Sport and Surveillance Technology; New TTT Format; Olympic Corruption Stories Continue; Continuing Cycling Media Carnage; UCI V.P. Cleared of Doping Charges; UHC Continues Sponsorship of Maryland Race
· Sports, and Advances in Surveillance Technology
· Do Olympic Corruption Stories Ever Stop?
· WorldTour Racing Kicks into High Gear
· New Team Time-Trial Format
· UCI Vice President Eludes Doping Charges
· The Weekly “Feel Good” Sports Story
A recent and in-depth article in The Atlantic analyzed the increasingly dystopian world of sporting events and advanced surveillance techniques. It cites the example of the owners of Madison Square Garden, who used a secret facial-recognition system to deny entrance to a lawyer who happened to be employed by a firm representing a client who was suing the entertainment venue. When stadiums can hold up to 100,000 people, terrorist activity represents a very real threat, and sports organizers are spending vast sums of money to protect against it. Whereas the 2000 Sydney Olympic games spent $180 million on security, it is now routine for Olympic host cities to spend 10 times that amount. Traditional security systems like metal detectors, guards and sniffer dogs are being supplemented with technologies like drone surveillance aircraft, advanced facial recognition and even spy balloons. It’s not all bad news; some venues are beginning to explore the use of facial-recognition systems in a more positive way to allow entry and control access to sporting events, and a large majority of fans have found it to be more convenient than traditional paper or digital ticketing. But the article concludes that “Sports are a harbinger of a future of surveillance that is more intrusive, multitudinous, and expansive.”
The Olympic Games are supposed to represent excellence, respect and friendship. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, envisioned a combination of sport, culture and education to build a better world. Unfortunately, these days – when it comes to the IOC and its member federations, it seems like we more commonly hear stories of fraud and bribery, unfettered personal power and a lack of transparency and accountability – and stories of corruption are both common-place and continuous. Japan’s largest advertising agency along with five other large companies were recently indicted over allegations of bid-rigging prior to the recent Tokyo Olympics. This has now (rightly) cast a shadow over Japan’s bid for a potential 2030 Sapporo Winter Games, and the city recently suspended its campaign to assess the level of national support for a bid.
Top level racing kicked into high gear this past weekend at Strade Bianche, with Tom Pidcock using his mountain biking skills to ride clear of the men’s field on the race’s precarious gravel descents. Demi Vollering won the women’s race over her SD-Worx teammate Lotte Kopecky after a contentious photo-finish sprint (and dodging a runaway horse) that saw the two teammates visibly exchange expletives as they rolled over the line. American Kristen Faulkner finished third, after an impressive long-range solo attack in just her fourth season of racing. The race, while still a virtual baby in professional bike racing terms with only 17 editions under its belt, has captivated viewers with its unique route through the white gravel roads of Tuscany. It has become so popular with fans that it has many observers pushing for it to officially be named as the sport’s sixth monument – a designation reserved for much older and more prestigious events. The rate at which Strade has catapulted in popularity demonstrates that with the right mix of innovation and scenery, combined with an appropriate reverence for tradition, events can cut through the background noise to become successful entertainment products.
On the topic of innovation, stage three at this week’s Paris-Nice stage race – which kicked off on Sunday – is set to feature a unique new format. In the team trial event, only the time of the first rider over the line will count, as opposed to the traditional format where at least five riders must cross the finish line. This new rule will set up an interesting game of chess for team management, forcing teams to pick a leader and then execute what will essentially be a 32-kilometer-long sprint lead-out for that designated leader. With no examples or institutional knowledge to lean on, teams will be forced to draw up and execute new pacing strategies, which should serve up an interesting viewing spectacle for fans.
Stage 1 was won by QuickStep’s Tim Merlier while Mads Pedersen took the second stage earlier today. Meanwhile, over at Tirreno-Adriatico, Filippo Ganna crushed the competition in the opening and rain-soaked individual time trial, helpfully explaining, “I just thought to ride as fast as possible.”
The carnage continues in the cycling media industry, with the announcement this week that long-time print and website operations for Road Bike Action and Electric Bike Action would both be shuttered. As we’ve noted in several similar developments over the past year, the company attributed the shutdown primarily to declining ad revenues. As this trend continues – and as more laid-off cycling journalists ponder what to do next – we are witnessing an explosion of independent (often one or two-person) subscription platforms springing up in the cycling space. In turn, this is forcing consumers to decide how many monthly payments they’re willing to make, and begs the question: do fans in general have the mental and financial bandwidth to support the continuing "nichification" of sports and media into seemingly countless microchannels?
