Sunday, September 22, 2013

Doping and the Talent Conundrum


On Thursday I was inexplicably tired and crashed out in the early evening.  My wife woke me up.  “Hey, check out this thing in the new ‘New Yorker,’” she said.  I didn’t want to open my eyes and groaned, “Just read it aloud.”  She replied, “No, I think you should see this.”  So I sat up, irritably, thinking, “This better be good.”  What she showed me was that the magazine had published a letter I’d sent in.  There it was, actually printed on the page, signed “Dana Albert” and below that “Albany, Calif.” 

How about that!  To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised, because I’d already exchanged e-mails with one of the “New Yorker” fact-checkers.  (That’s right, they even fact-check their mail to make sure they don’t give traction to someone’s misconceptions.)  But I hadn’t been very optimistic; I figured fate would somehow interfere, like some really great letter would show up that they needed to make room for. 

Now, you may suppose that the whole point of this blog post is for me to celebrate getting quasi-published in a great magazine.  And it is true that I’m really stoked about this; in fact, I’m thinking of having some sandwich boards made up so I can stand on a street corner and call out to people, “‘The New Yorker’ printed my letter!”  But actually, the truth is almost the opposite.  Writing in had seemed a futile act, so I figured as a consolation prize I could at least share my thoughts on this blog.  When the magazine did print my letter, my delight was slightly eroded by the tiny disappointment of having a great blog topic that I now had no reason to pursue.

So I’ve decided to turn my consolation prize into a greater examination of the original topic, which was doping in sports.  In this post I’ll go more deeply into the matter than the confines of a letter to “The New Yorker” could possibly allow.

Malcolm Gladwell on doping

My letter concerned an article by Malcolm Gladwell.  Let me start of by saying that I have huge respect for this writer, the author of (among other things) The Tipping Point and Blink, both not only bestsellers but books that deserve to be bestsellers.   I’ve eagerly read Gladwell’s “New Yorker” articles the whole way along.  In fact, he’s the kind of writer who is so persuasive that when I read him, I get the sinking feeling that I’m outsourcing my brain and accepting his treatises wholesale instead of merely considering them.  Yeah.  That kind of writer.

Given my adulation of Gladwell, I was excited when, flipping through the  September 9 “New Yorker,” I saw his article “Man and Superman,” about doping in sports.  I mean, this is a topic I know something about.  I’ve been a competitive cyclist for over thirty years, winning a national collegiate title along the way, and have been a loyal fan of the professional sport since I was a kid.  On this blog I’ve written about the doping exploits of Lance Armstrong, Missy Giove, wannabe bike racers who dope in the name of journalism, and Tyler Hamilton. I’ve laid out (albeit satirical) legal strategies for fallen heroes Floyd Landis (here) and Lance Armstrong (here).  Moreover, I’ve done a (perfectly legal) experiment to examine the effect, on my own athletic performance, of the polar opposite of blood doping.  Getting to read a Gladwell article on something I’m so interested in was a tantalizing prospect, especially considering that the best thing I’ve ever read about doping in cycling was also in “The New Yorker,” back in 2000.

You can read Gladwell’s article here but I’ll summarize it briefly.  He starts by describing an ageing Finnish man who won seven Olympic medals over twelve years, and whose hematocrit (i.e, natural red blood cell concentration) is so high his face is almost purple.  He’s a freak of nature, one of those natural-born athletes who, Gladwell puts it, “carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors.”  Gladwell goes on to compare natural ability with that which can be gained through enhancement, both surgical and pharmaceutical.  He ponders the oddity that performance-enhancing surgery is tolerated but doping is not, contrasting baseball player Tommy John’s “bionic arm” with Alex Rodriguez’s suspension for doping.

Gladwell then moves on to Lance Armstrong and his illegal blood transfusions:  “Before we condemn him, though, shouldn’t we have to come up with a good reason that one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not?”  Gladwell describes Tyler Hamilton’s book about doping, and explains Hamilton’s insistence that EPO doesn’t enable a rider to avoid hard work, but to actually work harder, thus using (as Gladwell puts it) “science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference.”  Gladwell ends his essay, “Hamilton and Armstrong may simply be athletes who regard this kind of achievement as worthier than the gold medals of a man with the dumb luck to be born with a random genetic mutation.”

