Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Cycling Commentary - Why I Believe Chris Froome Is a Doper - Part II


In my last post, I laid out the first half of my case against Chris Froome: that is, why I think (and have long thought) he’s a doper. My aim isn’t to change anybody’s mind on this—I doubt that’s possible, and actually I don’t really care—but rather to explain my position, lest any Froome fans read my biased blow-by-blow race reports and decide I’m a jerk. (I’m not actually out to inflame anybody with this blog.) So in this second and final post on the topic, I finish the effort of humbly explaining my position. I hope you’ll conclude I’m a more or less reasonable person, even if you don’t happen to agree with me about Froome.

In my previous post I countered the following two challenges to my position, taken from a debate I had with a friend: 
  • Why suspect Froome just because he’s “too successful”?
  • Doesn’t Froome’s consistency demonstrate legitimacy, as opposed to the erratic performances of, say, Floyd Landis?
In this post, I take on my friend’s other two challenges:
  • The Lance era is over – why shouldn’t we trust the UCI’s decision on the salbutamol case, and use Froome’s essentially clean slate as the basis for our own assessment?
  • How would a positive test for salbutamol suggest a wider doping program anyway?
Before we dive in, let me be clear: of course I cannot prove that Froome is a doper. If nothing less than a giant body of irrefutable evidence is what you’re after, don’t even bother with this—go read something else.

The Lance era is over – why shouldn’t we trust the UCI’s decision on the salbutamol case, and use Froome’s essentially clean slate as the basis for our own assessment?

First of all, the Lance era wasn’t the result of one guy (and his team) getting away with murder. The rampant doping throughout those years demonstrated a fundamentally flawed system of enforcement. The last Tour title to be stripped (retroactively) was 2010 … not that long ago, and three years after Postal/Discovery released its grip on the Tour. The sport has a deep, deep hole to dig out of.

How deep a hole? To make the math easy, let’s round down and say that 10 dopers were exposed by the USADA investigation without ever having tested positive. Let’s say each rider was tested 10 times a year for 10 years. That’s 1,000 false negative samples. When you consider all the different substances riders were tested for, across these 1,000 samples, and when you factor in the wide variety of PEDs these riders ultimately admitted to having used, the number of false negatives snowballs even further. And yet when’s the last time you heard of a bona-fide false positive?

Clearly, the drug testing system has been woefully ineffective, erring radically on the side of false negative tests. For us to believe Froome’s salbutamol test was a false positive flies in the face of this reality. (Frankly, there isn’t a single rider in the peloton today whom I’d give the benefit of the doubt if he tested positive for anything. I’d say, “What a shame, I’d hoped he was clean.”)

So why should we trust the UCI’s decision regarding Froome? After all, they based their ruling on WADA’s findings, and there are plenty of signs that WADA is still not doing a good job of policing the sport (click here and here). The UCI’s refusal to share WADA’s reasoning in clearing Froome is making things worse. What we need is transparency but what we’re getting is, “We got a lot of documents from Sky … it’s all good, trust us.”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the whole peloton is doped, and I’ll allow that perhaps things have improved a bit, but I reserve the right to be suspicious of this or that rider whose performance looks a little too good to be true. When the rider in question is Froome, the suspicious signs start to pile up, as I discussed in my last post.

Note that even if we decide to accept the veracity of the UCI’s recent decision on Froome’s positive test, this shouldn’t put our every suspicion to rest. If we conclude Froome is a clean rider just because the UCI cleared him for salbutamol, we would be committing the logical fallacy of “denying the antecedent.” The fallacy goes like this: 
  • Premise: If A then B
  • Premise: Not A
  • Conclusion: Not B
It is easier to see how this is a fallacy if we consider a simple example:
  • Premise: If it rains, I will bring an umbrella
  • Premise: It is not raining
  • Conclusion: I am not bringing an umbrella
Of course this conclusion does not necessarily follow. Even if it’s not raining, I could bring an umbrella for another reason, such as rain being forecast. For the second premise to be true is not a necessary condition.

