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Ironman and anti-doping

Written by: Dan Empfield
Date: Tue Dec 10 2013

In the United States there are two main entities carrying out anti-doping efforts. These two are not the only entities allowed to test in the U.S. (the ITU also tests in the U.S.), but they in fact perform most of the tests in and for triathlon, especially pertaining to non-Olympic-format racing. These are USADA, and World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) who are the owners and producers of Ironman-branded multisport events.

Let’s take a couple of paragraphs to discuss structure. WADA is the World Anti-Doping Agency, and it was the IOC’s remedy for organizations encumbered with competing interests. The USOC is a national Olympic committee, and prior to the inception of WADA in 1999 the USOC had the dual role of producing medals and policing doping. These were competing interests. What happens when a star athlete, sure to produce medals, is a suspected or known doper? Competing interests. Hence WADA.

Just as we have world and national Olympic committees, we have world and national anti-doping agencies. USADA (formed in 2000) is the “NADO” in the U.S., that acronym standing for National Anti-Doping Organization. ASADA is, for example, the Australian NADO, and so it goes. Many countries have NADOs, many do not. (Some refer to these as NADAs, the last A standing for Association, but inside the anti-doping world I more often see NADO.)

A “testing authority” is an organization that has the power to order a drug test and, often, to engage in “results management.” That latter term means that if you test positive that entity has the responsibility and control over what happens to you as a result of your positive test, subject to both an independent arbitration process available to every athlete, an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, as well as oversight by WADA, which acts as the auditor and ombudsman for all anti-doping efforts that occur under the WADA umbrella. Both testing authorities and results managers are direct signatories of, or bound by covenant and bylaw to, the WADA Code.
Conflicts of interest still exist. International sports federations (IFs, and the ITU is triathlon’s IF) can act as testing authorities and results managers. When an organization is responsible for its image, and its sport’s image, there is a conflict of interest embedded in the process. International federations (IFs) are imperfect agents, in my opinion, when it comes to results management. The UCI, cycling’s world governing body, is today widely accused and criticized for its handling of results during the Armstrong era. Quotes in the media right now ascribed to UCI officials speak to the possible covering up of positive tests in order to protect the image of the sport and the organization.

For this reason, among others, certain organizations that might retain results management authority have referred it to their NADOs. When I attempted to discuss the issue of age-group anti-doping with executives at USA Triathlon, they referred all substantive questions to USADA. This makes sense. USAT is a daughter federation of the USOC, and that latter organization seems to operate on the Biblical standard of, “To him who has, more shall be given; to him who has not, even what he has shall be taken away.” NFs that produce medals get funding. NFs that don’t, don’t. So, to have USAT manage anti-doping results of its own athletes would certainly be a conflict. USADA doesn’t have any skin in whether USAT produces medals. USADA is a better manager of triathlon’s results.

While I believe IFs are imperfect results managers, they are sometimes the best available entity. Jamaica’s recent case is an example. Jamaica’s NADO is under intense scrutiny, and the IAAF – track and field’s international federation – has taken up much of that testing slack.

Yes, triathlon is an Olympic sport. But only a small slice of triathlon is conducted in the Olympic format. Gwen Jorgensen and Hunter Kemper are specialists in the Olympic format. Jordan Rapp, Tim O’Donnell, Heather Jackson, Mary Beth Ellis are not. They race the kind of race that you and I race (they just race it faster).
USADA has not had much interest in testing the Jordan Rapps and the Mary Beth Ellises of the world. And prior to 2011 they did not often test them. But for the past 3 years we see USADA testing more and more non-ITU racers in the U.S.

How do we know this? Because the stats are public. They are listed here, every year, every test that USADA performs. Just pull down “triathlon” and the year you want, from the menus, and don’t put any names in the text boxes. You’ll get the entire list of athletes tested, per sport, and how many times they’ve been tested.

When you do this, you’ll find that certain athletes get tested often, year after year, and this doesn’t seem to change once the athlete stops racing Olympic style and commences racing 70.3 and Ironman. Year-to-date we see tests for Linsey Corbin (5), Mary Beth Ellis (6), Heather Jackson (9), Chris Lieto (5), Tim O'Donnell (12), Andrew Potts (13), Matt Reed (11), the number in parentheses being the number of tests. Curious to me is Lieto, who was also tested 7 times last year, and he’s the next thing to retired. These same athletes got all the love from USADA last year as well, and the year before, while others in their competitive set remained sparsely tested if at all.

