Friday, September 12, 2008

Doping in NASCAR - Why is Testosterone Banned? 

Perhaps you haven't heard, but there is a doping scandal in NASCAR:
NASCAR officials said Thursday that they plan to meet with Craftsman Truck series driver Ron Hornaday Jr. to talk about his admitted use of testosterone.

Ramsey Poston, NASCAR managing director of corporate communications, said the meeting will take place “to get a better understanding of his condition.” He did not say when the meeting will be.

Hornaday, the 2007 trucks series points champion, admitted to using the drugs during an interview Tuesday with ESPN.

He said he used the drugs to treat a medical condition that was later diagnosed to be a hyperactive thyroid.

But officials of NASCAR say the use of testosterone doesn't do anything:

Poston said NASCAR has consulted drug experts about use of testosterone by drivers.

“Based on what we currently know,” Poston said, “our outside experts have said the prescription he had did not enhance performance or impair judgment on the track. It’s our understanding that Ron’s very serious health issue is being addressed.”

Maybe this just refers to Hornaday's use, but if not then the banning of the substance in NASCAR is odd. If the use of testosterone improves a driver's effort and it carries risks, then one can make a positional externality argument for banning (I'd rather not use it but my opponent uses it. So I better use it to maintain my relative position in the sport). But that doesn't seem to be the case here.

I also can't see that NASCAR officials would encourage its use if it doesn't improve the overall effort of the drivers. If something that is considered a "performance enhancer" in other sports does not enhance absolute or relative performance in NASCAR, then why is it banned?

Cross-posted at Market Power

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Enhanced Human Performance 

There has been quite a bit of discussion about drug taking, gene doping and what we mean by 'artificial' enhancements to human performance at The Sports Economist in the past year.

Here are two examples of opening pandora's box and finding a can of worms.

Of greatest significance is the ruling fom the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), allowing South African 400m sprinter Oscar Pistorius attempt to qualify for the 2008 olympics. Oscar has been dealt some harsh cards in his life as a double amputee below his knees, but he has developed an impressive athletics career with the assistance of 'cheetah' racing blade prosthetic devices.

After being initially denied the right to qualify and compete at Beijing by the IAAF, the CAS ruling provides Pistorius with the opportunity to qualify.

Some South African sports scientists have a pretty interesting blog The Science of Sports that covers this matter and others quite well (as some of us blogging here at TSE have noted of late, some of these issues require the input of scientists, lest we economists end up talking through our hats). Plus, here are a couple of links to print news from USA Today and Fox Sports Australia and video on the US ABC News website to bring you up to speed on the history of the matter. The CAS website press release section has temporarily gone haywire and won't work.

From The Age (Melbourne) - Sydney Swans player Nick Malceski returns to the Australian Football League today:

Just 13 weeks after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament, and only 86 days after undergoing surgery to correct what is normally a season-ending injury, Malceski will run onto ANZ Stadium [Sydney Olympic Stadium] and resume a season that not long ago appeared over. On February 22, Malceski underwent the revolutionary procedure of French surgeon JP Laboureau - conducted by Australian surgeon Danny Biggs - known as LARS (ligament augmentation and reconstruction system), to repair his torn ligament with a durable industrial-strength synthetic fibre.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Gene Doping - The New Frontier of Doping 

This morning's Kansas City Star has an interesting piece on the new frontier of doping: gene doping. The whole article is worth a read, but here are the opening paragraphs.

Scientists have seen the future of sport. It involves mice that can lift three times the average, humans who can run 90-minute marathons, and ligament tears that can be fixed by injection.

It is genetic engineering, therapy and doping, and it is the arrival of the bionic athlete. At the extreme, this is either the advancement or end of the human race. At the minimum, it is the unavoidable change to the way our sports — baseball, football, the Olympics, you name it — are played.

One thing that the article mentions is that the genetic doping is a way for the human body to exceed its natural athletic capacity.

If confined to natural training, elite athletes are said to be now using 99 percent of their natural physical capacity, compared to just 75 percent in 1896, the year of the first modern Olympics. Given those parameters, academics say there would be no new world records after the year 2060.

But that’s in a world with no genetic engineering. Scientists think a series of gene-doping breakthroughs could boost endurance by up to 10 percent and, according to one study, allow a runner to complete a marathon in 90 minutes — more than a half-hour faster than the current world record.

