Should Rock Climbers Be Worried About Doping?

As climbing moves toward its shot at the Olympics, the stakes are rising for the next generation of athletes. Will the temptation to get an edge be too much for some of them to handle?

Climbers of the future may face serious temptation to turn to chemical help.     Photo: Imagedb.com/Shutterstock

We'll be very lucky if the doping scandals of the next decade are limited to pot and cocaine.

One of the interesting effects of the Lance Armstrong scandal—and here I'm talking not just about his appearance on Oprah's network, but the whole Byzantine, multi-year saga—is the way it has unraveled the myth of the reliable drug test. Consider: The bedrock of his supporters' defense has always been the story that in 500 tests, he failed to register a single positive. (The actual number is closer to 236.) Then, last week, Armstrong got on national television and said that not only did he dope, but the testing was so inadequate, he wasn't even worried about being caught. Suddenly, hundreds of negative tests just don't seem worth much anymore.

Climbers don’t really know how to talk about doping. Sure, mountaineers regularly use drugs, from Dexamethasone to Diamox, that would earn them a ban in a more regulated sport. (Another Himalayan mainstay, supplemental oxygen, was taken off the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances in 2010.) But thus far, rock and competitive climbing have been mercifully free of doping scandals, so the few bloggers who have tackled it have stayed squarely in the realm of speculation. However, as Jamie Emerson wrote in a post on B3 Bouldering in 2011, that doesn't mean that the sport is necessarily free of performance-enhancing drugs.

Interestingly enough, rigorous testing hasn't prevented athletes in almost every major sport to try and use performance enhancing drugs. Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Joe Canseco are just a few well known examples from one sport, baseball.... Even more dangerous (and interesting to the discussion) is the ease with which someone who climbs outside can use the drugs undetected, and subsequently earn money and support for ascents climbed while using steroids. Is it naive to think that no climber has ever used anabolic steroids to enhance their performance on the rock?

While it would be nice to believe the meme that the stakes in climbing are too low and the athletes' motivation too pure to justify cheating, it just doesn't jibe with reality. Amateurs in other sports have doped over far less than is at stake in a World Cup competition; two racers at this year’s Grand Fondo New York, one of them a Cat. 3 masters rider, tested positive for EPO. As for motivation, Rich Simpson, Cesare Maestri, and Christian Stangl have demonstrated pretty clearly that there are climbers who are willing to use dishonest means to get ahead.

The last time that drug use in comp climbing surfaced as a topic of public conversation was in June 2007, when Spanish climber Edu Marin tested positive for cocaine following a World Cup competition in Zurich. In an interview with 8a.nu afterward, Marin apologized and said that he had taken the drug due to stress, not to boost his performance. "Maybe I should have approached climbing in a different way," he said. "It's hard to tolerate the training, so many hours in the climbing gym, always the same ... a routine." Marin later received a two-year ban from competition, though his sponsors, which include Boreal and Petzl, stuck by him.

A little background here on the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s anti-doping regime. Since 2007, when it replaced the UIAA as the main governing body for competitive climbing, the IFSC has been a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code. Besides conducting drug screenings at World Cups and other events, the IFSC selects two testing pools of about 20 athletes each to undergo out-of-competition testing.

The more stringent of the two groups, the International Registered Testing Pool, may be tested 24 hours a day, and must keep the federation updated on their whereabouts at all times. The other, the IFSC Registered Testing Pool, need only be available for one hour per day. This year, the testing groups contain only one American, Alex Puccio.

So have the IFSC's drug tests caught many cheaters? Not really. Between the federation and its predecessor, only a few climbers have been sanctioned following positive tests, generally for recreational drugs rather than performance enhancers. In an email, IFSC sport manager Jerome Meyer said besides Edu Marin, only "1 or 2" climbers have been caught since the doping controls came into place, all of them for marijuana. (While Meyer said the IFSC's privacy policy prevented him from naming names, we already know who one of those athletes was. In 2001, Chris Sharma was stripped of his World Cup title after testing positive for THC at a competition in Europe.)

When it comes to pot, a few athletes have definitely slipped through the IFSC's net. Based on personal knowledge of some of the athletes who have competed on the circuit and general knowledge of climbers' proclivities, it's safe to say that there have been far more than two World Cup climbers who have smoked weed during their careers.

The fact that some climbers have an affinity for the ganj isn't that worrisome by itself—this is climbing we're talking about, after all, not an eating contest. But it does reaffirm what anyone who follows the Olympics or cycling could already guess: The IFSC's drug tests are fallible, just like everyone else's. If athletes who smoke pot can beat the test, it's not a stretch to assume that steroid and EPO users can, too. While those cracks in the system may not mean much now, they'll only become more and more obvious as the stages get bigger and the payouts get higher.

We can make some informed guesses about what substances would feature in a climbing-specific doping program. The most obvious choice would be anabolic steroids, the strength-building drugs made notorious by bodybuilders and Major League Baseball. The drugs boost lean muscle mass and shorten recovery time between workouts, both of which could give climbers an edge. (There's some evidence that heavy steroid use may eventually weaken tendons, but it’s far from conclusive.) Some varieties, like synthetic testosterone creams, can be had easily and cheaply.

One of the few climbers able or willing to talk firsthand about his experience with steroids is John Long, a Stonemaster and member of the party that made the first one-day ascent of the Nose. In an interview with ClimbTalk Radio in 2010, Long said he tried steroids for six months out of curiosity after the end of his climbing career.

But I’ll tell you one thing for sure, interesting, and that is, there’s a reason why those things are illegal. I discovered why, and it isn’t because they don’t work. I mean, you get strong as a freakin’ black bear on those things in no time. It is absolutely crazy how strong you get on those. And that was just doing a fairly moderate dose, nothing over the top, and I quit after one cycle.

Strong medicine. Maybe too strong for some of the young Olympic climbers of the future, who will have an entire country's hopes riding on their performance: We'll be very lucky if the doping scandals of the next decade are limited to pot and cocaine.

But in the end, maybe that's secondary. What's going to determine whether climbing competition stays clean in the future isn't going to be whether a handful of individuals decide to dope (because some almost certainly will) or even whether drug tests catch them (because if we've learned one thing from Armstrong, it's that tests can be beaten, repeatedly). It will be the way that climbers as a community react, whether they give doping culture a chance to germinate or pull it out by the roots.

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