Why this shift from almost all of USADA’s assets expended on ITU athletes to now, where the majority (by my count) of USADA’s tests are performed on athletes who primarily race in events conducted in the no-draft format?
I don’t know, but here’s the explanation one athlete was given by USA Triathlon when he asked why he was being tested: “You are in the USADA RTP [registered testing pool] based on your 70.3 ranking with the WTC. You were one of the top five Americans with a top 20 ranking. The WTC and USAT came to agreement to have the US athletes work through the USADA system rather than ADAMS (the international system) for ease of use.”

On the one hand, I’m glad if USADA has awakened to the reality that the general public does not parse between our various formats in triathlon. Treating Ironman racing as if it were not under USADA’s purview – as if it did not impact Olympic-style triathlon – would be silly and short-sighted. So, bravo USADA for the foresight to test elite triathletes, not just elite no-draft triathletes.

On the other hand, what are the benchmarks for RTP inclusion? Are the 70.3 rankings the only race series rankings used for RTP consideration? Are Life Time rankings? Rev3 rankings? I don’t know. Certainly the 70.3 rankings could be the best single arbiter of success in non-Olympic triathlon inside the U.S. (and outside of full-Ironman and Olympic-style racing). I just would like to see more forthcoming detailing the thought given to the RTP decisions.

Almost ninety percent of USADA’s funding comes from the U.S. government, the rest comes from contracts with private entities, like WTC. USADA is contracted by WTC to do sample collection in the U.S. WTC is a customer. USADA is its vendor. Could this be the reason that 70.3 events are one benchmark for USADA’s non-Olympic testing? I don’t know.

If USADA has an imperfect gauge on who to choose for its rotating RTP, bear in mind it’s got something north of 45 sports to test, and it cannot know how to spend its testing money wisely per sport. It must have partners: national federations, large race organizations, those who can aid USADA in forming who goes into its RTP. I just look at these athlete lists, year after year, and wonder as an interested observer whether USADA is always getting the best expert advice from its partners.

WTC’s Anti-Doping Program
You could accuse WTC of not being transparent in its anti-doping. Some have. But these accusers would be wrong or, at least, largely wrong. WTC’s testing results are published, if not year-to-date at least annually. The 2012 results are here.
The total of 449 tests listed in this report is arguably an understatement. WADA says WTC conducted 515 tests, however WADA counts blood and urine tests as separate tests, while WTC counts it as one test if they take both urine and blood. Is this a lot of testing? If you’re grading on a curve, yes. If you look at where WTC ranks as a testing authority in triathlon, it’s way up there in second place. The German NADO tests triathlon like crazy. That org’s the number-1 tester of triathletes worldwide. If you add to that the German national federation’s 84 tests last year, if you’re German and you’re a doper it’s got to be nerve wracking with all the testing they’re doing.

But close behind the German NADO is WTC. The German NADO conduced 575 tests last year, 515 for WTC. The ITU is third with 466 tests, and the French national triathlon federation is a remarkably prolific tester, for an NF, with 410 tests.

Then it really falls off. USADA is next, with 163 tests. However, that means if everybody’s counting tests apples-to-apples, that USADA is ahead of last year’s pace, as they have conducted 194 tests on triathletes YTD, as has been noted above.

If the German and French NFs act as testing authorities, why doesn’t America’s NF – USA Triathlon – do the same? As noted, it refers and defers to USADA. But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t give to the cause. It just doesn’t want to be a testing authority. It’s willing to give money, and it does give money. It has given money in the past to WTC for testing at its World Championship events, as well it should, because it has a huge corporate stake in 70.3 and 140.6 racing, and because it gets a lot of it’s 8-figure annual budget from the annuals and one-days of those racing these events.
Accounting and Accountability
A lot of those at WTC right now, in positions of authority, were not there when the Ironman Pro Membership program was announced back in 2009. It was my recollection that this program was billed as one where 100 percent of these proceeds are going toward drug testing. The posture, the theme, the discussions contemporaneous with this announcement, all pointed toward this message: The athletes are paying into a fund, the anti-doping initiative is funded with this annual sum of money. Here’s how we covered this announcement back in 2009, you may read it, along with the quotes from WTC, and draw your own conclusion. How big is that annual pot of money raised through the pro athletes’ membership dues? Ironman won’t say but, by my reckoning, the payments to this fund annually, from the athletes, should meet or exceed $500,000, maybe $600,000.

Some of us have asked why there is no accounting. Why, if this is the athlete’s own money he’s paying for his own testing, does the athlete not get to see how this money is spent? Line by line? Ironman has steadfastly refused to offer an accounting.

