The big news in the sports world right now is about Floyd Landis (again). He was the U.S. cyclist, former confidante of Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France in a historic recovery but then was caught doping and eventually stripped of his medal. After the positive test, he had waged an expensive legal campaign to discredit the steroid testing regime; many people believed him, and their fervor can still be experienced at the Trust but Verify blog (no new posts since Dec 08). I wonder how they feel now.
He thrust himself into the news again by admitting years of doping, essentially telling us he lied repeatedly during the legal fight. He detailed his own doping history, and in addition, implicated a lot of American cyclists, including Armstrong.
The initial reaction to Landis's bombshell from his peers is similar to the ice-cold reception Jose Canceso received when he exposed the underworld of baseball doping. Canceso has been proven right in pretty much every case he brought to the public, including his "guess" about Alex Rodriguez. Would Landis eventually be vindicated?
If you agree with my discussion in Chapter 4 of Numbers Rule Your World, you will be the least bit surprised by this development. I cover a lot in the chapter but the most relevant points are:
- A "negative" test result has not much informational value: many disgraced athletes (track star Marion Jones, cyclist Tyler Hamilton, cyclist Bjarne Riis, etc.) pointed to hundreds of negative results but eventually were exposed as dopers. See my previous post on "negative predictive value" for the statistics behind this.
- The media typically only obsesses about the "false positive" problem, i.e. star athletes being falsely accused of doping but misses the much more serious problem of the "false negative", i.e. drug testers failing to uncover dopers
- The "false negative" error is typically hidden: unless people like Landis voluntarily implicate themselves, we will never find out. That's why testing labs are less afraid of this sort of error than the "false positive".
- Unfortunately we don't have good lie detectors. If we had accurate lie detectors, we would hook these athletes up to them.
Even within cycling, Landis was not the first to confess to years and years of doping. Dutch Danish Tour de France champion Bjarne Riis also confessed after hiding behind negative test results for his entire career. Landis will be attacked relentlessly in the coming days. I'd not be surprised if he'd be proven right but of course, we may never know.
PS. This post was mentioned on the Cyclocosm blog, which has much more about pro cycling and the steroids/EPO/etc. scandals, as well as coverage of the on-going Giro d'Italia.