Doping, management and inquisitions

10 Feb 2009 Posted by

A-Rod hits the bottom, Sevens Rugby hits the USA and Carl Lewis hits out at track and field

It’s been a pretty controversial last 48 hours for US sport, with the revelations that Alex Rodriguez, the owner of baseball’s richest ever contract ($275 million over 10 years with the Yankees) has admitted to using steroids during a period from 2001 to 2003. It means that one of baseball’s great heroes is now tainted with the same brush that has affected McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, Clemens and dozens of others, with the prospect of another 104 names to be released in the next few days.

All in all, baseball’s credibility is fast disappearing, as can be seen by the headlines in the papers in response to A-Rod’s confession: “A-roid”, “Cheat”, “Deception” are some of the common words. The strange thing about this is that Rodriguez is breaking the mould somewhat by confessing (having initially denied it, accordingto the script these guys read from). Some commentators have suggested that by confessiong, Rodriguez will escape the same kind of fallout that has affected McGwire and Bonds (who is facing jail-time). Honesty will see him rise above this, they say.

I don’t believe him. I have watched the interview with Peter Gammons of ESPN, and it seems to me that he is playing what has now become the classic game of admitting to part, but not all of the allegations, once you’ve been caught red-handed. It’s a case of say something to pacify the wolves at your door, but say only enough to keep them quiet. Marion Jones turned this deception into an art form when she admitted to doping but thinking it was flaxseed oil. A-Rod seems, to me at least, to be taking a similar approach. “To be quite honest I don’t know exactly what substance I was guilty of using” were his words in response to the question about which substances he had used.

It seems to me, based on numerous cases in the last few years, that elite athletes are capable of lying without the slightest sign of deception. Rodriguez himself outright denied steroid use in 2007 in a 60 Minutes interview with Katie Couric. “I’ve never felt overmatched on the baseball field. I’ve always been a very strong, dominant position. And I felt that if I did my work since I was, you know, a rookie back in Seattle, I didn’t have a problem competing at any level. So, no.” His justification was at least original, convincing himself that he was worthy of his place among baseball’s stars without steroids.

However, hindsight betrays his deception, and renders that apparently sincere answer a complete farce. The problem, then, for any newly-confessed doper, is that having weaved complex lies before, they now expect to be believed for their honesty? Perhaps I’m less trusting than most, but it feels as though we’ve heard “Wolf” too often and so Rodriguez’s latest interview “confession” doesn’t work for me.

Interestingly, his performances during his doping years (assuming we believe that he suddenly stopped doping, despite having some of the best success of his career, and moving to the Yankees where the pressure would be even greater than it was in Texas) were quite a bit better than in the other ten years of his career. According to ESPN, he hit 52 Home-runs a season while using steroids compared to 39.2 without, and 131.7 RBI per season compared to 119 when not using steroids. More detailed statistics would be insightful, perhaps they’ll materialize in coming days.

All in all, I feel there’s more to come, particularly for baseball. Perhaps A-Rod, by virtue of the “wholesome” interview he gave, will be passed over, and certainly, he has avoided the fate of Barry Bonds. But he’s the latest in a long line of “symptoms” for baseball, though the underlying cause remains untreated (and is perhaps untreatable).

Sevens Rugby: A game and a website worth checking

On a more positive note (uplifting, that is, not doping positive), if you’re a fan of Sevens rugby, then you’ll appreciate the qualities of the game. Even if you’re not a fan of rugby, Sevens brings a dimension to the sport that attracts the “non-purists”, which is its most valuable (and potentially profitable) quality. The game has taken off in the smaller nations, because it gives them an opportunity to match the traditional powerhouses far more than would be the case in the 15-man version of the game.

Just this past weekend in Wellington, the USA beat Fiji, Wales beat New Zealand, Argentina beat England and Kenya beat South Africa. Such upsets are relatively common, and highlight the growth and relative competitive balance in the game. That competitive balance does not exist in the 15-man game, where the outcome of all but about six possible matches is known before the kickoff.

What will be interesting in the future is whether the game grows faster than the 15-man game, particularly in the lucrative Gulf region. You’ll recall a post we did a month ago looking at how the Gulf region (Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Dubai) have pumped enormous money into bringing sport to the region. The world’s richest golf tournaments, marathons, tennis exhibitions, Formula 1 races are but a few of the sports they have attracted. And Sevens rugby, faster, more competitive, and more exciting, looms as a possible “product” for the region. If it were possible, I’d be buying shares in Sevens rugby.

Onto a more personal involvement with Sevens, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been involved with the SA Sevens Team (currently number 1 in the world rankings, long may it continue) thanks to the vision of Paul Treu, the coach. I’ll be going to the World Cup in Dubai in the first week of March, and the Hong Kong Tournament at the end of March.

Paul Treu, the youngest coach on the circuit, is also one of the smartest, and most savvy. He recently started up his own website, to which I contribute from time to time. My latest article can be read here – a commentary on sporting success and failure. For Sevens fans, the site is well worth following.

