Floyd Landis and Doping: Do Labs And/or the Media Understand Statistics?

Lynne Kiesling

Statistical illiteracy abounds in society, and nowhere is it more evident than in the screaming headlines this afternoon about “Floyd Landis’ failed drug test”. OK, so this statistical illiteracy is a pet peeve of mine, so let me scratch it here. Cyclists face a two-tier drug test, A and B. If you have an anomalous result in A, then you get a test on your backup B sample. On the night of his mind-boggling stage win in the Alps, Landis was tested (is it true that all stage winners are tested on the day? I think so). His ratio of testosterone/epitestosterone was high; they test for this because if you are testosterone doping (i.e., through patches etc.) it will mess up your ratio, which for most folks is normally around 1:1 but can be higher for endurance athletes. This year the UCI has changed the trigger ratio from 6:1 to 4:1.

Problem is, it’s a ratio (and you economists out there know the problem of drawing inferences about X and Y separately by looking at the ratio X/Y). According to the reports I’ve read this afternoon, Landis’ ratio was high not because of high testosterone; his testosterone was at normal levels, but his epitestosterone levels were extremely low. Epitestosterone cannot be turned into testosterone in the body. So it’s possible that the result is from too low a Y and not a too high X.

How can this be? Two of the things that can affect epitestosterone are alcohol and cortisone. We know that Landis had a beer the night before the stage because he was so upset at his bonking on that stage. We also know that Landis is legally taking cortisone shots for his half-dead hip.

If you want background information, see this American Statistical Assocation article on false positives in testosterone testing and other issues of testosterone testing. The article does a very nice job of discussing Bayes’ Rule and its importance in assessing probability of guilt, in the context of Mary Decker Slaney’s testosterone results at the 1996 US Olympic Trials; epitestosterone levels have a very high variance in women, particularly athletes (that’s why I know so much about this subject).

Two things boggle my mind on this. One is that the admittedly tainted sport of cycling has led to the media immediately leaping to the conclusion that Landis behaved illegally, when the correct inference to make from the data does not necessarily support that conclusion. At this point we cannot reject that conclusion, but it doesn’t sell stories to be statistically literate, does it? The other is that the UCI has publicized the results of the A test (although it was Landis’ team that identified him by name) before they have run the B test. That is unprofessional, and raises the criticism of the anti-American bias of French cycling. It would be better for the sport if riders did not attempt to enhance their performance illegally, and it would also be better for the sport if its organizers behaved with more professionalism and respect for statistical evidence.

If you want to keep up with this story in a non-histrionic and knowledgable place, I recommend tdf blog, which right now has several posts with very useful links (I got the ASA link from there).


49 thoughts on “Floyd Landis and Doping: Do Labs And/or the Media Understand Statistics?

  1. Thank You!!! I’m glad to see that someone knows what they’re talking about, compared to what the media is pushing us. They are trying to have us believe that his testosterone level was high for that stage. Thank you for showing the correct statistics!!!

  2. Does the test result even make sense? I thought the point of steroids was to increase long term performance. Landis must have been tested several times this Tour, so why would he test positive for just one day? If he tested positive for EPO, that would make a lot more sense.

    Apparently, the reason that UCI released the test was that they were afraid that the lab would leak it to the newspaper that they have some affiliation with. That sounds like a stupid reason at the surface, but a leak probably would call attention to the conflicts of interest between the lab and the newspaper. On the heels of the Lance frame job that the newspaper was intimately involved in.

  3. Thanks for a very thoughtful piece. I share your incredulity over Team Phonak (Landis’ team) being the ones to release the news, but please note that Phonak is a SWISS team, not a French team. I think there is a strong French bias towards anything non-French in cycling, French cycling has been in the doldrums for years, but release of Landis’ positive test by Phonak is not evidence of anything remotely connected to that; especially a French bias against USA cycling.

  4. Great article and I wish more people understood stat. Saw Larry King tonight where he interviewed Floyd and his doctor. The doctor said that elevated testerone is WORSE for performance because of how it interacts with the body.

    The lab doing that found the problem was the same lab that was found guilty of fraud, misconduct and poor sample management in regards to Lance Armstrong, who was finally exonerated from ANY allegations. It was basically the lab that made these allegations about Lance when they were not only wrong, but fraudently wrong. That means that they knowning intended to harm Lance Armstrong!!!

    To the French testing authorities, I simply say stop hating because you haven’t had a countryman worthy of winning the greatest race in sports!!!

  5. I knew that if I kept looking and kept reading that someone would make sense and actually use references! THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! Also, thank you for including the link to the tdf blog.

