AG drug testing: good idea?

Today WTC announced a new drug testing program. The eyebrow raiser for me was not only a program for both pro and age-group athletes, but an out-of-competition pool for both pros and AGers who've qualified for either the Hawaiian Ironman or the 70.3 Worlds. (Pic is of WTC pres Ben Fertic and Hawaiian Ironman RD Diana Bertsch.)

I spoke to WTC's Paula Newby-Fraser, and she verified that the rules for age-group athletes will be the same as for pros. Same list of banned substances. Same requirements to register one's travel arrangements on the ADAMS system, which allows WADA and its labs to know an athlete's whereabouts for unannounced out-of-competition tests.

Starting at the IM Wisconsin race this weekend, both pro and age-group athletes will be asked to sign a waiver, Newby-Fraser confirmed, by which the athlete—pro or AGer—agrees to be drug tested at events, and to cooperate if chosen to be part of the out-of-competition (OOC) pool.

It is not by chance that the new program kicks off this weekend, since IM Wisconsin is the first qualifier for Ironman Hawaii 2010. While only pro athletes will be tested at Wisconsin, an age-group athlete qualifying for Kona 2010 might be chosen for an OOC pool at any time.

Certainly there are many athletes who are taking banned substances and who'll take part in Ironman and 70.3 races around the world. But many or most of those athletes may be taking them for reasons other than to cheat. For those athletes, there's always been a work-around, called a therapeutic use exemption (TUE). Floyd Landis famously had a TUE for a banned-list medicine he was taking for his degenerated hip during his short-lived Tour de France victory. Must age-groupers apply for TUEs as well?

Yes, according to Newby-Fraser, if they're part of the OOC pool; and they should expect to be tested during both the 70.3 and Hawaiian Ironman World Championships in 2010. Typically, athletes must apply to their national anti-doping agency for a TUE (in the case of American athletes it's USADA). But WTC has been granted by WADA the right to set up its own panel of experts to adjudicate TUE requests. It is unprecedented in sport that a race organizer has its own TUE board. But it's not a bad idea in Ironman's case, since it's highly questionable whether USADA or any other NADO has the expertise and wisdom to properly consider TUE requests by the full third of WTC's race fields that are old enough to carry AARP membership cards.

WTC has no doubt thought through the mechanics of its ground breaking program, but is it ready for the unique challenges an AG doping program will face? I know a lot of high-powered executives who compete in triathlon at a high level. I know a lot of medical doctors who are triathletes. And lawyers. I know the special agent at Homeland Security (an avid triathlete) who arrested Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery. How would it look if a drug testing team arrived at his office, or the offices of any of these folks, to take samples? Would everyone understand if any of these folks "failed" a drug test because they thrice omitted registering there whereabouts with ADAMS?

Of course, an athlete might choose to take the gamble, sign the waiver, and wait to see if he's selected for the OOC pool. If he is selected, and then opts out of the program, he loses his slot to Kona (or Clearwater). In this sense, the program differs from what pro athletes suffer. If an ITU racer opts out of his OOC pool, he effectively opts out of his sport. If an AG athlete opts out, he simply loses his entry to the World Championship.

WTC's drug testing program is laudable. Testing for Ironman athletes has been a sham in recent years, not because the WTC didn't do everything it could to attract testing, but because the pro athletes competing in its races were almost never chosen by USADA for the OOC pools. Now Ironman has taken an affirmative step to do what no other race organization has ever done.

But age-group testing might be the quagmire WTC did not anticipate. If you're a pro athlete, triathlon is your temp job. It's what you do to earn your living today, but there's a finite time you'll be doing this until you move on to your permanent job. For those who have that permanent job, triathlon is not how you earn a living. It's an avocation. It's for fun. When in the course of news reporting writes of your ban from the sport due to your positive drug test at Kona, or in an OOC test, and this becomes the first item folks read when they Google you, what will that mean if you're a church pastor? A sixth grade teacher? A police captain bucking for chief? A medical doctor? An airline pilot?

Because of circumstances thrust upon it—a foolish IF head who forced WTC's Fertic to become a WADA Code signatory; an ambivalent NF that didn't list WTC's athletes on its OOC pool—WTC has in one fell swoop scored a huge drug testing coup. The big news is not that Fertic's organization is testing AGers, rather that WADA is allowing WTC to operate almost like an anti-doping agency. This, I assume, because triathlon's ITU has so egregiously abrogated its responsibilities to the sport as a whole. This a noteworthy achievement that will certainly be unappreciated by most of those reporting it.

Nevertheless, age-group drug testing is high stakes for the AGers who have a lot to lose. Finessing this may prove like a game chess: as WTC executes, it best be thinking five moves ahead.