Should Amateur Racers Be Tested for Drugs?

Increasingly, race organizers are testing non-elite athletes for performance-enhancing drugs. But is it fair, or even possible, to hold amateurs to the same stringent standards as the pros?

Two pills outside bubble pack.     Photo: William Andrew/Getty Images

Since September 2010, 18 of the 20 cyclists sanctioned by USADA for doping violations were amateurs.

Elizabeth Morse Hill is a 34-year-old building contractor and competitive cyclist. She has raced in hundreds of amateur and semipro events over the past 14 years. In all that time, she has never taken a drug test—she rides mostly for fun, after all. But following a third-place finish at the Tampa Twilight Criterium this March, she was greeted by a chaperone, volunteering for the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), who told Morse Hill she needed to take a drug test.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Morse Hill told the volunteer. But the screening was no joke. As part of an effort to oversee all Florida Road Cycling Association-sanctioned races during the 2012 season, USA Cycling and the Florida Clean Ride Fund, an organization established in January “to ensure all competitors are competing without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs,” had paid for USADA to conduct drug controls at several races, including the Tampa Twilight. As a member of USA Cycling, Morse Hill was subject to the same rules as the pros.

Like many amateur athletes, Morse Hill knew little about what constituted a banned substance. Could her GNC multivitamin, calcium supplement, or even birth control earn her a two-year suspension? “I could’ve used a nasal cold spray that’s against the rules and I wouldn’t even have known,” she says.

Over the past few years, USADA has tested non-elite athletes in increasing numbers—and with resounding success. Since September 2010, 18 of the 20 road cyclists sanctioned by the organization for doping violations were amateurs when they tested positive. And it’s not just cycling. USA Track and Field adopted USADA’s more stringent measures for the 2011 Masters National Championships after a 52-year-old age-group champion tested positive for testosterone the previous year. USA Triathlon began testing age-group athletes at its 2010 nationals. Even the Spartan Race series, which attracted nearly half a million participants last year, has contemplated testing, according to series founder Joe De Sena.

Is testing of amateurs warranted? Though it’s impossible to know how many weekenders are doping, it’s certainly happening. The Clean Ride Fund was established in response to concerns from race directors that a dirty reputation was partly responsible for Florida’s dwindling race attendance even as the sport grew across the U.S. “When some Georgia racers were asked why they no longer competed in Florida,” says Jared Zimlin, the fund’s director, “they responded, ‘Even the juniors dope down there.’”

Of course, the new focus on amateur doping has some wondering whether participation will further wane because of testing. Millions of amateurs who compete under USADA guidelines as members of organizations like USA Triathlon and USA Track and Field have no idea which medications—even over-the-counter ones—could bring a suspension. Forcing people to follow the same rules as the pros could turn them away simply because of the hassle.

Critics of testing amateurs contend that, rather than catching a minority of unscrupulous competitors, USADA is more likely to embarrass unwitting athletes who’ve popped an allergy pill like Claritin-D or even downed one of the off-brand energy drinks, like Jack3d, that contain banned stimulants. “The benefit of ridding the amateur races of performance-enhancing drugs,” says Rob Kane, founder and former president of the Texas Bicycle Racing Association, “doesn’t outweigh the cost of busting people for things that are recreational or were taken inadvertently. It’s just not worth the time and energy.”

Don’t expect USADA to lend a sympathetic ear. “If someone signs a license and pays a fee to become a member of an organization, they need to know what’s on that license,” says USADA chief Travis Tygart. Zimlin insists that athlete education is one of his fund’s primary goals.

For athletes who knowingly take a banned substance for medical reasons, USADA does provide therapeutic-use exemptions (TUEs). But many athletes have found the application process onerous, to say the least.

James Smith, a midlevel Category 2 bike racer, applied for a TUE with USADA in 2008 after he was diagnosed with adult ADD at age 35. He found that taking two 10-milligram doses of Adderall per day helped him focus on his job as an architect. He had his physician detail the prescription’s purpose on his TUE form, but when USADA requested further evidence of James’s condition, including a mental evaluation, he decided to scrap the annual process. “I decided that there’s so little chance I’m going to be tested,” says Smith, “that I would just risk it.” (Since amateur athletes can also be sanctioned under USADA’s “non-analytical positive” statute—wherein guilt can be established through admissions, third-party testimony, or other evidence—we changed his name for this article.)

As for Morse Hill, after her Clean Ride-funded drug test, she took a hard look at the banned-substances list. She also contacted USADA directly about Claritin-D, which she sometimes takes to combat severe allergies. The email response from a USADA representative cited a “urinary threshold of 150ug per ml,” which confused Morse Hill even more. “The rep never said you’re all right or you’re not,” she says. “She just said, ‘Refer to the World Anti-Doping Agency guideline.’” It wasn’t until June 14 that Morse Hill finally received the results of her March test, ending three months of anxiety by confirming what she already knew but had never before been asked to prove: she was clean.

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