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The Outer Line: Anti-doping during the COVID-19 lockdown

Does the COVID-19 era offer a doper’s dream or an avenue for the enhancement of anti-doping techniques?

As the 2020 Tour de France looms less than three months away a skeptic could be excused for wondering if the current COVID-19 lockdown period offers a one-time opportunity for would-be dopers in the sport. All the riders have been at home by themselves, very little testing has been conducted, and everyone knows the proposed date on which the racing calendar will restart. This seems like a dream set of circumstances for those who would try to cheat the system. While anti-doping agencies around the world are striving to adapt to the “new normal” with various innovations in remote and virtual testing, will it be enough to ensure clean racing in the months ahead?

The president of the UCI, David Lappartient, recently underlined the fragility of anti-doping in pro cycling by pointing out that out-of-competition testing capacity has dropped by about 95 percent in recent weeks. A number of top riders – including Romain Bardet, Tom Dumoulin, and Thibaut Pinot – have professed concerns about how to maintain the integrity of the upcoming shortened season, and have indicated that they haven’t been tested in months.

Romain Bardet

Romain Bardet is one of several riders to raise concerns about the lack of out of competition testing during 2020. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

And there are other factors which could be compounding the implicit incentives, particularly for riders on the margin, to consider cheating. First, the season – assuming it goes ahead at all – is going to be compressed into a short, three-month time horizon, requiring a more intensive and demanding physical schedule than normal for everyone in the pro peloton. Second, with many teams struggling financially and sponsors beginning to waver, the number of well-paying jobs in the peloton is likely to shrink. This may create another incentive for cyclists to abuse PEDs – to try to solidify their spot in the leaner version of the sport that may eventually emerge from this difficult time.

At the same time, the world’s anti-doping cops are hamstrung by travel restrictions and post-lockdown quarantine safety measures, and hence have not been able to interact closely and directly test athletes with anywhere near the normal historical frequency. Furthermore, there is concern in some circles that funding sources for national anti-doping organizations could be in jeopardy, as governments face severe austerity and cost-cutting programs in the wake of pandemic-related economic recession.

Altogether, this worrisome mix of increased rider incentives and decreased likelihood of detection could potentially result in a short-term increase in doping behaviors. And this would be a truly unfortunate step backward, at a time when it is generally acknowledged that cycling has cleaned up its game, and has perhaps done more than almost any other global sport to fight doping.

The major anti-doping agencies are working hard to react to this challenging new set of circumstances, and fortunately, not all of the news has been negative during the COVID-19 crisis. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), in an effort to project innovation and strength during these difficult times, recently announced a new at-home virtual testing system. The on-going beta testing of this system may lead to new enhancements for low-cost testing in the future, though it hasn’t yet been verified by WADA.

Travis Tygart indicates a need for USADA to stay relevant. Photo: AFP | John Thys

In a discussion with The Outer Line, USADA CEO Travis Tygart referenced USADA’s ground-breaking non-analytical case against American sprinter Michelle Collins in 2005 as an example of how an anti-doping agency could bring a case against an athlete without collecting samples in the traditional manner. Tygart indicated he would push forward with any potential positive tests, just as the agency has with non-analytical cases in the past. “I told the staff that this will be a lot like the first non-analytical case we brought. This will be one of those times when the going got tough, the culture here doubled down and figured out a way to reinvent ourselves and stay relevant. We can’t get comfortable, we have to continue to improve.”

Tygart believes that even though the virtual testing protocol doesn’t provide the ability to physically watch a sample being given, the sample itself would have to be consistent with the physiology of the person providing it. The vast scientific data and important library of biological passport history makes it difficult to cheat – for example, substituting someone else’s sample for your own – such that this is currently a viable enforcement method and could be implemented at scale in the future.

USADA’s innovative system holds promise for the future, but it is one that, for the time being, is driven primarily by Tygart and his team. There is currently not really a set of applicable protocols from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) given the impacts of COVID-19 restriction on tester/athlete contact. Hence, to some extent, each national anti-doping authority is being forced to react to this unprecedented situation on its own.

Michael Ask, the CEO of Anti-Doping Denmark (ADD) and current head of iNADO (the Institute of National Anti-Doping Organizations) highlights Tygart’s approach as one borne out of necessity. “Of course, no one really saw this coming, but we are all trying to react as quickly and efficiently as we can. We can’t afford to be caught flat-footed; we have to respond to a rapidly changing world, and continue to fight for clean sport. Nothing in the world looks quite the same today as it did before the corona crisis, and that also goes for the anti-doping work.”

Ask indicated that virtual testing will have to be scaled globally. “We have to get creative and improve upon old-fashioned doping controls – where you had to be ‘close.’ Otherwise, we could face serious problems in the longer run, given that this pandemic could last a year or two.” Within his own domain in Denmark, he indicated that testing is continuing more or less as normal for virtually all athletes in their Registered Testing Pool – about 70 of the country’s most elite athletes.

While ADD’s largely uninterrupted testing inspires confidence, it also raises questions about the current uneven application of anti-doping activities and funding across different countries. For example, the reigning world champion Dane Mads Pedersen can be expected to be tested at a historically normal frequency, whereas other riders – for example, reigning Tour de France champion Egan Bernal who has been isolated and training in Colombia – live and train in countries where anti-doping systems are far less rigorous. Ask acknowledged that there is wide variation between NADOs, particularly in terms of current activities and levels of testing, but adds, “that was also the case before the pandemic.”

Mads Pedersen can be expected to be drug tested at a historically normal frequency during the COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Ask confirmed that while there were some innovative testing protocols in play at national anti-doping bodies like USADA, NADA Germany and ADNO (Norway), and there is currently no international standardization across all of these entities. Outside of a few general guidelines, WADA hasn’t yet played a large role in creating new processes to cope with the current situation. “I would like to see WADA playing a more active role now, in inventing new testing methods to cope with situations like this.”

Ask also believes there will be improvements to anti-doping as a result of the innovations. “We will probably see some changes which will reduce costs, and which will be less intrusive for the athlete. We need to put more pressure on developing these kinds of enhancements.” And he adds, “We are pleased that WADA is right now putting together a strategic testing group – to investigate all of this.”

Tygart, Ask and their colleagues in the anti-doping agencies would obviously like to see a return to more “normal” circumstances, where proven anti-doping techniques could again be utilized to maintain the integrity of the sports under their domain. “But we’re not just waiting around for a vaccine,” says Tygart. “We’ll continue to innovate and try to find ways to do our job, if this thing continues to drag on.”

While anti-doping leaders express confidence in the stop-gap testing procedures they have improvised over the past three months, there are legitimate questions about what can effectively be done in the short-term to ensure a clean and fair pro cycling calendar – particularly for the sport’s marquee event slated to start in late August. “Look, we’d be foolish to think that there won’t be people out there trying to cheat,” says Tygart. “But I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority of athletes out there are clean, and they will compete clean, even if they have a window of opportunity.”

Professional cycling’s scars in this area run deep. It is critical that the world’s key anti-doping agencies band together to coordinate and do all they possibly can – even if on a scaled-down basis – to prevent a return to the “bad old days,” and the ensuing loss of credibility it could mean for the sport.


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