Are professional sports turning a corner in the steroid era? Or, to put it more hopefully, are we turning a corner out of it? There are tentative signs of change in two sports that have been famously tarred by the performance-enhancing brush, cycling and baseball. A pair of exercise physiologists, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, believe that the latest Tour de France was the cleanest since 1990. They cite slower times on moutanin climbs and credit cycling’s adoption of a “biological passport” testing system, which “aims to detect the underlying markers of doping rather than the doping products themselves.” As far as baseball goes, the most notable aspect of this season has been its own drop in production. Home runs have plummeted since the pumped-up glory days of Bonds, Sosa, and McGwire, when players went untested, and this year pitchers are more dominant then they have been in decades. While cycling has toughened its testing, the biggest advance for baseball is that there is testing at all, and that former folk heroes have been disgraced.
Of course, there are all kinds of caveats to drop in right about now. We know that pitchers also took steroids back in the pumped-up glory days, and many observers credit the drop in run production to the widespread use of a new pitch, the Mariano Rivera-inspired cut fastball. We also know that just last year all-time slugger Manny Ramirez was caught using even after he'd been caught before, while the winner of the 2010 Tour de France, Alberto Contador, tested positive for clenbuterol. We know that just as testers catch up, athletes move on to something new and less detectable. Beyond that, we hear very little about steroids in the NFL, the NBA, track and field, swimming, and other sports, even though athletes across the board are bigger and better than ever. We also hear and read, despite a fair share of rumor mongering, very little about steroids and tennis.
And we’ve read a little less about it in 2011. The ITF, which administers the testing programs for the ATP and WTA, has for the last few seasons put up a year-end PDF on its website listing which players were tested when and how—urine, blood, or for EPO; in competition or out of competition. Last season the organization even briefly listed who had missed their all-important out of competition tests—it wasn’t a short list—before taking those stats down. It was, at the very least, good reading for anyone with an interest in how these things are done, as well as unending fodder for conspiracy theorists.
For 2010, however, the ITF has taken a step back. Rather than put a “Tests per Tournament” PDF up, the way it did in 2008 and 2009—see 2009’s here—it has settled for a “Testing Summary” for 2010—find it here. Instead of telling us that Federer or Nadal or Djokovic or Serena or Maria were tested out of competition on a specific date, we find out how many total tests were administered at, say, Indian Wells—there were 63, in case you're wondering, 32 men and 31 women. After having seen the individual names in the past, this information is now maddeningly non-specific.
Why the change? Stuart Miller, who runs the program at the ITF, wouldn’t say. The ITF is, he has stated, conforming to the standards of the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) when it comes to making information public. Perhaps the ITF felt that a player’s reputation could be unfairly tarnished by a seemingly small number of out-of-competition tests next to his or her name. But on the surface, the testing summary shows that some improvements in the system have been made. In 2009, there were 154 out-of-competition tests; in 2010, there were 219. In 2009, there were no out-of-competition blood tests given at all. In 2010, there were 10—six for men, four for women. Maybe the ITF felt like identifying the subjects of these tests would throw an immediate and unfair cloud of suspicion over them.
The upshot is that the testing program is less transparent for observers of the game, and for fans who want to believe that tennis is clean, that its testing system may be getting stronger and making a difference. Whatever the reasons behind the change, by withholding information that it once released, the ITF is providing more fodder for conspiracy theorists because it looks like it's hiding something. Should we, now that out-of-competition blood testing has begun, feel like tennis is turning any kind of corner in policing steroids? Despite that hint of positive news, it’s a little harder to know.