IMG_2422American athletes and foreign athletes training in the U.S. should take note: Big Brother is watching.

The role played by the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has impacted the clean sport movement since the agency’s inception in 2000. But its influence, while normally understated, has shone the light on some of the world’s most untouchable athletes.

The bulk of USADA testing involves Olympic, Paralympic, Pan American and Parapan American competitors. USADA’s goal always has been ensuring fair play and healthy athletes, according to Travis Tygart, USADA’s CEO since 2007.

Tygart has been with the organization in some capacity since nearly its inception. He said USADA was born out of negative publicity U.S. teams garnered during international competition throughout the 1990s.

“During that time there were heavy allegations of drug use in Olympic competition,” Tygart said. “There were corruption allegations coming out of Salt Lake City [prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics].

“The rings were tarnished, Congress was asking questions, sponsors were unhappy. So the U.S. Olympic Committee decided enough is enough and it was going to externalize the regulation and policing aspect to an independent organization that won’t be swayed and cave to athletes and sponsors.”

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Tygart stressed the importance of USADA’s independence and added that the ill effects of in-house oversight can be seen at the highest levels.

“I think we see this at a certain level with the current NFL crisis,” Tygart said. “It’s difficult, if not impossible … to both promote and have to police a sport. It creates an inherent conflict of interest. As a promoter, you want your best athletes on the field. You need fans in the stands and you need to grow TV sponsorship revenues. Sometimes you have to take difficult positions against athletes, which is the product that is bringing in so much money.”

From WADA to USADA

The World Anti-Doping Agency, headquartered in Montreal, convenes each summer and reviews its prohibited substance and methods list for athletes in and out of competition. The substances and methods are classified by categories, including steroids, stimulants and blood and gene doping. Substances and methods meet two of three criteria to violate WADA’s code. Criteria include whether substances enhance performance, whether they are contrary to the health and safety of the athlete, and whether they violate the spirit of sport.

A violation can lead to anything from a warning and public shaming to multi-year and lifetime bans, depending on the circumstances of the offense.

Athletes who want to compete for a governing body must sign a license to become a member of that federation, according to Tygart.

“That means you’re agreeing to abide by the rules,” he said. “It means if you’re running the 100 meters, you’re going to run 100 meters and you’re going to agree to start in the same spot as your competitors. It means if you’re running a marathon, you’re not going to cheat and ride the subway. And it means that you agree to abide by the anti-doping regulation set by WADA.”

While WADA does not test athletes, it does direct testing to agencies such as USADA and its international equivalents.

According to Tygart, that monitoring and testing of up to 3,000 athletes is not random.

“We do smart testing,” he said. “People think we have all the names in a hat and pull one out, but it’s not like that. We look at various factors and profile sports to allocate our limited resources. We test to deter. The goal is to provide a reason for athletes to say they won’t take a chance.”

Keep it clean

Lindsay Mintenko, managing director of USA Swimming’s national team, said her governing body relies on USADA to lead its athlete education programs.

That includes the completion by athletes and coaches of an online USADA module course each year. In addition, alerts from USADA to the national team are distributed to clubs around the nation.

“We rely on clubs to communicate that to younger athletes who aren’t necessarily familiar with testing,” Mintenko said. She referenced a recent case of American athletes in China exposed through diet to clenbuterol, a prescription medical treatment for asthma. Classified as a beta 2-adrenergic agonist and used internationally on livestock, clenbuterol is also used by athletes to increase lean muscle mass and reduce body fat.

Mintenko said USA Swimming works very hard to ensure athletes are “100 percent compliant” with testing regulations, including mandatory whereabouts reporting. Athletes in testing pools must report to USADA their hour-by-hour agenda for three months at a time so sample collection can be done without notice.

“Anytime someone says they’re taking something, we tell them to check with USADA to make sure it’s legal,” Mintenko said. “There are things that could be done better, like the supplements issue. The federal government won’t regulate them, so our athletes can’t take them. I think that could be putting our athletes at a disadvantage.”

It’s not fair!

A 2013 article by the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail quoted WADA founding chairman and Canadian lawyer Dick Pound as saying doping and cover-ups have remained a step ahead of policing.

Pound told the Daily Mail last year, “I certainly question everything I see now, in all sports.

“It’s pretty clear just from the numbers of people being caught that drug use is rampant, and it’s rampant at the top end of sports,” he said. “This isn’t people ranked at No. 300 taking drugs to boost them up the rankings, it’s the people at the top who have used drugs to get there. I believe it’s happening across sports. It’s clear that cycling, athletics, swimming, tennis and soccer have major problems and are ruled by governing bodies in denial.”

The Daily Mail article states that “WADA’s review of global testing for 2012 revealed that almost 300,000 samples from all sports were analyzed by accredited laboratories, with 1.19 percent of them testing positive for banned substances.”

That number increased by 2 percentage points, the article stated, if counting atypical, abnormal (but not illegal) results.

Pound’s comments came following the stripping of Belarus shot putter Nadezhda Ostapchuk’s gold medal after she tested positive for steroids at the 2012 London Games.

U.S. runner Shannon Rowbury also made waves after claiming drug cheats had blighted the event.

Tygart said it is difficult to draw a conclusion as to whether doping is high, based on those statistics, but that without the deterrent of testing, the figures could be much higher.

“I firmly believe athletes we’ve talked to don’t want to cheat to be successful. They want to play by the rules,” he said. “It’s a hollow victory if you have to cheat to win. But the pressures on athletes in most sports and at all levels are huge. Athletes are hyper-competitive to begin with, especially at the elite level.

“A lot of times, athletes will succumb to cheating if they feel their rights are being infringed upon by other cheaters.”

To dope or not to dope

During the summer of 1998, America’s pastime, for the first time in years, was at the center of watercooler conversation.

Major League Baseball stars Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were neck-in-neck chasing Roger Maris’ longstanding single-season home run record. Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 to claim the title. McGwire finished the 1998 regular season with 70 homers. Maris’ accomplishment, which stood for nearly four decades, was toppled again just three years later. San Francisco’s Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs during the 2001 regular season.

The home run race provided the slumping sport with some much-needed publicity. Fans, after all, were getting what they paid for: feats of superhuman strength and athleticism.

While accusations of doping hung over McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, some argued that falling records are what fans want to see. Why not just allow and regulate doping in professional sports?

Tygart said that argument, while not new, is a slippery slope. He said it is a myth that all athletes doping would create a level playing field, as individuals react differently to performance-enhancing drugs.

“It’s not hard work and talent, but rather how your body responds to drugs” that would provide an edge, he said.

Tygart said allowing doping would also mean needing to create safe limits for certain PEDs.

“It wouldn’t stop the arms race,” he said. “Athletes who want to cheat will take those drugs at higher levels than what’s allowed. Now you have a free-for-all and, at that point, athletes will begin to die. It will push cheaters to the brink, and it’s not safe or healthy.”

Finally, Tygart said, it comes down to protecting the integrity of the sport and the health of its athletes, especially youths.

“I’m a father of three young kids,” he said. “The most persuasive argument I know is that if I have to use drugs to make the Broncos, then I will have to use drugs to play football for [the University of Colorado] or [Colorado State University].

“And if I have to use drugs to make my college team, then I will have to use drugs to make a [District 20] high school football team. It’s the same with middle school.

“At what level are we willing to let our kids use drugs? What are the acceptable health consequences?”