I have heard some recent equivocating from Ironman executives when I ask whether this Ironman Pro Membership money is, in its entirety, spent on anti-doping (versus some amount allotted as entry fees). But that discussion is philosophical if what I have heard, repeatedly, is true: that WTC’s anti-doping initiative is not a profit center for WTC, rather it is a cost center. But, then, why not release an accounting? This is the back-and-forth, circular discussion I’ve been having with WTC for years.

We have a stalemate. So, I have approached this another way. Let us say I wanted to test athletes roughly 500 times per annum, with a building to house an anti-doping manager, telephone, fax machines, a travel budget and so on. Is $600,000 a reasonable budget? Could I get 350 urine tests and 200 blood tests done with that money? Plus, WTC is handling much of its own results management, and this will also meant incurring travel and probably legal and arbitration costs.

Yes, WTC is going to get a discount from whomever it uses to execute sample collections; yes, it’s going to get a discount from the lab that does its testing, because this is a business like any business and volume speaks. WTC most typically uses USADA for sample collections in the U.S., and a German firm called PWC for a significant portion of their international sample collections as well as some US collections. Other contracted NADOs around the world conduct most of the remaining balance.

To the best of my knowledge, based on my reporting, WTC can expect to pay $350-500 per urine collection, depending on the number of collections done in the mission. Additionally, it will pay $80-100 per blood collection, depending on the number of collections and this assumes that the blood collection is done at the same time as the urine collection. Significant additional shipping charges can apply for blood as samples must arrive at the lab within 24 hours.
I think it’s fair then to estimate that upwards of $250,000 of that roughly $600,000 you all (if you’re a WTC pro who’s reading this) pay in is spent running around collecting your bodily fluids. This is going to go up or down based on whether WTC’s interested in just padding their numbers or whether they’re really interested in catching dopers. Still, by any reckoning we’re talking at least $200,000 in collections WTC is spending per year.

I sense that WTC is not just checking the boxes and phoning in its program. For example, when it caught Brazilian pro Ivan Albano it was during a testing mission prior to Ironman Brazil. Albano was not in WTC’s registered testing pool at the time. Obviously, because he was caught taking EPO, WTC was not skimping on test costs. Collection and testing costs were heavy for this mission. WTC’s body language here tells me it really wanted to catch dopers and it was willing to work and to pay to do it.

The test analysis costs can be pretty rangy, from $200-700 per sample, depending on in- or out-of-competition testing. But I think $400 seems like a pretty good mean. This does not include testing for EPO and HGH. The add-on for these tests are $300-600 and $500-1,000 per test respectively, depending on volume and lab. Blood testing is another add-on, $100-200 per sample.

I think you can see, then, it’s pretty easy for the testing part of 343 urine (339 included EPO tests, 165 HGH tests) + roughly 200 blood tests to easily meet or exceed the amount spent on collecting the samples. One expert in this field wrote to me, “For WTC with $500,000 overall I would think you could negotiate to have at least 500 collections done. Maybe 60% out of competition, and 40% in-comp - blood done on perhaps 50 percent of the collections. EPO testing for maybe 15 percent of sample, HGH maybe 5 percent.”

However, this is just the testing and collecting. This is not the administration, nor the results management, nor the negotiating, exhortations, appeals to try to get other NADOs and NFs worldwide to add to this total via their own testing.

The answer is, I think, yes, it’s a good deal. Triathlon is certainly getting a solid bargain out of that $600,000, if that’s what the amount is the athletes pay in. It might be getting much more than a good deal; it might be getting value that it could not possibly get were it to box it all up and hand it over to USADA or any other contractor equipped and authorized to do this job.

I am, based on my reporting, confident WTC is telling not just an accounting truth, but the absolute truth when it says it runs this anti-doping program at a financial loss or, if I can recast this, as a joint investment. I have never felt the pro athletes should themselves bear the entire burden of their own testing, as if they were the only stakeholders who benefit from clean sport. It seems to me the athletes paying into the Ironman Pro Membership program have a good faith partner in WTC.
Who’s tested?
We don’t know this. Not with WTC’s initiative. Each athlete knows he or she’s been tested. But there is no list such as that excellent year-to-date compilation we see on USADA’s site. WADA doesn’t even have this. I think USADA’s list is the gold standard. Not that it can’t be improved. Can that report it publishes be presented as a spreadsheet, with each test delineated: urine only or blood as well; EPO and/or HGH? In competition or out? While it would be nice to see that on USADA’s site, at least we see a grand total of tests per athlete. We don’t see this, at least not yet, on WTC’s site.

