The Unclean Sport?

Phew!  Let’s face it.  This year has been a rough one for the professional sporting world.  That includes the sports, the players, the governing bodies and even the fans.  From Maria’s shocking confession, to the Russian Olympic debacle and finally to this recent WADA leak, its been quite the roller coaster.  It doesn’t look like it’ll let up anytime soon either.

The latest WADA controversy, throws light on some of the murkier rules governing the use or disuse of banned performance enhancers.  I have chosen my words carefully here.  The operative phrase is banned performance enhancers.  I say this because the classification of substances as “performance enhancing” has never been particularly straightforward.  If anabolic steroids are banned, why not ban protein supplements?  What about electrolytes?  Are these also not performance enhancing substances?  Even within the list of WADA banned substances, vague words like “might” or “may” are used frequently – this drug “may” improve the athlete’s explosiveness.  This always leaves room for the possibility that it may not.  One such substance with an inconclusive stance is Meldonium.  The substance that got Maria banned.  When that controversy was still burning as brightly as a welder’s flame torch, there were varying takes on whether or not Meldonium actually granted its users any unfair advantage.  The drug manufacturers weighed in and said it does not having any performance enhancing side effects they know of.  ‘Straightforward’ might be too far off.  The classification criteria and the verification, is downright confusing.  To keep it simple, if WADA bans it, DON’T TAKE IT…

…Unless you have a TUE.  Well, what’s a TUE?  I asked myself that same question when news about the data leak first hit the media.  A Therapeutic Use Exemption allows a professional athlete use an otherwise banned substance for designated periods of time to treat legitimate medical conditions.  While WADA maintains that a TUE  is issued after it has been determined that no unfair advantage is given to the requesting athlete, one has to wonder how this determination is done.  That is exactly what this hacking incident has done.  It has sown a seed of doubt in the minds of a few.  Sure, the exposed athletes have documented medical issues that necessitate the need for a TUE but does that mean it hasn’t helped them beyond the therapeutic needs for which it was granted?  The relevance of this question is amplified by the fact that these are all successful athletes.  While I am in no way implying any of the exposed athletes have cheated – they certainly haven’t broken any rules – I wonder if this isn’t the same question ringing in the mind of their fellow competitors.  I am just as curious to know how many  athletes have a TUE.

The beauty of sport – professional or amateur – is in the heat of fair competition.  The champions become our heroes, our role models and their feats are romanticized in all the cyber literature we churn out, every day.  That literature appeals to us in the same way old tales did.  We celebrate the champion or the unknown talent who overcomes the odds to stand alone in the limelight.  We also deride those who seek to attain greatness through unfair means.  Beyond the bans imposed by regulatory bodies such as WADA, the destruction of a carefully built image is considered a harsher punishment.  This is especially true if that athlete has achieved great success in their sport.  The fall or at least the compromise of a great star’s name, breeds distrust between the fans of the sport and its competitors.  It also diminishes any accomplishments the player has.  Suddenly, success does not come on the heels of talent, hard work and skill, but on the wings of an illegal substance.  That in itself is devastating.

The beauty of sport – professional or amateur – is in the heat of fair competition.  The champions become our heroes, our role models and their feats are romanticized…

This is further exacerbated when it seems like a regulatory body’s rules are compromised.  The hack into WADA’s confidential files may not have proven anything in the cases of the Williams sisters, or Simone Biles, but it raises questions as to how many others might be using TUEs for more nefarious reasons.  Could everyone currently on a TUE issued by WADA be telling the truth?  In fact, it would be statistical sacrilege to assume so.  Can we assume that everyone who competes in a sport is doing so honestly and fairly?  Remember that professional sport is now a multi-billion dollar global industry.  The stakes are sky high and the rewards are great for the winners and frankly, people have cheated for less.  It is because of this, that regulatory bodies like WADA are formed in the first place.

Could everyone currently on a TUE issued by WADA be telling the truth?  In fact, it would be statistical sacrilege to assume so.

With the issue of TUEs now front and center, it is important for WADA to step up and own the situation.  While I am vehemently against the unjust exposure of confidential player information, I do believe that the hackers have inadvertently exposed a potential flaw in the PED control system.  That has to be addressed.  The first step is to let the public know just how WADA determines whether or not a TUE does or does not grant an athlete an unfair advantage.  Is this process as airtight as it can possibly be?  These are real issues that threaten the integrity of sport – I have used ‘sport’ instead of ‘tennis’ because this goes beyond Tennis.

These controversies have marred just about every major sporting event this year.  It is quite unfortunate that a few prominent athletes have been caught in the crossfire and while my support goes out to them, this presents an opportunity for them to help quench the PED flames that have swept up professional sports in the last nine months and show once again, that sport is about so much more than cheating.

Suddenly, success does not come on the heels of talent, hard work and skill, but on the wings of an illegal substance.  That in itself is devastating.

