A couple of days ago I received a comment on the blog with regards to doping in tennis. It was very interesting and a couple of replies later I was pointed towards a site that has gone into a tremendous amount of depth about tennis, the drug testing procedures, players who have tested positive and all the various cases and media articles that could effect the integrity of the sport.
You can see that site here: http://tennishasasteroidproblem.blogspot.co.uk/ (opens in a new window)
Doping is something that's been mentioned here in passing a couple of times but I've never really considered dedicating an entire post to it mainly due to lack of concrete evidence but also just due to lack of my understanding on how the the ITF operates and how the WADA Prohibited Substances system works.
Now I've done a bit of research and seen how crazy the whole Lance Armstrong doping scandal was; that's all about to change as I've decided to take a look at whether or not tennis has a doping problem in more detail.
I think posing the question is both interesting for you guys and also, perhaps somewhat naively, I figure the more people that bring it up, the more likely the testing procedures and frequencies will change for the better.
An Incredibly Flawed Drug Testing System
If you hadn't already figured from my closing sentence above about changing the system it's pretty obvious I think the whole system for detecting drug offenders in the game of tennis is pretty lax. If anything, it's flawed from the ground up and clearly doesn't work as nobody is getting caught.
To give you guys an idea of how it works, in 2011 there were 2,150 anti doping tests carried out, only 131 of those were blood tests and only 21 were out of competition.
On the surface, you might think those numbers are high, but when I tell you that urine tests, of which make up 94% of the overall tests carried out, can't detect drugs like HGH (human growth hormone) which was used by Lance Armstrong then alarm bells should start to ring. Why are the vast majority of tests carried out, the ones that aren't capable of finding the drugs most likely to be in use?
There are also rumours that even when they take a urine sample they tell the laboratory to not analyse it for everything to cut costs and speed up the process. That's not right and we now know that EPO, which was also used by Armstrong, wasn't being tested for to keep the costs down. Scandalous.
If many of the doping methods Armstrong used are not detectable by urine tests, and doctors and players know this, then it doesn't take a genius to work out which type of drugs you'd use if you wanted to cheat and not get caught.
The second flaw boils down to budgets and where money gets spent. You'd think considering how Armstrong has ruined the reputation of cycling that Anti Doping would be high on the agenda with a large percentage of the overall ITF budget going towards it. Wrong. In 2012 the anti-doping budget was $US1.8 million and at the end of the financial year there was a $US300,000 underspend. It already seems low to me, yet there's cash left over?
Most organisations I know can't wait to blow their entire marketing budget before the year's out, in fact if there's anything left in the pot they're usually scrabbling round looking for ways to spend it quickly. Why is something as important as anti doping coming in under budget?
Even more alarmingly between the grand slams, the ATP Tour, WTA Tour and ITF circuits, tennis pays out at least $300 million in prize money per annum, why is anti doping so much less?
It gets worse when you consider that blood testing has decreased by 33% since 2006, you'd have to assume that funds are tight and they can't afford more blood tests. But on the evidence above that's clearly not the case as tennis is bigger than ever.
Others flaws include that currently there is no system in place for blood-testing winners and a loser’s sample will not be specifically tested for blood-doping unless the authorities request it — which from what we know, rarely happens. After all, only a week ago Novak Djokovic revealed he hadn't had a blood test in over 6 months. Pretty alarming really, I would have thought after he talked about doping in the press and was criticised for using his Egg or CVAC chamber, he would be getting tested more and more frequently.
Out of competition blood testing is almost non existent, and that basically means players can freely use HGH with no fear of getting caught. All they need to do is stop using it close to the competition and as far as doping tests go they're as clean as a whistle.
Is the ITF running under a conflict of interest?
As far as I can tell the ITF is in exactly the same boat as the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) as they are charged with both promoting the sport and keeping it clean. Those things don't go well together in my opinion. It's a clear conflict of interest.
I liken this whole thing to Politics, it's all spin and what is said to the mainstream tennis fans is a million miles away from what actually happens behind closed doors.
When you read some of the quotes that Dr Stuart Miller (Executive Director of the ITF's Science and Technical Department, who basically administers the anti doping program) has come out with over the years in various interviews you have to wonder what on earth he's talking about, here are a select few:
You normally see that in sports where you are trying to maximize some element of physiological performance, like strength, power, stamina, speed…They’re [tennis players] good at all of those things…But they’re not trying to maximize those things.
2009, New York Times.
In tennis there's nothing that you're maximizing particularly. I stand by the notion that tennis is not obviously lending itself to a particular category of performance-enhancing products.
2012, International Tennis Magazine.
When questioned by BBC correspondent Jonathan Overend in 2007 on whether he thought tennis was clean he said:
You would have to draw that conclusion. It would be naive to think we catch every person who is engaged in doping; however, based on the principles that we’re operating within the programme, the record in 2006 is certainly indicative of a clean sport. And you need a comprehensive test programme to demonstrate whether you have a clean sport or not.