This week sees the Sevens Series visit the USA, and so if you’re in the San Diego area, this is your chance to check out my post first-hand. The action happens at PETCO Park, starting Saturday. It’s the last tournament before the World Cup in Dubai, and following on from Wellington, should be a great battle. So if you’re in the San Diego area, make a plan to join the 50,000 other expected fans there (and drop us your feedback if you do!).

Track and field in the USA under fire

The Beijing Olympic Games were a low point for US track and field. They came up against an extra-ordinary athlete in Usain Bolt, and short of producing three world records, they were never going to win gold medals anyway. On the women’s side, it was more of the same as Jamaica took three of the four sprint medals, Great Britain the other, and the USA claimed only the gold of LaShawn Merritt in the 400m.

To cap it off, both teams dropped the relay baton in the 4 x 100m. In response, the USATF Chief Executive Doug Logan called for the analysis and a nine-person task team led by Carl Lewis got to work. Their report was released yesterday, and among other criticisms, cites excessive travel by athletes, poor planning, a lack of professionalism among athletes, “chaos” in the national organization’s relay program and a “culture of mistrust” among athletes and coaches as reasons for the disappointing performances.

So widespread are the reported problems that to enact the recommendations will require bylaw changes. They include the creation of a general manager for the organization’s high-performance division; the development and support of high-performance training centers across the nation; shorter Olympic trials; specific criteria for athletes to compete as professionals; a comprehensive plan for winning 30 medals at the 2012 Summer Games; the creation of an organized athletes union; and more stringent standards for reinstatement after doping bans.

Is the criticism justified? As I said upfront, Bolt was never going to be beaten unless the USA managed to produce three world records in the short sprints. The relay failure certainly warrants mention, and the report calls for the termination of an expensive relay development programme. I don’t know the ins and outs of this programme, but it seems to me that relay success requires finding four or five very fast sprinters (a separate system), combined with a week’s worth of decent practice. No programme required…?

On the note of the trials, there is some physiological justification. As an outsider, the proximity of the US trials, combined with the very ‘black and white’ criteria for the selection of the team means that the season peak is stretched, possibly beyond what is achievable. This was the same as the swimming debate for the USA, since many of their best swimmers seemed tired by the time they got to Beijing.

The same may have happened to the athletes. To force an athlete to peak for the trials (which they have to do in order to qualify, especially in the sprints) and then to hold that for the Olympics a few months later is a physiological challenge, perhaps an impossible one.

A comparison with South Africa

In terms of the management structures that were so heavily criticized, my interpretation is based on my own experiences here in South Africa. It is interesting that the report’s recommendations are very much in line with what was suggested in a report developed for SA sport in 2007. It too called for professionalization, high performance centres, and funding for sports science. Sadly, government have stumbled through implementation and ended up making a bad situation worse, so it’s always interesting to read other nation’s responses to similar situations.

The problem with strategic recommendations made by these reports is always implementation. Often, the organization charged with executing the strategy will attempt to do so within their current structures. The nature of such reports, however, is transformational, in that they often call for radical overhauls of the existing system and structures. So you have a Catch 22 situation, where the incumbents are asked to overhaul a system they’re tightly embedded in, and they inevitably fail. It needs a transformational implementation, which is why execution lets them down. It will be interesting to see if the USA make these changes. South African didn’t -the same people tried to execute the new strategy without the required change in support, and so given that they’d steered the sport into the abyss to begin with, they were always going to fail. It was a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

On the note of South Africa…

If the USA felt that they had a poor Olympic Games, consider that South Africa won only one medal in TOTAL. Yet to date, the only sports code that has commissioned an enquiry into what went wrong is swimming. The government blustered and huffed and puffed and did nothing else, other than butcher the proposal they were given thanks to the personal egos and incentives of people within the system who prefer to wallow in mediocrity than to fix the situation. Then, on the other end of the extreme, certain academics and scientists undermined the hope of improvement through their refusal to collaborate with one another out of personal vendettas and, once again, insecurity.

We were inches away from negotiating a collaborative agreement for a sports federation that would have seen the athletes benefit. That was thanks to the vision and security of those in charge of the two respective institutions, who actually dared to collaborate and listen to others. Then a huge ego intervened and expertise was gagged, blacklisted and sidelined. So while the USA has problems with its systems, and hopefully can redeem the situation, if it’s any consolation, South Africa will not pose a threat to any of your medal chances in 2012. We are a nation full of world-leaders in their own Universities, people who love to be the king or queen of their own sandpit while the athletes around them suffer thanks to their own inabilities.

Last word goes to Logan, the CEO of US Track and Field:

“Change never comes out of a climate of comfort. This report has and will produce a significant amount of discomfort. . . . At the end of the day, this is the only way this institution will be able to . . . realize its potential.”


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