They Said What? Doping Gossip

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“ATTENTION. Specialists surrounding athletes whisper sports’ next druggy PED swamp would/could/should envelop tennis. Maybe being the highest genteel-est of the rough-and-tumble games, sort of a gentleman’s or gentlewoman’s pursuit, those players are least checked. However, their primary urine testing isn’t failproof since substance can disappear in a short period.”—Cindy Adams, the New York Post’s widely-read gossip/society columnist, in Monday’s edition of the newspaper. 

*****

Let’s start by pointing out that Adams not only fails to offer even a shred of evidence to back up her suggestion, she doesn’t even name said “specialists,” or cite their area of expertise. So on the face of it, this is yet another blind shot across the bow of the game.

But it’s also true that speculations along these lines have markedly increased, and are spilling over from the tennis trenches into areas as unlikely as the celebrity pages of metropolitan newspapers. 

Can it really be that we actually in tennis will be the last to know? (Or should I write, “want to know”?)

I think these accusatory shots are being fired with greater frequency and from less predictable sources because of how front-and-center performance-enhancing drugs have become in sports, and the association of some of sports’ biggest names with them—A-Rod, anyone? But I think there are two more troubling reasons as well.

The first is that the two most recent PED busts in tennis have come very close to each other, and featured two impact players, Viktor Troicki (suspended in mid-July for 18 months, ending in late January 2015) and, most recently, Marin Cilic (suspended for nine months just yesterday).  

That barely two months separated the cases is almost as disappointing as the high status of the accused. In the past, PED busts, like gambling violations, have generally been infrequent and restricted to struggling players and journeymen (Martina Hingis and Richard Gasquet were two exceptions, but their infractions were for recreational rather than performance-enhancing drugs). But Troicki has been ranked as high as No. 12, and Cilic is a former Top 10 performer with an outstanding reputation as a good guy and diligent professional. He was ranked No. 12 at his last official tournament, Wimbledon.

Like almost all accused dopers in the history of sports, Troicki and Cilic essentially and in different ways claimed innocence. But is there such a thing as innocence, ever since Lance Armstrong?

The other troubling reason is more complicated and, in some ways, bitterly ironic. It’s the level to which the players have taken the game recently, demonstrated best in the recent Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal matches. The stamina, power, and skill of these men is nothing less than astonishing—so much so that it seems to brings out the skeptic or outright doper-hunter in many people. It’s a pity, punishing them for their greatness. I’m going to need tangible proof and not just hearsay or speculation about how someone looks to come off that position.

But it’s become pretty clear that one thing tennis has not done yet is satisfy the skeptics when it comes to the integrity of the current testing regimen. Those skeptics range from well-informed tennis journalists to legions of casual sports fans to tennis nuts—and, now, general gossip columnists.

Back in March, when the ITF introduced the “biological passport” program, the press release included a determination:

“. . .To increase the number of blood tests every year. In addition, the Working Group also recommended an overall increase in the amount of testing, especially out-of competition testing, with additional funding provided by all the governing bodies in tennis and administered by the ITF.”

We can assume from that statement that the testing regimen as early as at the start of this year was wanting. It’s also worth noting that neither Troicki nor Cilic were red-flagged based on blood tests; Troicki declined to give one, and Cilic’s urine sample tested positive. But you have to wonder if these two, back-to-back, high profile busts aren’t related to this new level of vigilance by the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme

Adams cryptically ended her column with these words: 

“Medical professionals are citing definitive body changes in certain players. Just telling you what I’m told.”

People tell gossip columnists an awful lot. And much more if it turns out to be true than some people would like to think. I hope this isn’t one of those times.

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