From his quotes above, it's clear that Dr Stuart Miller to me is just the PR spokesperson for the ITF. He's just happy taking home his tidy salary for doing little to no work and toeing the party line as it were; saying exactly what the ITF want him to say. Fair enough, he has mouths to feed most likely, but in terms of integrity, I'd guess he's pretty low.
If you ever needed proof that tennis organisations are similar to politics, then there you have it. Those guys answers don't fill anyone with confidence. And you have to ask, why is this guy even giving out interviews? His role is to catch players doping, at least that's what we're lead to believe, so why isn't he out there doing his job?
What kind of executive in charge of anti doping would assume the sport is clean based on his own views on tennis players not needing to improve in the areas that drugs help?
Whilst he's out spouting his (the ITF's mandate) theories about the sport being clean, it's pretty obvious that high level Doctors and doping rings will be out there coming up with even more sophisticated methods to beat the already poor testing systems.
Yet again, he's a guy in a high ranking position that's purely employed to pump out the message that the top dogs at at the ITF want out there.
What do you think? Is Miller / the ITF inept? Or are they deliberately trying not to catch players doping? Looking at the Armstrong case, and how the world runs these days, I'd side with the latter.
Could the ITF be covering it up?
As I suggested above there's a conflict of interests when it comes to drug testing. Money is at stake. So could doping offences be covered up? Silent bans, “missing” samples are just a few things that spring to mind.
Currently the system has a couple of loopholes, that's because the WADA code allows signatories to decide whether or not to announce provisional suspensions, which occur after an “A” sample is confirmed as positive. The minute you start giving organisation leeway on things like that, things go wrong, and the truth is often obscured from public view. Why is that even allowed?
Another statistic that reeks of cover is up that the ITF has reported 53 positive tests but only 21 Anti-Doping Rule Violations since 2007. That's less than 50%. We have no idea with regards to what goes on during tribunal hearings. How can those numbers be justified if we never hear the true events? The ITF will argue many of them fall under Therapeutic Usage Exemptions but we are none the wiser as to what actually happened.
The fact a player can miss two out-of-competition tests within an 18-month period also worries me. Ok, if the testing teams are smart they would schedule the tests within a week of each other and if you miss them you're under scrutiny but from what I can tell, they don't do it like that.
For my money there's too much internal politics within the ITF and the ATP that prevents anti doping teams to run smoothly and do their job properly. The anti doping area of the ITF is just 1 department that will clearly have excessive control and influence exerted over them by the powers that be, i.e. the ones who pay their wages.
The fact that they use a method of only testing losing players in Grand Slams all seems a bit strange. That along with all the over various goings on that don't often make logical sense for a department who's aim is to catch offenders.
Like I said above, it's almost like they don't want to catch people doping. The Armstrong fiasco has brought doping to the fore, but it's also shown us how badly it can impact a sport. I'd guess that now Sporting Governing Bodies are wanting to keep the lid on something like this more so than ever before.
What do the Ex-Players think?
Not many ex players seem too happy to talk about doping publicy from what I've found; they either seem to be adamant it happened, or convinced that the sport is clean. There's absolutely no middle ground here.
Guys like Yannick Noah are convinced doping is ripe in tennis, in his Le Monde article he branded all Spanish athletes dopers:
Today sport is a little like Asterix in the Olympic Games: if you don’t have the magic potion, it is difficult to win. And it seems, like Obelix, they were the lucky ones who fell in the pot. How can a nation dominate all sports overnight?
A sweeping statement maybe but when you hear about the case against Spanish Doctor Luis García del Moral who was part of the Armstrong doping ring also admitted to helping tennis players it's not that unrealistic a claim.
Guy Forget also claims he played against rivals who took drugs in the 80's and 90's:
I have lost matches against guys who beat me with an unfair advantage because they were taking drugs.
For sure, it has happened. I can look at myself in the mirror knowing I have never taken anything. When I played there were no controls at all so why wouldn't you cheat the system.
On the other hand, 14 time Grand Slam Champion Pete Sampras doesn't think it's a problem:
I think tennis is a clean sport. There have been a handful of players – just a few – who have tested positive, but I believe they have just been exceptions. I just don’t think tennis players will go down that road of trying to get an edge, as it’s not in the culture. It was in the culture of cycling, and Lance Armstrong went along with that, but I just don’t see tennis players doing that. It’s not in their nature trying to get an edge that way. Arsmtrong has disappointed a lot of people and let a lot of people down. I thought he did as well as he could during the interview.
And Martina Navritilova shares his thoughts too:
There is very stringent drug testing going on and it has to be done, because there obviously has been some cheating going on as a few people have been caught. But overall, I think we have a pretty clean sport. You know that Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or any of those guys wouldn't do anything like what Lance Armstrong was doing. I think tennis is doing a pretty good job, at least from what I see.
