Drugs and testing for AGers: Intro

We're going to talk, in a series of articles, about doping in the age group ranks this week on Slowtwitch. By "we" I don't mean you should get ready for a set of lectures from the Slowtwitch staff. Yes, I'll be writing a series of pieces you'll find on our home page, including an interview with USADA's top cop, Travis Tygart. Still, the most important element of this week on Slowtwitch on this topic is that we—you and I, you and each other—will engage in a dialogue which will take place on our reader forum on the drug testing of age group racers.

I promised this when I posted on Slowtwitch a poll. That poll asked this question: In what case would testosterone be legal for age group use in a triathlon?

Since that announcement over 800 of you took the time to answer that poll, and thank you for doing so. How did you do?

Twenty-seven percent of you answered correctly. You can take testosterone if, and only if, you have in hand a proactive therapeutic use exemption from USADA (or other national anti-doping agency if you're not from America) or from your international federation (in our sport's case, the ITU). And, yes, in case you wondered, USADA has handed out TUEs for testosterone.

Another 33 percent of you were close. You selected "never" and, for practical purposes, that covers the vast majority of conditions. Unless you're diagnosed with hypogonadism, and you can demonstrate through a fairly rigorous and convoluted set of tests that you have a threshold case of it, you're very unlikely to receive a TUE.

Those of you who selected "retroactive TUE" were wrong, but, you could be excused for doing so. At our Triathlon America conference a couple of months ago a USAT officer said to a group in attendance that USADA will be issuing TUEs to age groupers retroactive to a positive test. This is true, but, only for four classes of drugs. Testosterone is not in any of those classes.

Finally, 28 percent said it was okay with a doctor's prescription, and 8 percent answered that none of this applies to age-groupers. So, fully 4 out of every 10 of you got the answer not only wrong, but really wrong!

Why does this matter? Here's the way one USAT official put it to me last week: Ignorance of the rules is no excuse. That's true, to a point. But I wonder whether this USAT executive has read all the fine print on his credit card agreements? I wonder if he's read all the way through USAT's waiver? Has he read the bylaws of the organization for which he works? And, of course, I wonder if he himself fully understands the anti-doping rules as they apply to age-groupers, especially because, at that conference I referenced above, his boss did not?

I maintain that the great, great majority of age group athletes will not cheat, if they understand fully what constitutes cheating. When athletes ride to the left or pass on the right; when they don't fall back immediately upon being overtaken on the bike; when they attempt to execute a pass, enter the draft zone, fail to overtake, and back out of the draft zone; I don't believe these infractions, in most cases, stem from an intent to cheat.

Rather, it's an ignorance of the rules. You can certainly fault an athlete's cavalier approach to learning the rules (and I do!). But this brings up a point: When 7 in 10 of your constituents get the wrong answer to a fairly straightforward question, and 4 in 10 get the answer substantially wrong, is it fair to blame the pupil? When is it okay to turn our attention to the teacher, and ask whether the job of educating has been done?

The recent real estate and banking scandals have reinforced a truism: Absent rules and regulation the downward pressure on ethics is enormous. Loan officers, appraisers, mortgage lenders, all faced a choice: Play ball or earn less. It's hard to hold up under that. Consequently, I'm not against drug testing, and I'm not against drug testing AGers. Frankly, if and when it's done right, I'm in favor of it.

Still, I don't think the threat of a drug test, and public humiliation, will deter as many would-be takers of PEDs than an analysis of what is prohibited and why. If I might use an analogy: An official at the turnaround cone to aid against course-cutting is good; but placing a clearly visible cone at the turnaround is going to net you much better course conformity.

It is first the intent of this series to place a visible turnaround cone in front of you. Let us understand which drugs are prohibited and why; what are the health implications; what are the ethics.

Then, later in the week, we'll talk about testing. This is not simply an issue at USAT races (such as its national championships) but also at WTC's events. Don't assume AG drug testing is not coming to a race near you.

