Travis Tygart is America's top cop in the fight against performance enhancing drugs. He's USADA's CEO, formerly its general counsel. I've interviewed him twice. He's engaging, smart, spirited, friendly.
He's not shy about giving push-back if you disagree with him. Neither time that I've spoken with him has he struck me as a fellow with whom you can have a casual, friendly disagreement. But he's always cordial, always respectful.
He's a figurehead, and as such understands he must measure his words carefully as they'll always be parsed just as carefully by those who—for illicit reasons—want to pry a bar into any wedge he makes available.
Tygart might not have seen it all, but he's seen it most. During USADA's 11 years of existence every manner of cheating has no doubt been attempted, and Tygart has been at that organization for 9 of those years.
We want, and need, Travis Tygart on that wall. But those who're on those walls tend to get shot at a lot, and it's understandable if adversarial questions, such as those I asked him for this interview, are presumed by Tygart to be just another attempt to maneuver him into a difficult spot, or an untenable argument. Hence his understandable tendency to refer to carefully chosen, tried-and-true, highly defensible phrases.
One thing about USADA in general, and Travis Tygart in particular: USADA may not always give you as expansive an answer as you're hoping for, but USADA will always field your question, and always answer it. Tygart makes the offer to Slowtwitchers to simply call. USADA's contact info is here. If you have a question about what's on the banned list, how to remain within the rules, and the specifics of your particular case, he urges you to call USADA and I do to.
That said, and in general—specific to age-group drug testing—below are some questions I asked him.
SLOWTWITCH: My first question revolves around education. Have we done a sufficient job in educating our population of age-group athletes prior to subjecting them to drug testing?
TRAVIS TYGART: First and foremost, any participant in an event is required to know what the rules are in that event. Just as in drafting on the bike, it's the athlete's responsibility to know the rules.
SLOWTWITCH: At our Triathlon America industry conference a couple of months ago, a USA Triathlon executive addressed a room on the subject of age-group drug testing, and even he had only a partially correct understanding of the process. If he didn't fully understand the rules, can we expect those hundreds of thousands in the sport to understand them?
TRAVIS TYGART: It's simply too complex an issue to think a sport administrator can handle what it takes us a staff of 40 to perform. Have us be present on a panel or booth at your next conference, we'll answer those questions in that live forum.
SLOWTWITCH: But, in the example I gave, the federation executive charged with this program didn't have an accurate understanding of the rules.
TRAVIS TYGART: I know nothing about that. I can't comment on that. That said, it is incumbent on us to provide information that athletes can easily understand, so that he can become informed on what those rules are. It's two simple things: One: Don't use drugs. Two: If you need a medication, pick up the phone and call us. Go to our website. We even have an iphone app.
SLOWTWITCH: Still, USADA's website, though first rate, is only able to aid those who go to it if they go to it. There is no outreach. Is there an organization—USADA, a national federation, media organizations like ours—who's got the responsibility for outreach?
TRAVIS TYGART: It's incumbent on all of us: coach, media, sport's organizations. Every mechanism, webinars, live presentations.
SLOWTWITCH: So, could USAT appeal to USADA for some sort of curriculum or help in an effort to outreach to its constituency?
TRAVIS TYGART: Absolutely. I'm a former high school teacher, my starting point is developing as close to as personal a relationship with every athlete on the importance of competing clean, and to adhering to the rules.
SLOWTWITCH: Do you feel an age-group athlete's vigilance about what he or she ingests should be on a par with the vigilance exercised by those who are professionals at their sport? If not, will age-group athletes be subject to a greater degree of tolerance, during results management, if inadvertent ingestion is suspected?
TRAVIS TYGART: It's simple: Don't use drugs. That's the duty. If someone tests positive, and has a drug in their system, that's the standard that's applied. Each case is individual. All the facts will be presented, there will be an individualized assessment of the totality of the facts, including mitigating facts. You can look at our cases, records of arbitration panels: "He's a minor," "He's a first time entrant," "Has he received all the educational opportunities?" Everybody is subject to an individualized assessment.
SLOWTWITCH: I understand that WADA, not USADA, is responsible for establishing the panel, but cannabis would not be on the top of one's list as a race day performance enhancer. Still, a cannabis ban enforced on social racers raises the specter of USADA as an agent defending a specific set of social norms rather than adhering to a more closely circumscribed role as a PED-enforcement agency. Since USADA not only enforces, but educates and opines on anti-doping, what's USADA's view on the appropriateness of this drug on this panel for Level-2 athletes? Does USADA believe cannabis should be on this panel for these athletes?
TRAVIS TYGART: There are three criteria in the WADA code. For marijuana, or any drug, to be included on that [banned] list, two of the following three criteria must be met: Does it enhance performance? Is it a danger to the health and safety of the athlete? Does it violate the spirit of the sport? Marijuana certainly violates at least two of those criteria. The international list committee recommends what's on the list, and WADA's board decides.
SLOWTWITCH: Then why not alcohol, or any number of other drugs?
TRAVIS TYGART: Certainly athletes in team sports, or who compete in close quarters one to another, can cause a danger to themselves or others. There is also the issue of athletes committing crimes. And, athletes are expected to be role models.
SLOWTWITCH: Still, these are age-group racers we're discussing. Does USADA want to be placed in the position as arbiter of social mores rather than sticking to the job of performance enhancing drug police? Let me ask it another way. I know USADA has to operate according to WADA's banned list, because it's a WADA signatory. Would it be fair to say that USADA may not agree to inclusion of every drug on the banned list, yet it's obliged to execute according to the banned list because of its role as a code signatory?
TRAVIS TYGART: Yes
SLOWTWITCH: In regard to hypogonadism, adrenal insufficiency, inflammatory bowel disease, renal disease, osteoporosis, is USADA's posture to be age-blind, or is a TUE request handled differently for an age-group racer in his 60s than it might be for an athlete in his 20s?
TRAVIS TYGART: There will be an individualized assessment for every request for a TUE, handled by an external panel of experts.
SLOWTWITCH: I have a reader who's recovering from testicular cancer. He's in his 70s, and competes in triathlon. He writes, "I will be denied [a TUE] as I need three rounds of bloodwork, all showing below the bottom threshold. I'm not about to discontinue use for a few months just to get more non-medicated bloodwork numbers for USADA."
TRAVIS TYGART: The last thing we're going to tell him is to go off his medication to get his three tests. He should apply for a TUE, or just pick up the phone and call us. He'll get a transparent, straightforward answer to help him understand the process.
SLOWTWITCH: In such case as an age-group athlete, or his organization, company, employer, sues USA Triathlon for damage to income and/or reputation as a result of what he feels is an errant results management process, what is USADA's posture toward any such civil suit? Does USADA hold USAT harmless? Does it defend, or pay the cost of defense, in such litigation?
TRAVIS TYGART: All it takes is 125 dollars and a signature and you can file a lawsuit. But any lawsuit like that would be totally frivolous and without cause. There is no basis for a lawsuit if we followed our process. [Such a lawsuit] has never happened in 11 years. So there's no need to hold anyone harmless: We would not and we don't. USADA is responsible for itself and its process, USAT is not responsible for what happens as part of our process.