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18 Athlete Explanations for Failed Drug Tests

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Milwaukee Brewers' star Ryan Braun will start in left field on Opening Day. As the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, Braun can take the occasion to thank God, country and family for his blessings as long as he keeps a little gratitude in reserve for baseball arbitrator Shyam Das.

Das registered the tie-breaking vote on Braun's appeal of a 50-game suspension stemming from an Oct. 1 positive drug test for elevated levels of testosterone. Braun didn't dispute the science of his positive test but contested the protocol and chain of custody involved in the handling of his urine sample.

Why? Because it wasn't shipped to the lab in a timely fashion.

The seals on the urine sample arrived intact with Braun's signature confirming the sample was his and was sealed under his watch. And experts reject any possibility that the delay in shipping could've resulted in a negative urine sample suddenly turning positive. But Das sided with Braun and rescinded the suspension.

"There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened," Braun said after arriving at Brewers' spring training camp.

Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, rejected Braun's claim and called Das' decision "a real gut-kick to clean athletes."

Braun could well be innocent. His problem from a public relations standpoint is that he's just another in a long line of athletes claiming he did nothing wrong -- some more believably than others.

1. In 2005, American cyclist Tyler Hamilton offered a unique explanation after drug testing officials discovered evidence of blood doping. Hamilton said the different blood found mixed with his own could have come from a "vanishing twin" whom he had absorbed in utero. Thirty-four years earlier.

2. German runner Dieter Baumann, a former Olympic champ in the 5000 meters, tested positive for nandrolone. His two-year suspension cost him the 2000 Summer Olympics. Baumann voluntarily underwent further tests that showed fluctuating amounts of nandrolone in his system depending on the time of day. Baumann's explanation: the nandrolone was in his toothpaste, which obviously had been spiked.

3. Tennis star Petr Korda tested positive at Wimbledon in 1998, claiming the nandrolone in his system came from a veal entree. Some experts estimated he would've had to eat 40 calves a day for 20 years to account for the levels of nandrolone in his system.

4. Five North Korean soccer players tested positive for steroids at the Women's World Cup in 2011. The North Korean delegation claimed the steroids were unknowingly included with traditional Chinese medicines based on musk deer glands.

Why were they taking medicines based on musk deer glands?

The federation said the players needed them to recover from being struck by lightning during training.

5. Cyclist Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title after testing positive for clenbuterol. The Court of Arbitration upheld the test findings and banned him for two years. Contador claimed the positive test was caused by eating contaminated meat on a 2010 Tour rest day.

6. Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor tested positive for cocaine at the 1999 Pan American Games and was stripped of his gold medal. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro defended him, blaming the sabotage on the "Cuban-American mafia."

7. Fani Halkia, who won gold for Greece in the Olympic 400m hurdles in 2004, tested positive for methyltrienalone in Beijing and was banned from competition for two years. Her story? She blamed it on tampered diet supplements.

Fifteen Greek athletes, including 11 members of the Olympic weightlifting team, were also suspended for methyltrienolone. That's a lot of tampering.

8. In the Way Too Much Information Department, Spanish race walker Daniel Plaza, an Olympic gold medalist, blamed his positive test for nandrolone on having oral sex with his pregnant wife.

9. Spanish cyclist Isabel Moreno disappeared two days before the Beijing Olympics after she allegedly failed a drug test. Moreno's reason for disappearing from the scene? She didn't admit to the positive test, saying instead on her website that she had an anxiety attack and needed to go home.

10. Bulgarian tennis star Sesil Karatancheva attributed one of her two positive tests for nandrolone to being pregnant despite the fact her urine samples showed no evidence of a pregnancy.

11. American track star Dennis Mitchell, part of the 1992 gold medal relay team, claimed his positive test for elevated levels of testosterone came from having five beers and four sexual encounters with his wife the night before a 1998 test.

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12. Ben Johnson (winning above), who famously tested positive for stanozolol at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 after defeating American Carl Lewis for the 100 meters gold medal, blamed his positive test that day on a spiked energy drink. He was banned for life in 1993 after another positive test.

13. Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana after winning gold in the giant slalom at the Nagano Olympics in 1998. He claimed second-hand smoke and was allowed to keep his medal.

14. LaShawn Merritt won gold in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics but was suspended after failing three consecutive tests from October 2009 to January 2010. Merritt was taking ExtenZe, known familiarly as penis enhancement pills. "Any penalty that I may receive for my action will not overshadow the embarrassment and humiliation that I feel inside," Merritt said at the time.

15. Richard Gasquet, a French tennis player, tested positive for cocaine at a tournament in Florida a few years ago. He said he kissed a girl who had ingested cocaine at a nightclub. A tribunal cleared him to return to competition.

16. Baseball's Manny Ramirez blamed his first positive test on a medication given to him by his doctors. The medication? A women's fertility drug. Experts say the drug is commonly used by athletes to restart their bodies' natural testosterone production as they come off a steroid cycle. Ramirez, suspended a second time, is serving 50 games of a 100-game suspension at the start of the 2012 season.

17. Atlanta Braves' prospect Jordan Schafer was suspended 50 games in 2008 after a Major League Baseball investigation into HGH use implicated him. Schafer accepted his punishment.

But he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he "didn't take anything" and that he was guilty of being around the wrong crowd.

"If you hang around dogs long enough, you're going to catch fleas," he said.

18. American track star Justin Gatlin said he didn't know how high levels of testosterone got into his system at a 2006 track meet in Kansas. His coach, Trevor Graham, blamed a vengeful massage therapist for rubbing a cream containing the steroid into Gatlin's legs without his knowledge.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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