Broken down into its simplest form the “Froome must be clean because the UCI dismissed his case” argument would run like this:
  • Premise: If the UCI finds Froome guilty of doping, he is a doper. 
  • Premise: The UCI did not find Froome guilty of doping. 
  • Conclusion: Therefore, Froome is not a doper. 
Denying the antecedent is a universally recognized fallacy. That is, arguments of this form are automatically classified as invalid. To put it more bluntly, just because Froome found his way out of this salbutamol mess doesn’t mean he never doped. Plenty of riders have cheated and gotten away with it. (In like fashion, we don’t conclude Al Capone wasn’t a murderer just because he was convicted only of tax evasion.)

Lance Armstrong employed this fallacy for years, defending himself on the basis of being “the most tested athlete on the planet.” Arnaud Démare used it as well after hanging on to the side of his team car up a key climb in the 2016 Milan-San Remo race, stating afterward, “‘There are judges in cycling. If I had done something forbidden, I would have been disqualified.’” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that my friend stumbled into this fallacious argumentative form in defending Froome, and perhaps other Froome fans are also falling prey to it as well.

How does the positive test for salbutamol prove anything? How does it suggest a years-long sophisticated doping program? How would salbutamol help Froome win four Tours? Why would he deliberately use more than he needed if it doesn’t enhance performance?

Here I will lay out, in clear logical terms, the reason I think Froome’s positive test suggests a wider doping program. 
  • Premise #1: Willingness to cheat via one substance indicates a willingness to cheat via others
  • Premise #2: You cannot accidently go over the legal limit on salbutamol, because the legal limit is so high; i.e., a positive test indicates abuse, typically through oral or injected dosing
  • Premise #3: In sufficient quantities salbutamol will enhance performance, so a rider can gain an advantage from abusing it
  • Premise #4: Froome went over the legal limit
  • Conclusion #1: Froome didn’t accidentally inhale an amount of salbutamol that exceeded the legal limit (i.e., he lied about how he took it)
  • Conclusion #2: Froome deliberately abused salbutamol to gain an advantage
  • Conclusion #3: By abusing salbutamol, Froome has demonstrated a willingness to abuse other substances; i.e., this positive test gives us valid reason to be suspicious of him generally
The conclusions above proceed naturally from the premises; that is, the argument is logically valid by the prepositional form modus ponens, which goes like this:
  • Premise: If A then B
  • Premise: A
  • Conclusion: Therefore, B
In other words, if we assume that a positive test for salbutamol automatically indicates abuse (Premise #2), and that abusing salbutamol can provide an advantage (Premise #3), and that Froome did test positive (Premise #4), then we can logically conclude that Froome abused salbutamol to gain an advantage (Conclusions #1 and #2). If we assume that abusing one drug indicates a willingness to abuse others (Premise #1), and that Froome abused salbutamol (Conclusion #2), then Froome can be reasonably suspected of abusing other drugs.

Because the reasoning is valid (i.e., follows the standard logical rule modus ponens), you can only attack the argument by showing that it is not sound; i.e., you’d have to declare that one or more premises is/are untrue. So let’s look at each premise in turn.

Premise #1 is something I happen to believe, even if I can’t prove it. A rider may decide to be clean because he’s afraid of being caught, or he’s afraid of side effects, or he is a moral person and/or his ambitions in the sport are noble. If a rider has no moral problem with doping, and isn’t afraid of the drugs, and thinks he can get away with taking them, he’ll generally do it, and will not restrict himself to one substance. I mean, why would he? Look at the all the USADA-snared American dopers who confessed (along with other admitted dopers like Michael Rasmussen, David Millar, Frank Vandenbroucke, and Marco Pantani): none of them stuck to a single PED. They all took a variety.

(It is certainly the case that a rider might eschew a particular PED or practice on the grounds of safety; for example, a rider might use testosterone because it’s common, but avoid blood boosting because hotel-room blood transfusions are dangerous. A drug like salbutamol is probably less scary than a lot of PEDs and I wouldn’t be surprised if taking a variety of more commonplace drugs like clenbuterol, triamsinolone, salbutamol, and/or corticoids in combination is a popular alignment with the “marginal gains” ethos that seems to define the modern sport.)

(By the way, here’s Froome’s therapeutic use exemption for prednisolone, a corticosteroid.)

