Interview with Skip Gilbert
7.26.07 conducted by Dan Empfield

[FROM THE PUBLISHER: At some point the questions migrate from the theoretical to what is achievable. The ideal gives way to that which you can execute. After you've asked the doctors and the ethicists what they think, you ask federation officials what they see on the horizon, and what they plan to do.

In that spirit, we interviewed Skip Gilbert, the executive director of USA Triathlon. No federation exercising a broad hegemony over an adult mass participation sport is as large as this one. It is likely, therefore, that this sport will lead all others in the area of how to incorporate the imperitives of health and anti-doping.]

SLOWTWITCH: One can imagine well-heeled age-groupers finding themselves on the wrong side of a drug positive. I can imagine a Wall Street fund manager or Fortune 500 CEO, each of whom might make tens of millions of dollars a year, getting sullied by what he considers a bogus test. Not only he, but perhaps his company, might bring action against any entity proximate to what he considers this bad act. That may include USAT, as it has by its own decision ceded the right to USADA, and to the ITU, to drug test American athletes both here and abroad, and to manage results. Are you comfortable that the ITU, or USADA, holds USAT harmless in these matters, and is prepared to come to USAT's aid in case it is caught up in an angry and potentially crippling litigation?

SKIP GILBERT: The scenario posted is a real possibility and given our litigious society, USAT would face real and potentially significant liability in this situation. Are we comfortable that ITU or USADA would hold us harmless? Technically no and not because of them but because in any lawsuit regardless of a “contract” between USADA, ITU and USAT, USAT would still be named. So the bigger issue here is if our members, who compete in a sport which is clearly a recreational activity, are ready to be held to the same high standards, restrictions and repercussions that govern our pros. As a pro, you run the risk of testing positive, guilty or not, and having to face the repercussions that will come with that positive test. If we as the national governing body do not feel that our age-group athletes are ready and able to handle a negative test and would likely use whatever legal means they have at their disposal to save their reputation at the expense of the sport, then perhaps the time truly is not here to test amateur athletes.

SLOWTWITCH: The Good Lord knows the many sins of which I'm guilty, but for some baffling reason they don't include taking illicit drugs. My personal preferences aside, the use of cannabis is not unfamiliar by many our federation's 100,000 annual members. Its use might be medical or recreational, but it is not performance enhancing. Should our federation stand idle on a drug panel that incorporates an element of social engineering, or does our federation have a legitimate right to circumscribe the testing panel to include only those drugs that aid athletic performance in a triathlon?

SKIP GILBERT: By carving that drug out of the testing process, does that act impact the integrity of the entire test? Can we as a federation pick and choose which drugs we want USADA to test? Is that ability to choose the banned drugs going to be consistent around the globe? In other words, if USAT allows cannabis yet Canada does not, does that create a unilaterally fair system that would be supported by the international legal system? My gut says that USAT can only lobby for WADA to remove that drug from the banned list but if it does not, we simply can’t have a say in what we as a national federation test for.

SLOWTWITCH: Pursuant to the question above, I shudder to think, as a 50-plus age-group weekender, that I'll have to watch every single thing I ingest, every meal, every day of the year. I will certainly continue racing, but I can't imagine the damage it would do to my reputation as Slowtwitch publisher if I tested positive. If you test positive your career is over, in any sport, for any federation. If a USAT board member tested positive he'd be asked to leave the board, and the stain would follow him to his community, his home, his work. What would be the ramifications for a fireman, a doctor, an airline pilot, a lawyer? -- and I think I just listed half the federation's members. Is the federation prepared for this?

SKIP GILBERT: The answer for this is not if the federation is ready but is our membership? They are the individuals that would conceivably put their work careers at risk. If a pro tests positive, he is banned from his “work.” That is his or her penalty for cheating the system of the profession. For amateur athletes, as I stated above, multisport is a recreational activity and any positive test would have a more significant impact on their professional life than on their passion to race. Of course the other side of that issue is that the threat of being tested positive and the impact the result could have on one’s professional life could act as an incredible deterrent. So going back to the question and if we were going to test age-group athletes, USAT would likely create a waiver, much like we do for medical liability, that states that they might be tested, that they might be found positive and that by signing this waiver and competing in this race the athlete holds USAT harmless for any drug test result and the future impact that result could have on said athlete.

