A cautionary tale about blindly following rules and protocol.
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Last night saw the pared-down opening ceremony of Beijing 2022, the 24th edition of the Winter Olympics.
The winter games are one of the true highlights of the sporting calendar for me.
I became pretty obsessed with them during the Vancouver 2010 games, when, at fourteen years old, I first discovered the full gamut of alpine sports.
Since then it’s been an occasion I look forward to more than nearly anything else in sport.
Each of the games I’ve watched so far holds particular set of memories, marking drastically different stages of my life with ice and snow. The Beijing games already hold special significance for me as they’re being hosted in the same city as the first summer games that I can remember watching, all the way back in 2008.
So far, the 2022 winters have not disappointed.
It’s only officially the first day of competition, but already the week has seen some gripping action in the curling, which might just be the best winter discipline to watch of all.
No, seriously, if you’ve not given it a chance then do. I defy anybody not to be hooked to a high-stakes game of ice chess.
Alas, curling is not the real reason for bringing up the Beijing winter games.
Instead, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale about rules, protocols, and the problems that arise when humanity is ignored by them
This is the sad story of Alain Baxter’s bronze medal.
Alain Baxter, a Scottish skiier from Edinburgh, became the first British athlete to win an Olympic medal on snow at the Salt Lake City games in 2002.
Yet this momentous occasion for British sport, which would not be repeated until the 2014 games, was destined to be a fleeting one.
As he prepared to return home from Salt Lake City, medal in hand and recent celebrations in mind, Baxter was told that he’d failed a drugs test.
The Scot had taken a banned substance, methamphetamine, knowingly or otherwise.
Baxter must have wondered; “how could this happen?”
Well, as it turned out, his transgression had come from the unlikeliest of sources.
A Vicks inhaler.
That’s right. An historic alpine skiing medal would eventually be stripped from Baxter because of an over-the-counter nasal decongestant.
The like none of us would think twice about using when a little blocked up.
Alain’s particular inhaler had been purchased in the USA, meaning its contents were slightly different than the type he would have normally used in the UK.
An unfortunate, innocent oversight that anybody could make. But it’s not the worst part of this story.
The particular component of the inhaler causing the trouble was a trace of methamphetamine.
But, as one might expect of such an innocuous consumer cold remedy, this was not the type you’d expect to find in an episode of Breaking Bad.
Instead, the trace compound contained in the Vicks stick was an isomer of the chemical.
As any teenage chemistry student will tell you, dissimilar isomers of the same compound can have drastically different properties, owing to their different geometry.
One of the most famous examples being the birth defect crisis caused by the medical use of the wrong isomer of thalidomide in the 1950s.
Like methamphetamine, there are multiple different geometries that a thalidomide molecule can take. One caused terrible and life-threatening damage to newborns, the other did not.
In Baxter’s case, the isomer of methamphetamine found in his inhaler was an inactive and benign one, with little to no stimulatory properties.
Phew, it looks like everything is as it should be once more; Baxter can keep his medallion, and we can carry on buying Olbas oil without fear of accusations of doping.
Except that’s not what happened to Alain.
Despite a lengthy appeals process, the British skiier never saw his medal returned to him, as it was ceded to Austrian competitor Benny Raich.
Well, the officials found their way to deny Baxter of his prize because the list of banned substances, outlined in their rulebook and protocols, did not account for the existence of different isomers of the same compound.
Instead of ackowledging that ingesting one isomer could enhance performance while another could simply alleviate the sniffles, the rules grouped all into a single, named chemical.
The result was that they could still argue that Baxter had a taken a banned substance.
Despite the fact that all parties agreed that Baxter has unknowingly taken the substance, and that the substance did not help him to win his medal, he would ultimately never see it again.
This story is one that resurfaces to me at least once each Olympic cycle.
And each time it does, I find myself increasingly frustrated.
Why couldn’t common sense prevail?
The only victim here was Alain.
The only crime? An unwillingness to interpret existing protocols in the light of human circumstances and the facts at hand.
It’s a good story to remind us that having an inflexible approach to the application and reinterpreation of rules can have poor outcomes.
This is particularly true in the tech world.
Many proponents of a code-is-law mindest are increasingly vocal of a move toward a world world in which protocol and rules are always machine-executable, and outcomes are even less flexible than in the human domain.
Alain Baxter’s case is an unfortunate failing of the system.
But it is at least a system that was capable of getting his case right; many athletes have since been exonerated in similar circumstances to Alain’s.
Rather than using Baxter’s plight as a motivator for removing the system altogether, we can instead use it as a valuable miscarriage of sporting justice from which to learn.
A smart contract, almost certainly, would have mistakenly found Alain guilty.
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