Finally, I’ve pasted a table below that captures my research into some of the substances/drugs mentioned in the leak.  You be the judge on whether or not we need to really look at TUEs a lot more closely than maybe we already do.

Drug(s) Clinical Use Performance Benefits Research Source(s)
Methylphenidate ADD and ADHD psychostimulation http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18032226

 

Prednisolone Arthritis

Blood problems

Immune system disorders

Skin and eye conditions

Breathing problems

Cancer

Allergies

 

Possible physical performance enhancement http://www.webmd.com/

 

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17805102

 

Hydromorphone

Oxycodone

Moderate to severe pain relief Invincibility Feeling

Pain threshold increase

Sensation of Euphoria

http://sportsanddrugs.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=002037

 

http://www.webmd.com/

 

Triamcinolone Arthritis

Blood Diseases

Breathing Problems

Cancer

Eye Diseases

Intestinal disorders

Collagen

Skin Diseases

Mask pain http://www.webmd.com/

 

http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/15515/1/Drugs_and_doping_in_sport.pdf

 

Amphetamine ADHD

Narcolepsy

Reaction time

Cognitive function

Alertness

Decreased fatigue

Increased Euphoria

https://www.drugs.com/amphetamine.html

 

https://www.verywell.com/performance-enhancing-drugs-amphetamines-risks-3120517

 

 

Bringing the Wood

Every great tennis player has over the course of their career, found a tormentor.  A rival who occasionally stands in the path of greatness, history or success.  Edberg had Becker.  Sampras had Agassi.  Federer has had Nadal for much of his career, and Nadal in turn has had Djokovic.  With Stanilas Wawrinka’s victory over Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final, it is clear that he is established himself as Novak Djokovic’s tormentor in chief.

This probably won’t come as a surprise to the avid tennis analyst.  Since a certain Australian Open five setter in 2012, Wawrinka and Djokovic have played some brilliant matches at the Grand Slam level.  Novak famously won that match with a backhand passing shot that was befitting of the match’s extraordinarily high shot making standards.  However, Wawrinka was just getting warmed up.  Famous for being a headcase, the rest of the world thought they’d seen – as is the case with one Gael Monfils – a glimpse of what could have been.  Little did we know, that we were witnessing a foreboding of what was to come.

Fast forward over four years later, and Wawrinka is a three time major champion – the same number Andy Murray has.  He’s beaten the current world number #1 to win each of his majors and he has defeated Novak Djokovic en-route to each title.  The most painful of those defeats probably came last year.  Wawrinka was not only the difference between Djokovic and career grand slam (that was finally achieved this year), but he was also the difference between Djokovic and a calendar slam. It is hard to imagine Djokovic producing a season like 2015 again.  While Djokovic has a sizable head to head against the Swiss, it is when those defeats have come, that matter.

wawrinka_backhandIf you are wondering what makes Stan so deadly against Djokovic, yesterday’s match has all the answers.  Djokovic started this match, dialed in.  He was hitting crisply off of both wings and playing well within the supreme abilities of his famed transition game.  That form took him to a 5 – 2 first set lead.  I remember watching the match unfold and getting a sense that I was waiting for something to happen.  I didn’t have to wait too long.  Wawrinka, who had been misfiring early on, suddenly found his range.  In the blink of an eye, it was five all and even though Djokovic was able to grind his way to and successfully through a first set tie break, I knew that Wawrinka had the match on his racket.  He always has.

This U.S Open has been a bit of a resurgence ground for attacking tennis and it was only fitting that it would be on full display again in the finals.  By the time the second Set rolled around, it was clear that this could very well be Circa French Open 2015, all over again.  Wawrinka brings an unbelievable amount of power and weight to a rally.  When he is in the mood, his shots can look and apparently feel like miniature spherical juggernauts.  They can’t be stopped.  That has to be demoralizing, even to a player with the caliber of defensive skills that Djokovic possesses.  What Wawrinka does with his ground strokes, feels eerily similar to what Sampras used to do with his serve.  They both take the racket out of the opponent’s hand, and they do it consistently.  By the final set, that consistent pressure had visibly taken its toll on Djokovic.  Medical timeouts aside, Wawrinka’s firepower had taken a psychological toll on Djokovic.  His shoulders slumped.  He wore defeatist facial expressions and laughed nonchalantly at the flurry of winners that flew by him.  This was Circa French Open 2015.  The Serbinator was being humbled, again.

wawrinka_fingerThe biggest difference between the Wawrinka we see today, and the Wawrinka of old has been the lack of fear he shows.  He admitted to being nervous before the match.  That translated to a slow start, but I don’t think he was afraid.  For a man who has failed and failed better so many times before, he now knows how to access the full repertoire of his game in order to succeed.  As the match slowly wore on, it was Djokovic who looked like a defeated great struggling to find answers.  The more he looked, the less he found and the more panicked he appeared.  That’s new territory for the Serb these days.  There’s a reservoir he cannot access anymore and I wonder if it left him the moment he accomplished the career long dream of winning the French Open.  I thought the desire would resurface during the Olympics, but it didn’t and let’s face it, this U.S Open was not filled with Djokovic running the table.  He experienced a bizarre run of opponent retirements and withdrawals.  His semi-final opponent?  A semi interested Monfils.  That might have affected his form going into a final against an opponent like Wawrinka.  Maybe.  However that wasn’t the situation at Wimbledon.