Frankly, I was shocked to come to the end of the article with so much of the topic left totally unexplored.  I’d thought that Gladwell’s challenge to “come up with a good reason” not to dope was the baiting of a rhetorical trap, so that we could be surprised later by his deeper insight.  But this never comes.  Instead, his article left me with the impression that he really buys this “level playing field” nonsense that some athletes, and some fans, use to justify or tolerate cheating.

Come up with a good reason not to dope?  How about death?  Oddly, the fact that doping is dangerous is completely missing from the article.  Gladwell seems to suggest that fair play is the sole reason doping is illegal.  This seemed such a glaring oversight that, upon finishing the article, I wrote my letter to “The New Yorker” on the spot.  I asserted (and it feels funny to be quoting myself), 
Gladwell misses an important point:  unlike athletic talent, doping is dangerous.  Athletes have died from using drugs like EPO; and infusing blood—sometimes blood that was previously frozen—in a non-hospital environment is perilous.  Doping is ethically wrong because it incites competitors to similarly endanger themselves.  Banning drugs isn’t just about fairness; it’s about protecting athletes.
My other issue

Okay, so Gladwell left out the part about danger and death.  Big deal, right?  But actually, that isn’t my only issue with his article.  (It was, however, the only issue I could bring up in a very short letter to a magazine.)  My other problem with his article is that it views athletic talent far too simplistically.

It’s tempting to see talent as a binary matter:  you either have it, or you don’t.  And to some degree, this is true.  Last fall, I watched my daughter, who was eleven at the time, running in a cross-country meet.  One of her classmates, also eleven, blew everybody else away—even kids two years older (which can make a huge difference at that age).  This girl ran with incredible fluidity and grace and seemed barely winded at the end, unlike my daughter who arrived among the last third of the runners, red-faced and puffing like a locomotive.  There is no question this classmate is gifted in a way that my daughter is not.

My daughter, of course, found this really discouraging.  It’s natural to think, after such a drubbing, “Why even bother?”  It’s surely why a great many kids dabble in sports but then quit.  It’s also probably a rationale for a whole lot of doping by athletes talented enough to make the big time, but who feel they aren’t quite talented enough to be the very best.

The Gattaca Fallacy

The refusal to accept genetic limitations is at the core of the 1997 movie Gattaca.  In the sci-fi world of this film, most humans are genetically engineered, and those with imperfections are labeled “in-valids” and doomed to a lower-class existence and menial work.  The main character, Vincent, was conceived without scientific intervention; not only is he nearsighted, but has a heart defect.  He refuses to let this prevent him from being an astronaut, and undergoes various black-market surgeries so that he can impersonate another man who has a perfect genetic scorecard but (unbeknownst to society) is a paraplegic.  This movie makes the case that effort and determination make more difference than genetic perfection; after all, its hero does succeed in becoming an elite astronaut once he’s deceived the gatekeepers into thinking he’s perfect.

But there’s a pivotal scene in the movie that really irks me.  Vincent’s brother Anton, a cop, has discovered Vincent’s deception, and is threatening to expose him.  They agree to settle the matter with a swimming competition on the open ocean.  Anton fully expects to prevail because he’s genetically perfect, a “valid.”  So he’s astonished when Vincent beats him.  “How are you doing this, Vincent?” he gasps as they thrash among the waves.  For the scene to work the moviegoer is expected to share this disbelief, so he can be properly moved by Vincent’s response:  “You want to know how I did it?  This is how I did it, Anton.  I never saved anything for the swim back.”

The problem with this scene is that it is, or ought to be, completely unsatisfying to anybody who has worked really hard at sport.  It’s a mere variation of two simplistic ideas:  the initial premise that talent is everything, and the contrarian notion—redolent of ABC After School Specials—that if you dig deep enough, and want it bad enough, you can beat a more talented opponent.  Sometimes this is true, but often it is not, and the movie only glances at the surface of what really happens in athletic competition.

