2016 has been a banner year for anti-doping for all the wrong reasons. From the athletes who have tested positive for a variety of drugs, to their various suppliers and enablers, to the testing organisations accused of looking the other way, the whole process is being questioned. When the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned Meldonium on January 1, it set off hundreds of positive tests, and protests from the amateur to the professional ranks in sports like hockey, tennis and boxing. In April, The Sunday Times broke a story about an unlicensed doctor who ‘treated’ 150 athletes, from boxers to footballers.
In June, Jama Aden, the coach of Genzebe Dibaba, the Ethiopian track star and favourite to win the 1,500 metres at the Olympics in in Rio, was arrested in a raid in Spain on suspicion of administering banned substances to athletes. A little over one month out from Rio, WADA has suspended the accreditation of labs in Madrid, Moscow, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Rio for various infractions. Kenya is in danger of being suspended. And the Russian athletics team has [faced allegations] of a state-sponsored doping programme, that saw many requested tests refused.
On a global scale, doping in sports has rarely been more volatile. At the present moment, the ‘clean sport’ movement is like an old sweater that is one thread pull away from completely unraveling. But zoom in that worldview lens to a particular sports group, unarmed combat, and the anti-doping picture is not all doom and gloom, thanks to a handful of dedicated organisations and individuals. New commission heads in busy fight markets have ramped up their testing policies and procedures. And third party testers like the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA), once dismissed by commissions, fighters and promoters, have gained acceptance while proving to be necessary. There’s hope, even if it’s just a little bit.
Boxing News started by emailing a list of questions to all bodies listed within the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC). To a little over 140 email addresses, the questions were aimed at shedding light on the anti-doping programs of the ABC-affiliated organisations charged with overseeing boxing and mixed martial arts.
“This isn’t an attempt at ‘gotcha’ journalism,” Boxing News tried to assure everyone. “It’s an attempt to help each other see what we are all doing to keep the athletes safe and how we can possibly improve.”
The responses received were not promising.
“Thanks,” replied a representative from the Nebraska commission, with no further comment.
“Minnesota Office of Combative Sports does not have a drug-use policy. Therefore, we don’t see the benefit of filling out your questionnaire. We do hear about it a lot, however. Good luck with your story,” was another concerning reply.
The Boxing, Martial Arts and Professional Wrestling Program at the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) responded to my first three questions with the following:
- How many fight cards do you put on annually?
“Average 16 licensed professional boxing/MMA events each year.
“NOTE: Amateur martial arts in Virginia was unregulated until October 1, 2015; at which time the legislature created a regulatory framework to oversee amateur events through approved sanctioning organisations, not DPOR.”
- How many combat athletes are licensed in your state currently? Annually?
“As of June 1, 2016, Virginia licensed 189 professional boxers/martial artists.”
- Do you have an anti-doping program?
“No, DPOR does not administer a drug testing programme as part of its regulation of professional boxing and martial arts. (Regulation 18VAC120-40-85 does require all contestants provide negative blood tests for HIV, hepatitis-B and hepatitis-C within 180 days of an event in order to participate).”
Jeannie Vogel, of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) Office of Communications, revealed that Michigan puts on between 15-20 fight cards annually. In that time, between 60-80 combat athletes are tested on the day of the fight. But they are only tested for recreational drugs. They do not test for PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs such as anabolic steroids, testosterone or EPO). When asked how much money is allocated to their commission for anti-doping testing annually, the answer was zero.
By themselves, these are somewhat disheartening results. Examining three key USA commissions does reveal some reasons to be cheerful, but also highlights the height of the mountain ahead.
New York has become more and more of a resurgent fight state in recent years. Both rooms at Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center and Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, NY are home to several big fight cards a year. And the owner of Barclays is looking into opening up more venues to the sport. The New York State Athletic Commission was happy to talk to Boxing News.
“We regulated 44 boxing events in NYS in 2015 and have done 18 thus far in 2016,” according to information compiled by Laz Benitez of the NYSAC. “In 2015, there were over 450 boxers licensed; so far in 2016, there are approximately 275.”
As it pertains to their anti-doping program, which dates back to 1983, according to Benitez, “All combatants in title fights and televised main events (in venues with seating for 5,000+) are required to go under pre-bout drug and steroid testing, and post-bout drug testing. The Commission and the Chief Medical Officer also have the right to require additional testing on any athlete they deem necessary. All boxers are required to undergo pre-bout drug testing.”