As far as I'm concerned ex players aren't the best people to ask, many of them have media careers that prevent them really saying what they think. And many of them simply won't want to get involved in the debate, they may have links to dodgy Doctors or they may have friends on tour who they know tried doping. It's a whole can of worms this one.
What do the Current Players think?
Roger and Novak seem to be pro more testing, whereas Nadal is against out of comeptition testing, take from that what you will, and Murray doesn't have a clear stance. Murray has moaned about testing being intrusive, then said he wants more blood test along with with Biological Passports, he is hard to weigh up.
Here's what Federer has to say:
I feel I'm being less tested this time now than six, seven, eight years ago,” the Swiss told a news conference at London's O2 Arena. I don't know the exact reasons why we are being tested less and at this moment I agree with Andy, we don't do a lot of blood testing during the year.
I think it's important to have enough tests. I don't like it when I'm only getting tested whatever number it is, which I don't think is enough or sufficient during the year so I think we should up it a little bit or a lot.
Djokovic admitted at this years Australian Open the following:
I wasn't tested with blood for last six, seven months, it was more regularly in last two, three years ago. I don't know the reason why they stopped it.
Nadal however, when asked about the tests in 2009 said the following:
It's not fair to have persecution like that. They make you feel like a criminal. Not even my mother knows where I am every day. I am the first one who wants fair competition, completely clean competition for everybody.
And whilst Murray has called the drug testing policies Draconian and intrusive his latest comments have suggested he wants more testing in the off season:
The out-of-competition stuff could probably get better, when we're in December, when people are training and setting their bases, it would be good to do more around that time.
With most of the players wanting more anti doping measures in place, it'd be interesting to see if they could club together and get some change. Whether that means donating prize money to dedicate to more testing, or a boycott of a tournament or event to create reform I don't know.
When you consider Ru-an's Federer Blog wrote about doping back in 2010 and all of his concerns are still valid two years on, you appreciate just how reluctant these organisations are to changing their testing methods.
I suppose history shows you only get change when there's a large number of people willing to do something about it. Be it an uprising, or boycott, the players have to demand change if they are serious about cleaning up the sport.
If there was a mass exodus that would hugely effect the guys who run the sports ability to make money, to the point where they would be forced to stand up and take notice.
How would I prevent / catch doping in tennis?
Well, to begin with, I'd overhaul the current setup and scrap the current ITF anti doping procedures. It's clear they're ineffective and there is no real out and out reason for them to find dopers. On the surface it looks like the anti doping measures are only in place because they have to be there, not because they have a genuine and valued role.
It needs to be setup by an organisation that actually has it in their interests to find drug users. Whether there is some kind of reward (have to be careful of wrongful convictions) or bonuses for proven cases I'm not sure but the only way the testing will get more rigorous is if there is a strong monetary incentive to test more and more. It'd also mean the best doctors were anti doping rather than pro doping; meaning they could develop testing methods to keep up with the Doctors who are developing ways to beat the system.
At the moment I feel like there are more rewards to be had for the Doctors finding new methods of doping and the players who want to. It's almost as if the benefits of doping far outweigh the negatives as there's little chance of being caught. Kinda mind boggling really.
It'd have to be the case that the new measures ensure that a compulsory percentage of all tests taken have to be blood tests. As we've seen there's a trend emerging that blood tests are becoming more and more infrequent. That needs to change. Some are arguing it's too expensive, but as we know from above their was an under spend in previous years so that argument doesn't hold true.
I'd also like to see some of the players do more about it, if they're as committed to keeping the sport clean as they say they are, that shouldn't be a problem.
I suppose I should also say “how I'd prevent doping” as I alluded to in the title. To be honest I don't think preventing doping is feasible, there will always be someone out there looking to bend the rules for financial gain.
Doctors can be an odd bunch, they set out for careers in helping people, yet look at how many turn to handing out shocking cosmetic treatments and surgeries that often make peoples lives worse just because they can make more money doing it. There will always be Doctors out there who help athletes dope and there will always be athletes willing to risk doping. It's just an open market really.
As I've found from reading around, the current ITF doping program has significant limitations. Because of that and the fact there's some extremely clever Doctors capable of running doping rings it's almost impossible to prove or disprove the existence of systematic doping in tennis.
I'm personally pretty cynical when it comes to things to like this so my stance is clear; I think doping happens. But I think even the people who are out and out lovers of tennis who turn a blind eye to most things have to be pretty skeptical on whether the sport is totally clean or not.
When you read how the ITF operates, and look back at how they have handled past cases such as the Wayne “substantial assistance” Odesnik (He pleaded guilty and the ITF deferred the second half of the American’s two-year suspension.) you surely have to raise some questions.
In a way it's kinda sad the whole Lance Armstrong thing brought up doping in tennis but that case just proves it can and does happen.
So what do you think? Are tennis players so different from the cyclists, footballers, baseball players and Track and Field stars that have considered performance enhancing drugs to be a risk worth taking?