Here's how it works. National federations (like USA Triathlon) don't intersect as much with drug testing as they used to. Drug testing represents a moral quandary for federations, because they're asked to police their own athletes. It's like asking a traffic cop to give the mayor a speeding ticket. Federations are only so glad to give this all up to USADA (a disinterested third party).

Yet, USAT still does have a role. It can decide to invite USADA into the world of age-group racing. Or not. It can also, by the way, appeal to USADA to spend its bullets on Olympic-style triathlon as well as other racing formats (e.g., Ironman and 70.3), testing them all with equanimity. (But that's another issue, we'll leave that for the moment.)

If USAT decides to invite USADA into age-group triathlon, then whose responsibility is it to educate AGers? The problem with the notion that you can just hand off drug testing to USADA and be done with it is: Does this include handing off the educational component? I'll ask: Has any age group racer reading this ever been the subject of performance enhancing drug education, from either USADA, USAT, or any such agency?

Our science editor, Jonathan Toker, keeps Slowtwitchers somewhat informed on what's new on WADA's banned list. Another such article is published concurrent with this one (link at the bottom of this page.) You'll find USADA's page on banned performance enhancers here. There's a link to the TUE process (therapeutic use exemptions).

As the week progresses we'll write more on how to approach the topic of drugs. But I'd like to end today's segment with my very personal approach to this topic.

I didn't grow up in a religious household. I was not immersed in a strong anti-drug environment. While I enjoy a good margarita or a glass of red wine as much—or maybe a little more—than the next guy, I've never had a strong attraction to alcohol. I'm also the only guy I've ever known who has never smoked marijuana, never eaten a brownie—with anything more narcotic than chocolate—nothing. Frankly, I have a strong personal aversion to it and—if I'm honest—if you're a pot smoker that takes you down a rung in my book. It's a visceral reaction, nothing I can do about it.

Now, let me tell you why I think I'm this way.

I am a runner. Since I was 13. I'm also a husband, a man, an American—I belong to a lot of categories as do we all. But if you stick a needle in me, take a biopsy, look under a microscope and see what's on my DNA, what I am, at base, more than anything, is a runner. Even if you cut my legs off that's still, somehow, what I am.

What appealed to me about running from the earliest was: Where would running would take me? How fast? How far? For how long? To what depths of pain or sacrifice? And for how many years?

Yes, I love to race, I love to win, and I hope I still will until I'm 70. Make that 80. From one year to the next I'm competing against this standard or that, this person or that.

If you parse what I'm writing, though, you see that, over the generations this primal activity of running and I, together, conspire to set the bar. You don't set the bar for me. I set the bar for me. That's my reality over my 41 years as a runner.

So, I'm going to inject into my primal, lifelong, epic struggle—like Jacob wrestling all night with the angel of God, refusing to let go—performance enhancing drugs?

"You're only cheating yourself" is a trite and tired expression. Still, after four decades, it comes as close as anything. My love affair with running requires that I meet the challenge with no more and no less than I met it at the age of 13. It's me, my shorts and shoes, the road, and nothing else. Certainly not drugs.

I think that's why I never developed an affection for any sort of drug, whether performance enhancing or mood altering.

I'm also, though, quick to acknowledge that my mores are my own. This is why I'm violently against the inclusion of cannabis on the banned list, and I think WADA does its cause a disservice when it veers from its righteous role as a PED enforcer to the dubious role of ethics enforcer. While I might think less of you if you're a dope smoker, I see no reason you deserve to be DQd if you got high the night before the race.

That's the best I can offer. I can't swear that in every situation, that PEDs are dangerous, or even—depending on your PED of choice—bad for you. I can only write what I've written above, and perhaps add this: Whether you like the current doping rules or not, if you're reasonably healthy, and still you take PEDs, and you race, you're cheating.

If none of this moves you, then take your drugs and remain in the shadows.

That's the end of my sermonizing. Tomorrow we'll dig into the mechanics of what's legal, what's not, and the processes involved.