Premise #2, about it being impossible to go over the legal limit of salbutamol via an inhaler, I believe based on my firsthand experience with salbumatol, and from having discussed the matter with a pulmonary M.D. who also happens to be a former professional road racer. You don’t get any performance benefit by inhaling salbutamol because that doesn’t deliver a high enough dose. For the same reason, you won’t test positive by inhaling the drug—you’d have to take a ridiculous number of puffs (18 to be precise). I have a blog post dedicated to this topic, where I’ve done the math. To get the benefit, and to test positive, require either orally ingesting or injecting the drug.

Premise #3 is widely established: using high quantities of salbutamol can give you a performance advantage (click here and here). The fact that this substance is regulated strongly supports the notion that it can confer performance benefits in sufficient quantities. “We have an upper limit because we have multiple publications showing that systemic use of beta-2 agonists, including salbutamol, can be performance enhancing,” WADA senior director of science Olivier Rabin explains here

Premise #4 (the positive test for salbutamol) is not disputed by anybody.

If you don’t agree with one or more of these premises, that’s fine, but don’t conclude that I’m a knee-jerk blowhard who bases his conclusion on nothing at all. I hope that, whether you agree with these premises or not, you can see why I’d put stock in them. On the other hand, if you agree with these premises but not the conclusions they produce, then you are not a logical thinker and are reading the wrong blog. Please, go somewhere else.

In case you’re thinking of dismissing one or more of my premises out of hand simply because you can’t imagine Froome cheating, consider this: when asthma is poorly controlled, the sufferer cannot perform as an athlete. I know this from experience. (If you have asthma, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, take my word for it because I’m an asthma sufferer and a cycling coach, or go ask an asthmatic athlete or a coach.) To win a grand tour, you have to not only be a top rider, you have to be functioning at close to 100%. An insufficiently mitigated asthma attack takes you way below 100%. By the time I start wheezing, I’m crippled. Any athlete is. And when you get to that point, it’s really too late to try to correct with salbutamol: your race is ruined. My doctor cautioned that for exercise-induced asthma, salbutamol is a prophylactic measure—you take it before the exercise, you don’t wait until you have a problem. Thus you wouldn’t wait until after the grand tour stage, during which you padded your GC lead, to take more of the drug. Froome breathed well enough to put time into his GC rivals on that day at the Vuelta, so he should not have needed extra salbutamol post-race.

It’s also worth noting that a therapeutic use exemption (TUE), such as Froome has for salbutamol (and has had for prednisolone), is not universally acknowledged as an automatically legitimate justification for an ongoing regimen of a prescribed drug. The British House of Commons did a deep investigation into TUEs leveraged by Team Sky, and concluded, “The use of triamcinolone at Team Sky during the period under investigation … does not constitute a violation of the WADA code [because a TUE was in place], but it does cross the ethical line that David Brailsford says he himself drew for Team Sky. In this case, and contrary to the testimony of David Brailsford in front of the Committee, we believe that drugs were being used by Team Sky, within the WADA rules, to enhance the performance of riders, and not just to treat medical need.” Froome himself has acknowledged the slippery nature of TUEs: according to this article, “In 2015 at the Tour de France, Froome explained that during the race he had a medical condition which could have been treated with a TUE. However, he objected to using a TUE, explaining in January 2017 that, ‘I didn’t feel having a TUE in the last week of the Tour was something I was prepared to do. It did not sit well morally with me.’” (Obviously his TUE for sulbutamol during the Veulta did extend through the last week, as his positive test was after stage 18.)

To reiterate, this salbutamol positive is not the cornerstone of my belief that Froome is a doper. What it does do is increase my skepticism that WADA has turned the tide and is now able to enforce their rules.

A final note

Again, this two-part post came about because a reader suggested it’s unfair or at least unbecoming to bag on a rider on my blog just because I think he’s a doper. I’m not too concerned about that ideologically. If I advertise my race coverage as biased, and acknowledge that my aspersions are speculation, and in light of the fact that this guy put himself in the public eye through his choice of career, why should I spare him my public indictment? My blog is a medium that anybody can choose to ignore as he pleases (and most do). I don’t get enough pageviews to make a tiny blip in Froome’s reputation, nor will Froome’s fans be moved to change their minds. Plenty of more mainstream media, along with countless cycling fans, are denouncing him already.

And for the record, I bag on Froome in particular, while going easier on other suspect riders, because he is ungracious even in victory, as I described here and here.

If you don’t agree, at least I’ve explained the rationale behind my bias against Froome. I know I can’t please everybody, but at least I’ve tried…

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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