In my head, I rewrite the dialogue:  “You want to know how I did it?  This is how I did it, Anton:  I fricking trained.  I mean, duh!”  For this little parable to be satisfying, the brothers would have to be identically conditioned, which never figures into the plot.  That Gattaca is otherwise a pretty good movie shows that either these scriptwriters don’t fully understand what goes into athletic success, or don’t expect moviegoers to.  I call this shortcoming the Gattaca Fallacy:  the simplistic idea that everything boils down to a simple match between talent and “heart.”  Sure, these are important elements of success, but there are countless others.

What is talent?

In his article, Gladwell targets one specific measure of talent:  hematocrit.  Hematocrit is a great example of a biological trait that can be easily quantified.  It’s a realm where some people are certainly more gifted than others.  (And, it’s something that can be modified through drugs or transfusions.)

But there are other types of inborn athletic ability that don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with a high hematocrit:  for example, VO(2) max (oxygen uptake capacity) and lactate threshold (i.e., how hard you can go before your muscles accumulate too much lactic acid and you have to back off).  Before an athlete decides he can’t compete fairly against somebody with a higher hematocrit, he should consider whether his other gifts can compensate.  It’s short-sighted to measure one trait and decide nature has dealt unfairly with you, and that you deserve to correct this.

An example:  When Jonathan Vaughters, a teammate of Armstrong, left US Postal and joined Credit Agricole, he was shocked to discover that the team leader, Christophe Moreau, had a hematocrit of only 39%, but was apparently riding clean.  And yet Vaughters had a (putatively) natural hematocrit of 52, which is so high had a special dispensation from his doctor—a “hall pass,” as he called it—so that he could pass the doping tests.  Clearly, hematocrit isn’t everything; Moreau was the better rider.

Also, the notion that doping merely neutralizes genetic gifts is problematic because responsiveness to drugs is itself a talent.  From the standpoint of doping, Vaughters lacked a certain talent:  he couldn’t benefit from EPO the way other riders could.  In the doping arms race, Vaughters was outgunned.  He had this trait that helped him be competitive, while other riders had different traits benefiting them.  His main gift, thanks to doping, was now largely irrelevant, while theirs were not.  The fact is, drugs don’t affect everybody equally, so an anything-goes sport—where athletes are free to use “science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference”—still wouldn’t be fair.

Meanwhile, talent isn’t always measurable.  Some athletes have a talent for suffering; some for tenacity; some for drudgery (a more important talent than most fans realize).  Some athletes, though they may have low numbers in the easily measurable categories, are especially efficient (e.g., a cyclist whose pedaling is more fluid).  Some athletes are better in the heat than others; some are less fazed by cold.  In addition to his other gifts, Armstrong had a rock-solid immune system, which is somewhat rare in a sport where everybody is perennially close to being over-trained and has a body fat percentage in the single digits.

Meanwhile, talent isn’t always physical.  Tactical instinct, boldness, and psychological mettle are all talents, and depending on the sport involved, can be just as important as muscular strength and aerobic capacity.  In a perfect, dope-free world, these talents would compensate for physical shortcomings such as a lack of “random genetic mutation.”  Everybody has different gifts, some more than others, and you put them all in the pot and stir.

Success without talent

Let me give you an example of success without talent.  I am not a classically talented athlete.  I washed up as a swimmer, was always picked last in gym class, and achieved nothing in my first year of bike racing.  In fact, I didn’t win a race until my fifth year.  My hematocrit fluctuates between 39 (which is almost anemic) and 42 (the low end of average).  Moreover, I don’t have much in the way of fast-twitch muscles, which are what sprinters have.  But over the years I learned how to really suffer, and I paid attention, and through sheer necessity figured out how to be more efficient than a lot of other riders.  At thirteen, I was the only rider drafting off to the side in a crosswind; the others lined up right behind the rider ahead. 

