In the best of times, doping control is an odd interaction for Olympic athletes. They are required to report their whereabouts always – whether they are training, competing or on vacation. And if they’re chosen for a test, usually that requires urinating in front of a doping control officer.
In a pandemic, the whole process gets stranger.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed anti-doping agencies into a difficult position – send doping control officers out to test athletes during a time where social distancing and quarantining are recommended. Or limit testing and create a window of opportunity for athletes to dope at a key moment before the Tokyo Games.
“I think the easy thing would be to say, ‘OK, we’re gonna stop testing and keep our space,’ but then that would be at the detriment of clean sport and not having doping control protocols in place for the next two or three months would be a travesty,” said Olympic steeplechase bronze medalist Emma Coburn. “For all the years and years and years and efforts in clean sport, to stop it would be really disappointing.”
While sports worldwide are effectively on hold, postponed or canceled, the International Olympic Committee has asserted that the Games will go forward in Tokyo as planned in July. That decision has come under more scrutiny this week as athletes in Europe and the United States face restrictions on travel and gatherings of people.
A general view of the men's steeplechase event at Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
The pandemic has upended usual orders of business in sports as athletes are making their final preparations before the Games. Training facilities are closed, leaving Olympians to scramble to find pools and gyms to train in.
“We’re all supposed to be social distancing, but at the same time the guidance from the IOC is everybody keep training, the Games are going to continue,” said Han Xiao, chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s athletes’ advisory council.
With the Games still going ahead for now, the United States Anti-Doping Agency and other anti-doping organizations around the world find themselves in the position of trying to maintain the integrity of clean competition while considering public health during an unprecedented crisis. That hasn’t led to consistent approaches, and the World Anti-Doping Agency has said anti-doping agencies should follow the advice of local health authorities.
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USADA announced on Tuesday that it will limit testing to those athletes preparing for Tokyo and instituted protections to try to avoid contributing to the pandemic. The agency's staff in Colorado Springs transitioned to working remotely this week.
“It’s obviously a tough call, but athletes are still subject to testing, technically,” said CEO Travis Tygart. “But out of an abundance of caution, we’re going to be doing mission-critical only testing and have taken steps to help mitigate any of those circumstances.”
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Richard Ings, former CEO of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, criticized the decision on Twitter.
"Shut it down Travis," he wrote. "Mate, all risk of transmission must be shut down. Lives are literally at stake. Do it."
Tygart said he heard from athletes who didn’t want the pandemic to lead to a dead period during which there was no testing.
“We still have to keep in mind that we’re four months out from the Olympics,” said Olympic swimming gold medalist Lilly King, an outspoken advocate for clean sport. “It’s just a weird spot to be in.”
Athletes taking precautions
Athletes stressed the importance of public health and not contributing to the spread of coronavirus in their training or in anti-doping. In their daily lives, they are social distancing.
Displaced from Indiana University’s pool after it closed, King’s team practiced in separate groups in a smaller YMCA pool.
Left with no gyms or fencing clubs to train at in Los Angeles, Olympic bronze medalist fencer Race Imboden said he and girlfriend Ysaora Thibus, an Olympic fencer from France, are training in their garage.
Coburn said her team no longer trains together, running alone or with one other person. They stagger when they lift weights and sanitize the equipment after they’re done. Post-practice brunches are done for now. But to the extent testing is still possible, some athletes said they’d like it to go forward.
“Public health and safety is paramount and I appreciate that USADA is trying to bridge the two worlds and is going to continue testing but obviously with more sensitivity and care with regard to coronavirus,” Coburn said.
Among the precautions that USADA instituted were, where possible, doping control officers using protective gear and hand sanitizer, maintaining a six-foot distance during testing and not using officers who are sick or meet risk criteria for the virus.
But even with those precautions, testing in these conditions includes many obstacles, both known and evolving.
While USADA aims to provide protective gear to officers, that might not be possible in communities where health systems are overloaded. The agency has roughly 60 officers around the country and internationally.