  6. Bood Tests for Doping: Exact Science or Erratic Menace??
    That it was a low epitestosterone that skewed the new 4:1 ratio is only a rumor (or is it a fact?? Yes, I would like to know.) Has the statistical data (using years of records of tdf drug tests) been released on the probability of a false positive result. I am certain such data was considered by UCI when the rule was changed from 6:1 to 4:1. Was the Landis result close to normal or off-the-charts? If his test was close to “normal”, then the possibility of false positive increases. If the test was elevated substantially, then perhaps that favors doping. If the test result was off-the-charts, I suppose that raises the probability of tampering. And then there is Landis’ history of drug testing and his mental and emotional history regarding honesty to consider (This is also statistical science.) At some point, those who must deal with Landis in the future must know these facts, because science is unlikely to conclusively prove anything, only offer probabilities.
    Yes, there is a sports “doping scandal”. However, there is also a “falsified data scandal” in medical research and a “sports fan terrorism scandal”. All I know is that the “TDF Summary” scheduled traditionally by OLN on TV the next Sunday after the race ends, my favorite annual sports videotape, is not to be found this morning.

  7. Bood Tests for Doping: Exact Science or Erratic Menace??
    That it was a low epitestosterone that skewed the new 4:1 ratio is only a rumor (or is it a fact?? Yes, I would like to know.) Has the statistical data (using years of records of tdf drug tests) been released on the probability of a false positive result. I am certain such data was considered by UCI when the rule was changed from 6:1 to 4:1. Was the Landis result close to normal or off-the-charts? If his test was close to “normal”, then the possibility of false positive increases. If the test was elevated substantially, then perhaps that favors doping. If the test result was off-the-charts, I suppose that raises the probability of tampering. And then there is Landis’ history of drug testing and his mental and emotional history regarding honesty to consider (This is also statistical science.) At some point, those who must deal with Landis in the future must know these facts, because science is unlikely to conclusively prove anything, only offer probabilities.
    Yes, there is a sports “doping scandal”. However, there is also a “falsified data scandal” in medical research and a “sports fan terrorism scandal”. All I know is that the “TDF Summary” scheduled traditionally by OLN on TV the next Sunday after the race ends, my favorite annual sports videotape, is not to be found this morning.

  8. I am curious to understand how long after an injection or removal of a patch an athlete’s testosterone level would be raised. I hear that the effect is pretty immediate so I assume it would also fade relatively quickly. If so, I should it would be conclusive if an athlete submitted to a prolonged test where he is kept under constant watch for a couple of days where everything he ate and drank and took in normal medication was recorded. If at the end of that his testosterone levels were still high, bingo, he’s in the clear.

  9. Landis had a ratio of 11:1 because he cheated. For once I’d like to see a cheat getting caught and then having the decency to put their hand up to it. Instead they drag down their sport and prey on the misplaced loyalty of their supporters and the gullibility of the petty nationalists in their home press.
    Incidentally, the best explanation for Landis suddenly showing high levels of a drug that works best over a long period of ingestion is that he screwed up when administering the masking agent.

  10. Landis had a ratio of 11:1 because he cheated. For once I’d like to see a cheat getting caught and then having the decency to put their hand up to it. Instead they drag down their sport and prey on the misplaced loyalty of their supporters and the gullibility of the petty nationalists in their home press.
    Incidentally, the best explanation for Landis suddenly showing high levels of a drug that works best over a long period of ingestion is that he screwed up when administering the masking agent.

  11. Well, alcohol only affects the level for a few hours apparently. After the stage it was one beer – later it turned into two with 4 whiskeys. First his natural Testosteron is elevated, later it’s the low epitestoserone to blame. Then it’s his thyroid medicine. I frankly wish he would stick to one story.

  12. I think the reality is none of us know if Floyd cheated or not-only Floyd knows the truth. I thinks it’s easy to jump to a conclusion either way. I think some people are forgetting neither Basso or Ullrich are americans and both were eliminated from competing in the tour because of doping. I have problems with the whole conspiracy theory against americans from the french. It is also true that “beating the test” is possible and has become a science for a lot of athletes. We all want to believe Floyd is innocent, but sadly, none of us ever will.

  13. I think the reality is none of us know if Floyd cheated or not-only Floyd knows the truth. I thinks it’s easy to jump to a conclusion either way. I think some people are forgetting neither Basso or Ullrich are americans and both were eliminated from competing in the tour because of doping. I have problems with the whole conspiracy theory against americans from the french. It is also true that “beating the test” is possible and has become a science for a lot of athletes. We all want to believe Floyd is innocent, but sadly, none of us ever will.

