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A Look at COVID-19’s Impact on Drug Testing

Travel restrictions took drug testing to a virtual standstill in 2020. Will that make 2021 the dirtiest year on record?

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On the first weekend of 2021, Russia’s top junior biathletes gathered in the city of Izhevsk for a nationwide competition. The night before the races began, anti-doping officials from RUSADA—Russia’s heavily scrutinized anti-doping agency—descended on the city, and suddenly 37 athletes withdrew from the event and left town. Clearly, a large chunk of competitors weren’t expecting to come across officials with clipboards, syringes, and plastic cups.

While circumventing anti-doping has been the norm in some countries for some time, the COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity last year for athletes from all over the globe to avoid a prick in the arm or a pee in a cup. In-competition testing was reduced significantly by the lack of competitions, and out-of-competition testing was more difficult than ever due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. It’s hard to fly in certified drug testers and make them watch an athlete urinate while also complying with COVID health guidelines.

Does that mean more athletes chose to dope in 2020? We’ll never know for sure, but many argue it’s naïve to think that some athletes didn’t take advantage of the circumstances. Even though the diminished race schedule limited the monetary incentive to take performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), athletes could have been looking to 2021 and beyond, hoping the effects of PEDs would provide a needed boost or help them train harder and recover better in the down year. While the exact impact isn’t clear yet, one thing that’s certain is significantly fewer drug tests were performed across the sports universe in 2020—and triathlon was no exception.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) reported that 167,759 drug tests were performed by anti-doping agencies in 2020. That’s a staggering reduction of 45% from 2019. The overwhelming majority of that reduction came from a lack of in-competition tests, particularly in the spring and early summer. In April 2020, WADA recorded just nine in-competition tests across all sports. In April 2019, by comparison, there were more than 12,500 in-com- petition tests performed.

World Triathlon (formerly known as ITU) had a similar drop in testing among its athletes in 2020, reporting just 238 in-competition tests in 2020, down from 1,143 in 2019 (a 79% drop). However, there was actually a minor increase in the number of out-of-competition tests performed (308 in 2020 versus 275 in 2019). As of press time, Ironman had yet to release its annual anti-doping report, but with events at nearly a complete standstill since March of last year, there were almost no opportunities for in-competition tests. A survey of 22 pro triathletes (15 of whom are Ironman specialists) showed that out-of-competition testing largely disappeared between March and September and then picked up again this past fall.

Testing programs and biological passports, like this one shown above, are just as important, if not more so, in helping catch drug cheats.

The fact that the reduction in samples came mostly from in-competition tests is a good thing. As the not-so-old adage goes: “Only stupid athletes get caught doping during a race.” Out-of-competition testing is widely seen as exponentially more important for catching cheaters, both in terms of effectiveness and in terms of limiting the benefits of doping in the first place.

“There is quite a bit of evidence that athletes who do dope adjust their patterns of use in response to intelligence on testing programs,” said Dr. Ian Boardley, a professor of psychology at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. who specializes in anti-social behavior. “A good example of this is the shift towards micro-dosing in response to the introduction of the biological passport. For athletes who are planning their patterns of use based on such intelligence, it can be expected that certain athletes will have increased their use or chosen different substances and methods if they knew there was little chance of being tested.”

Boardley emphasized that a reduction in testing wouldn’t necessarily encourage more athletes to dope. There is a sizeable cohort of competitors who he deems “truly clean.” For a number of reasons, a large percentage of professional athletes (including triathletes) won’t dope under any circumstances. The bigger con- cern, then, are the athletes who have already made the decision to cheat and are able to take advantage of this time away from testing. “It’s worth pointing out that while testing is important as a means to catch cheats and as a deterrent, it’s not the only strategy available,” said WADA spokesperson James Fitzgerald. “There are other angles of attack being pursued, which include intelligence and investigations, technology and research, sample storage and re-analysis, and the athlete biological passport.”

If history is any indicator, those other angles of attack might be more effective in the long run. The biggest doping busts to take place in cycling and running over the past 10 years have been the result of lengthy investigations and sample re-analysis. Testing needs to be there as a deterrent, but it’s unlikely that the brief reduction in testing in 2020 led to a big increase in doping, and experts like Boardley say that supporting clean athletes is a better place to focus everyone’s energy.

Leslie Buchanan, a World Triathlon board member and the former head of anti-doping, agreed.

“We are confident that the majority of our athletes are clean and want a level playing field,” she said, pointing to technological advances in their testing program and biological passport. “Yes, there was a pause in testing, but there was not a pause in our commitment to clean sport.”

As out-of-competition testing has started to return to normal levels in countries with functioning anti-doping agencies, anti-doping officials and athletes are optimistic that the gap this past year won’t have a lasting impact on the sport. Boardley added: “I think the ‘dirtiest year on record’ claims being thrown about are a bit overstated.”