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AG drug testing wrap-up

Written by: Dan Empfield
Date: Mon May 09 2011

In this opinion piece, I'll wrap up the past week's look at age-group drug testing. Maybe we can see a way forward and, perhaps, prevail upon those charged with keeping our sport clean to consider some ideas not currently on their radar.

I'd like to present this as sort of a stream of consciousness manifesto: a set of bullet points that just strike me as appropriate or notable.

Let us test
Most Slowtwitchers —75 percent—believe we should be drug testing age-group racers now. Only 16 percent think we should not under any circumstances test age-group racers. One can argue whether the Slowtwitch population of readers intersects exactly, or closely, or not at all, with USAT's population of members. Still, I find it hard to believe that if 84 percent of our readers think testing is good, that anything less than a majority of USAT members would hold this view.

If Slowtwitchers do veer from USAT's demographic, it's toward long distance racing. Our readers are overwhelmingly interested in races over the 70.3 distance and up. It's clear, then, that our readers also want WTC to age-group test.
Let us be good consumers
For AG drug testing, it would be helpful if there was a game in town in addition to USADA. America's anti-doping agency only owns its monopoly when it comes to Olympic sports. Plenty of corporations and groups contract directly with anti-doping labs, WADA labs among them, and these labs test for the presence of the drugs that the customer specifies.

Let's face it: USADA is simply a vendor to USADA and, for that matter, to WTC. USAT pays for every age-group test, likewise WTC. If USADA isn't wiling or able to scale down its age-group panel to include only core performance enhancers—scaling down the price for each test accordingly—should USAT or WTC consider dealing directly with one or more labs, for AG testing? Maybe so. It could still do business with USADA for pro athlete testing.

It's not as simple as this. There are some mechanical problems. Still, I have an idea in my mind's eye how it might work.
It's not inappropriate to ask USADA to consider our needs
Because USADA is simply a vendor to USAT for AG drug testing, why should it not be expected to act like any other vendor? Why is it unseemly to ask it to work to get our business? Should it not be expected to demonstrate to USAT and WTC that it's done its homework and is prepared to test 60- and 70-year old men and women? Should it not be asked to provide us with an example of how it's a self-correcting organization, if we're going to grant it a monopoly over all of triathlon's testing, not subject to market forces? Should it not be willing to scale down its panel, so that it can provide more tests for the USAT/WTC dollar? Is it outrageous for us to ask it to go back to WADA and present our sport's case that USADA should be willing to test for a scaled down, and therefore cheaper and fairer, list of performance enhancers, at least for AGers?

Let our anti-doping be that only, and not social engineering
USAT and USADA should not be in the business of forcing age-group triathletes to conform to a social standard that it decides is appropriate. It should test for performance enhancers. Cannibis may be a performance enhancer at a hot dog eating contest, but not at a triathlon.

Athletes should seek all information at their disposal
Athletes should know that several organizations manage the TUE process for older age-group racers. Both WTC and USADA will evaluate TUEs for age-group triathletes. So, for that matter, can the ITU. Call each on the telephone, talk to each, ask your questions about your specific case. If any of them refers you to another organization, please let me know. Each has a person tasked to take your phone call and deal with your issue, it's part of what you pay for; having your questions answered is your reasonable expectation.
Let us exercise discretion where discretion is warranted
The more I study this issue, the more convinced I am that little good can come from publicly naming a ban on an age-group athlete. Issuing a ban? Yes. Outing the sanctioned athlete? Yes, if he or she is a pro. No, if we're talking about an age-group athlete.

Why? Because the age-group athlete isn't, and won't be, and shouldn't have to be, on average, as vigilant about what he or she ingests as does somebody who does this sport as a living. Most positives, according to the attorney who most often represents athletes, are the result of cross-contamination, or mistakes that—while warranting some sort of punishment—may not rise to the level of intentional cheating.

Furthermore, as we have seen, USAT is bare, and shoulders the risk alone, should an AG athlete flle suit against it for a decision USADA makes (What would be the basis for such a suit? USAT decided—it was not forced—to engage USADA to drug test its membership. Does this make USAT liable, or is this even actionable? I don't know, but, if this has never been tested in civil court, does anybody really know?). USADA's CEO correctly points out that no suit has ever been filed in USADA's 11 years of existence. Still, how many tests of age-group athletes has USADA ever carried out? How many adverse findings has it generated? I suspect the sample set is still very small, and, while USADA dismisses the risk as essentially zero, it's no skin off USADA's teeth to downplay a risk that my intuition tells me is higher than USADA warrants it to be.
Our sport, in the U.S., needs to consider pooling its resources
Look, there's a very good financial reason why USADA uses its money to test at precisely zero Ironman races: Why would USADA give away a free product when it knows WTC is going to pay for it? Furthermore, any WTC race USADA tests at on its dime is an Olympic-style race USADA can't test at. I don't blame USADA.

