Le Quiz sur le Dopage

This is where sports is headed: The World Anti-Doping Agency, a Big Brotherish creation of the International Olympic Committee set up in 1999 to ensure that athletes don’t use illegal steroids and the like. The agency’s motto: Play True. The unspoken part: Or Else.

Of course, the aim is noble. “Play true” is a wonderful sentiment, and one that every competitor and fan would embrace. The “or else” part is troublesome, though. You have to wonder whether it’s any more possible to create an absolutely clean, level playing field in sports than it is to keep drugs off the streets. How far do you go, how intrusive do you get, in pursuit of that goal? Do you throw out the notion of due process or the presumption of innocence — quaint notions, those — in the hunt for bad actors?

While you ponder that, test your anti-doping IQ at the WADA site. Sample question and answer:

True or False? If a Doping Control Officer comes to your home to conduct an out of competition test, it is okay for you to leave the room alone to make a cup of tea or run an errand.

False. It is important that you protect the integrity of your sample by staying in full view of the Doping Control Officer at all times until the test is complete. If you need to leave the room, tell the Doping Control Officer who will go with you.

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Denial, Act 2

Floyd Landis has, for the moment, a Tour de France title and two blood samples that tested positive for testosterone samples. He won’t get to keep the title if the test results stand, though; cycling officials are ready to strip him of the championship, and the Tour runner-up Oscar Pereiro is saying he wants a yellow-jersey presentation so that he feels like he’s really the Tour winner. So Landis is doing the only thing he can until his lawyers figure out who to sue: launching a media blitz to tell his story, which boils down to “I’m an honest, hard-working guy and I’m telling you I didn’t do anything wrong.” The truth is that there’s really nothing he can say that will get him off the hook. The best case, for everyone, would be the appearance of some incontrovertible evidence that he shot himself up with something, that someone tampered with his samples, or that the test was simply wrong and invalid. Landis could confess. Some lab technician could come forward and say, “I did it.” Or cycling officials could say the test is untrustworthy. Don’t hold your breath.

Instead, speculate about what might explain the positive test result that came back after Landis’s heroic win on Stage 17:

Landis needed a pick-me-up after getting thrashed in Stage 16 and knowingly took something he shouldn’t have. As I’ve said before, I doubt this because the consequences of being found out were so predictably devastating.

Landis was doping all along and just happened to get caught after Stage 17. Landis and his supporters make much of the fact he was tested eight times during the Tour and that just one of the results came back positive (in fact, the head of the International Cycling Union says only one of 300 tests administered during the Tour — Landis’s, after Stage 17 — came back positive). But what if he was taking something all through the Tour that went undetected, for whatever reason, until his incredible physical effort in the 17th stage? I suppose you could call this the BALCO scenario, after the Bay Area sports-nutrition lab that distributed performance-enhancing substances that anti-doping tests couldn’t detect. ESPN cycling correspondent Andrew Hood notes that Landis was seldom tested in past years, and also discusses known ways of defeating the current testing protocols.

Landis doped unknowingly. Maybe a well-meaning trainer gave him a little something extra in his daily dose of vitamins and supplements (not a credible possibility; the probability of detection, and the consequences from it, are just too high); or some enemy managed to slip him something (I shy away from most gunman-on-the-grassy-knoll theories, so I can’t swallow this one).

Alcohol or cortisone or something else threw off the test results. A real possibility, according to some serious sports-nutrition types, though probably very hard to prove.

Landis’s samples were deliberately contaminated. By whom? Why? It’s the gunman on the grassy knoll again. Tough sale.

Landis’ normal testosterone levels are naturally high, leading to a false positive result. If this is true, it ought to be a matter of producing the medical records that demonstrate it.

Take your pick, or come up with your own explanation. I’m still sticking with my instinct that a guy who’s been around the highest level of cycling for so long, who had apparently gotten to the elite level without doping, wouldn’t have done something as suicidal from a career perspective as drug himself with the whole world watching.