  14. the killer test has to be the testosterone carbon isotope test, which can fairly unequivocably distinguish between naturally occurring, body-made testosterone, and synthetic stuff. and the current rumours are that his testosterone was shown by this test to be synthetic….ergo, doping.
    if his body levels of epitestosterone are normally low, or testosterone are abnormally high, then this should have been noticed in all his hundreds of previous tests. it wasn’t ever commented on….
    whether he did it himself is still not known: maybe his trainer secretly hates him and added it to his powerbars, maybe his masseur put it into the massage oil he rubs him down with after the race. then again, maybe he did cheat and is just lying to us. the fact that he has given us a number of changing stories makes me think he is lying. what a pity, two american champions in a row tainted by doping allegations. at least armstrong was never caught out as blatantly as this.
    the test can’t show who gave it to him, but the principle should still be: doping=out.

  15. the killer test has to be the testosterone carbon isotope test, which can fairly unequivocably distinguish between naturally occurring, body-made testosterone, and synthetic stuff. and the current rumours are that his testosterone was shown by this test to be synthetic….ergo, doping.
    if his body levels of epitestosterone are normally low, or testosterone are abnormally high, then this should have been noticed in all his hundreds of previous tests. it wasn’t ever commented on….
    whether he did it himself is still not known: maybe his trainer secretly hates him and added it to his powerbars, maybe his masseur put it into the massage oil he rubs him down with after the race. then again, maybe he did cheat and is just lying to us. the fact that he has given us a number of changing stories makes me think he is lying. what a pity, two american champions in a row tainted by doping allegations. at least armstrong was never caught out as blatantly as this.
    the test can’t show who gave it to him, but the principle should still be: doping=out.

  16. I agree that the ultimate answer will come from tests discriminating between synthetic and natural testosterone..until then we can only speculate. For being a dual citizen US-French and for having lived on both sides of the pond, I believe that I am in a good position to dismiss the myth of anti-American bias on the part of the French medias and sport fans:
    For once, France being absent quite often from the top spot on the podium, French sports fans have grown used to cheer for foreign athlettes and to recognize performance on its merit. French are not as nationalistic as American think they are….an example of that fact is that the national anthem is usually not played at the beginning of sporting events.
    There may be, currently, an anti-Bush bias (shared by other European countries) which may spill over anything perceived as American hegemony, but I don’t think that it goes as far as denying a champion his rightfully earned medal.
    Last, I can tell you that there is a growing mentality in American culture that in business or in sports, the end justify the means. French mentality has not, in my opinion , gotten to that point yet, and the French mindset is still, to a great extent, that the way you achieve victory matters.
    I am still giving F Landis the benefit of the doubt until he is proven innocent or guilty. If it appears that he cheated, I am hoping that the American public opinion will accept the outcome and realize that doping is fundamentally contrary to genuine American values.

  17. I dont really understand why all this protection of Floyd Landis . You see the same thing with Lance Armstrong .

    If it was Barry Bonds or Justin Gatlin will there be any defenders at all .

    Is race at play here !! .

  18. I dont really understand why all this protection of Floyd Landis . You see the same thing with Lance Armstrong .

    If it was Barry Bonds or Justin Gatlin will there be any defenders at all .

    Is race at play here !! .

  19. First of all, the low epitestosterone theory has not been confirmed. Second, that he had synthetic testosterone in his blood is still just a rumor…reported from an anonymous source by the New York Times. (Why anonymous. Nno one else commenting to the press thus far has remained anonymous, not Phonak nor the UCI.) Third, why in the freakin’ world would they use the same lab?!? If they were invloved in that whole Lance Armstrong scandal, why would anyone in his right mind use that lab again?

    Just a few things to ponder.

  20. Okay, his beer and cortisone shot lowered his epitestosterone. How did synthetic testosterone get into his system?

  21. So why are they administering these tests anyway if you can debunk the outcome using excuses such as alcohol use and cortisone shots??? Stop defending Landis because he’s American. The fact remains that his team (Phonak) has the highest doping infractions in the history of pro-cycling…..and they all cried that they were innocent (Hamilton, Camenzind, Perez). If you don’t like the outcome, besmirch the lab/test facility….sounds like a Lance tactic.

