Tennis Must Do More to Deter Doping

The International Tennis Federation announced on February 14th that Barbora Zahlavova Strycova is serving a six-month suspension after testing positive last October for the use of a banned stimulant. (More details here.) This news came just three days after prominent tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou asserted in an interview that “tennis doesn’t have a drugs problem.”

Like a lot of tennis fans and too many tennis insiders, Mouratoglou clings too tightly to certain myths that reassure him that tennis is immune from the epidemic-level doping that has affected other sports like cycling, track, cross-country skiing, baseball, and—growing evidence suggests—even more popular sports like football and basketball. The tennis community must confront these myths in order to implement a testing and enforcement regime that adequately deters doping.

Myth 1: Doping Only Helps in Sports That Require Less Skill

There’s no question that technical skill plays a bigger role in the success of a tennis player than it does for a road cyclist or a runner. Yet even cycling and track require more skill, tactics, and strategy for success than the untrained observer might suspect. And while tennis players need finely developed stroke mechanics and sound tactics to be successful, they also need superior athletic abilities that take many forms.

It makes no sense to question the importance of aerobic capacity in tennis while a debate goes on over whether the sport’s 20- or 25-second time limit between points gives players enough time to catch their breath. The grueling six-hour 2012 Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—after which both players struggled to stand up during the trophy ceremony—shows that endurance is essential. The modern game’s obsession with the ever-growing power and velocity of top players’ shots, as well as players’ continual need to change direction instantaneously and sprint, prove that muscular strength and quickness play central roles. Recurring analysis by players and fans of whether tournament schedules give certain players an advantage by allowing them more rest before big matches shows that recovery speed is important as well.

Tennis players need skill to win, but everything they do to exercise that skill in a match requires athletic ability—the strength to execute a shot, the speed to retrieve a ball, the aerobic capacity to maintain strength and speed through a long point, the endurance to maintain them through a long match, and the recovery ability to carry them into the next match. Different drugs and other doping techniques can dramatically enhance a player’s athletic performance in all of these categories, potentially giving them a decisive advantage over clean opponents.

Myth 2: No Tennis Stars Have Tested Positive

Zahlavova Strycova is by no means a top-level star, but she won a WTA singles title in Quebec City in 2011, has been ranked as high as #39 in singles, and has been a top-30 doubles player for the past three years. Five other former top-100 players have been suspended for doping offenses since 2008: Robert Kendrick, Wayne Odesnik, Ivo Minar, Laura Pous-Tío, and former #1 Martina Hingis.

(In addition, Richard Gasquet and Filippo Volandri were originally suspended for doping offenses by the ITF, but those suspensions were later overturned on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Yanina Wickmayer and Xavier Malisse were originally suspended for failing to report their whereabouts for purposes of out-of-competition drug testing, but their suspensions were set aside by a Belgian court and the ITF eventually dropped its appeals.)

Many have dismissed the significance of Hingis’ and Gasquet’s cases because the only banned substance they tested positive for was cocaine, generally regarded as a recreational drug. However, cocaine is a stimulant with the potential to enhance performance, and both players tested positive for cocaine metabolites during competition. Furthermore, users of performance-enhancing drugs often use recreational drugs to offset their side effects or withdrawal symptoms (see “Polysubstance Abuse and Dependence” in the link). Cyclist Marco Pantani is a likely example—there are strong circumstantial reasons to believe he doped in competition. Less than a year after his last professional race in 2003, he died of a cocaine overdose.

Not only have there been more tennis players caught doping than many would like to admit, but the number of athletes caught in other sports before recent crackdowns is smaller than many remember. In the five years before the Festina scandal first spotlighted the endemic nature of doping in cycling in 1998, only four riders who were competitive at the sport’s equivalent of tennis’ tour level were suspended for doping: Francesco Casagrande, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Gianni Bugno, and Abraham Olano. Bugno and Olano were suspended only because they tested positive for higher-than-allowed levels of caffeine. Yet later judicial cases or post-retirement confessions revealed more than a dozen other prominent riders were doping during those years, including 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis, 1994 world champion Luc LeBlanc, and six-time Tour de France sprinting champion Erik Zabel.

Myth 3: Players Who Tested Positive Only Doped by Accident

Zahlavova Strycova said the banned substance she took was an ingredient of a weight-loss supplement, which she took with no intention of enhancing her performance. Considered in isolation, her story is plausible, and with no evidence to the contrary, the ITF accepted it and gave her a reduced penalty. Kendrick, Minar, and Pous-Tío all told similar stories after they tested positive.

But the situation is the same in a great many of the cases where athletes have tested positive in sports we now know to have rampant problems with systematic and intentional doping. Many of those athletes later turn out to have doped intentionally, and often the substances they were caught with turn out to be the tip of the iceberg.

