Saturday, February 18, 2006

Is There a Zealotry-Enhancing Steroid?

There's nothing more obnoxious than a zealot, and new types seem to be springing up daily. Take IOC anti-doping czar Dick Pound, for example. He's made it his personal mission to sniff the piss of anyone involved in any sport anywhere in the world. Yes, he's on a mission. Today the first athlete was tossed out of the current Winter Olympics in Torino (this NY Times link will likely soon go stale). Olga Pyleva, a biathlete from Russia, was banished from the games for testing positive for the banned stimulant carphedon. Russian team officials claimed that the substance was in an over-the-counter medication Pyleva had taken for an ankle injury, but that the banned substance was not listed in the ingredients.
Before we continue, I'd just like to say that, personally, I'm not very sympathetic to cheaters, and I think intentionally taking drugs to enhance one's performance in a sporting event is cheating (taking them to get wasted is another thing altogether...). We've heard excuses like Pyleva's a hundred times before, but Dick Pound can't even accept the possibilty that someone might have ingested a banned substance by accident. Pound said he was skeptical of this excuse:
I should start a collection of the different excuses I hear, like, 'I got it from sitting on a toilet,' or, 'My evil twin gave it to me' [...] We don't want to hear any of that. We just want the word to get out that if you're cheating, you're not welcome here.

Yeah, Dick, like anyone has ever given one of those excuses. It's probably more verifiable that Dick Pound is more of a liar than many of the athletes he's banished to obscurity. But then empirical evidence is not exactly the province of the zealot. Later in the same article Pound talks about the 12 cross-country skiers he suspended for having high levels of hemoglobin in their blood.
I think everybody would have a gut feeling that the odds of this happening in this size of a population are about one in three million [...] So we do suspect something going on there.
Talk about pulling numbers out of your ass. According to the Times article, while high levels of hemoglobin may indicate doping, they could also be caused by dehydration or training at high altitudes (or using hyperbaric tents to simulate high altitudes). It doesn't seem unreasonable to me that skiers might train at high altitudes, in which case the only surprise might be that all skiers didn't test for high levels of hemoglobin. I don't mean to suggest that nobody's cheating. I do mean to suggest that 'signs' of cheating do not neceesarily mean that someone is, in fact, cheating.
Pound's tendency to ignore empirical evidence probably first became manifest a few months ago when he claimed that up to a third of National Hockey League players were taking some form of performance enhancing drugs. Again, did Pound offer any evidence for this claim? Not that I'm aware of. Perhaps he was thinking of Montreal Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore, who recently failed a drug test because he uses a hair-growth stimulant? This is almost a joke to anyone who watches hockey. Do NHLers look like they use steroids? What exactly would be the benefits of using steroids for a hockey player? Hockey players look like soccer and basketball players. Compare players of these sports with baseball and football players (for general size and 'bulkiness'). Sometimes, Dick, all you have to do is use your eyes. But then just eyeballing something is a form of empiricism, isn't it?