(October 19, 2012) -- Allegations of cheating in sport understandably invoke strong, and often irrational, reactions. As fans, we feel entitled to information confirming that the various anti-doping programs set in place are accomplishing their objectives. On the other hand, some of us react violently at the mere mention of a player’s potential malfeasance.
The athletes themselves vehemently defend their integrity when it’s called into question. While many are likely truthful in their claims of innocence, others like Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Marion Jones, and, of course, Lance Armstrong have, at least for a time, conned millions while simultaneously violating the very standards they claimed to uphold.
To say that doping in tennis is a touchy subject is an understatement akin to saying Roger Federer is just a decent player. But why dodge the topic all together when history suggests the lack of aggressive investigation in sports like baseball and cycling contributed to the magnitude of their eventual doping-related disgrace?
Instead of resisting, players and fans should welcome the questions, appreciate the investigation, and demand scrutiny. Like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
The first step in that process would be to acknowledge that performance-enhancing drugs are easily accessible and ubiquitous. A recent New York Times story recounted the tale of a runner competing in what might be described as the "challenger circuit" of road races. He made just $40,000 over the course of 75 races, but still regularly risked arrest by crossing the border into Mexico to refill his stash of EPO (a banned blood-booster).
There is no doubt that performance enhancing substances appeal to competitors at every level. In fact, the “Decisions” page on the ITF anti-doping website is largely full of players you’ve probably never heard of. Mohammed Mohazebnia? Kristina Antoniychuk? Jaime Carmona?
Next, it’s important to have reasonable expectations. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was working with a budget of around $15 million as they methodically compiled over 1,000 pages of data (financial and scientific), testimony, lab test results, and emails proving Lance Armstrong's doping history. By comparison, ITF allotted just $1.6 million for their 2012 anti-doping budget. Unbelievably, they have come in significantly below that budget over the past several years due to “fewer positive cases.” Realistically, there is little hope of unearthing evidence of systematic doping in tennis given the limitations of the current ITF system.
Richard Ings, head of the ATP Anti-Doping Program from 2001 to 2005 and CEO of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority from 2005 to 2010, summed it up perfectly via email: “The future of the fight against doping in sport is agencies such as USADA working in cooperation with law enforcement agencies to obtain non-testing related evidence such as witness accounts, financial transactions, suspect doctor/patient records and the like.”
In other words, if we have learned anything from Lance Armstrong, it’s that millions of dollars and strategies far beyond simple testing are necessary to catch and punish cheaters.
Approximately 90 percent of the doping tests in tennis are performed during competition, and players have the ability to avoid those that are not (the ITF allows two missed out-of-competition tests in an 18-month period). And while it’s tempting to look at the 63 suspensions levied by the ITF since 1995 and assume the system is working, it’s worth noting that very few of those suspensions were the result of the banned substances and blood doping programs we now know to be some of the most widely used and difficult to detect (i.e. EPO, HGH, etc.). In fact, the most common culprits have been performance “un-enhancing” drugs like marijuana and cocaine.
Finally, fans, sycophantic members of the media, and anti-doping agencies alike must realize that the questions themselves are not the enemy. If Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service Cycling Team could run what the USADA is calling “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen," then it’s reasonable to wonder what might be happening behind the tightly closed doors of the ATP and WTA tours. If tennis is as clean as it appears, players should welcome additional surveillance.
In the tennis world, there’s little danger of a roving journalist spotting a steroid vial in a player’s cubby, as Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein did while writing a story on Mark McGwire during that historic 1998 summer. On the contrary, top players are bubble-wrapped by their respective entourages, largely insulated from outside scrutiny. Would-be whistleblowers (if they do indeed exist) have no doubt seen others like Roger Clemens’ baseball trainer Brian McNamee and US Postal Service masseuse Emma O’Reilly get pummeled by lawsuits after coming forward with information. For that reason, it’s even more important that there be advocates for truth and transparency on the pro tour and within the ITF anti-doping system.
Should we not be asking for more information regarding Dr. Luis Garcia Del Moral’s documented relationships with several pro tennis players after the Spaniard was banned for life by USADA for his role in the Armstrong debacle? Or should we just assume his performance-enhancing expertise was confined to cycling alone?
Now that it’s been reported that the specialized tents cyclists sleep in during competition mask EPO, should we not be asking for more information on CVAC Pods that, just like the tents, simulate high altitudes? Novak Djokovic is just one player who has spent time in the egg-shaped contraptions.
Questions abound but, the way I see it, that’s a good thing. And if the answers come back proving the best players are beyond reproach, then all the better for the game!
I appreciate the tremendous skill shown day in and day out on the pro tour. I marvel at the players' athleticism, and I respect their dedication to the sport. But a thorough dialogue on the subject of doping in tennis does nothing to spoil that. It only has the potential to educate observers of the game who, post-Armstrong Era, may be asking questions of their own.