Friday, November 30, 2012

Antifragility and Drug Testing Amateur Cyclists

There is a serious outflowing of verbiage over on my local cycling association's Google group.  The topic?  USA Cycling's new program to increase testing of amateurs.

In this post-heroic age of cycling, inevitably this is how we spend our energy--in policing peers and spending scant resources on rooting out cheats rather than expanding our sport.  After all, the rest of the world is doing the same:
Whether you're for or against it, the discussion of drug test is discouraging, since it's the furthest thing from racing our bikes and seeing a touch of the glory that seemed to flow through our heroes--the folks we used to believe in.  Because that's really what racing is about--pure competition, unfettered by rules, reliable, and honorable.  

That such testing should now require Cat 5s to pee in a bottle is incredibly deflating.

It's natural that the discovery of corruption should lead to righteous anger and even a desire for revenge.  It's also natural that we should want reform.

We're coming at this after a long boom period: from 2000 to 2010, membership in USAC jumped 63% from 42,724 to 69,684.  Riding a bike was associated with fighting cancer, with heroism, and with patriotism.  No longer.

This decline has been coming for some time now.  Locally, in the last two years we've noticed fewer races, smaller fields, and the mood seems to be less enthusiastic among many.  How much of this decline can be associated with Lance's second retirement, and how much of it with the economic downturn is uncertain, but my guess is that they were both significant.  We've entered something of a recession  for bike racing, and Lance's new status as SI Antisportsman of the Year surely won't help.

This is, in fact, a very good thing.  Recessions play an important role in the business cycle, since they offer the opportunity for reform and improvement of a system, and they offer the same opportunity for cycling at all levels.

Consider Nassim Nicholas Taleb's (author of Black Swan) notion of antifragility.  Taleb explains:  we write "Fragile" on a box when the object inside would be damaged by shaking it, but what if we have an object of the opposite kind--that is, it becomes stronger when shaken?  We don't have a word for this notion, so Taleb coined the term antifragile.

Here is the takeaway, in his words:

We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything… by suppressing randomness and volatility.  Just as  spending a month in bed (preferably with an unabridged version of  War and Peace  and  access  to  The Sopranos’  entire eighty six episodes ) leads to muscle atrophy, complex systems are weakened, even killed when deprived of stressors. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions (dubbed “Soviet Harvard Illusions” in the book) which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems.

Those familiar with periodization--the regular switching up of training focus--no doubt understand the concept completely.  The body is such an antifragile system; it benefits from the introduction of stressors.  Vibrations strengthen bones, minor tears strengthen muscles, viruses (usually) cause immunity, and so forth.

Antifragile systems benefit from exposure to many moderately destructive events rather than rare, massively destructive events.  (Antifragility theory is, by the way, Taleb's antidote to the problem type he diagnosed with his earlier, now commonplace, notion of the Black Swan theory.)  According to Taleb, protection from financial failure, from many smaller bankruptcies and market downturns, led to the financial crisis.  

Now, back to drug testing of amateurs.

I'm not going to waste time arguing for more or less testing.  That decision should be based on data (we don't have), and should be done with the goal of improving local racing in the long term.  I don't know the answer.

Bike racing happens because people find it fun, and they're willing to give up money and other things to do it.  Our main purpose should be to promote that sense of fun.  Hopefully, when that sense of fun is endangered--as in, we suspect cheating--we find a way to continue having fun.  We don't give way to an illusion Taleb calls "lecturing birds how to fly...the  illusion  that  the  world  functions  thanks  to programmed design, university research, and bureaucratic funding."

I can't imagine a scenario in which the drawing of blood at Greenbelt contributes to the fun I'm having, but maybe that's a lack of imagination on my part.

The shock of catching cheaters in our midst, and at the very top, is good for our sport--an antifragile system that benefits from exposure to slightly damaging events--what Wall Street calls creative destruction.  How we decide to reform and thereby strengthen our sport in response to these blows is important, but it is also important to remember the joy at the heart of bike racing.  That should be the central goal of any reform program.

For a great analysis of antifragility, see here.

1 comment:

Bariah Chaz said...

Drug testing is a way to evaluate the type and possibly the amount of legal or illegal drugs taken by a person. Drug testing is extremely accurate and reliable when all aspects of the testing process are done properly. Thanks.

Drug Testing Australia