Why would we like to see this? Because seeing it on USADA’s website gives us some confidence. Here’s a real-world example. I’ve heard rumors about a particular athlete for months. Rumors. Unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, rumors throughout the pro community. “Why hasn’t this athlete been tested?” That’s the rumor. In fact, this athlete has been tested a significant number of times, and that’s in addition to any testing WTC or some other testing authority might have conducted. Just, nobody thought to look on USADA’s site, to see all those tests. It would be nice if WTC could augment USADA’s list with a running total of its own.

What happens if there’s a positive?
If somebody tests positive, you and I don’t get to know. Not right away. There are rules that attend WTC’s anti-doping program and as a WADA signatory these rules closely parallel the rules of every signatory. Athletes are afforded anonymity during the process. That’s not true, you might argue. We find out that cyclists have failed a test all the time, right when they return a positive A sample. But that has nothing to do with the testing authority, rather these are covenants built into the contracts these athletes have with their sponsoring teams.

What I read in WTC’s Anti Doping Rules are as follows:

7.6 Provisional Suspensions, 7.6.1: If analysis of an A Sample has resulted in an Adverse Analytical Finding for a Prohibited Substance that is not a Specified Substance, and a review in accordance with Article 7.1.2 does not reveal an applicable TUE ... a Provisional Suspension shall be imposed promptly after the review and notification described in Article 7.1.

Further, in a subsequent announcement WTC clarified that in the case of a provisional suspension WTC reiterated and expanded which organizations it will notify - NFs, NADOs, and IFs of other related sports - to ensure that the athlete does not race while his or her case is ongoing.

What this seems to me to mean is that we will not know that an athlete has tested positive, and we may not know for months. Many months. That was the case with Kevin Moats. But if that athlete has tested positive, you will not see him or her on the starting line of any federation races.

That is different from the so-called “open investigation.” There is a little wiggle room under the WADA Code and WTC, as a private company, had a policy in place when the investigation was opened by USADA into Lance Armstrong just prior to Ironman France, in which Lance Armstrong was supposed to race. WTC’s policy (specific to pro athletes) at that time mirrored pro cycling, and said that an athlete could not race while under investigation. WTC considered lifting that ban for Lance; doing so would have brought WTC more into conformity with WADA’s Code. But it chose not to do so because of the double standard: WTC did not lift the ban when Michi Weiss faced the same situation.

WTC executives have lifted the ban on racing while under investigation, that is, they followed through on what they thought about doing for Lance, but they did so at a time when there was no athlete’s status in question. You won’t find this change in WTC’s anti-doping rules. It was just a provision in the athlete agreement and it’s no longer there.
Results management
The one thing I still don’t have a handle on, about the relationship between WTC and USADA, is results management. WTC’s rules state that results management responsibility gets offered to various parties, and WTC takes on results management if those parties decline to accept that duty.

If it’s a U.S. Athlete, what does the U.S. Federation (USAT) have to say about results management? It’s published rules, Article VIII, Doping Control Rules, repeatedly reference its deferral to USADA as the responsible entity.

I asked of Kate Mittelstadt, who runs WTC's anti-doping program, do “you refer to a national federation, and then to that NF’s NADO if the NF so-stipulates. Is that what you’re doing? Even for American athletes?”

“Yes, for tests conducted under our jurisdiction our notification goes to an NF, and as appropriate a NADO to determine if they have the capacity to proceed with Results Management. If the NF and/or NADO says no, then we retain results management authority and proceed. So, if USADA, or any other anti-doping organization indicates they cannot proceed, then the WTC is the results management authority. Nothing inconsistent with the rules in that.”

Still, it looks on the surface like WTC handles all results management for at least U.S. athletes for which it is the testing authority, and maybe for foreign athletes when it is the testing authority. This appears to mean that these NADOs and NFs are offered results management but typically refuse to take it.
I still do not know whether WTC is not offering results management to USADA, or USADA is not accepting it. But Ms. Mittelstadt did offer this:

“Some ADO's rules are drafted to limit exposure to Results Management responsibility and expenses related to testing that is not part of their program. If you look at the decisions announced by the WTC, the Canadian Triathlon Federation (Poulsen) and the Brazilian Triathlon Federation (Albano) also declined in addition to USADA (Marr and Moats) so it is common.”

When I asked USADA’s spokesperson, Annie Skinner, why USADA does not accept results management responsibility for WTC’s positive tests, I received the following answer: “Who has results management authority depends on the specific circumstances of each case, however, we regularly work with our colleagues at other WADA Code signatories.”