In cycling, for example, Alberto Contador claimed he must have ingested clenbuterol in 2010 by eating beef cut from a cow that had illegally been given the stimulant to speed its growth. After a lengthy exchange of appeals, the Court of Arbitration for Sport found the scenario implausible. Lance Armstrong tested positive for corticosteroids in 1999, but was cleared at the time on the grounds that he was using cortisone cream to treat a saddle sore. Last year’s USADA investigation revealed that he had team doctor Luis García del Moral fake and backdate the prescription after the test. (For details, click the link, download the “Reasoned Decision”, and see page 31.)

In track, LaShawn Merritt claimed he tested positive for a steroid precursor three times in 2009 and 2010 because it was in a supplement he was taking for the purpose of “male enhancement”.

In baseball, Manny Ramirez claimed in 2009 he had taken a banned hormone involved in regulating the body’s natural steroid production because a doctor prescribed it to treat an undisclosed “personal health issue”.

Some such excuses are more plausible than others, but in other sports they have proven most often to be covers for deliberate and ongoing efforts by athletes to enhance their performance by illegal means. Athletes who know they will be tested for doping take big risks by using products that might contain banned substances, and only the most careless are likely to take that risk for any reason other than a belief that those products will enhance their performance enough to boost their careers.

Chemical testing can only reveal which compounds are in an athlete’s body—it seldom gives an indication of how those compounds got there and it never tells us about the athlete’s intent. For athletes who test positive, saying they innocently used a product without knowing it contained banned substances is an easy and often unfalsifiable way to deflect some of the blame.

Technology and Money

Recent decades have seen dramatic improvements in athletic performance in every major sport, and tennis is no exception. Whether by legal or illegal means, athletes have achieved these improvements through the service of experts in physiology. The human body is, among other things, an engine—through chemical reactions it converts the food we eat and the air we breathe into kinetic energy that can move us across the court or propel a ball past our opponent. Well trained athletes outperform the rest of us by doing this chemical-to-kinetic conversion more efficiently, and by concentrating a greater fraction of their available energy on it during competition.

Today’s experts in sports medicine, exercise physiology, and nutrition help athletes achieve such efficiency by precisely quantifying their athletic capacities and teaching them techniques for optimizing those capacities. Many of those techniques are legal—carefully measured training programs, well planned diets, and training at high altitude, for example. But the very same physiological goals can be met (and surpassed), often with less work, through the use of illegal substances and other doping techniques that push back the limits imposed by the body’s natural feedback mechanisms. The technical expertise needed to design effective doping programs is largely the same as that needed to train top-level athletes by legal means. When athletes or their sponsors become wealthy enough to hire the best experts, only the scruples of the athletes and the experts can keep doping off the agenda.

Some have suggested that tennis players shouldn’t have to give up any prize money to fund a more rigorous testing program. But part of the problem is that the top players have so much more money than the anti-doping agencies. The ITF spent $1.6 million to fight doping in 2011—less than the prize money awarded to any one of the singles champions at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, or the US Open that year.

Doping versus testing will always be an arms race. Corrupt, well funded experts will always be developing new doping techniques that are undetectable with existing tests, or calibrating known doping methods to keep their signs below the threshold distinguishable by the tests. As long as the financial incentives for athletes to cheat dwarf the financial resources of the authorities trying to catch them, the authorities are doomed to fight a losing battle.

Why Doping Can’t Be Tolerated

Because the wealthiest, most successful athletes can afford the most sophisticated techniques to escape detection by doping tests, some argue that the only way to level the playing field is to legalize doping. Others simply believe sports should be an unlimited competition to extract the greatest possible performance from the human body by whatever means are available.

But doping has very tangible costs to the health of athletes who indulge in it. Even without doping, professional athletes typically accumulate injuries and physical wear during their short careers that haunt them for the rest of their lives. Add to that the significant physiological side effects (and in some cases, psychological side effects and risk of addiction) associated with doping, and the costs become unacceptable. One of the factors driving the creation of modern anti-doping rules and institutions was the death of Tom Simpson during the 1967 Tour de France. Weakened for days by dehydration, he collapsed near the top of a notorious climb but insisted his team help him back onto his bicycle. The next time he fell he was dead of heart failure. His hands had to be pried off the handlebars. Amphetamines were found in his blood, and more in the pockets of his jersey.

Struggling athletes who can’t afford expert advice will always be at a disadvantage. If doping is illegal, they’ll be more likely than wealthier athletes to get caught if they choose to dope. If doping is legal, their situation gets even worse. They’ll feel forced to dope to compete with those who have access to more expensive technology, but they’ll be more likely to die of an overdose.

