Four bullet Friday: Doping raids, van Niekerk’s comeback and other short thoughts

01 Mar 2019 Posted by

Quick fire thoughts this Friday morning…!


1. Doping raid in Austria. Three quick thoughts

If you missed it, there is a potentially big anti-doping story from the Nordic Skiing Championships in Austria, where a collaboration between German and Austrian police resulted in a number of raids, nine arrests and some video footage of an Austrian X-country skier sitting with a needle in his arm while a bit of ‘replenishing’ blood is infused.

The story is potentially much bigger than just skiing, and it’s being reported, via sources within German police, that up to 60 athletes from swimming, cycling, football and handball may also be involved in the raids.

I’m not yet aware of the background, what triggered the raid, why the ‘operation’ even existed, but I hope it doesn’t go the way of Operacion Puerto, and actually ends up revealing more than just what anyone with functioning synapses had to suspect – the extent of doping is much greater than the testing results suggest.

First thought – score another anti-doping win for police. Perhaps anti-doping authorities were involved, maybe suspicious patterns were detected and part of the investigation. I hope so. But the police, not for the first time, are the ones responsible, or at least are required for, the exposure of doping in elite sport.

Second, related to the above, I wonder if the biological passport hinted at a problem? It may well be that athletes were first flagged as suspicious in the first step on a journey that culminated in the police raid.

But it’s at times like these that I think independent oversight of the passport system would be really helpful, because what the investigation and raid have revealed are, effectively, a bunch of “false negatives” – athletes who are on the passport and were being cleared to race.

And so, when you discover these “false negatives”, you have a real-life opportunity to audit your system, to check its sensitivity and precision. I wonder if that is done, independently?

And finally, the last bit I wanted to comment on today (and then allow the story to develop in coming days) was this quote from a follow up piece, where they talk about a “doping salon”, where the athletes could pop in and get what they “needed”:

I can’t believe anyone who is even remotely connected to the sport could say that this is “totally unreal”. Come on, man! It’s been this way for decades. It’s the same plot, in a slightly different movie, with different actors.

Yes, the scale changes, the venue and sport may be different. New tools might force adaptations and adjustments, but none of this is “unreal”. Just the opposite – this is your reality in elite sport.

I reckon if you’re involved in elite sport, a pre-requisite character trait is that you must be capable of oscillating permanently between states of total denial and absolute shock.


2. Wayde van Niekerk’s comeback

Way back in October 2017, playing a celebrity touch rugby match, the 400m world record holder did his ACL. Missed the 2018 season, naturally, but is now racing again, and I read this week that he’s done his first race – a 47.28s win in a local race here in South Africa.

The time is nothing to shout about, but it needn’t be at this time of the season. We can’t know the context, his planning, nothing. I’ve heard from some people close to him that he’s in great shape and feels ready to return to the levels of 2016.

Whether he does or not will be an interesting story to watch. I don’t have the clinical experience of rehabbing someone with an ACL, but it obviously happens successfully very often in sport – I bet you can name five athletes, footballers, rugby players, American football, basketball, who have returned to the same level after ACL surgery as before. Heck, I can think of one player who had four!

But whether an athlete of the type and level as van Niekerk ever has, I’m not sure. Of course, a team sport athlete has to cut, jink, stop, accelerate, take contact, so you could argue that ACL function is even more important, but at the upper limits of speed and fatigue that a 200m/400m runner encounters, I think it’ll be fascinating to see if he gets back to anything like mid-43s this year, and even next.

I think some of you reading this were involved in aspects of his rehab (well, I know you were), and if you want to share your thoughts, and CAN share your thoughts, I think it would make for a cool case study, so feel free to reach out and I’d love to put something out there (if allowed, obviously).


3. Prodigy athletes

So on Monday, I wrote my Short Thought on the topic of precocious young sporting talent, after reading about a 7 year old sprinter. Co-incidentally, there was a story the next day about a 13-year old soccer player signing for Nike, and the other “prodigy athlete” story in the news was 16-year old Athing Mu breaking the senior American record and narrowly missing the 600m indoor world record in America at the weekend.

Running 1:23.57 indoors over 600m is certainly the equivalent of a sub-2:00 outdoors, which means Mu should challenge the 800m age group world record too, as shown below (assuming she replicates the performance). It’s hard to project a 600m indoor to an 800m outdoor, but you’d have to think 1:58.xx is possible, which puts her in the picture, if not the top step of the podium, at just 16.

More realistic may be the next Olympic cycle – far more can go wrong than right in the transition from 16 to early adulthood. But Mu is another name to watch in the future.


4. Most interesting sports science story this week

Since getting back from Lausanne, I’ve been trying to catch up with rugby-related work, and so I’ll be dead honest, I didn’t really read any interesting sports science articles this week! Maybe next time!

And that’s all for now. Have a good sporting weekend.


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