general sports

On drug testing, MMA, the Diaz brothers, invasions of privacy, etc.

One thing I enjoy, perhaps more than I should, about my weird career path is the intersection of Olympic sports and MMA when it comes to the ever-entertaining world of drug testing. I did a lot of grunt work on the topic back in the day for USA TODAY, and I like finding a use for that otherwise useless knowledge:

  • The BALCO timeline, where we learned athletes can be suspended for doping without failing a test. (This piece is cited in a surprising number of scholarly papers.)
  • The Jerome Young case, a classic example of an athlete who had plausible deniability until he didn’t. (That might remind you of Marion Jones or Floyd Landis, another case I followed in detail.)

But I also learn a lot from the MMA community’s response. MMA writers and fans are often looking at drug testing with fresh eyes. And hopefully most people have lost their perception of MMA writers and fans as just a bunch of know-nothing “dudebros.” I’ve written for USA TODAY and a bunch of other big brand names (ESPN, The Guardian, etc.), and I’ve written for Bloody Elbow. I’ve seen Bloody Elbow do a lot of journalism I wish USA TODAY would do.

But my USA TODAY colleagues have done some terrific reporting on drug testing over the years, including this funny collection of anecdotes that show how drug testers can show up pretty much anywhere at any time. The formatting has broken down over time, so I’ll copy the first few paragraphs — follow the link, and you’ll see the rest, including a really funny story from Adam Nelson that I incorporated into a blog post when he finally got his gold medal.

Imagine being an athlete who’s off on a fishing trip, out in the Missouri countryside at a remote pond, and up drives a member of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to get a urine sample for drug testing.’s off on a fishing trip, out in the Missouri countryside at a remote pond, and up drives a member of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to get a urine sample for drug testing.

That happened to U.S. shot putter Christian Cantwell, who says, “We did it right there, in the woods.”

Cantwell also was tracked down recently for random testing while going into a casino. The USADA representative arrived when a dehydrated Cantwell wasn’t ready to produce, and during the ensuing two-hour wait he was certain he was missing out on a hot roll at the dice tables.

“When I got to the table they had just paid out $30,000 in a half-hour,” Cantwell says. “Next time I see that guy, I’m going to tell him he owes me money.”

Such anecdotes are common for U.S. athletes who compete in Olympic sports, and who are subject to year-round drug testing by USADA. And those stories are a reminder that, despite the few Americans who have been caught up in the BALCO steroids scandal this year, there are thousands of U.S. Olympic hopefuls who pass drug tests monthly, or even more often.

All of those athletes must keep USADA informed of their whereabouts at all times, and they all have to be willing to head for the bathroom — or woods — when USADA comes knocking. Which can be at any hour.

The MMA community is still somewhat new to this sort of drug testing, and they don’t find it quite as funny. Not yet, anyway. Maybe when they get used to it. And maybe when it doesn’t involve Nick Diaz, who has already documented an unpleasant exchange with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The Diaz case is unusual by any standards. Nick and his brother Nate are among the most vocal marijuana advocates in sports. Nick once turned a Strikeforce conference call into a freeform discussion of the merits of pot. (Disclaimer: I’m a little biased here because the smell of pot makes me nauseous, ruining many a good concert for me, and I have a enough life experience to know the “hey, it’s harmless” lobbyists are overstating their case. That said, I don’t see the legal case to treat it any differently than alcohol, and I’m certainly not a fan of draconian penalties, whether it’s prison time or the five-year suspension — later dropped to 18 months — Nevada handed Nick Diaz, prompting enough justifiable outrage to make the White House take note.)

Worth noting here: As USADA explains in a Marijuana FAQ that I’m sure the pro-pot lobby will not enjoy reading, pot is only prohibited in competition. The out-of-competition testing is designed to catch people filling up on every form of steroid known to man, all of which can give athletes an unfair advantage even if the drug has passed out of their system when they compete. Marijuana doesn’t work that way.

And Nick is back in the news now because he has three “whereabouts” failures. Yes, as the story above points out, athletes have to share their whereabouts with USADA, but the good news for athletes is that there’s an app for that. Under USADA’s agreement with the UFC, which is similar to but not exactly identical to USADA and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) agreements with other organizations, he’s subject to a possible suspension of 6-24 months.

Nick doesn’t seem too interested in fighting these days, anyway.  But athletes are generally responsible for filing retirement papers if they don’t want to compete any more, as USA Track and Field warns its athletes in a list of doping suspensions that happens to include a lot of “whereabouts” infractions. In fact, that list includes at least one athlete who hadn’t filled out his retirement papers and then refused to give a sample. He was suspended, but that just means un-retiring would be complicated.

So the MMA community has raised a few questions:

Good question. As is this:

I’ve never understood the random test process, either. But USADA is certainly transparent about the number of tests it conducts. A few random facts:

  • Your current 2017 drug-testing leaders, with 7 tests each: Vitor Belfort, T.J. Dillashaw, Mark Hunt, Stipe Miocic, Alistair Overeem, Valentina Shevchenko, Tecia Torres.
  • 2016 leaders: Anderson Silva (15), followed by Eddie Alvarez and Dominick Cruz with 14 each.
  • Ronda Rousey was tested nine times (cue Ferris Bueller reference) in 2016.
  • Rio 1,500-meter gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz was tested 17 times in 2016, more than any other track and field athlete.

And USADA tests a lot of sports, mostly but not limited to Olympic and Paralympic sports. Yes, Paralympic — the current list of sanctions includes athletes in sitting volleyball, wheelchair curling, paralympic judo, paralympic table tennis, etc.

In discussing all this yesterday, this Tweet came up:

This ties into another issue in MMA today — UFC fighters, like most athletes in individual sports, aren’t employed by the organization in which they compete. It’s a bit much to cover in a post that’s already too long — look up coverage of fighter unions and so forth. Labor lawyers are going to have a field day with this for a while.

So we were discussing possible ramifications and this came up:

Thereby establishing that all three of us in the conversation are DMV residents who’ve had their hearts broken by the Capitals every year. *%^##@ing Crosby …

And Backstrom was indeed kept out of the Olympic final, though the case was a bit complicated, and it did indeed not affect his play with the Capitals.

Of course, in the world of MMA, you can always fight somewhere else. See Mirko Cro Cop, who’s on USADA’s suspension list until November but has recently been fighting in Rizin overseas.

In the Olympic sports world, forget it. Lance Armstrong’s cycling ban even carried over to triathlons and swimming for four years.

Which raises one question: Will the Diaz brothers’ attitude toward anti-doping eventually limit their triathlon options? Or do they just plan to do recreational triathlons, which aren’t subject to the same scrutiny? (Which seems only fair. Anyone who’d juice up to win a recreational triathlon has some issues.)

In any case, it’s going to be interesting to see over the next few years how the MMA world adapts to anti-doping reality. Or maybe whether the MMA world forces a few changes in anti-doping. Maybe future fighters and shot putters won’t be awakened by someone carrying a badge and a couple of bottles.

 

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