We Asked Veteran Track & Field Athletes How To Possibly Fix The Doping Problem
Surely, many reasoned, the Russian doping scandal would prompt real reform. Only six months after the Olympics, nothing much has changed and athletes are getting fed up.
© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
When the Russian doping scandal hit the sports world in late 2015 and reverberated all the way through the last summer's Rio Games, it had the potential to be a watershed event. Backed by an actual government, athletes had been using performance-enhancing drugs on a massive, systemic scale, and taking advantage of a worldwide anti-doping apparatus that appeared to be both corrupt and inept.
Surely, many reasoned, this would prompt real reform. A better, stronger system to prevent and discourage PED use. Only six months after the Olympics, nothing much has changed—and on Tuesday, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce will hold a hearing focused on strengthening anti-doping controls in international sports prior to the 2018 Winter Games.
Among the experts asked to testify before Congress will be Adam Nelson, a two-time Olympic medalist in shot put. A longtime advocate for athletes' rights and sometimes critic of the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global organization tasked with policing drug use in Olympic sports, Nelson is also among the concerned athletes who signed a petition in December demanding better and more input into the fight against PEDs.
The petition echoes the concerns of 17 different National Anti-Doping Organizations, including United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which call for sweeping anti-doping reforms. But the athletes aren't satisfied by merely putting out a strongly-worded letter. Jeff Porter, recently elected chair of the USA Track & Field (USATF) Athletes' Advisory Council, told ESPN that, thanks in part to the Russian doping scandal, many athletes are galvanized enough to consider boycotting events if meaningful reforms aren't made.
VICE Sports recently spoke with Nelson, Porter, and three other veteran USATF athletes to get their thoughts on the state of anti-doping, what's wrong with the current system, and what can be done to fix it.
Adam Nelson: In 2012, he was awarded the 2004 gold medal from the Athens Olympics because the event's original winner, Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine, retroactively tested positive for PED use. Nelson heard the news from a journalist, and received his medal in the Atlanta airport food court.
Nick Symmonds: A silver medal winner in the 800 meters at the 2013 World Championships, Symmonds has been competing internationally for a decade. Like Nelson, he has been an outspoken advocate for athletes' rights.
Jeff Porter: Recently elected Chair of the USATF Athlete Advisory Council that drafted the petition, Porter competed in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics in the 110 meter hurdles.
Kara Goucher: A long-distance runner, Goucher spoke out about doping schemes at Nike's Oregon Project in a BBC/ProPublica expose. She left the program after seven years because of its attitude towards gaming the anti-doping system.
John Nunn: A race walker who has competed in three Olympics, including this past summer in Rio. A member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, Nunn also is a USOC Athlete representative.
On drug testing, and whether it works
Athletes first get tested under WADA's rules early in their careers, sometimes while they're still in college. In the beginning, it's a nuisance, but one they learn to put up with. Few think very critically about the testing procedures in general, and what they are—or aren't—accomplishing.
Symmonds: I think the first time I got tested was at the NCAA championships my senior year in college. It was, like, when you first get tested, it's like a badge of honor. It's like "oh my gosh, I'm finally doing something so spectacular that people think there's a chance I'm on drugs." It's kinda cool. Then every subsequent test after that it's just a real annoyance, bordering on an invasion of privacy and making you very angry.
Porter: You understood it, [that] for the betterment of the sport, everyone's going to comply with it, suck it up, and let somebody watch you pee.
Over time, however, some athletes begin to realize the inadequacies of the system.
Nunn: It was [governing] bodies coming to us [at the Olympics] and saying, listen let's make this professional. You're professional athletes, let's treat this in a professional manner. The hard part for me on that, and I found for other athletes, was: OK, we're doing our part to be professional. Why are we looking at this and starting to realize we don't necessarily think you're doing your part all the way to make it professional?
I think WADA's report came back [on the Rio Olympics drug testing system] and said this was the worst Olympics when it comes to drug testing in the history of the modern era.
The report Nunn is referring to was released by WADA's independent observers and found myriad issues including "non-conformities" in about 30 percent of the samples collected at the Rio Games—compared to 10 percent during London 2012. The findings raise serious questions about whether many of the samples collected can be re-tested in the future, a possibility that is supposed to deter and punish PED use.
Nunn: You look at it and go, who is not being professional now?