Can this policy be abused?
While all licensed athletes get tested, New York’s testing program is not year-round, instead focusing on the day of the fight. Not testing year-round leaves open a giant loophole for would-be cheaters. While testing on the day of the athletic event is critical, testing in the off season is equally important, if not more so. PEDs are used in a variety of manners to produce a range of results. Increasing workload capacity and aiding recovery are chief among them. Gains made through artificial means during training camp, or the off season training sessions, will remain for months. The loophole created by not testing throughout the year is how a well-scheduled doping program can circumvent even third party testing and night of the fight testing.
Quest Diagnostics handles drug testing for New York unless a third party such as USADA or VADA is brought in by the promoters. Those agencies use WADA-accreditated labs.
NYSAC tests for the standard panel of steroids and recreational drugs. However, testosterone, EPO and SARMs (Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators, a drug Lucian Bute recently tested positive for in Washington, D.C) are not uniformly tested for yet. Benitez did make it clear if someone involved with the promotion or the commission wanted a particular substance tested for, they would be open to it on a fight-by-fight basis.
A second testing loophole exists in New York: the 6:1 Testosterone/Epitestosterone ratio. The average male’s T/E is 1:1. WADA’s threshold, followed by some state commissions and all WADA signatories, is 4:1. New York’s T/E ratio threshold is 6:1, following the initial limit used by WADA from 1999 to 2006. Using exogenous testosterone or performance enhancers that perform a similar function, will spike an athletes’ T/E ratio. Famously high T/E ratios include 2006 Tour De France winner Floyd Landis (11:1), MMA fighter Alistair Overeem (14:1) and baseball player and admitted testosterone user Ryan Braun (20:1). Boxer Mickey Bey exceeded Nevada’s 6:1 T/E limit by a sum greater than 30:1 in 2013.
Testosterone is arguably the most accessible PED, but state commissions rarely, if ever, test for it outright. Exogenous or synthetic testosterone can only be detected in urine through the Carbon Isotope Ratio (CIR) Testing Method. But instead of using CIR in the initial testing of a sample, state commissions use the less expensive T/E ratio test. CIR is primarily deployed as a confirmatory test if a T/E ratio exceeds the 4:1/6:1 limit. Among all testing agencies, only VADA tests each collected sample for synthetic or exogenous testosterone.
The T/E ratio test works, but it is beatable. In his 2011 title fight with Amir Khan, Lamont Peterson admitted to having a slow release synthetic testosterone pellet in his system. His T/E ratio was 3.75:1. In the preparations for the rematch, CIR testing detected the exogenous testosterone in his system. The test was the first conducted by VADA.
Third party testing?
NYSAC is open to working with them.
“We work with these [third party] organisations when necessary,” said Benitez. “Even with USADA testing, the Commission still employs its own testing as well. The Commission reserves the right to take action based upon test results from any credible source.”
However, third party testing and commission testing can overlap. USADA handled testing for the
recent Keith Thurman vs Shawn Porter bout in Brooklyn.
Both the NYSAC and USADA required post-fight urine samples from Porter. New York got theirs first. When Porter, dehydrated from a 12-round fight, couldn’t produce urine for USADA, he went to the hospital to rehydrate until he could.
No representative from Nevada replied.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) has been testing for steroids since the early 2000s and has continued to upgrade its testing policies and procedures. But its approach to PEDs has not been without its problems. Under former Executive Director Keith Kizer, the proliferation of Therapeutic Use Exemption for testosterone became a rampant problem in combat sports. Fighters young and old claimed they were suffering from low testosterone which, combined with the 6:1 T/E ratio loophole, gave fighters a free pass to use testosterone, and set the table for disaster to strike.
Finally, the Association of Ringside Physicians issued a consensus statement on January 27, 2014 supporting the general elimination of therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) for testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). In January 2014, Kizer left his post. The following month, ESPN’s Mike Fish brought the subject of TRT TUEs into the mainstream. In March of 2014, Nevada followed their advice and banned TRT TUEs.
Three strikes and you’re out
Under the leadership of Chairman Francisco Aguilar and Executive Director Bob Bennett, the NSAC has stepped up their anti-doping game considerably, including conducting out of competition testing. In May of 2015, the NSAC made some sweeping reforms. Failed tests on fight night will result in a loss – not a No Contest – on a fighter’s record. When it comes to drug use both recreationally (such as cocaine) or anabolic steroids, Nevada now has a three strikes and you’re banned for life policy, with a sliding scale for financial penalties. A first offence for anabolic steroids will get you a 36-month suspension and a fine of 50-70 per cent of your purse. Second offence? 48 months and 75-100 per cent of your purse. A third offence gets you banned for life and fined 100 per cent of your purse. Time will tell if these stricter penalties are a deterrent or need to be ratcheted up to a one-strike and you’re out policy.
