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Getting Social Media and Anti-Doping Right

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By David Owen |

I’m afraid my hackles were raised this week by an item on social media.

No, not Brexit. The offending Tweet was posted by @ICC, the official account of the International Cricket Council, the world governing body.

“Can you name a bowler who made a bigger impression on his Test match debut than this man?” the ICC asked, above a sunhatted Jofra Archer. The England fast bowler took five wickets and generally put the wind up the old adversary Australia in their draw at Lord’s.

Last time I looked, the question had garnered about 1,100 replies – and I would imagine most of them were along the lines of “Yes, plenty.”

Working my way through just a few, names mentioned included Narendra Hirwani, Brett Lee, Pat Cummins, Lance Klusener, Bilal Asif, Shoaib Akhtar, Dominic Cork, and my own choice, Robert Arnold Lockyer Massie, who took an astonishing 16 wickets on debut for Australia in 1972, also at Lord’s.

For sheer comprehensiveness, and to pave the way for the point I am about to make, however, another Tweet from a “proud Indian”, Debasish Nath, is well worth singling out.

“214 bowlers have taken 6 or more wickets in their debut Test match,” Nath replied.

“Amongst those that took 5, he ranks 98th given the amount of runs he leaked.

“This places him 312th overall as a bowler on debut.”

Now, I don’t think anyone would dispute that Archer made a stunning impact in his first game for England.

Nor can it be denied that the numerical evidence of his bowling analysis, impressive as it was, tells nothing like the full story – even if you would prefer the opposition’s best player to be removed from the action by being bowled, caught, trapped LBW or stumped (perhaps not), rather than concussed.

Fast bowling is a thrilling part of full-on, full-throttle Test cricket and long may it remain so. 

But why overstate the case? Especially when you are the sport’s governing body, with an interest in ensuring that cricket’s long and colourful history is held in due reverence and respect.

Of course, I think I know the answer: in sport, there has always been a temptation to hype up the new sensation – and in the social media age, the temptation has been magnified tenfold.

Getting involved in the conversation is widely held to be what counts, and by that yardstick, 1,100 replies (along with half an insidethegames blog) is pretty good going.

In any case, the ICC could say they were merely raising the question, not making an assertion.

True enough.

But as Archer’s Test was unfolding, the 11th anniversary slipped past of another sporting debut of sorts: that of Usain Bolt running his first Olympic 100m final in the Chinese capital, Beijing.

I was fortunate enough to be there that night and can report that for sheer sporting electricity, that blistering 9.69sec world record in 2008, executed under unimaginable pressure when it mattered most, is unlikely to be bettered.

Can you name an athlete who made a bigger impression in his first Olympic track final than this man?

I think not.

• My insidethegames colleague Michael Pavitt wrote a fascinating blog on Saturday (August 17), exposing the inconsistency of the policies adopted by different event organisers towards storage and reanalysis of anti-doping samples.

The piece also cited statistics underlining just how important a weapon in the battle against drug cheats retrospective testing has become.

For both these reasons I think it is high time steps were taken to ensure far greater consistency and transparency in a process that is now key to protecting sport’s integrity.

This is not a responsibility that should be left in the hands of event owners or organisers.

Instead, an independent panel of experts should be established with a mandate, first, to draw up rules governing how samples are collected and stored. Secondly, to make the calls on how they are then utilised in the 10 years before the statute of limitations is up. 

This is a field where fine judgements are always necessary; even if money were abundant, the quantity of bodily fluids available to retrospective testers will always be limited.

To catch the maximum number of cheats, therefore, the right decisions will need to be made on a continual basis regarding what substances to test for and when to test for them.

New scientific breakthroughs during the decade after collection plainly provide the most likely scenario in which cheats who had managed previously to evade detection can be unmasked.

Since it is impossible to predict when these breakthroughs might occur, it will probably always be desirable to try to hold back at least some of each stored sample for as long as possible.  

But I can see no good reason why a) all stored samples should not be kept for close to the full 10 years unless required for targeted retesting in the interim; b) all samples stored should not ultimately be retested, rather than poured down the drain; or c) all athletes competing at major championships such as the Olympics should not provide samples for storage and eventual retesting over the subsequent decade.

Consulting the report of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Independent Observers at Rio 2016, it looks like less than 30 per cent – 3,237 out of 11,303 – of participating athletes were tested.

I can also see no good reason why those directing the retesting programme should not periodically provide a detailed statistical breakdown of their activities.

There might be perfectly valid reasons for certain countries or sports/disciplines to be subjected to high retesting rates within the storage period and others to be largely ignored.

But it would strengthen the system if decision-makers knew that they might be called upon to explain these choices.

Pavitt also touched on the cost of reanalysis, and of course the price-tag of doing as I suggest would be considerable.

But the point is storage and retesting has been shown to work; far better to target more resources on this than pour money into routine testing programmes that can inconvenience athletes considerably, yet appear to catch only a small proportion of cheats.

Yes, there is a downside to pursuing the retesting route: the justice it can deliver is inevitably delayed, which must be heartbreaking for those deprived of their “podium moment”.

So the quest to unearth ways of identifying more cheats more quickly needs to go on, although the list of prohibited substances should be far more restricted, with a primary focus on health.

In the meantime, sport can ill afford not to make the most of perhaps the most effective weapon against this spirit-sapping scourge it has yet devised.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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