In international competition testing, approximately one to two percent of tests come back positive. Estimates of actual doping rates are unanimously much higher. A WADA study from 2011 found 29 to 45 percent of athletes in elite competitions dope.
Symmonds: What they're doing is largely inconsequential. It is, I think their own head, [the] head of WADA, says they catch like one percent of drug cheats. So it's like, it's just for show. It doesn't even do anything.
Nelson: We demand that they start improving their results, but those demands have no teeth, because we can sit there and say you're not doing your job, and they will say we're doing the best we can, yet they still want 20, 30, 40, 60, 80 million dollars a year to do this drug testing. As a business person, if I'm spending whatever-million of dollars a year on a particular project, I better see improved results. If the results aren't improving, then we need to go back and change the process.
Porter: Imagine trying to do calculus with an abacus. That's essentially what it is. You have a good idea. You think it's valuable, something to do. You're putting things in place. But by the time you're putting things in place, you're already behind the eight ball ... so no matter what you do, you're still behind.
Symmonds: If WADA looked us in the eye and said, "honestly, we are confident we're catching 99 percent of drug cheats," I'd be like, "test me every day."
Nelson: Any time someone tests positive, we're the ones, the clean athletes, who pay the ultimate price. Because we still subject ourselves to the same 24 hours, 365 days whereabouts forms every single day of every single year. We still subject ourselves to the drug testing and drug testing process is a very invasive, humiliating experience for many athletes, particularly women at different times of the year.
On athlete input into anti-doping rules
The athletes who spoke to VICE Sports have had varying experiences communicating their concerns with anti-doping authorities. American athletes in particular have several channels to raise concerns about anti-doping procedures. According to USADA spokesman Ryan Madden, the best vehicle for doing so is in-person education sessions with USADA staff. USADA held over 100 in-person education sessions in 2016 alone, according to Madden, including occasional roundtable discussions with athletes and USADA CEO Travis Tygart. But USADA can only do so much.
Nelson: I've had more response and more conversations with USADA than WADA. The change in leadership at WADA over the last couple of years is—yeah, it's a different organization and they're just not as receptive, in my opinion, to engaging others in conversation. USADA has actually been very good about trying to engage more athletes in this discussion.
Symmonds: Every time I've been approached by USADA or WADA, they have absolutely no interest in hearing from the athletes about what's working or what's not ... I would have to assume they've sat down with some athletes and asked for their input but I have never personally been asked for my input and I'm a little surprised. I have a degree in biochemistry, I've been in the sport for over 10 years. I know a lot about this stuff but they've never asked me.
Goucher: I feel like I have a pretty good relationship with USADA, but they've never asked me what I think.
Nunn: Yes, USADA definitely cares what the athletes' opinions are. WADA, I personally—now granted I'm middle of the pack on a world level race walker, I'm not high profile and those types of things so I wouldn't expect WADA to seek out my thoughts—but I'm also on the USOC's Athlete Advisory Committee and I have not seen WADA seek out the USOC Athlete Advisory Committee on a whole and say, hey, what are your recommendations? [But] I know WADA has a [separate] athlete panel.
Symmonds: We go to annual meetings at USATF annual convention and they'll have someone from USADA and WADA tell us basically what we're required to do. But, they never really ask us how we can make it better, how we can help and catch cheats. They just say, just so you know, these are the updates, make sure you follow these rules or you get a two year suspension ... I think they think that they know best.
Porter: At the USATF annual meeting in December every year, we usually have a USADA rep come in. And I'm like cool, a USADA rep is coming in, [I] want to hear what's going on ... Well [USADA] sent some really low-ranking officials to the annual meeting. And athletes kept bringing up valid points and questions that unfortunately these low-level workers in the organization had no idea. They had no clue.
Porter's frustration stems from a previous year's meeting. In December 2016, USADA sent Tygart, their CEO, to the annual meeting.
Goucher: When it comes down to it, none of us feel like we're being heard. There just seems to be a really big gap between what is being said to the media and how athletes actually feel.
On global anti-doping, and inconsistent standards
One of the biggest concerns for the American athletes who spoke to VICE Sports are the differences in testing among various nations. In theory, every athlete anywhere in the world should be held to WADA's policies; this is, after all, one of WADA's founding principles. But in practice, every country is on its own, and some are more stringent than others. This leads to frustration—not only because many athletes are barely tested, but also because entire federations are not held to the same standards as individual athletes.
