Steven Lord Blog: Age Group Doping In Ironman

  • By Steven Lord
  • Published December 18, 2012

When I saw the story about an age grouper being caught for doping the fact he doped didn’t surprise me at all. I’d felt that the risk reward balance was easily high enough in age group racing that there’d be some unscrupulous triathletes willing to give it a go. Two things did surprise me, though. Firstly, that he’d allowed the testing to happen. As I thought about it I could only assume entering an Ironman race you agree to drug testing both in and out of competition. The second thing was that this was out of competition and that they knew where he was since there is no whereabouts system for age groupers. My guess was he was caught at home.

Until this point I was only aware of age group testing at one race. In 2008 I finished Ironman Germany behind Jo and then couldn’t find her anywhere. It turned out that all age group winners were tested.

I heard lots of discussions about age grouper drug testing and how it should be approached. Many suggested that it should be more or less on the same footing as professional testing. There would, however, be quite a few issues around this, the biggest one being what is your pool of athletes to test? If we’re talking out of competition then in theory your pool is the whole population since anyone could decide to enter a race at short notice. This clearly wouldn’t work, so perhaps we say that once you have entered a race you are now in the pool.

I imagine (I’ve not checked) that this must be the case with Ironman (World Triathlon Corporation) races. This is practical but given there are 28 Ironman events (excluding Kona) and 51 Ironman 70.3 events (excluding Vegas) that’s a lot of people. Even if we say there are (probably conservatively) 1,000 distinct competitors per race that would be a pool of 79,000 people worldwide. The chances of being tested out of competition would be so low it probably wouldn’t act as a deterrent. What additional cost on the entry fee would be required to make the odds higher by being able to employ more testers? $10? $100? Would you be willing to pay it? This doesn’t even take in to account the issues of tracking the whereabouts of these people.

It would seem to me it’s just not worth it but a more focussed system would be. This could mean rather than random testing it would be targeted. My guess is that given the person caught is a consistent age group winner that this test was targeted. One way to end up in the pool would be by having to say on entry if you are trying for a Kona slot, which would immediately increase your chances of being tested. To this I would add any age group winners as there are very good athletes out there not interested in going to Kona.

How would we know where someone is? Well for your typical age grouper just having a home address would be sufficient since most have jobs and are thus relatively fixed in their location. Most couldn’t up sticks to go to a location for an extended period of time, allow a doping programme to be run. That said, there are age groupers that are full-time who perhaps could do this. This could be tackled by having a targeted method to add age groupers to the whereabouts system – perhaps the winner at Kona or even top five are added for two years and any age group winner at other events is added for a year.

In competition testing seems much clearer. Surely all age group winners should be tested? The other issue this raises is what constitutes doping? As we get old there are drugs that are often taken to counteract the effects of aging that are performance enhancing. For instance taking testosterone supplements for lower testosterone. This was the case that was recently publicised. In this case the athlete could apply for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE). For me this is a can of worms in the professional field let alone the age group field. Aging is a part of life, and those that for whatever reason age better, should be at an advantage in athletics over those that don’t. Giving a TUE for any drug that limits aging would seem a little wrong to me. To me it’s no different from some athletes being lucky enough to have stronger muscles, bigger lungs or able to carry more oxygen in their blood, but we wouldn’t propose allowing a TUE for a drug that would improve it for those below the norm.

These things should be put in place, but like with other issues in triathlon (i.e. drafting) the long term deterrent can be helped from within the culture of our sport. It needs to be made unacceptable so the majority wouldn’t do it. We need to shout, “draft cheat” when we see one, and in the same way we need to challenge those we feel may be doping.

We need to make it so that those that chose to do this sort of thing will be isolated. Within age groupers the driver for drug taking must be the prestige of success because there’s little money in it. If achieving this success through doping requires increased isolation from their peers then hopefully the kudos for that individual will be reduced.

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