Clean Sport: Cracking Down On Triathlon’s Dopers By Susan Lacke


Triathlon’s governing bodies are cracking down on dopers in your age group.

As participation numbers in multisport events grow, so do the number of age-group athletes who break the rules. According to a 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One, as many as 1 in 7 Ironman athletes admit to using an illicit substance to gain a competitive advantage over their peers.

Some just puff on their son’s asthma inhaler before jumping into the water; others down a couple of Sudafed pills in T2 of an Ironman. The number of testosterone prescriptions have more than tripled in the last decade—simply find a sympathetic doctor and murmur generic symptoms of low energy and decreased sex drive.

In recent years, triathlon’s governing bodies have made a concerted effort to eliminate the incidence of doping in both professional and age-group fields through increased education, testing and punishment.

“We know that the win-at-all-costs mentality affects all levels of sport,” says Annie Skinner of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). “It is our goal to ensure a level playing field for athletes at all levels of competition, and many age-level athletes have expressed their desire to have a testing program in place to protect their rights.”

Beyond fairness

Though many of the anti-doping rules are in place to maintain the integrity of the sport, they’re also a way to keep athletes safe, says Skinner: “In addition to being a serious violation of the rules of sport, the use of these drugs or methods can be very dangerous.”

Take prednisone, for example. This powerful anti-inflammatory is often prescribed to athletes experiencing the “taper flu,” or sinus infections and bronchitis in the weeks leading up to a major race due to a weakened immune system. Though prednisone does a great job of tamping down a cough, medical research has shown it also inhibits the body’s ability to regulate hydration, blood pressure, protein use, blood sugar and muscle breakdown during exercise. Taking prednisone during a race, especially a long-distance race, could lead to serious—even life-threatening—medical problems.

The same is true for testosterone supplementation, which doubles the risk of heart attack in men, and Sudafed, which can cause cardiac arrhythmias.

Who gets tested?

Anyone who is a member of a national governing body, such as USA Triathlon, or who competes in an event sanctioned by a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) signatory, including Ironman, may be tested either in competition or out of competition for any substance on the WADA’s prohibited list.

During a race, the number of age-group athletes selected for testing can vary depending on the sport, level of competition and number of athletes participating. The anti-doping team works with the event organizer and the appropriate national governing body to determine the distribution of testing. Commonly, age-group fields utilize a “top three and random” strategy, where all podium finishers are automatically tested, followed by randomly selected athletes (5th, 7th, 12th, 18th and 19th for example).

Out-of-competition testing, where officials randomly appear at an athlete’s home, hotel or training facility, is more likely to take place within the professional field. However, several age-group athletes have answered the door to find an anti-doping official standing on their front porch.

“Given our limited resources, the majority of our out-of-competition testing is focused on the elite athletes in our registered testing pool,” Skinner says, “but we can and do test age-level athletes out of competition where appropriate.”

Cracking down

Beginning January 2015, athletes found guilty of doping violations are subject to harsher penalties than previous years.

“There are a number of significant changes which we expect to support the anti-doping community in its aim to protect the rights of clean athletes,” says Ben Nichols, a representative of WADA. Notable changes include a four-year ban from competition for a first offense for the presence, use, attempted use or possession of a prohibited substance. Prior to 2015, the ban was two years.

To protect athletes from suppliers and bad influences, WADA implemented a new “prohibited association” rule, making it illegal for an athlete to associate in a sport-related capacity with athlete support personnel (such as coaches, doctors or trainers) who are ineligible or have been convicted of a doping-related offense in the previous six years.

Though triathlon is certainly stepping up drug enforcement and penalties, all anti-doping agencies emphasize the responsibility of the athletes themselves to know and understand their rights and responsibilities. By increasing education efforts and providing a wealth of resources for athletes to cross-check medications and supplements for safety and compliance, these agencies hope to provide a safe race-day experience and level playing field for all triathletes.

RELATED: What Anti-Doping Code Changes Mean For Age-Groupers
Is it legal?

It is the athlete’s responsibility to check the prohibited status of any medication or supplement he or she might take. USADA has created an easy-to-use resource at, a mobile-enabled website that allows athletes to search the status of their medication.

What does USADA test for?

