We discuss tennis’ anti-doping efforts in this week’s episode of the Changeover Chat, a quick back-and-forth exchange between the writing staff at The Changeover.
Amy: Doping has become a hot-button issue in tennis, and it’s been in the news recently with the ITF imposing a six month doping ban on Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, and the ITF apparently meeting to discuss the possibility of implementing the biological passport and increasing the funding to its anti-doping program.
I’ve written a lot about the topic in the last year or so, but before that, it’s not something I even thought about while watching tennis. How do you guys think the doping conversation has affected the way we watch tennis?
Juan José: I think tennis has joined the world other sports have lived in for a while: the state of constant suspicion. Sure, fanbases of individual players have long suspected other individuals (never their own favorites) of cheating, but I think more and more people are realizing that this could be a systemic issue where nobody should be above suspicion. Thanks to the Lance Armstrong situation, I also think the tennis establishment has slowly come to realize that it’s in their best interest to present the image that they’re doing the best they can to have a “clean” sport.
Amy: It’s an unfortunate thing, because the current testing just isn’t adequate. So not only is it problematic because it doesn’t catch those who are doping, but it also doesn’t give any reassurance that any particular player is clean. What is a player to do if they’re clean but people make insinuations? They can’t say, “I’ve never tested positive,” because it doesn’t mean anything to say that.
Juan José: Nope – that’s why all the players have changed their stance about doping controls from annoyance at being tested so often (which wasn’t nearly enough anyway) to welcoming as many tests as necessary. They just saw with Armstrong how much there is to lose if they are implicated in a scandal of that magnitude.
Lindsay: I agree. I wrote about this at the end of last year, and I kept going back to the thought that tennis used to be my safe place, but the more I learn about the inadequate testing the less safe it feels.
I’ll admit that the Armstrong scandal was very eye-opening to me. I was naïve before that, and thought that tennis players complaining about frequent testing meant the sport was safe. But obviously there’s a lot more to it, primarily that the sport is not even trying to keep up with doping technology and to adjust their testing accordingly.
Amy: The biggest problem with the Armstrong case is that it also exposed the reality that the sports’ governing bodies have a huge conflict of interest in overseeing doping programs. See: Armstrong not getting caught, and his fishy donation to the UCI. It’s not in their interests to catch the top athletes doping, because it hurts their bottom line.
Juan José: I agree. The fact that self-policing is not the way to go for doping was one of the most important conclusions of the Armstrong case. If USADA, a government institution without any agenda in cycling, doesn’t get involved, we never hear from this.
The basic premise is, you can’t have those who have the most to lose from a doping scandal be the ones that are in charge of detecting doping scandals in the first place: what you’ll get is a lot of cover-ups.
Amy: Here’s the most striking thing, at least to me: The UCI warned top riders with suspicious values. No punishment, just a warning that they could test positive. Is that the hallmark of an organization set to catch anyone gaming the system? No. It’s an organization that’s doing everything they can not to catch wrongdoers.
Juan José: Would you be surprised if a similar mechanism was already in place in tennis? I sure wouldn’t.
Amy: I won’t say that it definitely does, because I don’t know for sure, but it wouldn’t shock me. It’s the same set of dynamics.
Lindsay: We see all the time the amount of power the top stars have over the administration in tennis.
In my opinion, though, the biggest issue in all of this is transparency. It’s very bothersome that we have no clue about the deal that let Odesnik get back on tour early.
Juan José: What do you two think makes tennis so different from sports like the NBA and the NFL, where doping controls are super lax and everybody is assumed to be using some sort of PED all the time? I ask because it seems to me that tennis fans expect their players to be clean, whereas NFL and NBA fans don’t really care about what’s going on with that kind of stuff and just enjoy the sport for what it is.
Amy: Well, there’s one big way the NFL is different: they’re not adhering to the WADA code. Their testing is totally independent. The standards are different. Additionally, tennis likes to think of itself as a highbrow sport, above the realities of other sports.
Juan José: David Stern, the NBA commissioner, said that he didn’t think PEDs could benefit basketball players, which is one of the most incredible statements out there.
Amy: Well, that’s ridiculous. Every athlete, regardless of sport, would benefit from PEDs. Science tells us that. Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, expressed similarly misinformed sentiments recently.
