Archive for January, 2008

Where Do We Draw the Line on Performance Enhancement?

All I can say about this is that it is an interesting story, and I can’t decide how I feel about it.

The Olympic aspirations of Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, may end soon. Track and field’s world governing body is expected to announce that he is ineligible to race against able-bodied athletes because his state-of-the-art prosthetics give him an unfair advantage.

Pistorius was born without the fibula in his lower legs and with other defects in his feet. He had both legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old but has gone on to set Paralympic world records in the 100, 200, and 400 meters. He has defeated some able-bodied runners in his pursuit of attaining an Olympic qualifying time, touching off international debate over what constitutes disabled and able-bodied and how limits should be placed on technology to balance fair play with the right to compete.

The ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations, track’s governing body, was informed by a scientific examination of Pistorius’s j-shaped, carbon-fiber blades, known as Cheetahs, and his biomechanics. In November, he was tested for three days in Cologne, Germany, under the supervision of Peter Brueggemann, a professor at the German Sport University.

“The I.A.A.F. has a rule which states that any technical aids which give an athlete an advantage over another are prohibited,” Nick Davies, the organization’s director of communications, said in a telephone interview from Monaco.

George Vecsey discusses the issue and brings up Bert Shepard, who pitched one game with a prosthetic leg in 1945.

Clemens and Body Language

I’m getting really tired of hearing about how Roger Clemens’s demeanor, word choice, or tone indicate that he is clearly innocent or guilty (mostly I’m hearing the latter). Here is what experts think of Clemens’s body language.

From his parched, pursed lips to the jut of his shoulders, Roger Clemens was holding something back, three body-language analysts who watched him over the past two days said Monday.

“There’s more to the story,” said Janine Driver, a body-language consultant who trains law enforcement officers in truth detection. “There are several probing points that lead me to believe that he’s not going to be completely truthful.”

Since the release of the Mitchell report last month, Clemens and his lawyer have issued a series of increasingly angry denials, rebutting claims by his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, that Clemens took steroids. But it was Clemens’s two recent television appearances — a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday, and a news conference Monday — that provided material to truth-detection analysts like Driver, who make a living parsing the slightest grimaces, shrugs and words for signs of subterfuge.

In the “60 Minutes” interview, for example, the analysts noticed that Clemens swallowed hard, looked down, and licked and pursed his lips when answering questions — all signs, they said, that he might not have been telling the truth. “That’s indicative of deception, that’s indicative of stress,” said Joe Navarro, a retired F.B.I. agent who trains intelligence officers and employees for banks and insurance companies. Navarro has also written a book about how to tell whether someone is bluffing in poker.

But, here is my favorite part.

Nevertheless, Navarro warned against concluding that Clemens was lying. Even the most skilled body-language experts are right in only about half of all cases, he said, and investigators often study body language to decide when to dig deeper. It is not evidence that someone has committed wrongdoing; Clemens might have been showing stress from defending against potentially career-killing allegations. “He clearly shows signs of distress, but we don’t know why he’s being distressed,” Navarro said.[Empasis added]

The most-skilled experts get it right about half the time? It must be difficult to eke out a living when your competition is a coin. [In fairness to body language experts, I suspect that they are a little bit better than half-right.]

Bottom line: we don’t know whether it is Clemens or McNamee who is lying, and it is OK to say so. There is no separating equilibrium here in terms of their behavior. If you are telling the truth you should continue to insist that you are being truthful, if you are lying you should continue to insist that you are being truthful. While something one of the parties does may lead us to favor one side over the other, there is no meaningful information to interpret: it is all just noise.

The truth will probably come out one day, so let’s worry about it then.

Addendum: This certainly doesn’t help McNamee.

McNamee was having sex with the woman in the resort’s pool and didn’t stop when confronted by security, the documents say. Police were notified. When they arrived, they found McNamee had helped the woman out of the pool and get dressed, according to the documents. Groggy and incoherent, she was taken to the hospital, where the documents said she was found to have GHB, the “date-rape drug,” in her system.

The woman told detectives she could not remember details of the encounter in the pool. She said she did not give McNamee permission to have sex with her, and witnesses told detectives they had heard her saying “no” during the encounter, according to the documents.

Detectives later recovered some of her jewelry, an empty beer can and a water bottle containing GHB at the side of the pool.

Police interviewed McNamee hours later, according to the documents, and he denied having sex with the woman or knowing Yankees batting practice pitcher, Charles Wonsowicz, who was also in the pool. McNamee refused to submit a saliva sample for DNA analysis, the documents said.

Mark McGwire and the Hall of Fame

Today, the Hall of Fame will announce its new inductees. Once again, Mark McGwire will not be welcomed into the club. Personally, I think it’s wrong. McGwire is being singled out for his potential use of performance-enhancing drugs, despite the fact that even if someone could prove that he used something besides andro—andro was clearly legal at the time, and has not been shown to have any ergogenic benefits—whatever it was would not have been against baseball rules. While some may argue that baseball has expressly forbidden the use of illegal drugs since the 1970s, it lacks the power to make such a pronouncement unilaterally. Not until after the players association and the owners agreed to the Joint Drug Treatment Program in 2002—after McGwire had left the game—were performance-enhancers expressly prohibited from the game.

In professional sports, however, athletes are employees of their clubs and are represented for collective bargaining purposes by unions. The clubs must therefore bargain over terms and conditions of employment, including and drug policies for, and drug testing of, athletes.

This is Bud Selig (Commissioner) and Robert Manfred (Executive VP, Labor Relations and Human Resources) in the Stanford Law and Policy Review (2004). You can find this quote on pages 258 and 259 of the Mitchell Report. Also, the history of arbitrator rulings on MLB’s drug policies make it clear that the league’s unilateral mandates are not binding.