  22. I’m a PhD chemist and cycling enthusiast. I have one question that I’d like to see someone (esp. the media) address: How long does testoreone stay in your system after you take it? Scientifically it would seem AT LEAST a week or two. So why clean four times before the high T/E result (Landis claims he was tested four times ahead of the positive result), then 11:1 then again within the limit of 4:1 just a few days later (in fact I think he was tested twice more after the positive test)? What am I missing? Can it really drop from 11:1 back to 4:1 in just a few days? I’ve had plenty of cortisone shots for other problems and they last for months!!! I’m confused. Maybe this is really an epitestoreone issue instead, and perhaps epi can vary from day-to-day but I doubt it.

  23. I’m a PhD chemist and cycling enthusiast. I have one question that I’d like to see someone (esp. the media) address: How long does testoreone stay in your system after you take it? Scientifically it would seem AT LEAST a week or two. So why clean four times before the high T/E result (Landis claims he was tested four times ahead of the positive result), then 11:1 then again within the limit of 4:1 just a few days later (in fact I think he was tested twice more after the positive test)? What am I missing? Can it really drop from 11:1 back to 4:1 in just a few days? I’ve had plenty of cortisone shots for other problems and they last for months!!! I’m confused. Maybe this is really an epitestoreone issue instead, and perhaps epi can vary from day-to-day but I doubt it.

  24. Thanks for the informative article and comments. My own personal conclusion is that I’m still prepared to give Floyd (and also Basso, Ulrich et al) the benefit of the doubt until it is proven that they have taken something on a banned list that has not been produced by their own body.
    Cycling must be commended for it’s tough stance on doping but to condem a man or woman based on a ratio (no matter how “off the scales”) is absurd. The pain TdF riders must have to go through is immense and must surely create havoc to the bodies systems. Does anyone know of any further research in this area?
    However, If any sportsman or woman is proven to have taken something on a banned list … ban them for LIFE not just 2 years.

  25. I believe Floyd Landis will never exonerate himself and the worst will happen. Maybe a conspiracy theory exists or he messed up. Take the win away, except the 2 year suspension, get your hip fixed, and train your ass off to win the tour in 3 years.

  26. I believe Floyd Landis will never exonerate himself and the worst will happen. Maybe a conspiracy theory exists or he messed up. Take the win away, except the 2 year suspension, get your hip fixed, and train your ass off to win the tour in 3 years.

  27. I believe Floyd Landis will never exonerate himself and the worst will happen. Maybe a conspiracy theory exists or he messed up. Take the win away, except the 2 year suspension, get your hip fixed, and train your ass off to win the tour in 3 years.

  28. First, I would like to say I think Landis is telling the truth. As stated by many, his testosterone wasn’t high, it was near normal but his epitestosterone was extremely low. He also has hyperthyroidism and is taking medication-so why hasn’t someone looked at his meds? Obviously, because America loves a scandal and the typical American doesn’t know that cortisone shots act like synthetic hormones in the body. Just because it is injected into his hip, that does not mean it won’t enter his bloodstream and also cause release of other hormones in the body, thus setting off all hormone levels. Why don’t they check all his hormones and see where they are in ratio to normal? And with his overactive thyroid, which not only burns up everything in the body quickly, it offsets everything, including hormones. And I am sure his medicine, which is likely synthetic, contains some hormone to deregulate the thyroid. The problem with the news is they like to talk whether it contains correct information or not. The news needs to stop misleading the public and stop leaving out pertinent information. Just a little scientific info to open your minds.

  29. Now that I realize that the real story is a ratio where the testosterone was normal and the epi was too low… GRRRRRR!!!!! Look… Basically… I’m VERY disappointed and frustrated with the media, his team, the lab, and the short attention span of the public. There’s a reason that people are innocent until proven guilty, and it looks like we’re starting to see it with Floyd. I think he has a good shot of successfully defending himself. But then what??? What should be crowning achievement of his cycling career – his first Tour victory – will forever be tainted by this mess.

    I’m *NOT* saying Floyd is innocent. However, until and UNLESS he is proven guilty, Floyd deserves the respect of innocence and title from the media, his team, the lab, and the public. Where did we lose ourselves and forget that? When did we agree to put a test tube before due process? It’s disgraceful.

  30. Now that I realize that the real story is a ratio where the testosterone was normal and the epi was too low… GRRRRRR!!!!! Look… Basically… I’m VERY disappointed and frustrated with the media, his team, the lab, and the short attention span of the public. There’s a reason that people are innocent until proven guilty, and it looks like we’re starting to see it with Floyd. I think he has a good shot of successfully defending himself. But then what??? What should be crowning achievement of his cycling career – his first Tour victory – will forever be tainted by this mess.

    I’m *NOT* saying Floyd is innocent. However, until and UNLESS he is proven guilty, Floyd deserves the respect of innocence and title from the media, his team, the lab, and the public. Where did we lose ourselves and forget that? When did we agree to put a test tube before due process? It’s disgraceful.