Juan José: I think the issue is that most people still only think that the only kind of PEDs are steroids, and that the only possible outcome is to get extremely muscular, like a bodybuilder, almost. And also, someone as prominent as David Stern seems to be forgetting about the motivations behind why somebody would use a rogue treatment/product to get an edge.
Amy: Absolutely. Tennis players would benefit from things like blood doping or EPO that help recovery. Those methods don’t cause you to look like a bodybuilder.
Lindsay: Bill Simmons hit the nail on the head in his recent piece when he said, why wouldn’t they try? There is so much money on the table.
Amy: Jim Courier said the same when I talked to him:
“I think that given the great rewards that are out there in tennis, and given human nature, people will cut corners where you give them leeway to do so. I think you have to put your head in the sand to think that people wouldn’t try and cut corners given what’s on the line if you do well in our sport. Look at Wall Street. People cut corners there because there are great monetary rewards. Anywhere you go in the world, this is human nature. We’re not immune to that. I don’t think we have a problem, but we’re not immune to that.”
Juan José: The money on the table thing is the key to all my thoughts about this issue, and I think is the engine that drives the entire conflict, really.
Lindsay: It’s just stupid to think that players this competitive and this focused on perfection who have trained their entire lives for such a small window of opportunity wouldn’t try to bend the rules to make it happen, especially when a) There are so many ways around the current tests, and b) There’s no guarantee that everyone else isn’t doing it too.
Juan José: When that much money, along with fame and glory are available, and resources are not a problem, why not try to get an edge over everyone else? As you wrote in your piece, Lindsay, “But the magic of sports, the thing that makes them so popular, is that they are grounded in reality.” I agree completely with that sentiment: sports are the most real thing out there. Unfortunately, that makes sports prone to the negative stuff we see in the world: individuals/organizations angling for the best way to get ahead, ethics be damned.
Lindsay: Especially when you’re so insulated from reality. I mean these athletes have so many people surrounding them, talking them up, convincing them of things, taking care of things, that it’s easy to see how they could distance themselves from the reality of what they’re doing.
Amy: So, what’s next for the ITF? Will they implement stricter tests? Or will the status quo persist? I personally think they’ll stay the same, despite all the media attention. The average tennis fan still thinks their favorite players are clean.
Juan José: I think the ITF will try to make it seem like improvements have been made, but I don’t think they’ll suddenly become fanatical about getting PEDs away from the game. It’ll be a relatively minor update to the old policies. A facelift to maintain the status quo, while hoping the Lance Armstrong thing goes away.
Lindsay: I think it depends on how much we–and I mean that as a collective fans/media/players “we”–want to know. Because it’s easy to say we want the truth, but there’s also the fear that our sport is no way prepared to handle that truth.
Amy: Yeah, the damage cycling has faced in the wake of the Armstrong thing is pretty crazy. Not to say it’s the same for tennis, it’s not necessarily the same scale.
Lindsay: Right – I hate to sound like I think the scandal in tennis is of Armstrong proportions, but the point is that with the testing that’s in place there’s also no way to know that it’s not.
Juan José: Whatever the ITF does, it’ll be more about a cost/benefit analysis than an actual ethical conclusion. Money drives everything.
Lindsay: I think unless the biggest names in the sport really throw their weight behind a bigger testing program, then there will just be smaller changes made for the sake of appearances.
Juan José: The problem for star-driven sports is that they make specific individuals a core part of their productive engine. A core asset. What company in the world would sacrifice a key asset like that? Also, it’s not like catching a big fish would be “beneficial” to the sport, either. As we just saw with Armstrong, the entire sport gets dragged through the mud when that happens. The upside seems quite minimal. Honestly, I see the ITF wanting the tennis world to get used to that ambiguity and focus instead on how awesome the product is. It works for the NBA and the NFL.
Lindsay: Exactly – people don’t attach themselves to teams in this sport, it’s individuals. And while the diehard fans will go to 250s and watch the top 100 and love the scrappy matches, the sport needs the huge stars to survive. The trickle-down effect they provide keeps the whole sport thriving.
It’s going to take someone in the top 20 (or of that stature – i.e. not Christopher Rochus) speaking up and naming names and stirring up a witch-hunt for anything to really change. And I don’t see that happening.
Juan José: What I would say to everyone out there is that there’s a very, very small possibility that your favorite player will get caught, if said player is within the top 20 of either tour. We all know that very few will have a problem with someone like Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova getting caught.