Third party testing?
At the moment, third party testing is a fighter-driven concept. The only testing fighters are obligated to undergo are conducted through the commissions who license them or sanction their fights. Promoters have no incentives or obligation to impose third party testing on a fight. An oft-given excuse to avoid third party testing is money. “Who is going to pay for it?” naysayers ask. Nevada just added a new regulation that can answer that question.
Part of Nevada’s improved anti-doping laws is an incentive for promoters to either use third party testing agencies or to pay the commission to do anti-doping testing. From Sec. 3. NRS 467.107: “4. A promoter is entitled to receive a credit against the licence fee imposed by this section in an amount equal to the amount paid by the promoter to the Commission or to an organisation sanctioned by the Commission to administer a drug testing program for unarmed combatants, subject to regulations adopted pursuant to subsection 5.”
That means there is no valid reason for promoters to avoid third party testing for fights in Nevada. However, this incentive doesn’t fix another problem posed by third party testing: a main event getting cancelled in lieu of a pre-fight failed test. That remains an unresolved issue across every jurisdiction.
The best for last. Under the leadership of Executive Director Andy Foster, a former MMA fighter who knows what combat athletes go through inside and outside the ring, the California State Athletic Commission has become a beacon of hope. Under Foster, and in conjunction with the UFC, California has started to weigh in fighters in the morning as opposed to the afternoon. Fighters will now have even longer to rehydrate and recuperate. A dehydrated fighter is a fighter at risk, and it’s long been suggested that making weight and all the nasty practices that go along with it is where drug use in combat sports can begin. If one can take a diuretic to make weight, one can easily take testosterone or some other PED to help you prepare or recover.
According to Foster, California has approximately 1,200 combat athletes currently licensed, and hosts around 130 professional events and 350 amateur events. While the CSAC does conduct “out-of-competition” testing, it does not have a year-round testing program. There are simply not enough funds available to implement that kind of program. Out of competition testing in California is handled by Labcorp or Quest Diagnostics. They test urine samples “regularly”, but blood testing is “infrequent.”
“We field test hundreds of athletes. We send less than 100 to UCLA (Olympic Analytical Laboratory) for testing. It depends on the year. Over 50 and less than 100 is probably the average for UCLA testing,” Foster said.
“We sometimes field test the entire card, sometimes we do half. It often depends on staffing, supplies and budget concerns. We have a strong testing programme, but I do not want to ‘oversell’ what we are doing. We do the most of any Athletic Commission, but we could always do more.”
When it comes to sample collection, Foster assigns “athletic inspectors trained as doping control officers” to do so. Dr. Anthony Butch of UCLA is the CSAC’s chief scientist.
The CSAC does test for EPO, testosterone and SARMs. Their T/E ratio is WADA standard of 4:1. Money allocated to the commission for their anti-doping program including staff, supplies and testing is “somewhere in the neighbourhood of $175,000.” That’s a staggeringly low figure considering the level of quality that the CSAC is trying to deliver. However, that leaves the door open for third party testers.
“The more testing, the better,” said Foster. “Testing is good.”
MAKE SWEEPING CHANGES NOW
The past year, the UFC made sweeping changes regarding anti-doping. It hired experienced PED investigator Jeff Novitzky as its Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance. Together with USADA, the UFC has been actively changing its culture by implementing year-round random testing, banning IV use and now moving weigh-in times to the morning. That kind of ability to change cohesively as a unit is what boxing lacks.
The ABC can only do so much. The 50 different states can only do so much. The people working at the state commissions can only do so much. The media can only do so much. Third party testers can only do what they are contracted to do. But perhaps, if they all work in tandem, change can happen.
Doping is as old as sport. From the 1998 paper by USADA science director Dr. Larry D. Bowers, PhD: “The origin of the word ‘doping’ is attributed to the Dutch word ‘doop,’ which is a viscous opium juice, the drug of choice of the ancient Greeks.” Cheaters and their enablers will always exist. But in combat sports, a clean field is essential, and the cold hard fact of the matter is we’re still a long, long way from that.