Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reverse Engineering a Doping Allegation

In a wide-ranging interview last week, recently retired tennis pro Christophe Rochus made a number of statements about doping. Such commentary is nothing new. Athletes and others affiliated with sports often make vague, generalized statements about doping without implicating anyone specific. In rare cases, athletes such as Jose Canseco and Floyd Landis actually name names. In an op-ed that was published in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Shermer explains the "game theory" reasons for such specificity.

Rochus's allegation falls somewhere in between the two extremes. In relevant part below, here is what Rochus said:

"I remember a match against a guy whose name I will not say. I won the first set 6-1, very easily. He went to the bathroom and came back metamorphisised. He led 5-3 in the second set and when I came back to 5-5...his nose began bleeding. I told myself it was all very strange."

Rochus makes a point of not naming names, but his insinuation is detailed enough to allow one to attempt to "reverse engineer" his statement and pinpoint specific matches (and opponents) that meet his parameters. Interestingly, Rochus doesn't state whether he eventually won or lost the match in question. In addition, he doesn't state whether the match was two, three, four, or five sets long (Grand Slam tournaments and Davis Cup matches use a "best of five" format while all other pro-level tournaments use a "best of three" format). Nevertheless, a perusal of his playing record from 1993 to 2010 reveals 11 matches that possibly match his description. Of the 11 matches, he won seven and lost four. All four losses took place in the past three years. However, publicly-available online match records do not include details on the sequence of individual games within each set, making it impossible to pinpoint the match(es) in which Rochus was trailing 3-5 in the second set before recoving to 5-5. As such, this attempt at reverse engineering Rochus's statement failed to result in anything definitive. However, with tennis and a majority of other sports spending a lot of resources on their anti-doping efforts, such methodology could be helpful the next time someone makes a "partial" allegation pertaining to drug use and doping authorities proceed to conduct a due diligence follow-up in an attempt to find some actual evidence in support of the claim.