Science of Sport Awards: More controversies  //  Honorable mentions

29 Dec 2011 Posted by
Having earlier awarded “Controversy of the Year” to the Oscar Pistorius story, here are some other noteworthy controversies that affected sport in 2011.

Caster Semenya – back on the stage

Caster Semenya was undoubtedly the big controversy of 2009, when she won the 800m world title amid speculation and tests about her gender. 2010 was a quiet year because the IAAF and various legal teams were ironing out the details of the treatment of whatever medical condition was present before Semenya could return to the sport. That return happened in 2011, and Semenya once again became a big story at the World Championships.

Having enjoyed a patchy season in 2011, where one very solid performance was followed by a poor showing, Semenya was always going to be an “all or nothing” performer in Daegu. It turned out to be “all”, at least in terms of the time she was able to produce. More controversial was the manner of her racing – she looked unbelievably easy and relaxed, even when finishing fifth or sixth, and many speculated that she was losing on purpose to avoid the attention given to the winner. That mistrust stems directly from the lack of transparency around the whole affair – having announced (unwittingly) to the world that there were problems, nobody took the initiative to inform athletics how those problems were resolved. So Semenya was destined through that silence to be doubted and mistrusted, and that happened every time she raced, regardless of the outcome.

In Daegu, through the heats and semi-final, she looked dominant, and there was an ominous feeling among athletics followers going into the final. There, the pace was quick – a 55.86s first lap, with Semenya in fifth and Marina Savinova on her shoulder in 6th. 600m was reached in 1:26:07, and a time matching the 1:55.45 that Semenya produced in Berlin in 2009 was on the cards. As was the win – Semenya moved to the front with the same effortless style she had produced in 2009 and in some of her European races this year. But Savinova held on, and the gap didn’t grow as it had in Berlin, and with 50m to go, the Russian moved onto Semenya’s shoulder and took gold in 1:55.87. Semenya came in second in 1:56.35, just under a second slower than the winning time in Berlin, but with much stiffer competition, two years of maturity and more experience.

I am reliably informed that the moment that Savinova took the lead from Semenya with 50m to go, there were loud cheers in the press box in Daegu, further proof of just how negatively the athlete is viewed by the media. That is partly situational, but hasn’t been helped by some extraordinary stupidity by her management team, who at one point in 2011 announced that any media who wished to interview her would have to pay for that privilege. This, along with sponsor requests, complaints about money and a general veil of secrecy make Semenya one of the most controversial athletes in the world.

Pointedly, in the aftermath of her World Championship silver, Semenya smiled, spoke openly to the media and showed a side of herself that hadn’t been seen, but probably should be seen more often. She could be an incredibly media-friendly personality and it would be a good antidote to the negative perceptions that currently exist. It will never remove them, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction. 2012 will tell whether she embraces her status or continues, through her management, to play the villain. She recently split with her coach, and has now teamed up with Maria Mutola, which gives another dimension to the story.

As for what happened in the 18 months between Berlin and Daegu, we are none the wiser. I am still firmly of the belief that chemical treatment was enforced to lower testosterone levels, though I have no idea how this is being monitored, or even if it is. As long as that ignorance remains, Semenya’s races, regardless of result, will always be accompanied by claims that she “lost on purpose”, “threw the race”, or wasn’t trying hard enough. I’d suggest that going to the front of the World Championship final with 200m to run, and then losing in the last 50m is MORE attention grabbing that staying in fourth or third the whole way, but the rumor mill will circulate. Watch this space in 2012.

Read the report after Semenya’s silver in the Daegu 800m final

Cycling and anti-doping

This is always controversial. 2011 started well enough, with three CAS cases being won before April, the first time that the biological passport had been tested in court. It stood up to the test, a good sign for its future legal credibility. However, it came at a cost – literally. The financial burden of having to defend the bans handed down on the basis of the biological passport proved, over the remainder of 2011, to be a huge impediment to the effective implementation of the passport concept.

In August, Gerard Vroomen, co-founder of the Cervelo team, raised questions about the testing being done as part of the passport system. He wrote:

“I have not heard of a rider being tested for the biological passport between the end of the 2010 Tour and April 2011. After that I am not sure,” he stated. “While it is logical that the frequency of testing might decrease somewhat once profiles are established, the fact remains that the profile in itself is not a deterrent. The deterrent comes from testing current values against those profiles to see if there are clues indicating doping.”

And of course, he is quite right. We posted on this a few times in 2011, most recently when I presented at the UKSEM conference, and presented some of the data showing how doping behavior was changed as a result of the biological passport (it’s in the presentation at the link). However, without the testing, any rational cyclist (who is willing to dope) will change behavior back and resume doping.

The UCI of course reacted to this, making public their stats that 1,577 tests had been conducted during the period in question. However, Prof Michael Ashenden, one of the leading experts in the fight against doping, also contributed his opinion that “It’s correct that the observation made by Gerard Vroomen matches with my experience. I have noticed a significant gap between tests in some of the profiles I have reviewed. It’s definitely not in every single profile, but enough to have left an impression on me.”