The human body is an athletic engine, but that engine can’t work for very long unless we devote some of our energy and attention to the more critical functions carried out by our digestive, immune, and central nervous systems. We have electrical and chemical feedback systems to keep all these functions in balance, so that no one function interferes too much with the others.

Doping interferes with these feedback mechanisms, sacrificing other functions to increase athletic performance. Stimulants fool the nervous system into thinking we’re fighting or running for our lives, boosting our strength and reaction time by shutting down other systems. Anabolic steroids divert more energy and material into building and repairing muscle tissue, helping athletes get stronger and recover faster but leaving other systems disrupted and starved. Narcotics deaden the senses of pain and fatigue, allowing the body to keep working past the point of damage. Drugs like erythropoietin (EPO) boost the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, which allows muscles to work harder by burning more fuel in less time. But that interferes with the blood’s other functions in distributing nutrients, removing waste, and fighting disease, and dramatically raises the risk of cardiovascular disorders like heart attacks, strokes, and embolisms.

Why the ITF’s Current Anti-Doping Program is Inadequate

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in the USADA report on Lance Armstrong is the fact that Armstrong and much of his team doped consistently and systematically during years when cycling had a much more intensive testing program than tennis does even today. They used multiple substances and methods, and did so with little fear of being caught.

In 1998, the year before Armstrong’s first Tour de France “victory”, a French police investigation during the Tour revealed that the entire Festina team was engaged in coordinated doping. The resulting scandal led to the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency, a greatly expanded system of drug testing in cycling, and more aggressive anti-doping efforts by multiple national police agencies. By 2005—the year of Armstrong’s final Tour “victory”—WADA-accredited labs collected and tested 12,751 biological samples from cyclists, as shown in the chart below. Even that level of testing wasn’t enough to catch Armstrong. To this day, less than a fourth that many tests are administered to tennis players.

Detecting modern doping through drug testing isn’t easy. Modern drugs like steroids and blood boosters provide most of their benefit when taken during training, weeks before athletes arrive for competition. In many cases, these drugs simply duplicate chemicals that athlete’s bodies produce in smaller quantities naturally, making artificial doping difficult to distinguish from natural variation. If dopers know most tests will occur during competition, they can avoid detection by timing or reducing their dosages so that by the time they are tested, the concentrations of banned substances remaining in their bodies are statistically insignificant.

This is why it’s critical to test athletes frequently at random, unannounced times when they are not competing. Cycling has embraced this strategy, conducting thousands of out-of-competition tests of both urine and blood each year. In 2011, the last year for which data has been released, tennis players were subjected to only 195 out-of-competition urine tests, and a mere 21 out-of-competition blood tests. Were these tests applied randomly to the top-50 men and women, each player could expect on average to face less than two out-of-competition urine tests per year, and an out-of-competition blood test just once every five years. This is laughably inadequate.

Year Type of Test Tennis Cycling
2005 Total Samples 2,558 12,751
2011 Total Samples 3,161 19,139
Out-of-Competition Urine Tests 195 2,385
Out-of-Competition Blood Tests 21 3,314
Blood Tests for HGH 88 669
Blood Tests for EPO 1 509
Tests for Blood Transfusion 0 166

Extensive blood testing is also essential. Some popular performance-enhancing drugs, including human growth hormone (HGH) and some blood-boosting agents, are detectable only through blood tests. As tests for EPO have become more sensitive and widespread, many top-level athletes have turned to other forms of blood doping, including receiving transfusions using previously stored containers of their own blood. These homologous transfusions are detectable only through blood tests, and then only by various indirect means. Not a single tennis player was tested for this form of doping in 2011—at least not by the ITF.

What the ITF Must Do About Doping

The first and most obvious step tennis should take to improve its testing regime is to greatly increase the number of blood tests and out-of-competition tests. This will cost money—particularly the out-of-competition tests, which require the ITF to send certified representatives to collect samples all over the world where players live and train.

The second step is to implement a biological passport program of the type already in use in other sports including cycling and track and field. The ITF says it is currently considering such a program. A biological passport measures changes over time in the oxygen carrying capacity and the number and volume of different types of cells in an athlete’s blood. By doing so, it can detect the performance-enhancing effects of several types of doping, including homologous transfusions, even if no traces of doping agents remain in the blood samples.

Biological passports cost even more money, because they require more blood tests, both in and out of competition. The ITF says it is negotiating to obtain the necessary funds from the ATP, WTA, and the grand slam tournaments, all of whom agreed by 2007 that the ITF should run a unified anti-doping program throughout the sport. If the tours and the slams need to cut prize money for finalists and semifinalists to fund more meaningful drug testing, they should do it.

