and thus contradictions, in the evidence. These contradictions are a key point made in the Lab Times article;
  • One can easily cherrypick selected results from the available evidence to support whichever case one wants to make with respect to Colvert: guilty or not guilty;
  • The incredibly large range of conclusions from the same test applied to the same urine shown in the figure above for the three tests says something important about what appear to be large uncertainties in EPO testing;
  • Colvert became "more guilty" in the testing as WADA experts were asked to confirm their original (and marginal) conclusions in the follow-up tests to the initial screening. This situation lends itself to a conflict of interest among experts being asked to show themselves to be right or wrong in their initial judgment.
In the context of uncertain and contradictory results, due process for an athlete should require a rather high standard of proof for a conviction to occur. In Colvert's case, the A Sample Screening Test was judged sufficient to reverse the burden of proof such that he had to prove himself innocent.

However, even today neither WADA experts among themselves nor independent experts are in agreement over what the test results indicate.

It is true that Colvert has not proven himself innocent. That is probably impossible, as the original samples have all been destroyed. At the same time, it seems clear that the evidence does not prove Colvert guilty either.