Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Contador Uncertainty Principle

“The significance of this mass ceremony…is paradoxical. It is preformed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.” – Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities

The problem with Alberto Contador isn’t that he’s a doper who got caught red-handed. The problem with Alberto Contador isn’t that he, cycling’s reigning champ, got blown up by a false positive, either. The problem is that he’s a mystery we’ll probably never have the facts to solve, and that he’s more harbinger than aberration. Maybe he did it, maybe he didn’t, but the whole culture has to move forward without any sort of closure. It looks like he’ll face some punishment from the UCI, he may follow through on his threat to retire, but, barring a revelation as shocking as it is unexpected, opinions will have to be formed without proof.

Here are the facts: Contador has been largely unstoppable in the grand tours since Lance Armstrong retired. He won the Tour de France in 2007, 2009 and 2010, and didn’t in 2006 and 2008 because he didn’t take part. He made up for his tour absence in 2008 by winning both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España. His teams weren’t included in the 2006 and 2008 tours because of doping investigations, but he was never individually implicated. Word came out this fall that he failed a doping control on the final rest day in the 2010 TdF, testing positive for clenbuterol, a drug that builds lean muscle. Then we learned that a urine sample from the day before that rest day tested positive for plasticizers, indicating an illegal blood transfusion or infusion.

Contador’s team claims he ate some contaminated meat gifted to him by Spanish friends during that rest day. This incensed the Spanish meat industry, which swore it was clean, and experts ruled that explanation both plausible and somewhat unlikely. (The store from whence the meat came has now been tested and shown no hint of clenbuterol, for whatever that's worth.) The plasticizer test has not been validated for anti-doping use, a fact that doesn’t impugn its accuracy but does allow anyone so inclined to cast aspersions. Complicating everything, clebuterol is sometimes present in livestock and plasticizers are environmentally present in modern life. (Remember the BPA/water bottle kerfuffle?) I’m no doctor/biochemist, but my impression is that the charges here are pretty damning, but not quite open-and-shut. Making any judgment of guilt or innocence depends at least partially on your reading of Contador’s character, motives and veracity, not simply the facts.

But, of course, the UCI can’t just let this hang over the sport like a chemical sword of Damocles. It has instructed the Spanish Federation to open hearings. What exactly will happen isn’t clear, but it’s instructive to note that a rider by the name of Fuyu Li tested positive for clebuterol last spring, and it looks like he’ll be banned for two years for his transgression. It’s one thing to offer up plausible excuses, but UCI’s doping regulations don’t care about intent. The important thing here isn’t how the clenbuterol got there, but that it was present. Contador has threatened to retire if a ban is handed down, but it’s not clear how that could be avoided if he can’t work up a little more concrete defense.

The point for me isn’t that cycling has another doping black eye. That’s pretty clear-cut. No matter how this plays out, it’s another headline where a top name is tied to drugs. The connection is always going to be louder than the details. The point is that we’ve reached the synthesis of the dialectic of doping. Unless someone does something truly stupid1, black and white are gone forever from our drugs in sports discourse. Gone are the days when our stars were demigods, protected by their press to fit into neat (and contrived) narrative arcs, but gone also are the days when doping first barged into our collective consciousness and users were exposed simply because the authorities were now looking. In the modern cat-and-mouse arms race of doping, rumors and hints have become damning because hard facts are nearly impossible to come by.
1: People will of course do stupid things, sure as the sun rises, but the bigger the player, the more money will be spent to make the crimes smart.
As I’ve said before, I am spectacularly uninterested in vilifying individual dopers. Don’t misunderstand, I think in many ways we’re underestimating how pervasive PEDs are in sports, but I can’t get my hackles up when an athlete makes a decision that I consider regrettable but totally human. This is a problem that needs to be attacked at a sport-wide level. I’m glad that the UCI is taking doping seriously. I know that randomized doping controls are an intrusive fact of life in the peloton, but I’ll take that over unchecked cheating. But I’m not so naïve as to think that testing eliminates doping, either, or catches all dopers. It shifts it from something that is talked about in some corners of locker rooms to a furtive secret between a private trainer and athlete. If even a system as comprehensive as the UCI’s biological passport, which establishes baselines for all sorts of things I don't understand in each individual athlete and checks their tests not just for abnormal levels relative to human norms but also to all of their prior levels, can be circumvented or flawed, then there is no fail-safe test.