That kind of player is not an asset to the sport. Heck, someone like that can even be used as a scapegoat of sorts, a kind of, “Hey, look, we’re serious about this,” pantomime on the part of the establishment.
But if the ITF wants to know what I would like to see in order to believe their efforts, the answer is simple: a big fish. Not even a top 20 player – a top 5 player. If they’re willing to sacrifice and asset of that caliber to make everybody believe they’re dead serious about this issue, then I’ll believe them. But they won’t do that – there’s simply not much to gain, and way too much to lose.
Lindsay: Right. Unless it’s a tiny amount of cocaine, or something else that’s illegal but not really performance enhancing. That’s what really got me about the cocaine thing with Gasquet and Hingis – sure, let them suffer any legal consequences, but honestly if they have cocaine and can still play tennis, more power to them. It won’t last long, trust me.
Amy: It’s all Pamela’s fault!
Lindsay: That should be the ITF slogan. “Blame Pamela.”
Juan José: A few weeks ago I was listening to a BS Report episode where Bill Simmons and his Yankee-fan Jacko were wondering about the following idea: we know now that there are some PEDs/procedures that help athletes recover from injuries. Do you guys think that it would be positive for the establishment to actually legalize and fairly distribute that kind of treatment to their players? After all, an injured player is an inactive asset for the sport.
Amy: No, I don’t like the idea of legalizing PEDs. I’m not sure which drugs you mean, and I guess there’s always the potential to broaden the therapeutic use exemption guidelines. But I’m largely opposed to it.
Juan José: Deer antler spray!
Amy: My stance on that one is that is if you’re strange enough to swallow deer antler extract, go for it.
Juan José: I would actually be in favor of that kind of thing, because as with illegal drugs elsewhere, it doesn’t seem that outlawing them keeps them out of society anyway.
Lindsay: To be honest, I don’t know enough about it to properly address that. I do think that there is a grey area between what is performance enhancing and what is just medicine, and I know that the long-term effects of a lot of the newer PEDs aren’t known, so it’s not like steroids where the future dangers are obvious. But I’d err on the side of safety, as long as the research is being done and options are kept available to actually help players.
Juan José: Having the organizational bodies in charge of dispensing these kinds of treatments would improve the standards for the products, and also eliminate the socioeconomic disparities that affect most pros (meaning, someone at the top has the most resources to get the “best” stuff, unlike someone ranked somewhere in the 200s).
Amy: Since we know this is all about PR, I’m not sure it would be a great PR move to do that.
Juan José: It’s a question of labeling and selling – good PR can sell anything!
Lindsay: I do agree with you in some parts Juan José – having blindingly strict laws that don’t take into account reality aren’t helpful either, and it’s important to make sure that all players have access to things that benefit them.
Amy: No other sport has done it, to my knowledge.
Juan José: Nope – it would be revolutionary!
Amy: Also, unrealistic.
Juan José: And actually, for a sport like tennis, where you only earn money if you can play, I don’t think it would be a bad thing in terms of equality. Only the top people with the huge endorsement deals can afford to take the necessary amount of time to properly treat an injury. Some of the members of the middle class can’t afford it, and the lower ranked players certainly can’t. So why not help them get back sooner and equal the playing field in terms of health?
Amy: I think it’s a very slippery slope. Final thoughts?
Lindsay: I hope we’re wrong and that tennis does take the steps to make the sport cleaner. I hope things do change and that the long-term health of the players and the sport is put above the current bottom line. But I’m not holding my breath.
Juan José: I’m all the way on the cynical end of the spectrum in terms of this specific issue, but somehow, that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the sport itself. I don’t know how this happened, actually, but I’m quite glad it did! I think I’d have a hard time following the sport as closely as I (try to) do if I didn’t get that much joy out of seeing a tennis ball being hit over and over again without thinking about what happens behind closed doors.
Maybe it’s because I think the current situation is pretty hopeless, meaning, not much will change. Unless something truly revolutionary happens (like legalizing certain PEDs, or the ITF giving away their control over the anti-doping program), it’s not even worth worrying about it, because not much will change.
Amy: I believe that someday it’ll be completely realistic to be able to test for most PEDs and doping methods. That’s not the case right now, and it won’t be for at least a few years. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on policing the sport. The least the ITF should do is use the best testing available now. Additionally, I’d like more oversight and transparency in the ITF’s anti-doping program. And lastly, I hope all the uproar over the Armstrong scandal will teach tennis a lesson on what not to do.