It has already faced a situation where an athlete to be tested was at risk for coronavirus and USADA had to confirm those concerns were legitimate.
And access to athletes has become more challenging as athletes seek out training centers or have access restricted to facilities. The USOPC’s training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., had restricted access before it closed fully late Tuesday.
“We’re monitoring on a case-by-case basis, and where we have an essential test that needs to be accomplished, we’re going to do our best to provide it,” Tygart said.
Targeted testing is critical
While Tygart declined to define who would be included in “mission-critical testing,” USADA is limiting testing to sports that are still competing and preparing for Tokyo.
All athletes are subject to testing, Tygart reiterated. But USADA's adjustment to COVID-19 likely means winter sports athletes, who just saw their seasons abruptly ended by cancellations, will not be the agency's focus for the time being.
Continuing targeted testing can be important for several reasons.
Athletes typically face in-competition tests as well as out-of-competition tests. While those during competitions can be critical for disqualifying results at the time or later if technological advances allow for detection of drugs during retesting, athletes know they are likely to be tested there.
For that reason, no-notice testing out-of-competition is one of anti-doping’s most effective tools. Given the virtual lack of competitions during the pandemic, it takes a heightened importance.
Coburn called it “the only safeguard for guaranteeing that we have clean sport right now and clean results three or four months from now.”
Notifying WADA of their whereabouts is an ongoing daily requirement for athletes in the testing pool, who must report training locations and times and their regular activities.
The timing of the pandemic also adds to the importance of continued testing, Tygart said.
For someone wanting to dope, the disruption caused by the pandemic could be a sweet spot for benefitting from performance-enhancing drugs before tapering off them to avoid detection closer to the Games.
“The last two weeks before the Olympics, we’re tapering. We’re resting. That’s not when the real work is earned,” said Coburn. “The real work is earned now, and for people who are doing it the wrong way and taking advantage, this would be a window that they could take advantage of anti-doping efforts being halted.”
While it’s not unique to the pandemic, athletes voiced concerns about the same standards being applied around the world. Still, coronavirus has impacted testing.
The China Anti-Doping Agency suspended testing for about three weeks in February as COVID-19 began to spread from where it originated in Wuhan, China. Italy's anti-doping agency told the Associated Press that it is performing fewer tests because competitions have been canceled but that “surprise tests are still being performed regularly.”
“I have no doubts in my mind that are going to be nations and federations that are taking advantage of this time of not being tested as much,” said King. “But they’re the same concerns that I have when there isn’t a pandemic.”
Xiao said that has been a consistent concern for athletes, especially in sports where doping is an issue.
“For us, it’s really important if we want to continue to be a leader in clean sport, then we have to make sure we’re holding up our end of the bargain and testing our athletes to the appropriate standards,” Xiao said.
For its part, WADA has said only that anti-doping organizations should prioritize health and safety "while protecting the integrity of doping control programs."
WADA said it would monitor testing activity in areas affected by COVID-19 and report any gaps in testing to the IOC and International Paralympic Committee. WADA reiterated that position in response to questions from USA TODAY Sports this week.
Tygart said he hopes for more guidance from WADA, but for now he feels USADA has done its best to balance maintaining anti-doping controls with the public health.
For Tygart, the message from athletes was clear.
“You can’t do (shut down). You have to maintain. Do the best you can do and make it as healthy and as safe as possible,” he said.
In normal times, the anti-doping system requires athletes to accept a sort of invasion of privacy as a trade-off to prevent doping cheats in sports. Amid the pandemic, that continued testing comes with greater protections. The Games are going forward for now, so anti-doping continues during these unprecedented interruptions to their training.
“I think they’re doing the right thing, even if that means some athletes might take advantage of it,” King said. “I think honestly a lot of us are a lot more worried about where we’re going to train tomorrow than trying to take a PED or trying to get out of a test.”