The UCI is certainly not an organization one would call fully transparent. Or trustworthy (both reputations have been “earned”) And so their statement and statistics were met with more than a hint of skepticism, most commentators jumping not on the actual number, but the fact that it may represent a significant decrease in testing compared to previous years, and certainly to the vision of the passport system. It was even labelled a “PR exercise”.

And make no mistake, the biological passport is expensive. What may push it over the edge, however, is the legal struggle that inevitably surrounds the cases it brings to light. The cost of defending the finding may ultimately cripple the entire system. Even the testing process is expensive, and the result is that the sport may have itself an effective tool that is extremely inefficient. Contrast this to the idea that a urine test could catch dopers by detecting banned substances in the urine, which was theoretically efficient but utterly ineffective, and you appreciate that if the sport is to stay on top of the doping problem, it needs a whole lot more money. And a whole lot more transparency.

The false-start rule, courtesy Usain Bolt

You may remember a time when every athlete in a sprint race was allowed a false start. The result was that you could, in theory, have nine false starts before the first athlete was disqualified. That made for drawn out races, it affected TV times and it allowed gamesmanship, and so the rule was changed, first to allow one false start for the race in 2003 (the second one, regardless of who it was, was out), and then to disqualify athletes immediately when false-starting.

This rule took effect in 2010, and many wondered how long it would take to claim its first high-profile ‘victim’. In the end, that person could not have been more high-profile – on Sunday August 28th, Usain Bolt went into his blocks for the final of the men’s 100m in the IAAF World Championships, and then jumped the gun.

For Bolt to be the victim of a rule that people had warned against fueled a big debate, the “told-you-so” camp against the “those are the rules” camp. It’s a sad situation for those in the stadium who had paid big money to see the world’s most recognizable athlete (and indeed, sportsman, so influential is Bolt), and so the analogy that was made at the time is that disqualifying an athlete for a ‘mistake’ is the same as sending Lionel Messi off in the 2nd minute of a Champions League final for an innocuous foul.

The difference, I suppose, is that a false-start is not an innocuous foul. It’s paramount to the result of the race, and entirely controllable by the athlete. There is, of course, an issue with the starter, who oftens holds athletes at “get set” and causes the false start, so that’s an issue that needs to be controlled by the IAAF.

However, generally, if the rule exists, and the athlete knows it, one can’t make exceptions after the fact. It’s an impossible situation for the sport to deal with, because if one false start is allowed as an allowance of “human error”, then the second error is punished disproportionately harshly. Also, allowing one false start gives one athlete the opportunity to play games with the other seven by deliberately jumping the gun. It’s also not quite the same as swimming, because the start carries relatively greater importance (the race is shorter and acceleration is faster).

So in the end, it’s a rule that won’t change. Bolt was at fault, not the rule, and London 2012 will reveal if he’s learned a lesson. Incidentally, Bolt is not new to false starts in major races. He jumped in 2009 as well, but because they had the one false start rule then, he got a reprieve and went on to run 9.58s. So for the world’s fastest man, the challenge is to control his desire to match his rivals out the blocks, and that alone will make London interesting.

Then, just as an aside, the plot thickened in the aftermath of Bolt’s disqualification. HD video of the incident showed that Yohan Blake twitched in the lane immediately adjacent to Bolt. That twitch, theoretically, could constitute a false start, and could also be viewed as the trigger for Bolt’s false start. If that was the case, then it should have been Blake, and not Bolt, who was disqualified. If you believe that Bolt’s false start was entirely unrelated to Blake’s twitch, then they could be viewed as unrelated events, and both might have been disqualified. Or the third option, and the one which proved to be borne out by the start data, is that Blake’s twitch, while clear on TV slow-motion replays, was not large enough to trigger the equipment, and therefore can’t be called a twitch in the first place.

I guess it raises questions of what threshold the equipment should have, whether it should be trusted more than the eye of the starter and officials. Ultimately, that’s an academic debate.

Rugby’s referee debacle

The Rugby World Cup produced South Africa’s big controversy of 2011 when Bryce Lawrence was blamed for our team’s quarter-final defeat against Australia. Lawrence, from New Zealand, was accused of being incompetent at best, corrupt at worst, part of a plot to ensure that the South African team did not derail New Zealand’s chances of winning the tournament on home soil.

The accusations of corruption came from influential sources, but lacked evidence, fueled largely by emotion. Admittedly, Lawrence was absolutely terrible in that match, but unfortunately the South African “disease” of blaming everyone but themselves meant that we failed to take the lessons out of the match, adapt to the referee and win it anyway. Which we should have done. In short, Lawrence’s failures on the day were simply incompetence, or perhaps instruction, in that he clearly erred on the side of the team without the ball, perhaps under orders to allow a free-flowing match. He allowed far too much to happen in the rucks and the result was that the team defending was given the advantage. The problem for South Africa is that this team was Australia, who barely had the ball as an attacking force. The end result is that he appeared biased because he was advantaging the team without the ball. Fixed? No. Incompetent? Yes.

