Doping Versus Blood, Sweat And Tears: What Makes A Champion?

Doping Versus Blood, Sweat And Tears: What Makes A Champion?
Charles McCain
Thomas Dayer

LAUSANNE - Inevitably, any question on the importance of science in sports brings up the topic of doping. “We tend to focus on the cheaters and not enough on clean athletes,” says Swiss judo champion Sergei Aschwanden, bronze medalist in Beijing. “What message do we want to send to young athletes? That doping is required to succeed as an athlete? This will kill the next generation.”

Gregoire Millet, Director of the Sport Sciences Institute at Lausanne University, believes that the new biological-based methods that employ genetic features have changed the calculus: “We’re no longer in a purely pharma-biological approach, which requires detecting the substance. We’re moving towards an approach where any anomaly triggers suspicion and calls for a more specific control."

The practice of keeping samples for eight years is a lingering threat for athletes. For Millet, genetic doping isn’t necessarily more effective: “We don’t really know to what extent it works. Pushing one component would probably break another, but an athlete is a whole.”

The role of psychology

That’s why other methods -- legal ones -- could be taking over. Sky, the cycling team who helped Bradley Wiggins win the Tour de France, is surrounded by scientists. “Science can help establish a strength profile,” says Millet. “It can help the athlete recover better and faster, like with cryotherapy, or training more efficiently by establishing the usefulness of altitude training or a specific diet. And in a few years, miniaturization will make it possible to put captors on athletes’ bodies and know how the body reacts during competitions.”

Still, all sports aren’t equal in the face of science. Aschwanden admits that in judo, the influence of technology on performance is very limited. For him, it’s all about mental strength -- although he admits that what in sports we simply call “experience” can indeed only arrive after a certain age. “Neuroscience tells us that it takes time -- years, up to 10,000 hours of training for pianists for example -- before changes can be observed,” says Michiel Van Elk of the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne.

Specific capabilities are developed according to different activities. Abasketball player will be more capable of determining the trajectory of the ball, a striker in soccer will perceive the goal wider than it actually is -- a bad scorer will conversely see it smaller.

Despite all the innovations, Van Elk doesn’t think science makes champions. “In theory, we could believe that science alone could determine, according to the qualities detected, toward which sport a young athlete should turn,” says Van Elk. “But it’s just theory.”

For Millet, training remains the most efficient way of improving performance, and a pill will never replace the maximum oxygen intake. “Science will never replace blood, sweat and tears,” he says. “Science can improve aspects of training, but training cannot be in itself purely scientific. Science, by definition, must be refutable and reproducible. Training is not.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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