What game theory teaches us about Lance Armstrong

Just stay with me there a minute...

Lance Armstrong, once cycling’s poster child, now faces a future in disgrace. Forced into standing down from the chairmanship of his cancer charity Livestrong, Nike has unceremoniously dropped him in the face of “insurmountable evidence” put forward by the US Anti-Doping Agency.

Having masterminded what USADA has referred to as “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that the sport has ever seen”, Armstrong cheated his way to an unprecedented seven Tour de France wins. Hard evidence and witness accounts have now testified, however, that the only thing Lance Armstrong convincingly won in his cycling career was a doping arms race.

With the help of controversial doctor Michele Ferrari, Armstrong and his team mates at the US Postal Service team stayed one step ahead of anti-doping officials. Not only were doping regimes planned to evade detection, but Ferrari was given information relating to testing procedures, allowing him to devise specific workarounds.

The conflict between dopers and scientists is an interesting one, with anti-doping officials continually closing doors only opened by the dopers themselves. A chicken and egg argument with a definitive answer, but no apparent solution. Athletes continually uncover methods in which to subvert the regulations, only to leave anti-doping officials in a perpetual state of catch-up.

Anti-doping authorities like USADA and WADA must tighten their practices and work towards enforcing much stricter parameters for athletes to qualify from; however they are at an instant disadvantage given the position from which dopers can work from. Game theory, the mathematical modelling of how two intelligent entities strategically interact, has been used to refine airport security measures to become less predictable, could it be used in a distinctly similar fashion here to thwart dopers?

A particular strain of game theory, dubbed Stackelberg, game suits the doping proposition perfectly, as it requires one entity to establish its defences first whilst the other conducts surveillance to identify weak spots. The notion of a sequential move, with the opposite entity responding to measures established by the first, closely resembles the way in which cycling’s dopers have found ways to subvert cycling’s anti-doping strategy.

Stackelberg game is also capable of introducing what has been billed as systematic randomness to the equation, vital in this instance given the random nature of drug testing. Cyclists can be requested to provide a sample at any time, even in the middle of the night, a factor which can be worked into the game. Stackelberg game has been used in airport security to make strategies harder to analyse through surveillance, a method which could have thwarted the way in which Armstrong and Ferrari successfully thwarted USADA for more than a decade.

What Lance Armstrong has managed to make abundantly clear is that current anti-doping controls are not working. Testing procedures need to become significantly more stringent and randomised if they are to be considered fit for purpose. If Stakelberg game can profess to do just that, then perhaps it’s time the theory’s own systematic and intelligent randomness was put to good use.

Lance Armstrong. Photograph: Getty Images

Liam Stoker is the aerospace and defence features writer for the NRI Digital network.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.