And this introduced the larger problem faced by rugby. I wrote a post on this in October, describing how the sport has a credibility problem, because too much is left open to interpretation and therefore post-match criticism of the referee. The IRB hasn’t managed to control the standard or the interpretation of admittedly challenging rules, and so every result is questioned by angry and emotional fans (and sometimes coaches). This is equally true in Sevens, where I’m involved with the SA Sevens team, and where the IRB just cannot seem to take seriously enough the development of its own referees. The end result is farcical officiating, which unfortunately exerts too great an influence on the outcome of matches.

Match-fixing in cricket

Cricket is a sport that has been dogged by match-fixing for over a decade. It was a South African who was the main protagonist when the problem was first thrust into the global limelight, when Hansie Cronje was tried and found guilty of match-fixing. The problem had of course existed long before he fell prey to it, and 2011 showed that it is still very much alive. Three Pakistani cricketers, Salman Butt, Mohammad Aamer and Mohammad Asif were jailed in November for their part in a 2010 match-fixing conspiracy in London.

Specifically, it was a “spot-fixing” scandal, where betters can place a very specific bet within the context of the match (things like who bowls which over, whether a batsmen will score above or below a certain target, number of boundaries etc). In this case, the bet was that Aamer, Pakistan’s fast bowler, would deliver a no-ball on the first ball of the third over, and another on the sixth delivery of the tenth over, this time by Mohammed Asif. Sure enough, both were (massive) no balls, and when a video came to light by News of the World showing the player’s agent making these predictions, the plot was exposed. Picking exactly which ball out of 540 in a day of cricket would be a no-ball may seem a ridiculous bet to make, but that’s the nature of cricket, and it’s why the game lends itself so easily to corruption like this.

Add to this the fact that the money in the game in India is absolutely enormous, and cricket is ripe for corruption. The governing body for the sport, the ICC, has an anti-corruption unit which has made some impact, but when you consider how easily aspects of cricket can be fixed, it is an impossible battle to win.

Soccer’s racism controversy – the extreme manifestation of a deeper problem

A final one, and really just a brief opinion, on the most recent controversy affecting sport, that of racism in football. Luis Suarez of Liverpool received an 8-match ban for making racist comments to Patrice Evra of Manchester United, and John Terry, Chelsea’s England international, faces criminal charges for his accused racist comments towards Anton Ferdinand.

There has been a real uproar about this in the media, not surprisingly. It was discussed recently on radio in South Africa and got me thinking about the root cause of the problem. That root cause, I believe, is not racism, but just the plain lack of respect that football seems to facilitate between players. Racism is the manifestation or application of the problem, it’s not the problem in an of itself.

Don’t get me wrong – racism is clearly a problem, there’s no doubt about it. But it’s one of the extreme expressions of the same thing along a continuum, and if the sport is serious about stamping out the extreme, it has to act on the less severe cases as well.

I have seen footage of Suarez and Evra’s exchange, the argument that got Suarez the 8-match ban. It’s disgraceful, and it doesn’t matter what he actually said. Whether he was making racist comments, or attacking Evra’s hairstyle, language, family, football ability, should not change the fact that the two of them were clearly way beyond a line of respect and decency and deserve bans. Proving who started it, or who is more to blame is a trickier proposition, of course, but the point is that the two of them should both be sanctioned for their behavior towards one another.

That there is a racist undertone to it simply shows that it progressed far enough along that extreme that Suarez brought out more personal insults. Suarez, for his part, has shown his character repeatedly since he became infamous in 2010 for his hand ball against Ghana and subsequent celebrations, and sadly, his character is not condemned nearly enough in football. Nor is the lack of quality displayed by many footballers, who seem celebrated rather than condemned for what is actually just disgraceful behavior.

For example, when Jose Mourinho flicked Barcelona’s assistant on the ear earlier this year, he should have been given a ban of 10 or more matches. No debate, instant ban. And when Pinto, the Barcelona reserve goalkeeper, got involved in a skirmish, it should have produced six matches. Every player who storms a referee screaming for a decision should get a two match ban. Swearing should be an automatic one match, at the report of the referee. Football needs to be cleaned up, and focusing on the far extreme behavior and getting worked up over racism is a waste of energy, in my opinion, when the problem exists at the far left, where a basic disrespect for people is facilitated by the “beautiful game”.

Football fans will no doubt unite and say it isn’t so, but the fact is, football is tarnished by the behavior of its players, and it condones this behavior with inaction. We shouldn’t be debating whether Suarez is a racist or not, we should simply say that he deserves 8 matches for behavior that is undesirable and doesn’t belong in the sport.

And I don’t want the sport to be sanitized to the point where there is no ‘sledging’, no hostility. Players in high pressure situations should express themselves, the sport needs the antagonism. But a line needs to be drawn and defended. Football currently has no such line, and then we are surprised that players might be racist?


And in breaking news, Suarez gets an unrelated 1-match ban for a gesture made to opposition fans. It should be six more matchs, but proves the point…

This post is part of the following threads: News/Controversies, Year-in-Reviews, 2011 – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.