Drug testing in non-Olympic athletics is neither fair nor cost-effective, whether it's random or not
By Gene Dermody
Considering I have been involved in this issue since the 1994 Gay Games IV Physique fiasco where medalists who failed the first drug tests did not return their medals, I have been of two minds about the legitimacy and efficacy of Drug Testing in non-Olympic athletics. It has taken me almost 16 years now to finally take a strong position which is actually 180 degrees from what I originally believed. I specifically want to thank my partner in crime Roger Brigham, FGG Ambassador physique activist and photographer Tom Bianchi, and FGG Ambassador and World Champion PowerLifter Chris Morgan for their work with me on this issue.
What is ‘FAIR’?
This whining for absolute ‘FAIRNESS’ to be the winner is not just prevalent in athletics , but in every aspect of our lives. We all know that ‘FAIRNESS’ is a political ideal to strive for, but in actuality it is a myth. The debate actually says more about the degree to which we perceive ourselves as victims of some conspiracy to deprive of us our
Gene Dermody wins wrestling gold at Syndney Gay Games.
‘FAIR share’ of the pie. We all know the politics here, and it is no different with drug testing. But the devil is in the details just like it is in politics, and in other words, Fate is rarely FAIR unless you believe in predestination.
The scope of the World AntiDoping Agency (WADA) drug testing is severely limited by their collected data, overwhelmingly skewed to 20-year-old male black sprinters. It has been expanded over the years to women and other sports like cycling. But the bottom line is that the WADA blood and urine profile benchmarks are totally inappropriate for use with older/less elite/more recreational athletes in Masters or Seniors competition. Simply put, there is not the data either in scope or raw amount to be warranting the imposition of these WADA standards Outside of elite Olympic competitions. It is no secret that the 2009 San Francisco Seniors Games passed on drug testing because the common prescription for osteoporosis in women would trigger a failed WADA test. Is this ‘FAIR’?
Corrective Surgeries and Questionable Procedures vs. Drugs
One of the most profound arguments has to do with the elective or forced injury surgeries that corrects for muscle attachments in the arms of pitchers and quarterbacks. There are also the eye surgeries for golfers, the dehydration and fluid replacement in wrestlers, and a myriad of other ‘procedures’ for which there is no ‘FAIRNESS Test’. Is it ‘FAIR’ that Tiger Woods can afford to publicly have elective eye surgery to vastly improve his game without any repercussions or ethical judgments? Is it ‘FAIR’ that an NFL player taking HGH to help him heal faster from an injury just to get back his inherent natural ability is considered ‘dirty’? There are lots of unorthodox ways to improve your physical status to improve your game. The vast majority are NOT tested for, there is no ethical baggage, and they are far more ‘UNFAIR’ in their results. Olympic wrestlers from wealthier countries routinely can legally remove pints of blood BEFORE weighins (blood doping) to qualify for a lower weight category. Most often this action results in that wrestler winning a Gold Medal. Is this ‘FAIR’ to the 2000 German wrestler who had his Gold Medal stripped because the WADA test at the time could not identify a strange blood chromatograph peak (the unknown was an herbal tea)? Remember, it is not just what they find in a drug test, it is also what they cannot identify that can trigger a failure. Is this ‘FAIR’?
How ‘FAIR’ is Random
One of the ruses used by the WADA advocates to limit the financial burden of drug testing is to use the statistical Random algorithm. But how ‘FAIR’ is it to have random drug testing, when everyone knows the winners are the ones cheating, and the probability of them being selected given low budgets in a random procedure is low to non-existent? Random is a nice statistical tool, but it certainly does not achieve ‘FAIRNESS’, motivate, or educate. No competitor accepts it as effective. The winners are winners because they have the psychological determination, the resources to play the game to the extreme, and also take the nonexistent statistical risk of a Random test. Fate is rarely FAIR. Is this Random approach really discouraging drug abuse or just enabling riskier behavior? Is this ‘FAIR’?
Call it the inherent individual’s testosterone level factor. It is a function of gender, age, race, genetics, ethnicity, diet, physical activity, etc…. WADA defenders will say that their drug testing range benchmark is broad enough that it is applicable to everyone. Really? Then why is there so much research on testosterone levels and health that refutes this claim and actually implies there is a problem with demonizing testosterone (or any natural hormone) to the level WADA tries. If testosterone is proven treatment for the health and well being of older, disabled, HIV-positive, or any athlete, who is WADA to be countermanding these treatments and excluding these people from competition?
Hormonal replacement therapy has been proven effective for quite a while now, and it is now big business. Let’s throw in the transgender and hermaphroditic issues and ask the question again. Is the ultimate conclusion with this WADA crusade going to be the elimination of all age and gender categories in competition, to be replacement by a testosterone index? Will we have this T-Factor on our driver’s license or on our on-line dating profile? In other words, should only individuals within a testosterone range be paired in competition? Testosterone is only one of many factors relevant to the performance status of an athlete. So is this march to a draconian WADA testosterone screening and classification what we really want? Is this ‘FAIR’?