Which leaves those of us who are spectators, fans and media both, watching the sport with a kind of jaundiced ignorance. American fans have already seen this play out with Tyler Hamilton’s vanishing twin argument and Floyd Landis’s fan-funded defense. Anyone could be doping, because getting to the top of the heap is always going to be worth more for some athletes than moral rectitude or respecting the threat of banishment. Various figures make statements about how getting tough on doping has cleaned the sport up, but there’s no real way to evaluate the truth of such claims. How much of the peloton is doping? How much of the peloton used to be doping? If the riders don’t know, and beyond their own bodies and maybe those of their closest confidants, they don’t, how exactly are we supposed to judge at all?2
2: This is why I could never take Jose Canseco's claims about X percent of major leaguers using steroids seriously. He never gave me reason to think that he was smart enough to look beyond his own confirmation biases. (Given that he's bankrupt and tweeting about his lost chandeliers and young, hot girlfriend, he hasn't exactly forced me to reevaluate my position since.)

So what to do about this onlooker limbo? If one is properly disgusted, swearing off the sport is an option, but it’s not like it’s an isolated phenomenon. Baseball has doping, football does too, though no one cares3, I assume it’s something that goes on in hockey, and you’re just playing naïve if you think that soccer and basketball, two sports that prize athleticism and stamina, don’t have at least small portions of their players on drugs too. The edges given by chemistry are too real to ignore, and the financial rewards for success are too big for many to turn down. As long as sports are played by competitive people who are payed to succeed, athletes will dope. Sadly, it’s that simple. And in a modern world of computer-aided chemistry, there will always be a new drug that the tests don’t know about yet, but are trying to find. I’m not trying to be a downer here, but I don’t see any way that isn’t true.
3: Joe Posnanski has said that he thinks the public doesn't care about steroids in football because there's no statistic like home runs to fixate on. I think it's more that baseball is a game of individual numbers that tie the modern game seamlessly to its past, while football is a game of teams filled with masked, numbered men following coaches' orders. Player performance is too context-dependent to compare outside the player's era. The only numbers that matter are wins and losses, and the game has changed too much too quickly to ground it historically. Jimmy Foxx would still be a pretty good first baseman, it seems clear, but what would Bronco Nagurski do in the NFL today? No one could begin to guess.
Several decades (or centuries, depending on how you keep score) into the acceleration of modern communication and hence media, we’ve already endured the slow erosion of the athletes-as-role-model archetype. Penis photos make the rounds on Deadspin for those who care, and the rest of us just try to ignore it. Think of the trouble Joe Namath would have gotten into off of the field these days. Doping is the worst crime an athlete can commit against his or her sport and against our trust, but more and more we’ll have to weigh individual guilt of that crime through the lens of our opinion of the individual.

The aesthetic perfection of some sporting moments and the arbitrary nature of victory in sports often lends itself to our imbuing of sports with a false, or at least overblown, morality. Fair play transcends not breaking the rules to be a mindset and a worldview. I’m not saying that there is no value in that; parents should still tell their kids to play the game the right way. But ever since radio and then television got into pro sports and players started making real money, the love of the game for them is ancillary to the economic benefits of success. The two can compliment each other, but to expect a pro to put aside success and money to play the game “the right way” when they don't is foolish. We’ve come to terms with athletes being people, warts and all, though specific failures still disappoint us. We need to stop thinking about doping as a moral absolute and shift it into that category too, of being just one more piece of information about a person.

It’s one thing when David Millar gets caught with EPO or Ben Johnson tests positive for steroids. But those days are gone. What are we to do with Alberto Contador or the next MLB player to fail a test based what he claims is a “unauthorized ingredient in a supplement”? At least some of the time, isn’t that guy going to be telling the truth? I think it’s correct that punishment depends solely on a banned substance’s presence in a test, but we as fans and media need to come to a place where, when definitive proof can’t be found, we can figure out what to do with a professional’s reputation. If the game is now run in such a way where some significant portion of the dopers won’t get caught4, how is it fair to pillory those that do, especially if occasional false positives are inevitable? Hand down stiff punishments, let those who can prove innocence/guilt do so, but in the court of public opinion, let’s stop treating doping like a witchhunt and deal with the facts as they are, not as we wish they were.
4: There's a non-zero chance that Lance Armstrong, America's golden god of cycling and post-cancer heroism, doped throughout his run of dominance. He didn't get caught, so we all have to go with our gut feelings on that one, and on a lot of his rivals.

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