Thursday, 5 April 2012

Drug Testing for Ultrarunners (or Any Athlete) - Some Thoughts

In the latest episode of Talk Ultra we interviewed Ellie Greenwood and one of the things we mention is her recent random drugs' test (she also wrote about it here). Instead of clogging up that interview with my own thoughts on this, I thought I'd put them out briefly in my blog. These are likely to be very controversial and I don't in any way advocate cheating of any sort. The rules currently state what substances are banned so that's what we should stick to - I would never dream of going against the rules and never have.

The current anti-doping rules

In general, professional athletes who are subject to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules need to provide a one hour slot every day where they tell the anti-doping authorities where they can be found. Every single day of their competitive lives! And if you refuse or miss several tests you end up with severe penalties.

Yet for ultrarunners hardly anyone is subject to this very intrusive testing - basically just the podiums of the road ultra World Championships and those who are at the front of a handful of other ultras (as far as I'm aware it doesn't extend much past the top 12 men and women at Two Oceans and Comrades, both of which have significant prize money). I was tested a couple of years ago at Comrades, despite being outside the top 12 and was very nervous for a couple of weeks in case there was some banned substance I'd accidentally eaten in some restaurant food (not because I cheat!).

Isn't that ok if it works?

I personally have a few serious reservations about the system even if it worked perfectly and was guaranteed to make a sport 100% clean. However, I certainly agree that we all want to have a sport without cheating, but I'm not sure this is the way to achieve it, even if the testing did extend to all athletes at the front of all ultra races.

Outside Magazine had a good article from years ago about why negative drugs' tests don't really prove that an athlete is clean and why there are no easy answers for stopping drugs' cheats.

Here are my objections to the system as it is

1. Only parolees are subject to the loss of freedom that the tested athletes are forced to accept - this is a significant impingement on personal freedom. I like not knowing exactly where I may be in a couple of weeks (or months) and would hate to be subject to a dawn raid out of the blue, as most people would agree.

2. The testing currently covers very few ultrarunners so doesn't cover the sport effectively (not that I agree this is the way to stop people cheating anyway). Over time it'll cover more, I'm sure, but even then, see point.

3. Cheats will continue to cheat and find ways around it - does anyone believe it's made professional cycling completely clean? There's still the doubt in people's minds that maybe the only way to get ahead is to find a way around the doping rules rather than to not dope and train the harder than anyone else.

4. This is the most controversial one - the list of banned substances is extensive and is over the top in my opinion. Many of the substances could be ingested by accident within meals (athletes have to be extremely careful they find out ingredients of all the food and medicines they use in case they accidentally take a minor amount of something that could get them banned). I also believe that the term 'performance enhancing' is misleading to some degree. The things that will most enhance your performance in an ultra are perfectly allowable - training and nutrition/hydration during the race. Why are gels not banned, or electrolyte drinks? These enhance performance greatly. The line seems to be arbitrary to me. To take it to an absurd degree, the only true test of our natural abilities is to force us to be sendentary in exactly the same way as each other then race from the couch - anything else is not a truly level playing field.

5. What else is performance enhancing? Over time, surgeries will surely make it possible to improve on the human body. Without opening a related, but totally different can of worms, a couple of South African athletes have caused controversy about whether they have unfair performance enhancing benefits - Oscar Pistorius, the 400m runner, with no legs and 800m champion, Caster Semenya, who was accused of 'cheating' with some kind of hermaphrodite benefit. I'm not delving into those arguments, just showing the complexity of what counts as 'natural' and what's 'unnatural'.

Does that mean I'm advocating every athlete be allowed to do whatever drugs they want?

No. However, athletes will continue to cheat so the drug testing doesn't stop it, just make it harder for them. I have no personal desire to use performance enhancing drugs even if they were allowed, but I look at it as one other training option  that just happens to not be allowed (but still happens). I also can't get in altitude training, underwater treadmills and a whole host of other things that may enhance my performance. I even have several aspects of my training that diminish performance, like drinking alcohol or eating unheathly foods

So if I'm complaining, what's the answer?

I don't have an alternative answer to how to police drugs' cheats because prohibition of items that (some) people will always want to do will always fail. I don't think it's possible, just increasingly expensive in monetary and personal freedom terms. It didn't work with booze and it doesn't work with illegal drugs. It only causes more harm than allowing these practices by criminalizing something that can't be stopped, meaning it can't be regulated and not collecting tax revenues from the industry.

The more items that are on the banned list, the harder it is to patrol. Some will always cheat and be a step ahead of the authorities within professional sports - the enhancing drug comes first then they find a way to screen for it (admittedly having samples of athletes from the past helps to mitigate this, but how do you rationally punish someone for using a substance that hadn't been banned at the time of use?).


Allowing the use of drugs in professional sports wouldn't be a perfect solution by any means but the line of what is and isn't performance enhancing is blurry (going back to my point about gels and electrolyte drinks being allowed). I'm not writing a thesis here and these arguments all deserve much more in-depth discussion than the cursory overview I'm laying out here.

The main point I'm trying to convey is that personal freedoms are not something to be given away cheaply. There's no doubt that prohibition of anything for which there's a strong demand leads to illegal black markets. Whether performance enhancing drugs are banned or not, their use is still a choice some athletes will make and get away with.

I hope you can read this posting in the spirit it's intended - to provoke thought rather than to suggest we should all become drug addicts. But prohibition never works and the current system seems unfair and no testing system could ever give 100% confidence that a sport is completely drug-free.


  1. You have not lost to a chemical superhuman yet, you would say otherwise then in my opinion.
    The 'freedom' question is definitely serious and would be terribly annoying for anyone.
    The ultimate answer to doping probably lie in introduction of biological passports.

  2. It would be interesting to have an international race organization created that openly permitted the use of PED's. I think it would reveal where public opinion lies (not to mention the opinion of the athletes). People could watch "clean" athletes or they could watch an honest mix of clean and doped athletes. Also, I think that PED-permitted events would eventually result in fewer drugs used in sports. Given the option to freely dope, I think many athlete's would lose interest in it after a few years. I don't think I can really explain that second point in any way that would be interesting in a blog comment, but I think it's accurate.

  3. I think a somewhat similar (but inverse) analogy is: rules of the road. What usually causes accidents is people being careless, tailgating, not checking their blind spots, etc. But the law can't really police these errors. So they impose blanket speed laws. I could have an accident in the parking lot at 5 mph if I'm so inclined. If I wanted to drive badly, I could do so within the confines of the law... or rather I could work around the law.

    With sports and drugs, and infact almost every law enforced in this world, there are always going to be very large grey areas (one O.J. Simpson comes to mind).

    So unfortunately big brother will only try and enforce that which he can objectively enforce. 'Judgement' is where it all goes wrong.

    I wish humans just had better consciences and not cheat. That would take care of all our problems. I'm no believer, but sometimes I feel the old days of fearing the wrath of god, was a pretty good way to make people fly right.

    (my 3 or 4 cents)


    1. I'm with Russell. We are given one life and I believe we should live it in true spirit.

  4. I may be naive but I like to think of the vast, vast majority of athletes as being drug free - and that includes cyclists. I like to think that the system, whilst not perfect, is adequate and will catch those who use PED's.

    Is there much of an incentive to use PED's in ultrarunning - i.e the fame fortune?

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  6. Thanks you for your help in rooting out athletes with drug problems. I think since the implementation of the athlete drug testing, usage rate has gone down, but it is still a very real problem and it is something that we need to take care of. It's people like you and drug testing companies that are really helping us get ahead of this issue!

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