Doping, Surveillance and Radical Transparency in Sport

Surveillance studies people tend not to look at sport very much. Sure, sports mega-events and the kinds of security crackdowns and surveillance surges that occur around them are an object of research, but sport itself, less so.

This is interesting because the bodies of athletes are amongst the most closely monitored and at the same time, contested sites that one could imagine, none more so than professional cycling. Professional cycling may be the most difficult sport on the planet and not surprisingly it has acquired a bad reputation for the prevalence of cheating, particularly in the area of doping. The reputation is in some ways unfair as cycling also has some of the most onerous regulations governing everything from the movements of the riders – the so-called ‘whereabouts rule’, where riders must be available for testing at all times, so must tell doping testers where they are going to be and be there – to bodily function, with top level cyclists now required to have a ‘biological passport’ which establishes baseline values for levels of various aspects of blood and so on, so that anything which alters these values in an unusual way can be taken as prima facie evidence of doping.

However, there has been a reaction from many cyclists against the increasingly intrusive surveillance regime. Privacy has been cited (see for example the challenge by Kazahk rider, Andrey Kashechkin to be his positive test for an illegal blood transfusion), as well as the riders’ right to a good night’s sleep (testers now often arrive in the early hours of the morning). Critics have been less sympathetic with accusations of a code of ‘omerta’ towards anyone who tells the truth about doping in cycling, and riders generally failing to understand the seriousness of cheating.

In opposition to the complaints, a growing number of top teams and riders have been taking the initiative and arguing not against the surveillance regime but embracing it even more fully than the UCI, the sport’s governing body or WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. One example is British rider, Bradley Wiggins. He’s an ex-Olympic track cycling champion who has previously finished 4th in the Tour de France, generally acknowledged as the pinnacle of the sport. That result was a surprise to everyone as Wiggins had never really shown such prowess on the road, and there were mutterings about doping. What Wiggins did was radical and even more startling: a rider who has always insisted that he has ridden clean, he published his biological passport readings for the whole period of the Tour and more.

Now he is taking this ‘radical transparency’ stance further and arguing that all biological passport data for all riders should be made available on the Internet. He argues that this would give both individual riders and the sport, credibility, and stop the rumour mill and the often unfounded allegations around particular performances, as well as shaming those who really are trying to get away with doping. Of course it does damage privacy, but in this case, the virtues of privacy and very much less clear than they might be in other domains. Of course there is also a big difference between such transparency being a voluntary gesture and a requirement.

Audio Surveillance Zooms In

Audio surveillance, especially in public places, seems to be one of those lines that we do not want to be crossed. Yet, it seems it will not be long before it gets crossed anyway.

New Scientist this week had an interesting snippet of news about the development of something called ‘AudioScope’ by  Morgan Kjølerbakken and Vibeke Jahr, who were at the University of Oslo, but have now set up in business to sell this system, mainly it seems to sports stadia and conference facilities.  The technology itself relies on a combination of cameras and microphones in an array, both of which can effectively zoom in on sounds, and “with 300 microphones can make a single conversation audible even in a stadium full of sports fans”.

I just wonder it is before we see an ‘experimental’ version of this installed in some public square, and which will be the lucky city… place your bets now!

Vancouver Olympic surveillance legacies

A city worker installs video surveillance cameras outside GM Place in downtown Vancouver. (CBC)

As the CCTV cameras are going up, Vancouverites are starting to become more concerned now about what the legacy of increased security and surveillance will be after the Olympics. Although the initial promises were that the cameras would be taken down afterwards, with the money that has been put into building a swish new control room, it seems unlikely that the authorities will want to ‘waste’ this investment. As we warned in our Vancouver Statement in November, it seems as if the Games have become a globe-trotting Trojan horse for the video surveillance industry.

Meet Rio’s new security advisor…

if this appointment is any sign of what is to come… this is going to be war on the favelas.

So, with Rio de Janeiro now hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, and a huge set of social problems providing big obstacles to a PR success and the place climbing the world rankings of ‘global cities’, who have the right-wing administration of Governor Sergio Cabral and Mayor Eduardo Paes appointed to advise them on security?

Rudy Giuliani

Well, it’s none other than Mr Zero Tolerance himself, the ex-Mayor of New York and failed presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani.

As I’ve argued before, Giuliani’s macho urban politics have inspired the new tough choque de ordem (shock of order) approach that has flourished under Paes undermining the previous progressive social measures of former Mayor Cesar Maia, in particular the Favela Bairro program that attempted to make the illegal settlements in which the excluded minority of Rio’s population live, into normal functioning neighbourhoods. Cabral and Paes have turned this back into an ongoing confrontation, which is costing lives and livelihoods, and if this appointment is any sign of what is to come, the World Cup and the Olympics are going to mean more than just the usual high security and surveillance exhibition that these mega-events have become – this is going to be war on the favelas and war on the poor.

(As ever, thanks to my eyes in Rio, Paola Baretto Leblanc, for the link).

The Surveillance Games

I’ll be off the next few days at ‘The Surveillance Games’ conference in Vancouver.

Coincidentally, the local police have recently announce that they will be buying the same kind of sonic weapons we saw being used against protestors at the Pittsburgh G8 meeting. Except they want us to call them ‘megaphones’ and claim they won’t use them aggressively*. I think we still need to call a weapon a weapon. Just think, with such rebranding the police could get over their recent little problem with tasers too: just call them ‘joy-buzzers’ (just with a whole lot more ‘joy’...). The urban arms race that such mega-events always spark off as manufacturers push their latest toys to anxious governments, of course just adds another layer of bitter irony to the fact that Canada also intends to ignore its own call for global truce during the Games… it seems that you don’t even need the actual gesture for gesture politics these days.

*Even if these devices were just megaphones, this purchase would in any case be rather ironic given that Vancouver city has banned protestors from using any amplification devices by amending their bylaws in July 2009.