(March 17, 2013) -- Last fall, before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case against Lance Armstrong exploded onto every newspaper headline in the free world and before big-name players (plus Christophe Rochus) had their say on the topic, the possibility of doping in tennis was simply not discussed. Journalists certainly weren’t writing about it, and the athletes themselves appeared content with the status quo. In the interest of preserving the fragile “tennis is clean” ideal, analysis of glaring loopholes and inconsistencies in the ITF’s Anti-Doping Program was avoided like a Federer inside out forehand.
What a difference a few months make.
Now just about everyone has an opinion on whether or not the ITF, responsible for growing and promoting the sport of tennis, is also doing a good job of policing its headliners. With the bandwagon suddenly rolling, fans, media, players, and even the Grand Slams hopped on, all agreeing on something most of them would have denied one year ago: the ITF Anti-Doping Program is ineffective. And, as exciting as it is to think the ITF is finally waking up and smelling the testosterone cream, the newly established open dialogue on the doping subject will likely do more good in the immediate future than any of the ITF’s proposed changes.
At this point, the criticisms of the current system have been rehashed more than the state of Nadal’s fickle patella tendon. In addition to the obvious conflict of interests facing the ITF, there are far too few out of competition tests and blood tests. The recently released anti-doping statistics for 2012 reflect a marginal increase in each of these categories compared to the stats from 2011, but don’t get too excited. The ITF actually administered fewer blood tests this year than they did in 2006; a fact conveniently overshadowed by the simultaneous announcement of the ITF’s plans to implement a Biological Passport System.
In theory, the Biological Passport news is a step in the right direction. In practice? Well, that remains to be seen. While it makes sense to establish blood profiles that provide a baseline with which to analyze subsequent drug tests, implementation is not so straight forward. The additional funding from the Grand Slams plus the financial boost from the ATP and WTA tours will reportedly inflate the ITF anti-doping budget to around $3.5 million, up from just under $2 million. But then consider that simply establishing a player’s profile would require a massive increase (think quadruple) in the current number of blood tests.
At first glance it would seem that even a half-baked passport program would, by nature of its existence, greatly improve the scope of the current testing infrastructure. But it appears all passport-related blood tests will be scheduled (i.e. the players know they are coming). Will the ITF increase blood tests four-fold to build each profile, and then pay for unannounced, out-of-competition tests on top of that?
The ITF’s proposed improvements made for great publicity, but with no apparent timeline or strategy for initiating the program, one can’t help but wonder if it’s a diversion tactic designed to halt a steady stream of criticism. After all, the news is coming from ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti who has volunteered gems like this:
"I am not as pretentious as to think that we can catch all cheats. But I am confident that tennis is a clean sport.”
“I say we can only be proud, because we started very early in anti-doping, and we believe we have a quality program.”
And this, in reference to players’ claims that they are being tested less now than they were several years ago:
“I don't think they are right. But it's a bit strange. They change their minds a lot."
Remarks from Stuart Miller, head of the ITF’s anti-doping arm, have been equally unsettling. Miller has insisted multiple times that tennis is a skill sport in which players wouldn’t necessarily benefit from systematic doping. If Ricci Bitti and Miller aren’t convinced there was a problem in the first place, it seems unlikely they will invest the necessary time and money in creating a new anti-doping culture.
Perhaps that’s why Don Catlin, widely regarded as a founder of modern drug testing, described the move as “grandstanding.” Catlin also said the increased budget is still too low, and tennis is “far behind other sports” in its testing efforts.
"I would tell them not to bother," he told the Guardian UK. "They're better off to increase the number of tests they do rather than spend it all on the passport. Doubling or tripling urine tests would be of more value than starting a passport because you need such a long lead-in. You need data over four or five years."
It appears the initial optimism regarding the ITF’s seemingly newfound resolve may have been a bit premature, but all is not lost. Doping talk is now as trendy as Rafa’s new short-shorts, and that’s a good thing. Players are becoming educated on the inadequacy of the system charged with keeping tennis clean, and the mainstream media is covering the transition.
While players and writers can’t accuse unless they’ve personally seen [insert star athlete here] hiding under a massage table self-administering a post-match dose of EPO, they should never shy away from discussion because a topic is considered taboo. In this case, questions have promoted change, if minor, for the ITF Anti-Doping Program. The proof is in the Passport. Now if only the ITF would improve organizational transparency by announcing positive tests and provisional suspensions immediately after they happen…
When it comes to public discourse and sports reporting, Grantland’s Bill Simmons summed it up in his recent essay “Daring to Ask the PED Question”:
“What are we hiding from? Who are we protecting? What's the difference between wondering if [star running back, Adrian] Peterson had help with his comeback and wondering if he's going to break [Eric] Dickerson's record? Either way, we're just speculating, right? Well, that's what we do…WE SPECULATE ON STUFF!!!!!!!"