When I was fifteen I raced in a hilly, multi-lap criterium, and got into a three-man breakaway.  (Truth be told, it was not an impressive field.)  I was pretty sure I could beat one of my rivals, but the other was really strong, especially when accelerating out of the corners.  I wasn’t at all confident I could beat him in the final sprint.  So with a few laps to go, at the bottom of the uphill section, I said to the slower guy, just loudly enough to be overheard, “We need to drop this guy.  He’s slowing us down.”  This whipped the faster guy into a lather, and to assuage his ego (and prove me wrong) he went to the front and took this absolute monster pull, all the way to the top of the climb and for the next half-lap as well.  Once he pulled off so I could take my turn, I attacked him with everything I had.  Stunned, he let a gap open up and couldn’t close it.  Now it was a two-man break, with the strongest guy off the back.  The point of the story?  If I’d been stronger, or had been doped, I wouldn’t have needed to be clever.

The interplay of various gifts and abilities—boldness, cunning, strength, experience, teamwork—is what makes a sport like bicycle racing so fun to watch.  That is, until somebody gets too far ahead in the doping competition and merely bludgeons the peloton to death, like Armstrong did with his über-doped Postal team (and like Christopher Froome is widely believed to be doing with Team Sky).  Gladwell is correct in stating that successful doping requires intelligence, but doping can also nullify intelligence, along with other gifts.  The race is always closer, always better when everybody is clean.  If you try to level the playing field with drugs, you’ll sell short the riders who don’t handle drugs well, the riders whose veins are harder to find, the riders who are afraid of needles, the riders who depend on savvy or tenacity, and the riders who have integrity.

The downside of “talent”

On the face of it, you can never have too much talent … right?  Well, I think that’s almost always true.  But I think there are a couple of exceptions worth pointing out, especially as regards the developing psyche of a young athlete.

First, there’s a trait that is often mistaken for talent, but is really its evil twin:  precociousness.  I’m talking about the kid who, in terms of physical development, gets a head start on the others and so is able to beat them at sports.  A related scenario is the kid (often the one with older siblings) who develops that killer instinct—the sheer will to win—earlier than his peers.  (I’ve seen this in my daughters’ soccer games, where lots of girls are unaccustomed to acts of aggression.)  The problem with precociousness is that it’s a flash in the pan:  sooner or later the various developmental trajectories converge and what had seemed to be talent turns out not to be.  I imagine this can be hard on a kid who is used to success but sees it run dry as his opponents catch up.

(Gladwell points out, in Outliers, that among young hockey players, those with birthdays closest to the age-class cutoff—that is, who started out older than their peers and thus are further along developmentally—have statistically had more success.  Their early promise leads to better coaching, and higher achievement far beyond childhood.  Thus, starting your kid in school later can give him a boost in school sports—but I imagine this advantage will erode as more and more parents adopt this strategy.)

Where I’ve really seen talent fall short is when its value is overestimated by the athlete himself.  He figures, “I didn’t train any more than these other guys, but I beat them anyway.  I’m just special.”  This can lead to a slap in the face when talent alone is no longer enough.  Faced with unexpected failure, this athlete can be forgiven for underestimating his opponents’ work ethic, and merely concluding, “I guess I’m not special anymore.  I had it, and now it’s gone.”  I’ve seen really talented athletes quit early, and it’s a shame.

In The Tipping Point Gladwell describes the tendency to erroneously ascribe behavior to fundamental character traits:  “Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context.”  It’s not a huge leap to extrapolate on this, to the idea that behavior is analogous to performance, and that situation is analogous to conditioning.  That is, those with talent, because of their early success, may overestimate its importance and underestimate the importance of training, effort, and savvy.  Thus, talent can interfere with diligence.


I do not understand why innate intelligence and athletic talent are so often assessed so differently.  Gladwell, in a “New Yorker” article called “The Talent Myth,” examines the talent-obsessed hiring policies of Enron and asks, “But what if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it? What if smart people are overrated?”  It’s a mystery to me why, in his most recent article, Gladwell never seems to ponder whether athletic talent can also be overrated.

If I were Lance Armstrong, seeking to rehabilitate my image after my infamous comeuppance, I couldn’t ask for a better article than Gladwell has written with “Man and Superman.”  But the clean competitors out there, and the fans who value them, deserve more than another Gattaca Fallacy.  If pro sport has any chance of being clean, its practitioners (not just athletes but coaches, managers, and doctors) will need to have a far more nuanced view of talent, potential, and what a level playing field really looks like.

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