Serena Williams’ victory at Wimbledon, her fourth Grand Slam in a row, was a singular athletic achievement. Williams’ victory was her twenty-first Grand Slam victory overall and strengthened her claim as the greatest female tennis players of all time — and one of the greatest athletes ever in any sport. It was celebrated by millions around the world.
David Frum had a different reaction.
Frum, a former adviser to George W. Bush who is now the Senior Editor of The Atlantic, strongly suggested that Williams was on steroids based on her physical appearance:
Steroids? Oh no, no, no. “Body image issues.” http://t.co/40W01g14n7
— David Frum (@davidfrum) July 11, 2015
Frum expanded on his suspicions in a series of tweets he later deleted, claiming they were intended to be “a private Twitter conversation with a friend.” In his deleted tweets, Frum compared Serena to admitted dopers in other sports like Mark McGwire and Lance Armstrong.
Daniel Koffler, a medical student and competitive power lifter who has worked as a Certified Strength And Conditioning Specialist, says there’s no reason to suspect Williams based on her physical appearance. “Women can, and very frequently do, achieve levels of muscular size and strength not just equal to but greater than Serena Williams’ without using steroids,” Koffler told ThinkProgress.
Koffler said it impossible to tell with certainty whether someone has used steriods based on their physical appearance. But, according Koffler’s, Williams’ physique creates “no rational basis for heightened suspicion.”
In an email to ThinkProgress, Frum declined to elaborate on why he suggested that Serena’s accomplishments were tainted with steroid use.
Williams is one of the most frequently drug tested players in men’s or women’s tennis. In 2014 alone, she was tested four to six times during competition and more than seven times outside of competition. (Tests outside of competition are considered the most important to catching illegal doping.) Williams has never been implicated in the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs.
Though tennis’ anti-doping regime has previously been criticized, it has been getting even tougher. In 2011, professional tennis players were subjected to “only 21 out of competition blood tests.” Last year, 1139 such tests were administered.
Williams and other highly ranked players “are required to provide their whereabouts at least one hour 365 days per year so drug testers can find them.” In a 2013 interview, Williams revealed that drug testers follow her around the world, including to the small African island of Mauritius, to administer drug tests.
In another deleted tweet, Frum appeared to speculate that her sister, Venus Williams, was not as successful because she stopped using steroids:
Venus Williams was diagnosed a few years ago with Sjögren’s Syndrome, “a little-known autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue and joint pain.” She is currently ranked 14th in the world.
Serena Williams’ achievements are frequently questioned based on the appearance of her body. The New York Times noted that her body has been “gawked at and mocked throughout her career.” Some people believe that her body does not look traditionally “feminine” and therefore her achievements are illegitimate. (Author J.K. Rowling did a nice job of shutting down this line of critique this weekend.)
The other factor, of course, is racism. Williams has been unbelievably successful in a sport long dominated by white women. Most famously, she was targeted with racial epithets after some fans believed she fixed a match against her sister Venus during a tournament in Indian Wells in 2001. (Venus withdrew from the tournament after suffering an injury.) Serena Williams boycotted the tournament until this year.
Frum appeared on Roland Martin’s show on TV One on Monday morning to defend his tweets. Frum largely attempted to shift the topic to a general discussion of steroid use in tennis. He did, however, assert there was reason to suspect Serena Williams in particular. Frum suggested that during a two year period from 2010 to 2011, Serena Williams was not drug tested at all. During that time period, Williams was tested for drugs at least eight times, according to an official International Tennis Federation report. In an email, Frum said he was referencing “out of competition” testing. That claim is true, although professional tennis conducted only a handful of “out of competition” blood tests during those years. Over the last 3 years, Serena has been subjected to at least 12 “out of competition” blood tests.