There was news this week that America’s highest rated UCI race – the Maryland Cycling Classic – would again be sponsored by United HealthCare. The event this year will consist of a four-day weekend of bike education and safety events as well as health and wellness activities. The race itself, on September 3, is expected to attract several WorldTour teams and top riders. Sep Vanmarcke, currently racing for the Israel Start-Up team, took victory in last year’s initial running of the event, while American Neilson Powless took third. There is no word yet about whether this year’s event will include a women’s race.
In a remarkably under-reported and counter-intuitive story, what could have been the first doping case for cycling for 2023 was instead a strange mix of bad public relations for the UCI, scientific methods, and an early warning sign on the anti-doping battlefront. It was revealed that late last year, multi-time Olympian (and UCI Vice President!) Katerina Nash was found by USADA to have tested positive for trace amounts of the growth hormone analog Capromelin. However, she was able to successfully show that the positive test was due to skin exposure to her ailing dog's appetite-stimulating medicine. While this could have become another painful episode of "the dog ate my homework" in cycling's anti-doping legacy, Nash's happy outcome was not entirely reassuring for athletes and sporting policy stakeholders. First, the "positive test" may unfortunately be associated with Nash's reputation, despite strategically worded backtracking by USADA once the inadvertent nature of veterinary medication exposure was confirmed. However, we hope her case may become an example of a "positive" test having positive influence on anti-doping policy – in this case, USADA calling for a revision on how these cases are or aren't publicized until a true violation is confirmed.
But second and more critical to the context, it again shows how anti-doping science has become a race all its own. Nash's defense pivoted on USADA performing its own testing (with its own scientists as guinea pigs) to verify the skin absorption hypothesis. Had the agency not performed this experiment, the burden of proof would have fallen on the athlete, and as many have noted before, athletes often lack the funding and/or connection to competent and respected scientists to enable them to conduct their own potentially career-saving laboratory work. More to the point, there is an ever-expanding pharmacopeia of hormone analogs, masking agents, and designer compounds where anti-doping testing likely lags behind doping scientists' head-start in exploiting these substances. Anti-doping agencies have continually asked for increased funding to support research to close the gaps. However, until then, we may see more cases like this where initial detection of a “substance of concern” becomes the only catalyst to broaden scientific understanding.
A multi-layered analysis of Netflix sports content strategy examined the streaming giant’s assertion that it doesn’t need the media rights to broadcast sports, and that it is more profitable to produce dramatic sports programming. While the cost to acquire rights has skyrocketed into the billions for big-dollar broadcasters and tech portal giants, Netflix has turned properties like the Formula 1-based series Drive to Survive into instant cash engines. Indeed, it costs less to produce a series like that than it does to live-broadcast even a single F1 race. Other sports-related series, like its Break Point tennis series and Full Swing for golf, have yet to produce anywhere near similar ratings for Netflix, and this may be an ominous sign for pro cycling’s upcoming entry in the genre. Cycling commands nowhere near the global viewership numbers of tennis, and as Netflix admits, Break Point is under-performing so far. So, teams, riders, fans and analysts are all keen to see how the new (and still unnamed) series will capture the inside story of our sport, and how many new fans it will be able to attract. A just-released two-minute trailer features well-trodden visuals along with the usual b-roll of crashes and various team managers screaming and swearing at their riders. Hopefully, the Netflix series will rise above many of the past cycling documentaries, which appeal to a few hard-core fans but don’t really offer the type of compelling narrative that will connect with mainstream audiences.
Sport is not always dominated by cold financial analyses, fraud or corruption, revelations of doping or cheating, or the general economic challenges faced by cycling – sports are inspiring and have the power to emotionally uplift even the most jaded fan. This past week, women's softball catcher Kaitlyn Moss smacked a grand slam homerun to give her Grand View team the lead but twisted her ankle badly and fell to the ground as she rounded first base. She was unable to stand, and if she couldn’t touch the rest of the bases, her home run wouldn’t count – and all four runs would be wiped off the board. And to make things even trickier, if a Grand View coach or teammate touched Moss before she tagged home – just to help her with her injury – it would be an automatic out. Her teammates looked on with desperation as the scene unfolded, but then two players on the opposing Southeastern team decided to take action. “According to the rulebook, they could assist Moss and the runs would still be awarded.” So, the two Southeastern players picked up and carried Moss, helping her to touch second and third base and both teams cheered each other on as the players came to home plate. Moss was able to complete “a home run trot unlike any other” to the delight of the fans and Grand View went on to win the game.