Friday, March 22, 2013

Minor Leagues of Doping

Bloomberg News

Cyclists compete in a race in Central Park in 2005. Cycling associations have started raising money to pay for drug testing in an effort to combat doping.

Weekend-warrior athletes in the U.S. generally aren't subject to drug testing. Why cheat, after all, when only cheap medals and local bragging rights are at stake?

But it turns out amateurs are cheating, at least in cycling. Since 2011, 12 amateur cyclists in America have been sanctioned for testing positive for banned substances or skipping mandatory drug tests, according to U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Those findings have accelerated a nascent trend among amateur cycling associations to start testing the winners of their races. In recent months, amateur racing associations in New York and at least two other states have started raising money to hire Usada to test top finishers of their races. USA Cycling is also contributing, having set aside $350,000 to match funds raised by local organizations in a program it calls RaceClean.

"As we began to look at amateur racing, it was like 'My gosh, there's doping here too,'" said Steve Johnson, chief executive of USA Cycling, the sport's governing body. "I was surprised at how prevalent the problem appeared to be."

The 12 positive findings, including two in New York, may reflect a fraction of the true cheating rate because testing in amateur cycling so far applies only to top finishers overall or of age group and category. By contrast, Tour de France-caliber pro cyclists are subject to testing before, after and between races, regardless of if they ever win.

Fueling the effort in New York is outrage over the defrocking in May of two top finishers at a Gran Fondo race in the city. A local entrepreneur, David Anthony, 45, has since apologized for using the blood booster EPO. Another racer in that event, Gabriele Guarini, 50, also tested positive for EPO, according to Usada. Guarini didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The publicity generated by that scandal showed that amateurs have a lot to lose, if little to win. A New York team called Champion Systems/Stan's No Tubes hired an independent firm to start testing its riders outside of competition. It also has contributed $2,500 to an upstart New York State Bicycle Racing Association campaign to pay for professional testing at local events, according to Greg Olsen, who manages and races for Champion Systems.

"I can't be associated with a program that has a Dave Anthony pop up," said Olsen. "If I'm putting my time and effort and money into someone else's enjoyment of the sport, I'm going to do it on my own terms."

After his positive test last year, Anthony offered some insight into the amateur's motivation to cheat, saying his obsession with winning drove him to use banned drugs. In a recent email, he said he supports all antidoping efforts, but wonders whether amateurs will simply learn to game the system, as many pros have done, particularly by easing off performance-enhancing drugs ahead of competition.

"Surprise out-of-competition tests seem more effective as a deterrent," Anthony said. "That would have likely made me think twice."

But money is an obstacle. Drug testing of top finishers by Usada is $4,000 to $6,000 per event, depending on the types of tests administered, according to USA Cycling's Johnson.

Most footraces, including the ING New York Marathon, don't test amateurs, including age-group winners, unless they finish at or near the top of the overall field. A testing program announced this month by the Pikes Peak Marathon will apply only to the top 10 finishers. A spokesperson for U.S. Masters Swimming said it conducts no drug testing at its meets, but that talks about it are under way.

That cyclists are leading the push to test amateurs is likely no coincidence, considering the large number of pros in that sport who have cheated, most notably Lance Armstrong, who late last year was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and who has since acknowledged doping during his cycling career.

It may also be no coincidence that the testing of amateurs is well under way in Florida, home to countless anti-aging clinics that are a common source of testosterone and other performance-enhancing drugs. Florida's state bicycle racing association hired Usada last year to initiate testing at its races, after local racers began complaining that older riders were getting faster rather than slower with age.

"You'd see some guy in his late 40s or 50s just drilling it," said Jared Zimlin, president of the association. "We figured nobody would ever want to race here if they think they're going to get their butt kicked by some 50-year-old 'roid monster."

In January 2012, Zimlin began soliciting donations via PayPal to pay for testing. By the year's end, he had raised $8,000, and the funds paid for 13 tests. In September, Usada announced that Florida masters racer Julio Cruz, 44, had tested positive for the banned stimulant Methylhexaneamine. He received a six-month ban. Cruz couldn't be reached for comment.

Following suit, the New York bicycle association has raised $5,000 for testing, the same amount raised so far by the Bicycle Racing Association of Colorado. By all accounts, that is far from enough to adequately police amateur riders.

"We have 3,400 members and 140 events, so we aren't going to have a legitimate test on every athlete," Chris McGhee, executive director of the Colorado association. "But we can create an environment where people think they could be tested."

Associations in other states have contacted USA Cycling about the possibility of initiating amateur testing, according to Johnson, adding that the governing body also intends to build out a Web page and educational program to teach its participants about banned substances and testing protocol.

"The [education] was designed for our elite athletes that are part of the testing pipeline," Johnson said. "Now you roll it out to the general membership who doesn't spend that much time thinking about this sort of thing. It's going to be a challenge."

Since cycling is an Olympic sport, Usada has the power to test at all sanctioned races, even amateur events. But Travis Tygart, chief executive of Usada, said elite events have traditionally taken priority. Tygart said amateur track and field competitions, archery events and even the Pikes Peak marathon have paid to have Usada testers on race day.

"We've even done ballroom dancing," Tygart said. "Athletes are stepping up and saying even if we're weekend warriors, we don't' want to be cheated."

Should local cycling groups raise ever-growing amounts of money for amateur testing, Tygart said Usada would train and hire more testers. The only limit on Usada's potential for growth is the ability of race organizers to pay for its services.

"There are hundreds of thousands of events in this country that we have the jurisdiction to test," Tygart said. "We just don't have the budget."

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