Friday, September 21, 2007

landis decision ambiguities; wada/uci empty-mindedness

Everyone's talking about the Landis decision.

Cycling News. ESPN. The New York Times. Neil. Douche bags. But if you're going to read any of it, try the commentary by Bonnie Ford and, by far the most thoughtful news coverage of the decision, the Velo News article, which includes the full text of the 2:1 majority decision, as well as the dissent.

Without offering an opinion as to guilt, what strikes me as particularly odd, frustrating, and potentially sinister about this plot line are the vagaries and ambiguities that you and I, the cycling fan public, are left to digest. Take this for instance, from the Velo News article:

The majority of the panel found that while the initial testosterone-epitestosterone test was not "established in accordance with the WADA International Standard for Laboratories," the more precise and expensive carbon-isotope ratio analysis (IRMS), performed as a follow-up was accurate. As a result, "an anti-doping rule violation is established," said the majority....

The finding means that Landis was cleared of the initial positive T/E violation, but now faces a two-year suspension because the IRMS test did show the presence of exogenous testosterone.

Let me explain what I think this means. Remember that doping charges were first brought to bear against Landis for having an elevated T/E ratio after his amazing stage 17 ride. Eleven to one, if I remember correctly, far above the four to one limit. The ruling by the panel of three arbitrators cleared Landis of this charge, citing unreliable testing procedures by the French lab that preformed the tests.

However, after the initial test and--importantly--because of the results of the first test, additional tests were conducted to determine if the elevated T/E ratio was due to the presence of an artificial testosterone, which would be corroborating evidence of doping. The panel of three arbitrators, while also citing problems with the lab's work in performing this analysis, upheld the validity of the results to this second test.

Now, the extent of my legal training is essentially Law & Order 101, but I would think that in a regular American court evidence that is obtained as a direct result of other evidence that was later determined to have been obtained through procedural error or negligence would have to be held in serious question. And that the defense would then have a reasonable argument for the dismissal of the entire case.

In other words, there are two pieces of evidence against Landis, piece of evidence A and piece of evidence B. B was only obtained because of A. Had A not appeared, no one would have thought to or wanted to check for B. So when you determine that A can't be trusted due to a botched, unreliable process, don't you then have a strong argument against incrimination by B?

Perhaps you're shrugging your shoulders and thinking, "I don't know." Well, you're not alone. But this is where the real madness begins. With all these ambiguities, and a 2:1 decision that, while upholding the doping charge, castigates the reliability of the testing procedures, how does Pat McQuaid, the president of the UCI, get off saying things like this:

He has been found guilty. It proves that the system works no matter who you are.

First, a guilty finding proves the system works? What?! Digesting this stretch of logic makes my head spin.

Second, if there's anything to conclude from this it is that the system is a rattle-trap jalopy of an excuse for justice--it may or may not get us to the truth, but if it does, it is only slowly (a decision, now, 13 1/2 months after the initial charge), inefficiently, and in a manner which inspires little confidence.

Then you have Travis Tygart, USADA CEO, saying:

Today's ruling is a victory for all clean athletes and everyone who values fair and honest competition.

I don't know what the decision says for fair and honest competition, but it most certainly is not a victory for fair and honest judicial procedures for athletes accused of doping.


vandyman said...

I think it is important to remember that the rules and values of sports are different, or at least we like to believe them to be different, than the laws of our civil governance. We would like to think of them as higher, relying on honor and integrity (sportmanship,) over a requirement to show absolute evidence of guilt.

In every sport there are judgment calls where referees make mistakes, but players accept this because ultimately it is impossible to get every call right, so that the referees must simply make their best judgment. Because in the end, it is simply a game (even if millions of dollars are at stake).

So if there appears to be reasonable evidence of cheating, then in sports, this becomes enough to declare judgment, even if like the NFL instant replay, sometimes upholding the original call on the field can feel pretty ambiguous.

I think a nuanced interpretation of the findings are that the lab made mistakes which by themselves make the probability that the test showed doping smaller, but not still simply random. There has always been the assumption that initial test by itself would not be definitive, so that there would be second independent, and potentially more accurate, method of testing. Within the civil justice system, I agree that if the original test is questionable, then the second test result would become irrelevant. But from a sportmanship standpoint, I don't think that you get off so easily. The first test, though flawed, did trigger the B test, the results of which were consistent with doping. If we are trying to determine what the probability that Landis doped is, I think we have to follow a probability curve using something akin to Boolean logic. The likelihood that the first test was correct, due to errors might be something like 60% rather than the usual 90% (so a 40% chance of not doping). Independently, the results of the second test might give 95% chance of doping ( a 5% probability of not doping), but combining the two would still give you something like a 2% chance of not doping. You would probably like a less than 1% chance of non-doping before you are ready to declare judgment. So you test samples that were not originally triggers for B testing, but now come into play as a way to gain more information. (Again in civil court this would not be acceptable, but we in sport we can try for greater standard.) My understanding is that several (if not all) of these samples tested positive by the B sample isotope ratio methods. So now combining all these results, your confidence that Landis did not dope becomes low enough that it is reasonable, but not absolutely clear cut, that he did dope and you act in your best judgment. Of course, you would be foolish to be proud that the system worked so poorly and you should admit your ambiguity, but you act definitively nevertheless.

So in the end, what does the Landis story mean to you or me? That's what I wonder.

In a sport where a host of former riders and champions are now admitting their doping, how does Landis' being officially stripped of his title differ in a substantial way from them? We always suspected that the former heroics had an element of doping, but we admired them anyway. So in the end, even with the official result stripped, don't we still admire the crazy breakaway stage? Landis simply becomes one more young man, like so many ambitious young men, who gave his all, including his integrity, for the hope of eternal glory on the field of competition. We once thought of the suffering and striving of sports as the thing which brought out a man's real character. I think it still does. So now I admire even more the athlete who choses not to dope, and with that choses to forever suffer and strive in the shadow of those who will.

Other thoughts: I have read some of Landis' book. I think Landis clearly portrays the very real antagonism between the athletes and the testers. It is less clear to me if WADA is acting from arrogance as he suggests or simply desperation. After all, in the past ten years, most of the evidence of doping has not come from a WADA test result, but from police raids and investigations. If I were a WADA scientist, I would very much feel like I was getting my butt kicked by the athletes who were confessing in court to their doping (after the statue of limitations), but which my tests had completely failed to uncover. So I don't blame them for acting paranoid.

goat said...

Thanks, Sean.

Great comments.