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Melissa the Loud


New York flashback: Her real name is Melissa Kacalanos, but she goes by Melissa the Loud (because of her voice, she says online). She was playing this instrument — the hurdy-gurdy — at Columbus Square on Tuesday night, when the temperature was about 95, and was just taking a break to tune it when I walked up and asked to take her picture. Her website: www.melissatheloud.com.

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Vacation Video Experiment

I had my camera out when our flight was taking off from New York for Oakland the other day. I’m not sure if a camera is on the list of electronic devices you’re supposed to keep shut off during takeoff and shortly after, and I don’t want to draw attention to myself by asking the flight attendants. So on Wednesday, I switched the camera to video mode and recorded the first couple of minutes as the plane rolled down the runway at JFK and climbed to 2,000 feet. The next part of the experiment was putting the takeoff video online. That turns out to be easy. I downloaded the file to a computer, then uploaded it to YouTube (it’s a 60-megabyte file, and it took a while to send over our DSL line). Check it out below.

Trying to look past the novelty of the thing — yes, I’m somewhat slackjawed that this kind of video publishing is so straightforward for someone with little technical ability — this sort of tool really does open up new possibilities for self-publishers (artists, journalists, etc.) of all kinds. [Postscript: I went back to YouTube to look for other takeoff videos. What an original idea: A search turns up 827 hits — many of which are commercial airline takeoffs shot at airports all over the world.]

Flying Back

There will be plenty of East Coast trip postscripts to come, but for now: We’re sitting in a terminal at Kennedy airport; outside, it’s about 100, and even people who have been working inside all day are complainng about the heat. Outside, one big difference between city dwellers and suburban folk shows itself. The urban types are out on the streets, walking to the subway, shopping, whatever they have to do. It’s not like the sidewalks were packed in my brother’s neighborhood, but people were out and about, even if lots of us looked a little wilted. Out in the suburbs: No one on the street, anywere; people out there — and "out there" is probably any suburb you can think of — live strictly a doorway to doorway existence during the worst weather. Glad the power grid is holding up for everyone so far.

This morning, getting ready to leave John and Dawn’s place, we were talking about the latest bicycle fatality in the Oakland Hills. A guy out for a ride was hit head on up there on Skyline Boulevard, within a half mile or so of where I crashed in June, by a motorcyclist; the cyclist died of his injuries, the motorcyclist apparently walked away from the wreck. Not to place blame without knowing what really happened, but one of the risks bicyclists take riding up in the hills, a risk that’s increased a lot in the last 20 years, is that we share the road with motorcycle riders and motorists who treat the twisting roads like a raceway challenge. I’ve often worried about getting hit up there.

Anyway. At one point, John said, "Hey, did you hear about that Wired editor who died during the marathon?" I hadn’t. I looked up "wired editor marathon" onlne, and found a story on Wired News. The editor who died during the marathon was a guy named Bill Goggins. I knew him from my stint at the magazine in 1998 and from my days freelancing for the magazine. Bill was 43, and the news accounts say that he collapsed at mile 24 of the San Francisco Marathon last weekend and couldn’t be revived. A friend who saw him at mile 21 said he was smiling and running strong, and a mutual friend had seen him twice in recent days and said he seemed fine. The thing about Bill, whom I never got to know well enough, was that he was brilliant and funny and charming and had a big heart that was right there for anyone to see. Forty-three. Hard to believe. See you, Bill, wherever you are.

Continue reading “Flying Back”

Forza Italia: Bath-Towel Edition



John and Dawn (my brother and sister-in-law) live in Carroll Gardens, an old Italian neighborhood southwest of downtown Brooklyn. Italy’s victory in the World Head-Butt Cup last month sparked outpourings of joy ("I’m so happy!" John recalls one guy telling him. "I’m from Italy!" To which John comments: "No, you’re not — you were born in the Bronx"). Team Italy’s success also prompted the appearance of even more than the usual generous display of Italian flags in the neighborhood. The pizzeria across the street has one on the sidewalk. My favorite is one around the corner — green, white, and red bath towels hanging from a fire-escape railing.