Still, if both WTC and USAT are going to work together to keep triathlon free of drugs—in both the AG and pro ranks—what bad thing can happen if they pool their resources, and their dollars, and approach USADA with a package deal that includes in- and out-of-competition testing throughout triathlon's landscape? USAT ought to be willing to do this, because a lot of its resources are generated at WTC races—such resources having almost no offsetting costs, since WTC trains its own marshals, marshals its own races, and so forth.

Then there is that large list of races that are neither WTC nor Olympic that need drug testing. Those RDs need to throw some nickels into the pot, join with Ironman and USAT, and urge USADA to match this incremental revenue to USADA with some of USADA's own purse.

If USADA signals it's an eager and good faith partner in a much expanded anti-doping effort in triathlon, it would be good for all sides. But if the sport of triathlon thinks the testing of its AG athletes requires some of what I've written above, USADA would have to alter its current approach, and come our way a little. Would it? I have not seen any interest yet on USADA's part to alter its product at all, should triathlon ask for any of the above, even though I see no reason USADA is obliged—under the WADA code—to treat AG athletes as it does pro athletes, since WADA's mandate is specific to Olympic athletes.

Should USADA choose not to tailor its product in a way our sport considers most appropriate, triathlon might consider—as a sport, an industry, and a group of competitors—looking at an alternate drug-testing paradigm and a source of funding to pay for it.


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AG Drug Testing 1 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Dr. Snuggs, May 25 2011 5:42AM

Who the hell cares! Dan surely a better focus fo your time would be to concentrate on the pro testing? With the circus surrounding Lance and cycling as a whole at present, surely we should be asking ourselves - "How can we avoid a similar fiasco within triathlon?" With the high pressure of ITU WCS and the new points system the WTC introduced - the margins for error are smaller than ever for the pro's as there is so much more at stake. This combined with the need to race more often is going to push athletes to the limit - screw AG testing - test the pro's properly! That is of course unless Lance decides to do IM as an AG - then test the lot!

Doping control 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Alan Carlsson, May 14 2011 3:26PM

An added complication is the legal side of addressing due process to ensure athlete rights are respected. The legal costs associated with a positive test are often significant. Non-WADA or USAT administered postive results may not carry over to other sport organizations (i.e. Cycling, swimming, running, etc.).

Good topic though!

AG Testing 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Chris Viskup, May 13 2011 2:27PM

Wow there is so much to consider that Dan writes about and more... What does this mean to the AG athlete? Does this mean the cost of the race will go up, and if so will Ironman or USAT might lose some athletes due to the increasing prices. I mean hey these organizations aren't just going to offer this service for free. Someone is paying for it. And, lets face it, it will be us. If you are doing these races just to finish, do you want to be paying for other AG'ers who are probably clean anyway?

Ultimately, testing for becoming a pro, and being a pro should be greater, as there are probably too many cheaters that are getting away. It seems one of the reasons you would cheat as an Age Grouper is to become a pro. In which case, if you get a pro card by a qualification standards, there should be immediate drug testings performed, and maybe a sample in which they might ask for at the race it was performed (this should be taken as a sample and only used if the athlete wants to try to use it to clear them for pro status). In which case if that athlete tested positive they shouldn't be penalized pubicly. For all they know, they might be on some antidepressent, ED pill, supplement, or some stuff that tainted the sample, and also which may or may have not had any bearing on their performance. Pro's on the other hand, should have there readings made public, and should be careful when taking a possibly controversal pill. In which case, there should be some kind of paper work that alllows them to inform USADA of what they are taking (or desire to take before actually doing so).

Testing for Agers is kind of excessive. I mean people do this for FUN. It is a HOBBY. Sure for most of us ST'ers it is a lifestyle, so I can see the desire for there to be a test among the ST ranks to ensure that the Hawaii slot didn't go to a deutsche who cheated (so maybe we should test for HI slots?). But, for a lot of people I don't see the slowtwitch poll being a clear representation of what the whole USAT and what WTC racers want. This is simply because slowtwitchers IMO represent more of the competitive athletes in triathlon than an honest representation of the entire spectrum. And this is where I don't exactly agree with Dan's arguement of ST being the right sampling. However, I can't really say with certainty that the poll is far off from that spectrum. Rather what I think is important to note, particularly for those of us who participated in the poll, is have we weighed the costs versus benefits appropriately?