The most egregious complaint about WADA drug testing has to be the cost. Drug tests run anywhere from $300-$600 per test, and the cost is born by various entities… e.g.. the IOC/USOC, the specific Sports sanctioning body like a FILA, the tournament itself like the ASICS OPEN, or in many cases the athlete themselves via registration fees. How ‘FAIR’ is it that athletes from wealthier countries can afford to pay for the registrations, drug tests, and even commission research to ‘get around’ the WADA tests? In the end, it is the poorer less educated athletes without access to wealthier government subsidized patrons who are caught in Random drug tests. Is this ‘FAIR’?
Most recently in 2010, the ASICS OPEN Wrestling Competition held in Cleveland did NOT drug test! This is an elite level Olympic Qualifying event attracting about a thousand wrestlers. There was NO drug testing, when few will deny there were lots of steroid abusers out there (Brigham and I were there!). However no one was complaining. It was simply a financially driven decision NOT to make the competition inaccessible to poorer athletes by having to impose the much higher registration fees to cover drug testing. Wrestling has always been a ‘blue-collar’ immigrant sport. Are all of the financial barriers to competition imposed by drug testing ‘FAIR’? Is the ‘gentrification’ of sport to a level not even imagined by Couperin (the founder of the Olympics who thought only the ‘gentry’ should compete), something that is ‘FAIR’? Think of what will happen (it already has) to high school and university athletic budgets if the WADA advocates for drug testing impose their expensive procedures on our school athletic programs. The athletic programs will be cut, or even worse, only the wealthier districts will be able to comply. The results are higher taxes and/or that the minority athletes in poorer districts will be deprived of their athletic scholarships. Is this ‘FAIR’?
The entire WADA debate is reminiscent of the old War on Drugs in that it becomes a tacit agreement between the factions to keep the war mentality going for good business and good PR. As WADA ramps up its research for drug testing detection research with pharmaceutical companies and universities, the same entities will develop the antidotes/masking agents to deceive the very tests being developed, and sell them to the highest bidders. It is a vicious cycle that not only does NOT enable ‘FAIRNESS’, it actually undermines it by pricing athletics out of the market for the very people whom it helps the most (i.e… the poorer, the disabled, the HIV, the older, etc….).
In short, athletics are too important to be left to just Couperin’s cute young rich white boys.
It is unrealistic to expect WADA to develop therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for every malady and every legitimate drug known because of the remote probability that they will be able to recoup the development cost. But it is also unrealistic to hold all athletes to such a draconian WADA benchmark such that it discourages participation because of high cost or confidentiality issues.
Gay Games 2010 Koeln’s drug testing policy is a perfect example of this irreconcilable dichotomy of trying to have your cake and eat it too. The Koeln Sports University is a sponsor of Gay Games and they are ‘ground zero’ for WADA drug testing. They are demanding rigorous WADA Random drug testing in Gay Games. Tom Waddell, the founder of Gay Games was a victim of HIV. Gay Games has always been a leader in promoting its mission of Participation, Inclusion, and Personal Best to ALL athletes, over the Olympic elite mission of Citius Altius Fortius. Brigham’s analysis goes further into questioning the lack of transparent process and the exclusion of stakeholders that are the discouraging hallmarks of this Koeln policy.
It is a categorical insult to the memory of Tom Waddell to put an HIV athlete (or any athlete) at political risk by forcing them to disclose a diagnosis. For those who are so worried about protecting their Gold Medal at a Gay Games that they want drug testing for insuring ‘FAIRNESS’, I would ask that they consider competing in another more elite event that does offer drug testing (if you can find one these days!). The Gay Games drug testing budget could be better spent. E.g..for every one drug test canceled, a registration scholarship could be offered to up to four athletes! Think of the increased critical mass of competitors instead of your misconceived ‘FAIRNESS’ doctrine.
Lastly, I would question the motives and personal psyche of those who are so competitive in seeking the spotlight of a Gold Medal that they demand drug testing to insure ‘FAIRNESS’. The unintended consequences of this so-called ‘FAIRNESS’ through drug testing are just an overreaction to really a very minor psychological problem for some athletes in a total Gay Games registration of about 10 thousand athletes.
Medal inflation is one remedy for limiting the need to cheat and abuse drugs. It works very well in all sports where pairings and seedings are done to insure maximum Participation, Inclusion, and Personal Best. The Gay Games are not the elite Olympics. Gay Games is a celebratory community recreational athletic event where ALL (including elite athletes) are invited. But any intent to make Gay Games more elite focused in competition, and thereby forcing higher budgets in order to drug test should be shot down.
There is no way I could have written this 30 years ago. But then we were fighting a different battle.
Drug testing is not the ‘FARINESS’ panacea. It is far worse than the problem.
Author’s note: My analysis is drawn primarily from ‘Doping in Sport – Global Ethical Issues’ by Schnieder and Hong (2007) WADA Directors of Ethics and Education.
Gene Dermody is a past president of the Federation of Gay Games and a longtime champion of amateur wrestling.