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AG drug testing: good idea?

Written by: Dan Empfield
Date: Thu Sep 10 2009

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.


Articles related to this one
WTC announces new anti-doping program
Ironman's owner to test pros and elite age-group athletes both in and out of competition. Will AGers have to register with ADAMS? Details to follow. 9.10.09
WTC sold to private equity firm
After almost 20 years of ownership by the Gills family, World Triathlon Corporation, owner of the Ironman World Triathlon Championship, has been sold to the private equity firm Providence Equity Partners. 9.08.08


Drug Testing AG athletes 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Andy, Nov 19 2009 10:43AM

Good piece as it pertains to WTC, but a bit more history and reality is needed to interpret this. First off, drug testing requires money and the reason that WTC can do this is that they have the money to devote to this...USAT does not. There are bigger priorities. Is anyone willing to possibly double their USAT membership fees to cover the cost of drug testing AG athletes?? Unlikely. The ITU has tried this in the past at Worlds in Vancouver and they got pummeled with ridiculous TUE requests for AG athletes. They haven't abrogated any of their responsibility.

Kudos to WTC for the attempt. Good luck!

Positive Step 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Howard, Sep 15 2009 4:07AM

Sure there are some downsides to the program (very difficult for AGers to keep on top of a large list of banned substances), but this is a very positive step. Plus it only targets World Champs qualifiers - and these days those guys take their sport very very seriously. Losing the Kona/Clearwater slot is an appropriate punishment as well.

After reading the Huetthaler article I reckon there may be more of this around than we suspect:

AGers Testing 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: P3, Sep 13 2009 7:41PM

I am totally supportive of WTC new drug testing program for AGers as proof that those qualifying for Kona and/or Clearwater did get in by working hard, training and doing what many triathletes do in a clean, drug-free environment. I have discussed this topic with many colleagues and we all agreed that - in any given moment - at least 5% of AGers qualifiers for Kona are using illicit drugs to better their performance. I really don't care if the guy smoked some weed but I would be very supportive of banning AGers caught cheating with EPO for example losing their slot and banned for one year to qualify again. They could race in an Ironman sanctioned event but they would not qualify for Kona during the suspension time.

WTC Drug Testing of AGer's 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: TriDork, Sep 13 2009 5:41PM

I applaud the WTC's decision to include AGers in the drug testing. While there may be problems with their initial system, a bit of a shakedown is to be expected and a better system is likely in a couple of years.

WTC is basically IM. LOTS of AGer's have the IM World Champs as a major factor in their lives. Some may cross the line and take banned PED's to help them get that covetted Kona Slot. While there may not be money or livelihood on the line, pride is, and that can be a very demanding mistress.

I'm a crap triathlete. I'm completely dedicated to my obsession, but I will never win anything, let alone an IM race. I will never take banned PED's to get me even one place up the line. I race and finish according to my skills (or lack of) onthe day. I am happy to do my best. Other athletes are willing to cross the line and cheat. I don't mind losing to better athletes, but I hate losing to cheaters.

WTC is taking a step in the right direction. If a pastor or CEO stands to lose their job, or even just lose face, by being caught for taking PED's then I don't really have a lot of sympathy. Maybe (but probably not) it might just discourage them from taking the PED's in the first place. I certainly hope so.

Regards, TriDork

I Remember When WTC Was Good At Dealing With Idiotic Regulatory Bodies 3 out of 5 stars


Reviewed by: Michael Mucha, Sep 13 2009 10:24AM

If you want to get rid of the biggest source of AG cheating, focus on bike drafting. It's free cheating for anyone willing to try it, you'll probably get away with it, and you don't have to use some expensive banned chemical. But that would require more officials on the course, which you can't afford if you're wasting your money on needles in haystacks. Instead they're going to inevitably ban some school teacher who accidentally ingested banned substance #172 at a Whole Foods. The banned substance lists are wildly long and effectively require you to have an interpreter. We barely have enough time to swim, bike and run, let alone figure out how to cheat chemically, let alone figure out how to get away with it, let alone figure out how to keep track of all the banned items and how to avoid them. It's darn near impossible for full-time pros, so let's attack the hobbyists.

Not following the logic of this one.

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