Ironman World Championship: Drug Testing For Dummies

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Inside Triathlon assistant editor Susan Grant spent time researching the Ironman drug testing protocol.

Any person who doesn’t live under a rock at the bottom of the ocean knows that certain sports technically have drug testing, and certain sports don’t. Baseball? Check. Cycling? Double-check. Football? Wait … no. Hmmm … but that’s a whole other story altogether.

Triathlon has had some form of drug testing for years. And like other sports before it brave (and wealthy) enough to enter the anti-doping game (see baseball and cycling above), taking this plunge often means unveiling a dark, seedy underworld that the Pollyanna’s in all of us sometimes wish we had never seen.

The World Triathlon Corporation has followed the guidelines set forth by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA)( since they began testing in 1990.  Currently, all testing at Ironman events including the Hawaii Ironman is conducted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Association (USADA), but paid for by the WTC. This year, the WTC announced a change in their testing policy, which, however small, opens up the door to several other future changes to the way the WTC and the USAT collaborate on drug testing to ensure fewer cheaters make it to the podium. Is it a doping cure-all? Not remotely, but when it comes to drug-testing any small step in the right direction is better than nothing at all.

On Sept. 10, the WTC announced an “enhancement” to their anti-doping program, which stated that all athletes competing in Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events would be eligible for in and out of competition testing. Immediately the triathlon world began buzzing: “Age-group testing! Ha! That cheating bastard in my age group is going down!” Well, don’t hold your breath.

The WTC announcement also said that a Registered Testing Pool (RTP) called the WTC Whereabouts Program would be instated, and the WTC would be the ones requesting the tests, not the USAT or USADA as in years prior. According to Ironman official (and racing legend) Paula Newby-Fraser, while every athlete who signs up for an event could be placed in the Registered Testing Pool, only if they are notified that they have been selected for the WTC Whereabouts Program that they have to be accountable in case a test is ordered. “Any athlete theoretically can be tested in or out of competition, but if they cannot be located it is not considered a missed test,” Newby-Fraser explained. “It is only when they have “officially” been notified that they are in the Whereabouts Program that they then become accountable for being where they say they will be, and if they miss a test it would be considered a doping violation.” According to Newby-Fraser, since international professional and Olympic athletes are often already on their country’s own anti-doping organization’s RTP (i.e. all American ITU athletes are on the USAT’s RTP), what the WTC’s RTP brings to the table is yet another drug-testing whereabouts list so that athletes who may otherwise slip through the cracks could be held accountable. More RTPs, more chances to get in-or out-of competition tested.

So what does it mean to be “held accountable”? Ask Jimmy Riccitello, who as a former pro had plenty of chances to pee in a cup after 9 hours in the lava fields. “When you get done with the race, if you are selected for testing they assign you a drug courier who basically watches over you to make sure you don’t take or do anything you shouldn’t,” Riccitello said. “Then you report back with your courier in two hours and they give you a certain amount of time to give two urine samples. One is sent to the lab and one is held. If the first one comes out positive then you can have an accredited lab test the B sample and you can have your lawyers present.”

While often the top-finishers in each pro division in Hawaii are tested, this isn’t always the case. “The only people who know how the testing is handled are the people who are conducting the tests,” Newby-Fraser said. “The drawing for the actual random positions doesn’t even happen until the event is underway.”

In the end, the biggest limiting factor in drug testing continues to be the bottom line. According to Newby-Fraser, a basic urine test with EPO testing runs $500, and adding a blood test is another $275. To test 20 people it would cost the WTC $15,000, and that doesn’t even begin to include all the additional costs for bringing a tester to an event, and even more to fly them around for out of competition testing.  “This past year the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) spent $5 million dollars on their testing program. Do we have that kind of money? No, but we are making a start,” Newby-Fraser said.

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.