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The Really Confusing Way Doping Gets Policed in Triathlon

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On Feb. 3, two pro American Ironman triathletes announced that they had tested positive for a banned substance and were facing suspensions: Beth Gerdes, 37, and Lauren Barnett, 32. But you will never find either of them on the U.S. Anti-Doping Association’s sanctions list, a continually updated chart of athletes currently facing sanctions for positive tests. That’s because triathlon’s doping ban system is at best confusing and at worst ineffective at keeping the sport fair.

Who Tests Whom

The world of anti-doping organizations is like an alphabet soup of acronyms. First, there’s USADA, the organization that’s responsible for testing for all U.S. Olympic sports organizations. USADA tests all USA Triathlon-sanctioned events—with the exception of Ironman races. USADA also provides in and out-of-competition testing for all USAT members. USADA’s tri-priority mostly lies in testing Olympic-bound elite U.S. athletes—but any member of USAT, including age groupers, can be tested at any time or place.

USADA is considered a national testing organization that follows the WADA code. WADA is the World Anti-Doping Agency. The WADA code is basically a set of standardized rules for drug testing and everything that comes with it. Simply put, Olympics-related sports organizations want the WADA stamp of approval to prove their testing is up to snuff because, in many cases, this ensures that an organization receives government funding. In Ironman’s case, it ensures credibility.

The World Triathlon Corporation, Ironman’s parent company, is considered an international governing body signatory to WADA, much like the International Triathlon Union. The WTC performs its own tests, collects its own results and hands out bans as it sees fit—all under the WADA code.

USADA, according to the agency’s representatives, only places athletes on its sanctions list if two requirements are fulfilled: The testing must be performed by USADA, and the results management must be performed by USADA. USADA told us that in the Gerdes/Barnett situation they had no role at all in either the testing or sanctions. Both cases were handled exclusively by the WTC under WADA code—even though both are Americans and one positive occurred on American soil. USADA essentially can’t vouch for the results and can’t in good faith place their names on its list. And not having a centralized list is a big issue in keeping the sport fair.

The Ban Plan

If an athlete receives a sanction from a WADA signatory, like Barnett and Gerdes did, the ban technically goes “downstream” to all sports organizations that follow the WADA code—including USAT. USAT confirmed to us that both Barnett and Gerdes are ineligible to compete in USAT-sanctioned events during their suspension periods.

To be clear, suspended athletes aren’t banned from the sport—only the events that fall under USAT or a similar organization’s rules. That’s how Lance Armstrong was allowed to race in Maryland’s Half Full Triathlon in 2012 after his doping bust; the event forfeited its USAT sanctioning to let him compete. (Side note: he won the race.)

Armstrong also faced last-minute issues with trying to compete in masters swimming events after his ban because U.S. Masters Swimming is overseen by an organization signatory to the WADA code. Armstrong was initially allowed to enter, but was ultimately unable to compete only because his high profile raised red flags. This was because WADA maintains no updated online list of sanctioned athletes like USADA does. An athlete can claim they had no idea they weren’t allowed to race, thinking they were only barred from one kind of event. And the race director has no way of knowing unless they follow doping news closely and effectively maintain their own list of suspended athletes.

While the unification of all anti-doping under WADA’s single code does a lot to standardize testing and results management, there is clearly still an extreme disconnect between receiving a ban, having a ban enforced and who knows about it. The ITU and WTC’s recent partnership announcement seems to point towards some sort of unification on the anti-doping front, but WTC officials said only that a general meeting was planned with the ITU and WADA to review the current policies and look at ways of making it better.

The reality is that testing is still improving while so much else post-positive remains the same. Until every organization—national, international, sporting, doping and in-between—gets on the same page, athletes, race directors and fans will sometimes still get lost in a confusing jumble of disjointed regulation.