Symmonds: Most federations don't test their athletes at all. I mean at all. Like zero. We have USADA and the UK has their own, and Canada and Australia both have their own anti-doping administrations, but if you're living in Morocco, Morocco's not spending a dime to test their athletes. So they may, may get tested once or twice a year by WADA and that's unlikely.
Symmonds mentioned Morocco for a reason. In 2016, the IAAF warned Ethiopia, Morocco, Kenya, Ukraine, and Belarus that they're not doing enough out-of-competition testing and would have their programs monitored.
Nelson: As an American, we are subjected to the highest standards of anti-doping programs. USADA is totally compliant and probably exceeds whatever the minimum threshold of compliance is for WADA, and there are a handful of other countries around the world that adhere to those same or similar standards. Yet there are a whole lot of other countries globally that do not adhere to the same standards and they are constantly reprimanded, but the reprimands don't go any further.
The problem with that is it creates unintentional loopholes in something that's supposed to be black and white. If I fail a drug test or I fail to comply with the whereabouts forms, I as an athlete am subject to penalties without exception. But when I see the exceptions that are made for countries, I can't help but think that WADA and the IOC understand that being overly harsh, or quite honestly, just being consistent in applying the rules, interpreting and applying the rules the way that they're supposed to be applied, that they are more concerned about their future needs, their future diplomatic or political needs within the IOC Congress, because it's a "one vote, one country" system and they're worried about future repercussions.
So they're holding the countries to different standards than they're holding the athletes to, and that's just unacceptable to me.
Goucher: I feel like we're [American athletes under USADA] being held to a different standard, which I'm proud of and I think it's good. But it's just, like, how much time do we give [other National Anti-Doping Agencies] to catch up? Testing wasn't invented last year. It's been going on for a very long time. So how much time do we give them to catch up?
Nunn: We start hearing those athletes [at competitions in other countries] saying, oh they've never come to my house. And these are individuals who finished top 10 in rankings in the world at times. And you look at them and go, wait, what? And you start to realize that there is not a uniformity worldwide.
Goucher: It really disturbs me when it's like Kenya and Ethiopia don't have great testing and we have athletes from countries like the US and the UK and other countries that do have good testing protocols and they're going over to these countries to train. It makes me so uncomfortable. Like, why would you do that? And I don't think you should be able to do that.
On the price of doping
The athletes who spoke to VICE Sports didn't just have macro-level concerns about doping. Each had been harmed by doping during their careers, and had a personal story to tell.
Porter: I was in a meet ... it might have been '10 or '11, I was at a meet ... I had finished competing so I was in the background and I was talking to one of the meet directors, just having a good time, walking around, and then we see an athlete and a coach and a group of two or three people, I just happened to walk by and look around, and there was a syringe out. I thought that's weird. And the syringe, it was something that wasn't, I wasn't, you know, familiar with. And so I'm like, well, I'm married to a pharmacist ... well if it's a B12 vitamin, why are they injecting it into his leg?
So that was something suspicious and I made that known [to WADA, via their hotline]. And they were like, "well it could have been for medical purposes." Yeah, medical purposes of running fucking fast. Come on.
Symmonds: I remember, I think it was [the] Daegu World Championships 2011, and the U.S. federation said, "just so you guys know, every single athlete will be tested at these championships," and everyone threw up their arms and said hurrah! it will be a fair playing field. I talked to several of my friends who lived in Poland and they laughed and said, "no one is getting tested here. You Americans volunteered to do that, but they're not testing everybody."
Goucher: I was called by a Sports Illustrated reporter a year and a half ago. Elvan Abeylegesse who finished ahead of me at the  World Championship, her retest sample has tested positive. You're a silver medalist. How does that make you feel? I was like, I am emotional. I don't know. That's crazy. And yet, I've never had any follow-up from anyone involved. Not from USATF, not from USOC, not from IAAF, not from USADA, not from WADA, like, telling me what's going on with that case. Like, am I going to get this silver medal? What's happening? So it looks like this great press release, they'll announce this stuff ... and it looks like, wow, they're actually cracking down, but all these athletes still competed at the Olympics and, like, nothing's happened.
I ran that World Championship race 10 years ago. Why do I have to wait 10 years to find out if I'm the silver medalist or not? This is infuriating. Like, how is it so difficult? I feel like if there was a little bit more transparency along the way, maybe I wouldn't be so angry. I literally tweeted at [International Association of Athletics Federations President] Seb Coe a couple months ago, because I was like what the hell? Am I going to see this medal or not?