It is also not clear that McGwire used anything. We only have the testimony of Conseco and the fact that he hit a lot of home runs. As I am quoted in the National Post today, I don’t think this is enough to convict him of steroid use. I do wish that he had spoken in his testimony before Congress, but I can understand why he would remain silent. It’s an all-or-nothing choice. Once you agree to testify, you cannot pick and chose what you want to reveal.

It looks as though McGwire will get enough votes to remain on the ballot for a while, and I hope that eventually the writers will get over their moral indignation and put him in the Hall. However, I won’t be surprised if McGwire declines his invitation.

Should We Ban Vitamin B12?

So, with Roger Clemens stating that the only thing he has injected into his body is vitamin B12 (with lidocaine), I wondered if there are any performance-enhancing benefits from using the substance. And if there are, should we seek a ban (although, I think it would be nearly impossible to police)?

Once again, we have a substance that players are taking that appears to do nothing for healthy individuals. First, from the NY Times article:

In a telephone interview Thursday, Dr. Jerome Groopman, a hematologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, described lidocaine as a common local anesthetic whose injectable form would probably require a prescription. Groopman said that vitamin B12, which does not require a prescription, is administered to patients with a serious deficiency of the vitamin, usually the elderly, and that its value as an energy enhancer was “an urban legend.”

“For someone like Roger Clemens, who certainly looks robust, the likelihood that he would be deficient in vitamin B12 is a stretch,” Groopman said, noting that he had not seen Clemens’s medical records. “It would have no physiological effect. It would only have a placebo effect.”

Here are some results from a quick PubMed search.

Vitamin supplementation and athletic performance
Williams, MH
International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, Suppl. 1989;30:163-91

Vitamins serve primarily as regulators of metabolic functions, many of which are critical to exercise performance. Depending upon the nature of their sport, e.g., strength, speed, power, endurance, or fine motor control, athletes may use megadoses of various vitamins in attempts to increase specific metabolic processes important to improved performance. Surveys have indicated that most elite athletes do take vitamin supplements, often in dosages greater than 50-100 times the United States Recommended Dietary Allowances. The theoretical basis underlying the use of each vitamin depends upon its specific metabolic function in relation to sport. Vitamin A functions to maintain night vision; thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid are all involved in muscle cell energy metabolism; niacin may also block free fatty acid release; pyridoxine is involved in the synthesis of hemoglobin and other oxygen transfer protein; folic acid and vitamin B12 are integrally involved in red blood cell (RBC) development; vitamins C and E are antioxidants, possibly preventing the destruction of the red blood cell membrane during exercise; vitamin D may be involved in muscle cell energetics through its influence on calcium. These are but a few of the possible metabolic functions of vitamins which have been suggested to have ergogenic applications to sport. Research has shown that a vitamin deficiency impairs physical performance. If this deficiency is corrected, performance usually improves. In general, vitamin supplementation to an athlete on a well-balanced diet has not been shown to improve performance. However, additional research with certain vitamins appears to be warranted, such as with the vitamin B complex and fine motor control, and with vitamin E and endurance at high altitudes. Moreover, research with megadose supplementation may also be necessary.

Vitamin and mineral status: effects on physical performance
Lukaski HC
Nutrition 2004 Jul-Aug;20(7-8):632-44

Public health recommendations encourage the selection of a balanced diet and increasing physical activity to foster health and well-being. Whereas the adverse effects of restricted intakes of protein, fat, and carbohydrate on physical performance are well known, there is limited information about the impact of low intakes of vitamins and minerals on the exercise capacity and performance of humans. Physically active people generally consume amounts of vitamins and minerals consistent with the recommendations for the general public. However, when intakes are less than recommendations, some noticeable functional impairments occur. Acute or short-term marginal deficiencies, identified by blood biochemical measures of vitamin B status, had no impacts on performance measures. Severe deprivation of folate and vitamin B12 result in anemia and reduce endurance work performance. Evidence of vitamin A and E deficiencies in athletic individuals is lacking apparently because body storage is appreciable. In contrast to vitamins, marginal mineral deficiencies impair performance. Iron deficiency, with or without anemia, impairs muscle function and limits work capacity. Magnesium deprivation increases oxygen requirements to complete submaximal exercise and reduces endurance performance. Use of vitamin and mineral supplements does not improve measures of performance in people consuming adequate diets. Young girls and individuals participating in activities with weight classifications or aesthetic components are prone to nutrient deficiencies because they restrict food intake and specific micronutrient-rich foods. This information will be useful to professionals who counsel physically active people and scientific groups who make dietary recommendations to improve health and optimize genetic potential.

UPDATE: My exercise physiologist colleague John McLester had this to say when I asked him about the ergogenic effects of B12.

Coaches as far back as I can remember have been
convincing their athletes to take B12 (our high school coach lined us up
every year for a megadose injection of B12; he was highly uneducated in
this area). They always say “it will give you energy”. The fact is B12
is used in the metabolic reactions that break down foods to make ATP
(energy). However, it will not “give you energy” since it contains no
calories. And it will not speed up those metabolic reactions unless you
are deficient. Actually, the major side effect of B12 deficiency is
pernicious anemia. Since anemia will make you feel tired all the time,
an ergogenic fallacy is born. By the way, the most likely population
susceptible to B12 deficiency is strict vegans because B12 is usually
found only in animal foods , not veggies (other than mushrooms if you
count those as veggies).

Further Update: David Pinto puts his biochemistry major to good use to discuss the possible effects of vitamins.

Interview in Chicago Sports Weekly

You can read my interview with economist-sabermetrician Cyril Morong in the latest issue of Chicago Sports Weekly.