(November 8, 2012) -- It’s been almost one month since the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency went public with the 1,000-plus page report that did to Lance Armstrong’s good name what Hurricane Sandy did to Staten Island. The response in the tennis world has been slow and steady since then, finally building to a crescendo this week with three of the Big Four speaking out in favor of more testing in tennis.
Reaction from blogs, mainstream media, and pros alike seemed almost inevitable after stories emerged detailing the numerous strategies available to avoid doping detection (including simply avoiding the test, as Steve Tignor pointed out). If cyclists could outsmart authorities, couldn’t tennis players? I, like many others, found that answer to be a resounding yes. So I began doing research (the bulk of which is documented here, here, and here).
At the outset of my little side project, I knew as much on the subject of doping in tennis as I knew about Roger Federer’s hair care regimen - which is to say, not much - but I figured several days of googling and a couple of expert interviews (with ITF anti-doping manager Dr. Stuart Miller and former ATP anti-doping head Richard Ings) would do the trick. Instead, my preliminary probing sucked me into a veritable vortex of anti-doping facts and figures. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn, and the more I realized that Lance Armstrong has the potential to single-handedly change the course of tennis history.
Thanks to Armstrong, the tennis media has upped its coverage of the doping topic and, perhaps more importantly, people are listening. The shockingly low number of positive tests in a sport where players would unquestionably benefit from HGH, EPO, and the like, is no longer seen as a badge of honor. Rather, the relative lack of “Anti-Doping Rule Violations” is now a cause for suspicion and a subject of intense debate.
But in a sea of opinions, one thing is certain: the ITF anti-doping program is useless at worst, ineffective at best. Even if they used their allotted $1.6 million last year (instead of somehow coming in nearly $300,000 under budget), they wouldn’t have had anywhere near the resources needed to uncover evidence of systematic doping, should it exist. Most distressing of all is the evidence suggesting they aren’t looking for it to begin with (see Stuart Miller’s quotes here under “As Clean as It Seems? “).
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, widely considered the most effective and well-funded anti-doping organization in the world, placed Armstrong directly in their cross-hairs. And based on the USADA website, he’s not the only one. According to the site’s “allocation” section, athletes are targeted based on their training periods and competition calendars as well as information received on possible doping practices. It also explains that “resources aimed at the detection of doping may be specifically targeted, and USADA retains the right to test any athlete at any time.”
The ITF, on the other hand, won’t even target players who have dodged positive tests in the past. As I mentioned in my Q&A with Richard Ings, the ITF briefly published, then removed, a document on its website detailing the doping statistics for 2009. Of the 203 out-of-competition tests attempted that year, it showed that 49 players had no sample collected including Federer, Rafael Nadal, and the Williams sisters. According to the document, only one player, Amelie Mauresmo, was retested within days of a missed test.
Given that a massive increase in the ITF Anti-Doping budget is unlikely, the organization should at the very least start operating with a purpose instead of attempting impartiality. When Roger Federer is asking to have his royal veins poked more often, you know there’s a problem.
“Whatever number [of tests] it is, I do not think it is enough,” he said on the eve of the ATP World Tour Finals. “I think they should up it a little bit, or a lot…because it is vital that the sport stays clean…we have had a good history in terms of that and we want to ensure it stays that way.”
Federer went on to agree with what Andy Murray said the week before. Fed feels he does very few blood tests throughout the year, and thinks he’s being tested less now than he was six or seven years ago. On the flip side, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, and Tomas Berdych all think they are being policed plenty. Or as Serena put it, “Stringent enough is putting it mildly…I get tested a lot.”
Full disclosure: She was tested a maximum of three times in competition during 2011. She was never actually tested out of competition (thanks to the famous panic room incident).
Though it’s interesting to get the players’ take, it really shouldn’t much matter what they think. Idealistic tendencies aside, I’m now convinced that effective anti-doping agencies should operate with the assumption of guilt, then celebrate if their testing and investigation proves otherwise. Who knows? Maybe the game of tennis really is made up of individuals with higher moral codes than their athletic counterparts.
In the relatively short time I’ve spent immersed in the world of WADA, USADA, and various other acronymic organizations, I’ve come to understand why fans can blindly defend the honor of their favorite athletes in the face of widespread doubt and suspicion. The reason is simple: they don’t have all of the facts. In Armstrong’s wake, I can only hope that’s changing for the sake of the athletes who play clean.