Why does this matter? Circling back to the original intent of organizations like WADA and USADA, it’s to remove from results management any organization that has skin in the result of an anti-doping case. I asked USADA’s CEO, Travis Tygart, about the legal exposure in anti-doping cases when I interviewed him in 2011. He said, “All it takes is 125 dollars and a signature and you can file a lawsuit. But any lawsuit like that would be totally frivolous and without cause. There is no basis for a lawsuit if we followed our process. [Such a lawsuit] has never happened in 11 years.”

USADA, then, envisions no legal exposure associated with results management. It would be just the financial obligations of results management. Is that significantly beyond what it would cost to have WTC handle it in-house? I don’t know.

Who is results management? In the case of WTC, it is overseen by Ms. Mittelstadt, though every results management system involves a set of panels and review board prior a charge being made, and of course WADA’s oversight of the process, AAA arbitration for those who contest the charges, and CAS as the court of last resort. That kind of close circumscription, where there is a central figure quarterbacking the procedural and administrative aspects or results management, is not uncommon. I asked Leslie Buchanan, who has been in charge of the ITU’s anti-doping program for many years, and results management for triathlon’s world governing body revolves around her. It begins as a one-man, or one-woman, job and fans out once it’s a potential doping case.
So it seems intuitive to me that it would be cheaper for WTC to handle its own results management, because Ms. Mittelstadt heads WTC’s results management and she’s already drawing a paycheck. Still, if we just look at what we see of the RM process, results management does not come up that often – a handful of times in the last couple of years. It would add a layer of comfort to have an entity not owned by a private equity company making results management decisions, and it would certainly be comforting to know why USADA is not handling WTC’s results management of U.S. athletes.

Going forward
What you’re reading is the result of my years of looking at anti-doping initiatives in triathlon, setting them aside, picking them up months or more than a year later, setting them aside, and finally digging into this with vigor starting about four months ago.

In broad strokes, I think no-draft triathlon is in pretty good hands. The Europeans are taking anti-doping very seriously, simply judging by the number of tests conducted by all the stakeholders. Here, WTC is testing a lot, so is USADA. Here’s a list of what would I like to see:

First, I’d like to know why USADA is testing the same athletes over and over, who do not realistically pose a risk, and in some cases are even retired. Who’s killing it right now? Chris Lieto, drinking mai tais while enjoying retirement in Kona? Or is it Andrew Starykowicz, Jesse Thomas, Amanda Stevens, Chris McDonald, Lauren Goss, Jessie Donavan who have been tested, as a grand total unit, twice by USADA this year? The testing totals are impressive. But the numbers belie the fact that most observers of the sport could have spent the anti-doping budget somewhat differently.

But, as noted, in USADA’s favor, they must rely on partners in triathlon to help them compile their RTP, and they also do promptly publish who they test and how often. Can WTC also publish a running list like this? If I were an athlete on a hot streak and wanted to demonstrate that I’m clean, I’d like to be able to point to these lists and demonstrate that I’m getting tested. The 600 or more athletes each paying in $750 a year to fund the testing for our sport would, I’m sure, like to see the fruit of that testing. Yes, WTC shows the totals each year, but we don’t know who, we don’t know where, we don’t know what, and we only know once per annum. While I don’t like all of USADA’s testing choices, it does provide a model for reporting.

I’d like to have confidence that the bio passport results are harmonized across testing authorities. When I’ve asked athletes about their own results, navigating their ADAMS login on WADA’s site, there is no single place where each athlete’s tests from all testing authorities is housed (this is true in the U.S. Some foreign athletes, notably the British, have access to all results through the ADAMS site). Still, if a U.S. athlete can’t find his own results in one place, it erodes confidence that tests from each athlete reside in a central dbase for bio passport use.
The biological passport was supposed to be the anti-doping industry’s fight-back. To the best of my knowledge fewer than a couple of dozen have been completed in all of sport. That said, one of these successes was Mark Fretta, nabbed by USADA on a bio passport violation along with documentary evidence supporting his use of EPO, reported on Slowtwitch.

Also bear in mind the bio passport is not just a pathway to a bust. It can be an indicator of who to scrutinize closely. It might be a confluence of data – the passport just one – that conspires to grant USADA the bust, and it was this in Fretta’s case. WTC is out front on this. It conducts – at considerable expense, as this is expensive testing and analysis - about a third of all the Athlete Biological Passport testing in the sport of triathlon worldwide, including both Olympic and no-draft testing.

  

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