Basically, he asked me to be patient. Well, that's the first response I've gotten at all, like from anyone involved in any sort of organization. So I was like, alright, that was like a really, tiny, small victory. I feel like we just ... we're kind of always waiting. We don't know what's going on. It feels like behind these curtains, and it makes us lose faith in it.
Nunn: It was roughly a year after DeeDee [Trotter, an American sprinter] gets her Bronze medal in the 400 in London. She gets an email from USADA saying, due to lack of performance you're being taken out of USADA's drug testing pool. I got the same email, because [I] take the off year after the Olympics, so on and so forth. DeeDee calls me and we start talking about this. She said, "I don't like this. I don't think this is OK."
And she had a great point. She goes, "John, they basically have given me a green light to go dope all I want for at least a year because I'm not in a drug testing pool. You just told me nobody will be coming to my house to test me, until I do a performance that's worthy of putting me back in the drug testing pool." [VICE Sports's attempts to reach Trotter to verify this story were not successful.]
And so, I addressed this to USADA, and they said, "well, when you get removed from the pool, by law we have to notify you that you're no longer in the pool." And I said, "Yeah, but why do you have to remove me from the pool?" "Well because you don't meet our requirements to be in the pool anymore." "Yeah, but why can't you change the requirements?"
There's no reason I shouldn't still be in the pool. I go, "Databases are huge. You can get enough space on a server to store all of these names and just kick it over to a third section now, that athletes still have to submit whereabouts until they retire." And she was like, "Huh, well, we never thought of that."
USADA spokesman Ryan Madden said this likely isn't something they would consider doing because they like to be as forthright with athletes as possible about their status in the testing pool.
Is the antidoping system broken?
Following recent revelations about the Russian doping scandal, the athletes who spoke to VICE Sports have profound concerns about the anti-doping system from top to bottom. Their gravest concern involves conflicts of interest between the IOC and WADA, and they also worry that the powers-that-be aren't actually interested in catching dopers—but only in appearing as if they're trying.
Nelson: They're looking at it all wrong. They're looking at the athletes as the enemy rather than a potential friend in this fight ...You have to engage the athletes in the solution. You may not like what they have to say, but they're the ones who are going to be on the bleeding edge if you will, the front end, of discovery whenever a new option or new route, new type of cheating is available.
Goucher: I've thought about this a lot. The first thing, I think, and I talked to some of my teammates a little bit about this today, but we all just wish there was more transparency. Like, we want to know who's being tested, when they were tested, what the result was, if they missed a test. You know, you don't have to be like, they missed a test because they were at their mom's house. We want to know when people miss tests. We want to know when people are being investigated and we want to be updated on it.
Porter: As a group of athletes, I think we need to, and I'm working trying to work with the American athletes first and the USOC specifically, is to how to tell to the USOC to tell the IOC on behalf of the American athletes, you need to step in and deal with this. Because if you don't step in and deal with this, that means the athletes are gonna have to.
Although every athlete brought it up in conversation, Nunn in particular was very concerned about WADA's lack of independence. Craig Reedie, the president of WADA, is an IOC member. There are four other IOC members on WADA's board. Nunn acknowledges the concern that fully funding WADA's mission likely involves funding from the IOC, but worries what having IOC members at the table does to WADA's mission.
Nunn: I think the number one thing to fix is the independency of WADA and removing them from the IOC umbrella. To me, that seems a relatively simple fix and maybe others would absolutely disagree it is, but you get them separate, as in independent, then we can worry about the money.
The athletes had recommendations beyond reforming WADA's structure. Goucher sees the whereabouts window from midnight to 6 AM where no testing can take place as a huge blind spot, since it's an adequate amount of time to administer a "microdose" of PEDs.
Goucher: One of the things I think we should be doing is middle-of-the-night testing. Right now, you can't be tested from 12 o'clock to 6 AM. It's because you want athletes to rest. Well, no, I don't really want to be woken up at 2 o'clock in the morning. At the same time, we're fighting an epidemic of microdosing. So it's like, I think, and I pitched it to my teammates, I think that twice a year for starters they should be able to come and test me in the middle of the night. And all of them didn't even hesitate. They were like, of course.
USADA spokesman Ryan Madden says his organization has never received a proposal to close this window from an athlete and would be interested in reviewing it more formally, but also believes that the current window fairly balances athletes' rights to privacy with good testing procedures.
