Big Brown had his problems last week. From becoming “The
Horse” he went to “No Horse” and speculation abounded as to
the cause of his failure to win the Triple Crown. Suggested
possibilities included a missed steroid injection, getting kicked
by a horse in front of him, the sweltering heat, a reaction against
being held up by his jockey and the consistency of the track at
Belmont. Concerning the latter, I did remark to my wife that the
depth of the footprints left by the horses when they were walking
around the track prior to the race seemed especially deep to me.
But then I’m no expert on racing or racetracks.
Big Brown and his steroid injections, combined with reports of
more testimony from Barry Bonds, brought to mind an article I’d
read in the April issue of Scientific American concerning doping
in sports. The article, by Michael Shermer, was titled “The
Doping Dilemma” and concentrated mainly on the doping
situation in professional cycling. Shermer, who writes the
regular Skeptic column for Scientific American and is the
founder and publisher of Skeptic magazine, is also an avid
amateur cyclist. In 1982, he competed in a race across the
country and finished the some 3000 miles in a few hours under
11 days. (I assume that’s 11 cycling days, not 11 actual days.)
In my column of 8/18/2004 (click on archives), I wrote about
various forms of doping in sports, including cycling. Regarding
cycling, I wrote about erythropoietin, EPO, a hormone that
occurs naturally in the body and promotes the growth of red
blood cells. A modified form of EPO known as recombinant
EPO, r-EPO, was developed in the 1980s and has proved to be a
significant drug in the treatment of certain forms of anemia and,
for example, cancer patients suffering from loss of red cells
during chemotherapy, etc. Since writing that column, I have
become quite familiar with Aranesp, one type of erythropoeitin.
I know of two patients who rely on the drug to maintain their
hematocrit, HCT, within the normal range. HCT is the
percentage of red blood cells and, normally ranges between 37
and 51 percent; at least that’s the range cited on the summary
report sheets from our local hematology lab.
Shermer writes about how r-EPO doping drastically altered
professional cycling, notably with regard to cycling’s premier
event, the Tour de France. He gives some interesting statistics
updating what’s happened since 2004, the year of my earlier
column. Shermer also considers what happened to cycling in
terms of game theory. The “games” in game theory have been
used in psychological studies and in various fields ranging from
marketing to the deadly serious strategies of diplomacy and war.
One well-known game is the prisoner’s dilemma. You and your
buddy are arrested for a crime and put in separate cells. Before
your arrest, you and your buddy agreed not to squeal on each
other. However, the district attorney makes it tough and sets the
following conditions: (1) If you confess and your buddy does
not, you’re free and he gets 3 years in the slammer. (2) Vice
versa – if your buddy confesses and you do not, you get 3 years
and he’s free! (3) Both of you confess - you each get two years.
(4) Neither one confesses - you each get 1 year.
Now you know that if you stick to the agreement and don’t
confess, your buddy could confess and get off scot-free while
you’re stuck with a 3-year sentence! Rather than risk that, you’ll
confess and take the 2-year term. If he doesn’t reason the same
way, he stays silent and you’re out of jail free! You’ve won by
breaking the rules of your prior agreement. Of course, if you
have absolute faith that your buddy will stay silent and you want
to remain friends with him or her, you’ll not confess and you’ll
both serve a year in jail. It is a dilemma and psychologists have
fun studying how perform as they continue to play, taking into
account how their opponent behaved in previous games.
Let’s see what happened in professional cycling. According to
Shermer, in the earlier days there were riders who took
painkillers or stimulants to enhance their performance but there
were essentially no doping regulations. In the 1976 Tour de
France, a rider died on the way up a mountain and it was found
he was using amphetamines. Doping rules were promulgated but
the rules was fuzzy and some riders didn’t feel they were
cheating if they enhanced their performance a bit. That changed
with the advent of r-EPO.
With the new drug, the red blood cell count could be raised from
the normal HCT values in the 40s or even low 50s for highly-
trained athletes. With r-EPO, the HCT could be raised into the
high 50s or even 60s. The more red blood cells, the more oxygen
can be delivered during those grueling climbs at high altitudes.
Shermer cites the experience of Greg LeMond, who had three
wins of the Tour under his belt and had worked himself up to his
fittest ever, beating his past times in practice rides, etc. His goal
was to become the first to win the Tour five times. However, in
the 1991 Tour, he found himself behind riders who couldn’t keep
up with him in past Tours leaving him in the dust on even modest
climbs. Finishing 7th, he vowed to win the next year. He didn’t
even finish, too exhausted trying to keep up with the r-EPO-
doped riders. Another Tour without doping and LeMond again
didn’t finish. Clearly, one couldn’t hope to compete without
doping unless one had a genetic anomaly promoting a high HCT.
Shermer includes an informative plot of average winning speeds
in 14-year intervals from 1949 to1990. The 14-year intervals
were chosen to try to average out different course and climate
conditions. From 1949 to 1990, the average speed rose from a
bit over 21 miles per hour to almost 23 mph, a fairly modest rise
over some three decades. Then came r-EPO and in the 14-year
period from 1991 to 2004 the average speed jumped to nearly 25
mph! Stricter doping rules were put into effect in 2004; even so,
the 2005 and 2006 Tour winning speeds were in the 25-26 mph
range. Last year, 2007, there were “massive disqualifications”
and the speed dropped to somewhat over 24 mph but below the
14-year 1991-2004 average.
I won’t go into details but Shermer puts the cycling doping
situation in terms of the prisoner’s dilemma game. With a ten
million dollar value placed on winning the Tour de France, a one
million dollar value placed on being a professional cyclist in a
level playing field, a likelihood of getting caught cheating of 10
percent and certain other conditions, what is the likely behavior?
With these conditions, the “prisoner”, the rider in this case, is
most likely to dope and to stay silent about his fellow doping
competitors. The ten million dollar reward for the winner and
the relatively low chance of being caught encourages the doping,
once started, to continue. The same sort of dilemma applies to
baseball and who knows how many players, aside from Bonds
and the few that have confessed, have doped with various drugs
to enable them to compete in a doped game?
Shermer proposes various modifications to the dilemma game to
encourage elimination of doping. One change would be to make
the punishment for cheating really drastic – a lifetime ban from
the sport, for example. Also, disqualification of the whole team
from an event if one member is caught cheating. Other proposals
include increased frequency of testing for doping, financial
incentives for the drug testers to stay ahead of the curve by
coming up with tests for new drugs, etc. Such changes should
make the “prisoner” more likely to obey the rules of the sport.
Shermer also suggests immunity for all athletes for doping prior
to this year, stating the whole system was corrupt. Taking back
titles and awards from the past he feels would just result in the
awards being given to runner-ups who themselves were likely to
have been doping in order to compete.
Oh, I forgot to check on Phoenix on Mars. The last I heard there
was trouble dropping the dirt samples through a screen into the
oven. I’ll be more diligent next week, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum