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