SLOWTWITCH: On our message board yesterday a 65-year-old man posted of his discovery that he is well low ln testosterone, and has been prescribed a regimen of Androgel by his doctor. "My dilemma was obvious," he writes, "Maybe I'll find some other way to stay in the community, but for now I'm done. As a fellow competitor, I say good-bye." The fact that a middle-of-the-packer will not get tested offers, for many, no greater comfort than knowing he can cut the course short without getting caught. Should we defer all these issues to USADA, or should the federation act in such case USADA fails to address the needs of the age-grouper? Should USADA prove unable or unwilling to evaluate TUEs for average athletes, should the federation press USADA to co-sponsor a sort of self-administered TUE, letting the triathlete age-grouper know the parameters inside of which he can ethically and legally take an otherwise banned substance?

SKIP GILBERT: Knowing that USADA would not likely get involved with any action with age-group athletes outside of the testing process that is in place for the elite athletes, our choice would be to either pay USADA a significant fee to do so or develop a plan to allow USAT to handle that element or create a self-administered TUE. The bigger issue is that there are so many food groups and over-the-counter medications on the market today that could potentially trigger a positive test that the educational process to the age-group community would be incredibly significant. That would simply mean that USAT would have to embark on a massive educational campaign to help our members understand what is and is not legal to ingest into their bodies.

SLOWTWITCH: We have now let this genie out of the bottle, with the ITU in full favor of testing age-group triathletes. Can you look into your crystal ball and see what's coming down the pike? Will the ITU press its daughter federations to engage in AG drug testing in their own countries? Might USAT anticipate adding AG testing to the list of anti-doping requests it makes to USADA for the subsequent year?

SKIP GILBERT: I’m somewhat surprised that ITU is in favor of testing age-group athletes as they don’t even enforce the competitive rules during a race. But assuming that they have taken this position, it would be logical that they would put significant pressure on all national federations to follow their lead. For USAT, our decision to test age-group athletes would not be the result of ITU pressure but based on a significant internal study to ensure that our membership is willing and able to be tested. Unlike most other national federations within the ITU system, USAT receives no government funding so our ability to raise the tremendous level of financial support to fund an age-group testing program would be hampered. Even if we had the financial resources, our membership of 98,000 plus is by two or three times the largest federation in the world so the logistics alone would be a significant strain to this organization.

SLOWTWITCH: All your answers seem well-reasoned and even if someone disagrees with them, they are undeniably defensible. And yet I'm imagining myself that 65-year-old federation member, and I note that he is no closer to knowing where he stands. Neither USADA nor his sport's federation have said a thing to suggest an answer, or that an answer is imminent. Can you speak directly to this man, and tell him if he's ethically entitled to compete in a USAT sanctioned triathlon? If you can't grant him that answer, can you tell him what he should do in order to get his answer?

SKIP GILBERT: First, Article 8 of our competitive rules do dictate that USAT will follow the WADA code for all athletes. It does not specify elite or age-group, just athlete. So in the pure sense of the issue, this individual is following the ethical line to walk away from the sport over competing with a banned substance.

If the real world were only so simple, however. The reality of the situation begs me to ask a very simple question. Is the substance being taken used for a life-enhancement solution or for a performance gain?

If the former, then perhaps this individual should simply go to the USADA website, fill out the TUE application and see what comes back. Based on the medical condition and the rationale for taking the medication, USADA might say compete and then this person is preparing to walk away for no apparent reason.

If this athlete were taking the medication in order to ensure that he makes Team USA or to gain a higher ranking or to simply beat his neighbor, I and USAT would find that to be a problem.

For some athletes however and some within the older age groups, they incur a medical condition that impacts their lifestyle and their ability to compete. Using a specific banned substance might enable them to return to the level of competition that they should have been if they had not been inflicted with this medical condition. For these athletes, it would seem appropriate that they file for a TUE and that it would hopefully be approved.

Of course, USADA may not be equipped to handle an inordinate number of requests from age-group athletes when its focus is really on the Olympic athlete. How USAT can help alleviate that issue is the basis for another discussion.

The bottom line is that this gentleman's position demonstrates a level of integrity that we should all aspire to. For example, I get many complaints about drafting violations at certain races and if athletes would take this level of self-honesty to the venue, the perceived or real problem with drafting might quickly go away.

There is not an easy solution to create here because for every exception that is made in the world of drug testing, there are many athletes looking to see how they can use that exception to their unfair advantage. That unfortunately is the way of the world.