13 August 2012

Means and Ends

Ross Clark’s article, Our China Syndrome, in the current Spectator (summary here) was sub-headed The claims against swimmer Ye Shiwen reflect irrational suspicion of her country, a theme which he expanded on:
Rarely can a sporting performance have been met with such resentment as that of 16-year-old Ye Shiwen in the 400 metres women’s medley. She had hardly wiped the drops from her goggles before the US swimming coach John Leonard was making coded accusations of drug use, with words such as ‘unbelievable’ and ‘disturbing’. Her offence, it seems, was to have swum a length of the pool faster than an all-American winner of the men’s event, Ryan Lochte.  
… Ye Shiwen had passed the routine drugs test to which all medal winners at the Olympics have been subjected. She wasn’t a drugs cheat after all, …  
Deprived of the opportunity to accuse her of doping, the nation’s Sinophobes changed tack. Maybe she wasn’t on drugs, but she was the product of a ‘brutal training regime’ … Then came the extraordinary accusation that she might have been genetically modified. …  
BBC’s Newsnight devoted its main story to the fantasy that athletes might be having their genes modified to improve their performance — interspersed with clips of Ye Shiwen winning her medals. After 15 minutes of this, the scientists invited on the programme to discuss the issue admitted that there was no evidence it was actually possible to manipulate an athlete’s genes in this way.
There is certainly no question of Ye Shiwen having failed any tests. However, the scientific position may not be as categorical as Clark was assuming. The Times monthly science supplement, Eureka, gave its August issue over to Science and the [Olympic] Games, including an article by Kaya Burgess, Testing times: getting ahead of the cheats, in which she tries to answer the question:
The doping authorities at London 2012 are implementing the most stringent drug testing regime of any Games. But can cheats still slip through?  
… There is little doubt that there are more ways to cheat in sport than ever. Since the British Olympic Association first started working on the Olympic bid, in 1997, performance enhancement has evolved beyond the abuse of steroids and stimulants to include ever-subtler ways of enhancing the body from within. The challenge for UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) is to try, at last, to get one step ahead. This year, every medallist will be tested, and so will about half of all other athletes competing. More than 6,000 samples are expected to be analysed in the course of the Games. But the testers at the Olympic testing laboratory in Harlow have to know what they are looking for.  
… Existing drugs approved for medical use will already be on the radar of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), which will have analysed the potential for cheats and prepared watertight arguments against those who claim innocent use. What Wada has not known about until now, however, is the vast range of drugs still in secret development by pharmaceutical companies. For the first time, one of those companies, GlaxoSmithKline, has opened its drug-research pipeline to Wada to help officials flag up new or unknown substances that may have found their way into athletes’ hands through other sources. …  
Steve Clarke, GSK’s head of drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics, … cites the example of Balco — the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, near San Francisco — which was found to have sold steroids, growth hormones, testosterone cream and erythropoietin to Major League baseball players as well as Chambers. “They had looked through the literature, come up with a steroid drug that wasn’t marketed anywhere but that had been investigated as a potential at one stage, and they had chemists capable of making that drug,” Clarke says. The result was a drug that Wada didn’t know about and didn’t have a test for. “That’s why athletes got away with it for so long and why THG was known as ‘The Clear’.”
As Burgess concludes, it wouldn’t be sensible to bet against competitors breaking the rules, perhaps under pressure. None of this reflects in any way upon Ye Shiwen, but she does come from a country which plays with a hard ball and where ends seem to justify means. I have posted here before about Chinese hacking and cyber theft, but some more insight into what has been happening was provided by Bloomberg just as the Olympics opened in an article by Michael Riley and Dune Lawrence, Hackers Linked to China’s Army Seen From EU to D.C., which anyone with the slightest interest in the subject should read in full. Apart from the EU and various organisations in Washington DC, the article reports attacks on computers in Canada and India, and:
The networks of major oil companies have been harvested for seismic maps charting oil reserves; patent law firms for their clients’ trade secrets; and investment banks for market analysis that might impact the global ventures of state-owned companies, according to computer security experts who asked not to be named and declined to give more details.  
… Stolen information is flowing out of the networks of law firms, investment banks, oil companies, drug makers, and high technology manufacturers in such significant quantities that intelligence officials now say it could cause long-term harm to U.S. and European economies.
The article revealed that:
Adding a potentially important piece to the puzzle, researcher Joe Stewart, who works for Dell SecureWorks, an Atlanta-based security firm and division of Dell Inc. (DELL), the computer technology company, last year uncovered a flaw in software used by Comment group hackers. Designed to disguise the pilfered data’s ultimate destination, the mistake instead revealed that in hundreds of instances, data was sent to Internet Protocol (IP) addresses in Shanghai. The location matched intelligence contained in the 2008 State Department cable published by WikiLeaks that placed the group in Shanghai and linked it to China’s military.
Perhaps China’s pharma technology base is nothing like as advanced as their cyber capability, but if it is they could probably run Olympic-sized rings around UKAD and Wada, if they set out to do so. The scope in the long term for innovations of all sorts, overt and covert, in a country in which even a fraction of its population reaches the PISA standards recorded for Shanghai’s 15-year olds in 2009 will be immense.

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