  31. Okay…I’m not a big cycling fan in fact …other than the last few days of the tour I didn’t follow it at all. However due to this story being all over the media world wide I have sort of been following off and on. I was wondering if someone could clear up a couple questions for me on this….

    namely did the drug tests not show that the testosterone in his body was not natural but rather synthetic???

    and secondly, isn’t that impossible to explain either by any medical condition or drug he was taking under doctors orders, or by whatever booze/beer he drank in some bar???

  32. Thanks for the link to the article, Lynne. It’s a shame a number of the commenters obviously didn’t bother to read it.

  33. Thanks for the link to the article, Lynne. It’s a shame a number of the commenters obviously didn’t bother to read it.

  34. I still haven’t seen any numbers – the actual testosterone and epitestosterone level in the tests, not just the ratio.Plus Floyd Landis should have an “established” ratio that, according to the WADA guys, doesn’t change without some cause. It also seems to me that the test for synthetic testosterone is open to subjective interpretation by “experts”. There is a top limit to epitestosterone – I think it was 200nl per l (or per ml). A low reading of epi could easily give a false result – since the purpose of any doping would be to increase testosterone – not lower epitestosterone. The WADA person (can’t recall name) who I heard speaking on 8/08 said he hadn’t seen the actual numbers either! Landis implied on Leno that he had seen the numbers, but only recently. Where are the facts? By the way – the Mary Decker reference is a bad one – even on less than HD TV one could see that she had a fairly evident beard when interviewed at the conclusion of her race – before the tests.

  35. I still haven’t seen any numbers – the actual testosterone and epitestosterone level in the tests, not just the ratio.Plus Floyd Landis should have an “established” ratio that, according to the WADA guys, doesn’t change without some cause. It also seems to me that the test for synthetic testosterone is open to subjective interpretation by “experts”. There is a top limit to epitestosterone – I think it was 200nl per l (or per ml). A low reading of epi could easily give a false result – since the purpose of any doping would be to increase testosterone – not lower epitestosterone. The WADA person (can’t recall name) who I heard speaking on 8/08 said he hadn’t seen the actual numbers either! Landis implied on Leno that he had seen the numbers, but only recently. Where are the facts? By the way – the Mary Decker reference is a bad one – even on less than HD TV one could see that she had a fairly evident beard when interviewed at the conclusion of her race – before the tests.

  36. I’m not a PhD Chemist, but I’ve had the same questions in my mind as Dave (posted on Aug 6). How can the test for testosterone/epitestosterone be normal a day or two before and after the stage 17 test? I’ve been looking all over for an answer to this, which is what led me to your blog.

    I think I know a lot about steriods and have taken them myself. Everything I’ve ever learned about them told me that they stay in your system for weeks or months. So how could Floyd’s test be positive on state 17 day, but not before or after? Doesn’t make sense.

  37. I’m not a PhD Chemist, but I’ve had the same questions in my mind as Dave (posted on Aug 6). How can the test for testosterone/epitestosterone be normal a day or two before and after the stage 17 test? I’ve been looking all over for an answer to this, which is what led me to your blog.

    I think I know a lot about steriods and have taken them myself. Everything I’ve ever learned about them told me that they stay in your system for weeks or months. So how could Floyd’s test be positive on state 17 day, but not before or after? Doesn’t make sense.

  38. Bruce,

    The clear implication, at least to me, of the Am Stat Assoc article is that Mary Decker has polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a common phenomenon in female athletes. I’ve got it. PCOS leads to hormone imbalances, typically elevated testosterone levels, due to intricate imbalances in the adrenal glands and endocrine system overall. Thus women with PCOS develop uncommonly thick chin hair.

    Punch line: don’t jump to conclusions about how she got that beard.

  39. Anyone else notice how much water Floyd drank in his epic stage 17 ride? Reports say he went thru over 80 water bottles. Certainly, much of it was poured over his head, but I thought it was curious (before the whole scandal) that he was consuming much more water on THAT day, far more than any other stage prior…..

    Perhaps he was trying to flush out the testosterone he took that morning or night before. Just a thought………

  40. Anyone else notice how much water Floyd drank in his epic stage 17 ride? Reports say he went thru over 80 water bottles. Certainly, much of it was poured over his head, but I thought it was curious (before the whole scandal) that he was consuming much more water on THAT day, far more than any other stage prior…..

    Perhaps he was trying to flush out the testosterone he took that morning or night before. Just a thought………

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