CLEAN UP THE CLEAN UP
Age-group doping at Ironman level has become a hot topic, but it’s not as simple as more testing equals cleaner sport, as Tim Heming explains
“We want fair racing” was the tubthumping call of a recent online petition urging Ironman to up its drug-testing for age-group triathletes. In addition to 2,117 digital signatures, there were also plenty of comments backing the move to thwart amateur cheats. “AG Dopers need to be caught! The prevalence of middle-age men taking testosterone is crazy!” posted Jerry Batolome. “Great petition. I’ve stopped racing in Kona regarding this reason,” followed up Fabrice Houzelle. In a subsequent 220 Twitter poll, 91% agreed testing should be increased. So given Ironman is owned by Chinese conglomerate Wanda, shouldn’t it bow to customer demand and implement it asap? Not quite.
Doping is competitive endurance sports’ biggest blight, and I’m not naive enough to think it’s not prevalent in the amateur ranks. Moreover, there’s a giant elephant in the room and moral maze over the use of prescription drugs such as testosterone that give older athletes a new lease of life off the course and unfair advantage on it. But simply upping the volume of tests, particularly on podium performers post-race, as the petition calls for, will have less than positive outcomes. The cost of drug-testing is prohibitive. Ironman refuses to release total spend publicly, but its head of anti-doping, Kate Mittelstadt, put it between $1,200$1,500 per test, varying depending on location of collection and how samples are analysed.
Given Ironman’s aggressively for-profit stance, that cost would be pushed straight on to the consumer, the majority of whom aren’t racing for age-group honours and already paying up to £460 to compete (the price of Ironman UK next year).
Bulk testing at events reduces the bill, but given the detection window of substances starts at less than 12 hours and only runs to five days, according to research from the University of Adelaide, a positive result would show the athlete to be as much of a dope as a doper.
Most cheats are smarter than that, although not Mexico’s Luis Fernando Pelcastre Rabanal, who was stripped of last year’s 18-24 age-group world title, after testing positive for testosterone pre-race. It made him just one of three violations announced so far in 2018 through Ironman’s I AM True media account.
Ironman deserves credit for being an early signatory of the WADA code, making it mandatory for all entrants to be available for testing. But it’s also flawed by a lack of transparency on its overall spend on anti-doping and its compromised ‘results management’ protocol that means it – not an independent third party – decides how to act on laboratory results.
So rather than simply more tests, far better to campaign for an open commitment from Ironman to put an agreed percentage of revenue into anti-doping, to focus on intelligence for targeted out-of-competition tests, and to lead the way in engendering a clean sport culture.
“Far better for Ironman to put an agreed percentage of revenue into anti-doping”