In an absolute sense, doping should generate more interest from fans as athletes get bigger, stronger, and faster. But I wonder if there is diminishing marginal utility on the point of view of fans. "Wow, Brady Jones has hit his 500th home run that traveled more than 600 feet. Big deal!" Does the display of athletic talent get so extreme that fans are no longer all that excited (all else equal)?

Another interesting issue is what happens to the supply of athletic talent in team sports. Assuming a safe type of genetic doping is found that increases the human capacity to run, jump, etc., this should increase the supply of talent, leading to lower salaries "per unit of talent." And what of competitive balance? If the number of teams stays more or less constant, competition should become almost perfectly balanced, non?

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Technological Doping"? - The Speedo LZR 

Swimming has its version of the aluminum bat, an improvement in capital design that makes "labor" very productive, at least in an absolute sense. Maybe too much so:

Since its debut at the Missouri Grand Prix in February, the new Speedo LZR swimsuit has made nearly as many waves out of the pool as it has in it. With 18 of 19 record-setting, long-course swims – the same pool format of the Olympics – and 17 of 18 record-setting short course swims for the LZR dating back to its inception, Speedo has had to withstand charges of “technological doping” from those in the swimming community and beyond.

FINA, the international governing body for swimming, met with the world’s top swimsuit manufacturers in an emergency meeting Saturday to determine whether the suit and others like it were giving certain athletes an unfair competitive advantage. Though FINA endorsed the suit for a second time and decided to allow other suit makers to copy the design, some in the swimming community have begun to take the matter into their own hands.

The NCAA men’s National Championships, the Italian Olympic Trials and the Canadian Olympic Trials are among meets that have banned the LZR – as well as TYR’s new swimsuit, dubbed the Tracer – from competition.

Given the discussion on this post and this post recently, I looked to see if there was anything regarding the official Olympic (i.e. event organizer position) on this swimsuit. Perhaps readers have seen something, but I couldn't find anything in a quick GIS. But it wouldn't surprise me if Olympic officials would like to see its use.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

More on Doping 

Skip had an interesting post on doping last week that prompted more discussion in the comments. I have been working on several research projects related to the economics of doping for the past year or so (with little to show for it except a paper on last year's WEA program and a folder full of rejection letters, but that's another story). The use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes continues to get quite a bit of coverage in the popular press. The gist of much of the reportage on doping falls into a few predictable categories: (1) the use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes is rampant, or at least more widespread than the general public suspects; (2) the use of these substances is a travesty, scathing indictment of the sorry state of sport, a horrible consequence of the corrosive effect of money on the purity of sport, etc.; and (3) Something Drastic Must Be Done ASAP.

Take, for example, an article in Sunday's New York Times about doping in athletics. Track coach Trevor Graham is going on trial next month on drug and money laundering charges related to doping among world-class sprinters. Point (1) comes out in the first paragraph

When one of the most successful coaches in the history of track and field goes on trial next month in the long-running federal investigation into doping in sports, lawyers for both sides are prepared to reveal that cheating in track is far more widespread than previously known.
Points (2) and (3) are scattered throughout the article, with references to "underside of track and field" and tales of Federal regulators ruthlessly stamping out this scourge.

From the perspective of economics, much of this seems to miss the interesting parts. We know this: athletes, even at the highest level, have different abilities and all face strong and clear incentives to improve their performance. There is a lot of strategic interaction among athletes, and the compensation system in tournaments skews earnings significantly. Both of these factors amplifiy the consequences of outcomes. And to top it all off, the use of performance enhancing drugs is very difficult to detect, and the regulators and chemists are in an "arms race" that the regulators can't possibly win. Athletes face powerful economic incentives to dope and have easy access to new doping methods that are hard to detect. Under these conditions, many will use performance enhancing drugs, and most will get away with it.

The interesting economic angle relates to the question Rod Fort raised in the comments: "does anybody on the revenue generation side really care?" My answer is no. Event organizers desire absolute quality to increase interest in their events. World records, amazing performances that go well beyond what 99% of the population can do, "the human drama of athletic competition" bit. Sports fans, especially casual sports fans, are primarily interested in extraordinary performances. During the McGwire-Sosa home run race a few years ago, how many people said "I'm not paying attention because they are both on the juice?" Plenty of incentives exist to look the other way on the doping issue on the revenue generation side, but nobody pays much attention to it.

I realize that there are very important cost issues here as well, but I'm just sayin' ...

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