Anabolic agents: androgenic steroids, clenbuterol

Peptide hormones and growth factors: EPO, growth hormone

Beta-2 agonists: beyond therapeutic levels of inhaled salbutamol, fomoterol, salmeterol

Hormone and metabolic modulators: insulin, estrogen receptor modulators

Diuretics and masking agents

Manipulation of blood and blood components: IV fluids, red blood cell products

In-competition only
Stimulants: ephedrine, epinephrine and pseudoephedrine

Narcotics: many prescription painkillers, including fentanyl and oxycodone

Cannabinoids: marijuana, hashish and synthetic varieties (e.g., “spice”)

Gluco-corticoids: prescription steroids such as prednisone and aldosterone

For a complete list of drugs and dosages, visit

Therapeutic use exemptions

If an athlete has a legitimate medical need to take a substance on the WADA prohibited list, they can apply for a “therapeutic use exemption,” or TUE. The application, found at, requires a physician’s explanation of the athlete’s diagnosis and why the medication is required.

The application is thorough, with the TUE Committee requiring enough medical documentation to establish the athlete’s diagnosis and treatment plans are correct. Copies of applicable lab reports, medical imaging studies and relevant examination notes are required as part of the TUE application process. If alternative, approved treatments for your medical condition(s) are available, you must provide documentation of a failed trial of those alternatives before being allowed a TUE of a banned substance. If this documentation is not provided, the application will be returned to the athlete without review by the TUE Committee.

The CleanCrusaders

These pros demand clean sport—and aren’t shy about sharing why.

Jodie Swallow
“Sporting prowess, talent and excellence can straddle class, race, religion and age. When drugs and cheating are involved, the opportunity for all is vastly diminished. No longer the most talented, most hardworking or most deserving competitor wins—sport becomes a battle of the chemists. Science prizes are valid but not in the masquerade of sport. Doping steals from clean athletes, from fans and from the development of sport.“

Helle Frederiksen
“Those individuals who choose to take performance-enhancing drugs more often than not deny the progression of legitimate individuals and destroy their ability to be successful. There is no respect given to sport, competitors, the ethics of sport or their position as role models.”

Timothy O’Donnell
“I believe serious doping violations, such as consciously taking EPO, HGH or testosterone for a performance edge, should result in lifetime bans. Racing is in no way a right; it is a privilege. If you abuse that privilege, why should you get it back? In my opinion, once someone has doped at that level, the benefits they received, the efforts and workouts they were able to do can’t be undone.”

More Hope For Clean Sport

By Jené Shaw

A new organization called Clean Protocol is taking a different approach to anti-doping. Instead of creating a new way to drug test, it focuses on the causes of doping in the first place. By encouraging athletes to proactively show that they’re clean—using a series of research- and technology-based tests—they’re hoping for a social change that can preserve fair sport.

“There are organizations around the world and an official system for catching cheats,” says founder Teague Czislowski. “We realized we can complement that by tackling it from the other side and letting the athletes really drive that process.”

“The substance in somebody’s body? That’s not the problem. That’s a symptom of the problem,” says sports scientist Dr. Michael Puchowicz, Clean Protocol’s head of science. “So the rethink is well, why are we chasing these symptoms? Is that actually doing anything? We’re flipping that over and looking at the root cause.”

Clean Protocol’s process is five steps. It looks at a variety of factors that show if an athlete is “at risk” for becoming a doper—everything from current use of supplements to who is in his or her athletic entourage (coaches, mentors, etc.). It also uses psychometric measures to gather data about doping attitudes and, most interestingly, an ocular motor deception test that asks more than 300 questions while monitoring the eyes’ reactions using a $9,000 camera.

If an athlete passes, he or she will receive a Clean Protocol certificate. Last year in Kona, many top pros, including Luke McKenzie, T.J. Tollakson, James Cunnama and Jodie Swallow, all took and passed the test.

“I’ve been a professional athlete most of my adult life, but when people find out that I competed at a high level, they ask, ‘Oh what were you on?’ That’s a serious problem,” says Andrew Johns, a two-time Olympian who serves as an athlete liaison. “The big thing is there’s nothing for a clean athlete to say, ‘Hey I’m clean.’ This is that voice and mechanism to do that.”

Going forward, Clean Protocol is working on gaining buy-in from athletes and race organizers to make its certificate a sport-wide standard. Go to to learn more.

RELATED – Op-Ed: Is Doping A Problem In Triathlon?


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