“Dirty” Or “Clean” Doping Polls: Why Did We Do Them?

by: LetsRun.com
February 14, 2014

*If you don’t need an explanation on why we did this poll click here for the results

Today we unveil the results of the world record holders doping poll on LetsRun.com (LRC).

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Many of you get it. You voted and gave us some very interesting demographic data. We think you’ll find the data very interesting.

Some of you don’t get it and have said so. Before we reveal the results, we’ll address some of your concerns. We got one email that read in part, “There can’t be any actual informative value from conducting this poll, and it can only contribute to hearsay and speculation. This is truly shameful and extremely thinly veiled attempt to stir the pot and get extra page views.”

We disagree whole-heartedly. Let us explain.

Having an Honest Discussion About Doping and People’s Perceptions Leads to a Cleaner Sport

We think surveying this information and publishing the results: a) can only lead to a cleaner sport b) is interesting and shows us the fans our own biases and c) does not harm athletes in the poll.

Supreme Course Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

That has always been the LetsRun.com attitude on all things anti-doping. We actively let our message board posters speculate whether athletes are on drugs. Some  of you don’t like that, especially when that speculation centers around an athlete you like (we got a trove of emails the middle of the last decade from people blasting us for even entertaining the possibility Lance Armstrong could have been dirty). We see no harm in allowing the speculation or in this case polling and aggregating your views on which athletes you think are clean or dirty.

If a clean athlete dislikes people thinking they might be on drugs, then they’ll be more likely to push for better drug testing, more transparency, etc. We’ve always thought that. And those type of actions lead to a cleaner sport. Similarly, if the IAAF sees that 90% of LetsRun poll participants think a slew of world records are drug induced, maybe they’ll consider being even more vigilant and perhaps starting anew with the world records.

A number of message board posters and emailers have noted that this poll doesn’t tell us whether someone actually doped and is  speculation. That’s true – we agree. Of course, we can’t  know for certain if an athlete took drugs without direct evidence of it. On the other hand, just because most voters think someone is clean doesn’t mean it is true. People’s opinions don’t change the facts on whether someone was clean or dirty, that’s between the athlete and God as they say. That doesn’t mean that the polls aren’t useful.

For example, there are secret police files on East German world 400m record holder Marita Koch where she says her drugs weren’t potent enough. 89.4% of you think she was dirty. That is not surprising. Yet in other instances there isn’t direct evidence of an athlete being on drugs and 90% of you think they are dirty. What does that mean? At the very least, we think it means the sport needs to look long and hard at its record book. There are quite a few world record holders roughly 90% of the fans that voted thought were dirty.

Since reality isn’t known in terms of doping, we believed going in that there were all sorts of things we might learn from these polls of public opinion. Might we gain insight on whether fans think people from different countries, people from different events, people from different training groups, people within the same training group, were/are more or less likely to dope? If so, what does this reveal about our own biases? Why do we believe what we believe?

Message board posters commonly suggest that people are biased in their perceptions of doping. Here, people discuss why people assume the Chinese female records are dirty but not all the others.  Here, a message board poster asks if LetsRun is harder on black athletes for doping than white ones.  Here, someone asks why people accuse Kenyans of doping but not Ethiopians. Or even when there is a doping conviction people can be treated differently. Here, someone wonders why Mary Slaney gets off easy compared to drug cheat Regina Jacobs. We could find a lot more of these threads.

Our poll helps us figure out if people’s perceptions are biased. And they are.

For example, Americans are always more likely to think Americans are clean. British people are more likely to think Brits are clean. Whites tend to be more likely to think whites are clean, and blacks tend to be more likely to think blacks are clean. Knowing someone as a TV personality leads more people to think you are clean: Michael Johnson commentates for the BBC and British people are more likely to think he’s clean.

Instead of just giving people a reason to think someone is dirty without evidence, our poll data actually give people a reason to question the biases of people who think other athletes are dirty. The polls also forced our voters to question their own biases and that is one of the reasons we forced people to pick “Clean” or “Dirty” with no room for ambiguity. Why do you think one person is dirty but not another, voters were forced to think about this when voting.

When our initial poll centered on the world record holders, we heard virtually no complaints about the polls potentially being harmful to athletes. Only when we opened the poll to include current American athletes did some of our visitors start complaining about the polls being potentially hurtful to athletes. So we at LetsRun.com are allowed to poll and ask whether David Rudisha might be doping, but not whether Nick Symmonds is? People can speculate whether athlete FloJo might have doped but not Lance Armstrong ? It’s ok to say 28% of you think Paula Radcliffe might be doping but not OK to say 35% of you think Aries Merritt might? The reaction shows our biases and tendency to assume those we know are clean, and those we don’t aren’t.

Enough on why we did the poll. Click here for the world record results.

*One final point on why we believe publishing our audience’s perceptions on whether an athlete is doping does not harm clean athletes. First and most importantly as stated above we believe transparency in all things anti-doping leads to a cleaner sport. Secondly, we are just aggregating people’s pre-existing beliefs. People already believe what they believe. Publishing the results is just shining light on their beliefs. Third, what harm is there in noting that just as many people think an international sprint star is doping as an American distance star? Fourth, and related to #1, by putting names in the poll, it creates an urgency for athletes to push for a cleaner sport. For the longest time, baseball writers suspected that doping was rampant in the sport. Very little was said or done and the problem continued to exist. Craig Biggio just missed the Hall of Fame in baseball by 2 votes, pretty much because he played in a doping era, and people now think he might have been doping. If while he was playing, he realized people thought he was doping, he could have pushed for more testing, done something to assuage their fears and that likely would have him in the Hall of Fame right now if he had actually been clean.

We realize however we’re not going to satisfy all the critics and see some valid concerns.  We emailed back and forth with one visitor and mentioned the Craig Biggio example. He wrote back, “But more importantly you run the risk of contributing to the degradation of a clean athlete’s reputation – the false positive of opinion polling.  You also might help provide cover for a dirty athlete….As for the Biggio example think of Armstrong. His response to a negative poll would have been: “Test me, I’ve never tested positive!” That worked for him for quite a long time. And as you know, a hell of a lot of people thought Armstrong was clean until the bitter end (I wasn’t one of them). My point here is that polling can be pretty damn misleading, especially when the respondents don’t have enough information.”

The last thing we want to do is provide cover for a dirty athlete, but the polls are not out to prove anything. Click here for the world record results.

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