When he is in the mood, his shots can look and apparently feel like miniature spherical juggernauts.  They can’t be stopped.

For Wawrinka, it is another achievement notched up and added to the career belt.  He has now won the Australian Open, The French Open, and The U.S Open in that order.  Considering that he has been as far as the Semis, victory at the All England Club, remains a possibility.  As for Djokovic, he enters the final months of the season with a lot of questions surrounding him.  For a man who has defined his career by setting goals and targets, what becomes his target now?  Catching Nadal/Sampras?  Catching Federer?  Djokovic has always been a player who needs to define why he should bring his best to the table.  It might be time for him to do so again.

 

Appreciating The Muzzard

Famed American coach and ESPN analyst, Brad Gilbert, is notorious for the nicknames he has doled out to tennis players over the years.  Some of them have been quirky enough to have tennis pundits and fans alike, raising their eyebrows as if to say “What did he just say?”  Like them or not, BG as he is fondly called, continues to use these random and wacky monikers to address tennis’s finest.  Believe it or not, they eventually stick.

Perhaps the most appropriate nickname Brad Gilbert has invented is “Muzzard”, given to Scottish tennis player, Andy Murray.  One look at the gifted baseline retriever and you’ll get a sense of why Muzzard so aptly captures his essence.  He cuts a very different appearance from the other members of the iconic Big Four.  Where Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic project a certain champion’s aura about them that is unmistakable, Murray could easily pass off for the common journey man player on tour.  His shaggy – unkempt – hair and beard, occasional baseball cap and unassuming demeanor bestow on him an overbearing sense of normalcy.  If you are a first time tennis watcher, you might be forgiven for mentally writing him off as the loser, when he walks onto a court.  That perception will probably persist through the pre-match warm up, and then self implode by the end of the first rally.

Andy Murray is after all, a three time Grand Slam champion, twelve time ATP Masters 1000 champion, two time Olympic gold medalist, and a Davis Cup champion.  Those are staggering career accomplishments by any stretch of the imagination.  So why hasn’t Great Britain’s finest gotten more of the public acknowledgement that he deserves.  Part of the reason for this strange phenomena is Murray’s earlier mentioned unassuming nature.  The other major reason, is the company he keeps at the highest echelons of the game.  Consider this: The third most successful grand slam winner of the big four – Novak Djokovic – has a staggering twelve grand slams.  That is exactly four times larger than Murray’s current total.  The trio of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, represent an almost unattainable level of excellence that is lost on many.  There are a whooping 43 grand slam titles between those three and they have held the world number one ranking, a combined 657 weeks.  Convert those weeks to years, and that’s a flat out stupendous twelve and a half years of dominance.

Andy Murray has yet to claim the world number one ranking, for even a day.  The highest he’s gone is world number two.  This last tidbit of information, puts his accomplishments in a different perspective entirely.  Murray has had to go up against arguably three contenders – with varying degrees of legitimacy – for the elusive Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T) title, in order to become the greatest British player since the Fred Perry.  This feat, hasn’t at all been easy.  Where Federer wins with classic – eternal beauty, Nadal with unbridled power, and Djokovic with machine like efficiency, Murray has learned how to win with a lot of heart.  In a sense, this has made him the most human, most relatable champion of the lot.  He isn’t a lock, week in, week out.  His game can reach dizzying heights at its best and plunge sharply downwards at its lowest too.  You can clearly see the frustration, the struggle and the fight in him.  There is no poker face when it comes to Murray, and the joy of his victories are just as evidently overwhelming to him as they would be to any of us in our day to day lives.  Maybe that has hampered his iconic status a bit.  He leaves his heart out for us to see and to the tennis fan, it isn’t all that different from theirs.

This year has been perhaps, Murray’s best on tour.  He appears to have found a lasting balance within himself, and that has freed him up to play some of the best tennis I’ve ever seen him play.  That form has carried through to this year’s U.S Open, where suddenly, he finds himself with a bulls-eye on his back.  It hasn’t appeared to faze the Scot though.  He still retains his aura of normalcy, and that is to be celebrated.  Where the rest of the big four have inspired thoughts that you have to be extraordinary to achieve the sublime, Murray inspires hope that ordinary people can produce a fair bit of magic every once in a while.