If Ironman races go up $100 next year just to to have AG testing is this worth it?

Nice series, but not sure why it matters 3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: John Hull, May 13 2011 12:19PM

Triathlon is a sport where how much money you're willing to spend goes a long way toward your performance. I don't really see where taking PEDs for AGers, in the end, is any different than buying a $10,000 bike, or hiring the best swim, bike, run, or triathlon coach. Any of it gives you an advantage over AGers who aren't willing to spend as much money. PEDs probably only make a real difference at the elite level, where the differences in performance are so small that PEDs could determine the winner or loser. That's where the drug testing should be focused.

Also, drug testing AGers by the WTC essentially equates to drug testing your customers. And that sounds like a bad customer experience.

A Rebuttal to the Proposition 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Jim Gourley, May 12 2011 11:03PM

Contrary to suspicions within the community, I'm unconvinced that doping in the age-group set is a problem or that a program to stop it would even make much of a difference.

Regarding the percentage of ST forum readers who think it's a good idea, I don't think it's a good metric for judging whether we need an anti-doping program. Not to insult anyone's intelligence or views, but I doubt many of the respondents are doping experts. On what do they found their belief that an anti-doping program is necessary? What experience do they have that indicates to them doping in the age-group is a serious problem? I have a feeling that the age-group doper is the new witch to hunt in sports. We hear about so many pros doing it, and then comes the transition-zone revelation that "this guy I knew one time" did some EPO. Suddenly, everyone's a suspect. Everyone must be doping, because there's no way that your daily Big Mac attack and your 60-day taper held you that far back in your race performance. Externalizing blame for what we perceive as a failure in a race is a common trait among triathletes. What better excuse than the nefarious, ubiquitous, anonymous cheater?

I think it's a slippery slope to assert the age-group can dictate different terms to USADA on the grounds that it's a "vendor." It's like telling the cops not to enforce certain laws in a neighborhood because there's a homeowner's association agreement. They're here to enforce a standard, not provide a service. If you want a different standard, then that will have to be established by the governing body or race organization (WTC or Rev3). They'll also have to contract their own services. Go with USADA or don't. Half-measures and cobbled solutions rarely work as well as one hopes.

On the matter of "social standards," I wholly disagree. What is an anti-doping effort if it's not based on the principle of fair play? And isn't the principle of fair play nothing more than a social standard? If Michael Phelps gets suspended for smoking weed, then so should an age-group triathlete. Again, the half-measures and tweaks cause too much trouble. You either have a standard or you don't.

That leads to the matter of discretion. How do you manage all the cases of medicinal marijuana? How do you justify charging age groupers the legal fees to appeal their cases? How do you even administratively process all those? Look at all the anti-depressants, ADHD meds, cholesterol reducers and other drugs Americans take yearly. You're going to be dealing with false positives from here till Christmas at every race. The system will choke on itself, and I'd still be surprised if you caught a single person actually doping with intent to cheat.

And even if you do, the argument about how to deal with them reinforces the case that this is a failed proposition due to half-measures. Once the offender is caught red-handed, we quietly usher them out the door without any public recrimination. This, because an age-grouper "shouldn't have to be as vigilant about what he or she ingests." This is the lynchpin that comes loose. Are we talking about someone who isn't vigilant, or someone who's cheating? As mentioned in the statement about the legal ramifications, we often just don't know, but relaxing the standards for age-groupers is only going to muddy the waters further. Meanwhile, if a person's identity is kept secret and they're banned from a 5150 event, what's to keep them from going down the road to the local Jaycee's sprint distance event and winning that? You'd now have to put every event in the country on USAT's radar. They're just not equipped to handle that kind of tracking. No one is.

All this is based solely on suspicion. It's as if the entire village kept running out every time the little boy cried wolf and said "well, just because we don't see a wolf doesn't mean there's not one out there." I think we need to calm down a little. If the afforementioned statistics are to be regarded as any kind of indicator, then it's also reasonable to say that 84% of Slowtwitch respondents are NOT doping, and perhaps some of the 16% who said "do not test under any circumstances" in fact are. If the population of dopers in the greater age group community is even half that, then yes, we should test for drugs. It's a serious problem with consequences far beyond the race scene. But likewise, if it really is that bad I'd say the pilot programs in place will catch someone before the end of this year. If they don't, we should take a hard look at that little boy, and ourselves, and ask if all this running out to find the wolf doesn't resemble a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off.

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