Nelson and Symmonds both believe that successful anti-doping reforms should address the economic incentives that encourage PED use—currently, athletes who dope are unlikely to be caught, and even retroactive testing won't catch them while they are winning events and profiting from chemical assistance. Moreover, while doping violations can lead to suspensions and loss of sponsorships, they don't claw back previous earnings nor inflict more severe punishments.
Nelson: I've put something forward that I call the Fair Play Fund that would effectively work as a deferred compensation model for athletes that would collect contributions from all the different stakeholders, hold it in a trust, and then after the statute of limitations is over for ... that the anti-doping associations have on retroactive drug testing, if you are still proven to be clean and compliant after 10 years, then you receive some sort of payout. It works no different than any other deferred compensation plan in the world, in any business, in any industry.
Symmonds: [Doping] is absolutely fraud, and it's stealing. The fact that dopers are not prosecuted to me does not make sense. If you commit fraud or steal in any other aspect of business, you go to jail. But for some reason you're allowed to commit both of those crimes in track and field and face no legal repercussions, and that's wrong to me.
Several nations in Europe, including Austria, Italy, France, and Spain, have criminalized doping in sports to varying degrees.
For Goucher, waiting for a decade to hear whether she won a silver medal has left her deeply frustrated with the speed of retroactive antidoping procedures.
Goucher: How long does it take to re-allocate medals and who do we talk to and who—everyone kind of pushes us to someone else to talk to but there's really no one to talk to. There's nothing set up for it. So it sounds like a great media soundbyte, like look we caught this person and we're doing the right thing and we're gonna re-allocate medals. Well, when do we get those? And is it going to be 10 more years from now when I'm not a runner anymore? Like, that doesn't help me, I've already been robbed of that moment, I've been robbed from the financial gain of it. Can you just give me the medal so I can be a silver medalist for the last few years of my career? Why does everything take so long?
On taking a harder stand
Given all of the above, it's hardly surprising to hear the athletes talking about coordinated action—protests and boycotts, for example—more than ever. On the other hand, they're aware of the logistical difficulties in doing so.
Nunn: Now that I've been to multiple [Olympics] I have realized the amount of power that athletes have collectively as a group. If US athletes and international [athletes] collectively being a body say we will not stand for this anymore, the IOC gets forced to have to listen.
Nelson: I think the first step to changing that [failing drug testing] process is to find a way to include athletes in the solution. And then it evolves into something more formal, like a true players association.
Nunn: The problem is—and the IOC knows this—you're not going to get athletes to collectively come together and say, "we will not do this, or we will go do this, unless you do X, Y, Z." Because in four years, a lot of you aren't going to be here again. Most of you are just excited to be here and you're going to be quiet, not going to cause any problems, because you just want to enjoy the Olympic experience because you spent at least a minimum of the last four years dreaming about this.
Goucher: The reality is we do need to band together in some sort of fashion, whether it's creating a place to put these ideas and then someone takes them to someone ... I don't really know what it looks like ... maybe it's like a Google chat-type hangout thing where everybody can talk and then all these ideas are presented to USADA and the IAAF. A lot of times, you can get maybe that far. They'll listen to you, but then what?
On speaking up
The athletes who spoke to VICE agreed that thinking about doping issues—much less talking about them regularly—was harmful to their competitive spirit. After all, it's demoralizing to be constantly reminded that your training can only take you so far. In every conversation, each athlete sounded increasingly frustrated, and was fully worked up within 15 minutes of talking. It was abundantly clear just how much resentment they keep inside about doping, and how powerless they feel to fix it. The spectre of PED use undermines their entire profession and everything they do.
Symmonds: Athletes don't want to talk about doping that much. I think, at least for me personally, I put my head in the sand [and] pretend it didn't exist. If you know how much doping is going on, if you step on the line and you know you're racing against people who are doping, it's really hard to wake up and train in the morning. It's so demoralizing that it almost totally prevents you from doing your job. So I didn't speak out about doping much at all, and I didn't read up on it much at all during the bulk of my career because I wanted to pretend like it doesn't exist. I had to in order to train.
Goucher: We don't talk about it that much because it just makes us angry and upset. It's kind of like on a case by case. If we read something big, we'll mumble about it for a couple of days at practice. But, in general, we try not to obsess over it because we can't do anything about it, you know?