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Op-Ed: Is Doping A Problem In Triathlon?

  • By Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara
  • Published Mar 1, 2013
Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

Does the fact that very few triathletes have been busted for using Performance Enhancing Drugs mean that it’s not a problem in the sport? Former professional triathlete Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara shares her opinion.

To date, very few triathletes have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has sanctioned just one – Mark Fretta in 2012. And, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), which oversees Ironman races and began its own testing program in 2009, has issued only four sanctions. On the whole, the number of triathletes caught for doping has been small.

There are two ways to interpret that. You can believe that the small number of dopers caught is reflective of the small number of triathletes using PEDs. Or, you can believe that the number is small because it’s just so hard to get caught. Most likely, it’s both.

Doping is not new. But, it’s become so prevalent in sport that it seems unlikely triathlon will escape unscathed. “It’s sad because I never had reason to be suspicious before,” said one pro triathlete I spoke with.

People choose to dope when the benefits – prestige, bragging rights, a trip to Kona, money – outweigh the costs or likelihood of getting caught. The benefits in triathlon are on the rise, though they’re still small compared to many sports, so the question becomes: is the likelihood of getting caught on the rise as well?

In-competition tests began in 1990, with race day testing at Kona, and have happened sporadically since then. Podium finishers at some races are tested. Others aren’t. WTC CEO Andrew Messick has said that the element of surprise is necessary to deter athletes. But, it seems the real surprise would be consistent in-competition testing.

But in-competition testing, most argue, does little anyway to deter dedicated dopers. To do that, you need out-of-competition random testing.

Out of the nearly two dozen professional triathletes (representing a range of abilities and distances) I polled informally, the majority said they had never been tested or had only been tested in-competition. A few pros reported being tested dozens of times out-of-competition. One had been tested 38 times.

Consistently, though, those tested most frequently out-of-competition were most often ITU athletes. Long-course athletes, with some exceptions, reported rarely being tested, even if they had made multiple podiums in their careers. And, athletes who specialize in non-drafting Olympic distance races can almost be guaranteed they won’t be tested out-of-competition.

There are, in essence, two main out-of-competition testing pools in the U.S. (Other countries operate differently.) Both pools are operated by USADA through contracts and overseen, at least partially, by USAT – creating some confusion.

One pool is selected solely by USAT. And, since the majority of its funding for testing comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee, USAT primarily selects its pool from Olympic hopefuls and ITU rankings, with very few long-course athletes included. Of the athletes tested 10 or more times in 2012, according to the USADA individual athlete test history, which doesn’t specify if the tests are in- or out-of-competition, only two were not solely ITU-focused – Andy Potts and Tim O’Donnell.

The second out-of-competition pool is selected in part by WTC. In 2009, the company became the first private, non-federation agency to sign on to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and began its own testing program, funded by a $750 fee from each pro. In 2011, WTC did 141 out-of-competition tests and in-competition tests at 31 of its events. They collected 134 blood samples as part of the Blood Passport program, which is harder for cheaters to trick. This was an important and necessary step towards greater regulation within long-course racing.

The athletes in the WTC out-of-competition pool, though, vary. Some are picked based on performance – top five Americans in the top 20 rankings, for example – and some aren’t. One athlete might be in a pool that requires hourly updates of their whereabouts and another might be in a different pool with different requirements.

While these out-of-competition tests make it harder to dope (for the athletes in the pools), there are obvious gaps when it comes to non-drafting Olympic distance or non-WTC long-course races. In most of these cases, the onus now is on the race directors to pay for testing and it isn’t cheap.

That doesn’t mean those triathletes are doping. Most want there to be more testing to avoid this kind of sad suspicion. But, if the choice to dope is made based on weighing the benefits and costs, then it’s clear that, if you can win large prize purses and never be in an out-of-competition testing pool, the balance is off.

Triathlon does not have a history of doping. It is still a relatively young sport. The winning time at Kona dropped five hours from 1978 to 1988 probably because people actually trained for the race and stuck aerobars on their bikes. And most professionals are hopeful that doping isn’t endemic to our sport – yet.

We could be rocked by a doping scandal in the near future. But, it seems just as likely that if we can flesh out our testing to get rid of those pockets before PEDs have a chance to really take root, we might also avoid it.

Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and former professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers and websites. You can read more about her at Sunnyrunning.com.

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