For years sports like cycling and baseball struggled to reach a consensus on whether it was better for their images to combat doping robustly and openly, or to ignore it and sweep it under the carpet. But too much carpet-sweeping in both sports let the problem grow until it became impossible to conceal, and blew up in giant scandals that badly hurt the popularity of both sports. It should be clear now that money spent on concerted and transparent anti-doping programs pays off by protecting the popularity and respectability of a sport in the long term.

Conflict of Interest?

Some have suggested that the anti-doping program in tennis is undermined by a conflict of interest as long as it is run by the ITF. After all, the ITF runs tournaments, collects fees from national federations, and depends ultimately for its funding on the marketability of tennis and its players. If there are reasons to suspect a popular player of doping, the argument goes, the ITF has an interest in hiding it to keep fans buying tickets and watching TV broadcasts.

However, the only top-level competitions run directly by the ITF are Davis Cup and Fed Cup, both of which attract sponsorship and support based on a large number of players who are popular in their many home countries, even if they aren’t globally well-known. The ITF gets about 80% of its income from sponsorship and TV licensing associated with these events. The grand slam tournaments are run by national federations, which pay dues as members of the ITF. But such dues make up less than 6% of the ITF’s income. The ATP and the WTA are separate organizations, run most of the top-level tournaments throughout the year, and their much greater income is much more dependent on promoting a few global star players. As an umbrella organization concerned with rulemaking and developing the sport worldwide through lower-level tournaments and national team competitions, the ITF depends relatively little on the star power of the top players, and is better suited than tennis’ other governing bodies to enforce anti-doping rules.

Furthermore, the ITF has pledged to follow the WADA Code, which specifies procedures to ensure all athletes are treated equally in doping investigations. WADA is independent of any particular sport, funded by national governments and by the Olympic Movement, and it monitors compliance with the code by client organizations like the ITF. Because the ITF has to use WADA-accredited laboratories to conduct its doping tests, WADA would be in a position to know if the ITF covered up a positive test.

National Investigations

Individual countries have critical roles to play in fighting doping as well. Subpoenas, interrogations, arrests, and seizures of physical evidence by national police agencies broke open the Festina scandal in 1998, revealed that more than 50 cyclists participated in Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes’ blood-doping program in 2006, and last year finally caught Lance Armstrong. These cases were indispensable in raising awareness and driving sports to strengthen their own enforcement mechanisms, and every nation should be encouraged to pass tougher anti-doping laws and pursue more such investigations.

But such cases also show the limitations of fighting doping through national judicial proceedings. With the power to impose criminal sentences or financial penalties, courts of law are subject to stricter standards of proof and privacy than sporting tribunals, which can only suspend athletes from competition. Prosecutors can only charge those suspects they can prove are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and often are legally restricted from naming other suspects implicated by evidence of a lesser standard. Individual nations also have limited reach in prosecuting crimes committed by their athletes while competing in foreign countries, or by athletes who are foreign citizens.

National anti-doping agencies also have a key role in strengthening enforcement. But tennis is becoming a truly global sport, and many of the countries hosting tournaments and producing top-level players lack the resources to contribute meaningfully to the fight. Also, the potential still exists for individual nations to promote doping among their own athletes in a cynical attempt to boost national prestige through sports victories, as East Germany did in the 1980s.

Contributions by police agencies and anti-doping organizations based in individual nations are very important, but are inadequate by themselves. The only way to deter every tennis player from doping is through a consistent international effort, and the only organizations in a position to make that effort are the ITF and WADA.

Investigation Before Accusation

The last fifteen years have shown that doping is more widespread and more sophisticated in more different sports than most people realized. Some tennis players have been caught doping. It isn’t clear whether other tennis players are getting away with doping. But it is clear that in the current environment, professional tennis players have both the incentive and the opportunity to dope. It’s unlikely that all of them are scrupulous enough to avoid the temptation.

As real as the problem is, fans should avoid accusing individual players on the basis of hunches, physical appearance, thinly explained absences from tournaments, or vaguely suspicious elements of circumstance. To accuse players of doping is to fundamentally condemn their characters and deny the significance of everything they have achieved. But as fans we must also demand that the institutions in tennis enforce the rules and investigate violations in a manner robust enough to reassure us that the competition we enjoy is healthy, genuine and fair.

No enforcement system will ever catch everyone, but stronger and better-funded testing and investigations can make doping risky enough and costly enough that most players will choose to play clean.

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3 Responses to Tennis Must Do More to Deter Doping

  1. Pingback: Troicki Suspended for Failing to Provide Blood Sample | Fog Mountain Tennis

  2. Pingback: The Cilic Decision, Trust, and Evidence | Fog Mountain Tennis

  3. Pingback: CAS Shortens Troicki’s Suspension | Fog Mountain Tennis

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