Last week Matt Futterman of The New York Times wrote two stories of interest to readers of FasterSkier. One piece was titled “Winter Sports Athletes Are Crisscrossing Europe for Races. Is That a Good Idea?” Futterman advanced this story on Twitter with the following statement: “It’s a really strange moment for the Olympic winter sports schedule to begin. All you have to do is everything medical experts have been telling us to avoid.”
— Matt Futterman (@MattFutterman) October 23, 2020
The article highlights the alpine World Cup, which began last week, and the soon to begin cross-country and biathlon World Cups as athletes, coaches, and organizers tiptoe amidst the pandemic.
The second article, “Doping Tests Are Returning, but it Might Be Too Late”, was coupled with this tweet from Futterman: “There is no way to sugarcoat this — 2020 was a great year to dope and not get caught.”
— Matt Futterman (@MattFutterman) October 23, 2020
That’s knee-deep skepticism in the first roughly140 words of this story. (Futterman, after all, has “Skeptic” listed as a personality trait on his Twitter profile.) As we surge into November, the NYT’s stories illuminate colliding social forces confronting the culture of elite winter sports. There’s Covid-19 and the accompanying down-throttle of the global sports infrastructure engine. Fanless races. Regular COVID testing. Strictly controlled access to the playing field. There’s also, as Futterman evaluated, a significant decrease in testing from anti-doping agencies.
“With winter sports that are considered high risk for doping about to begin their World Cup seasons and the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics only eight months away, antidoping officials say the need to get testing back to previous levels is critical,” explained Futterman. “This is particularly essential at competitions, they say, since those offer the best chance — given current travel restrictions — to catch athletes using illegal stimulants that have an immediate effect on performance.”
Some eye catching words were “winter sports that are considered high risk for doping”. Look no further than 2019 in Seefeld, Austria when several cross-country athletes were arrested and eventually penalized for serious doping offenses. Cross-country skiing and biathlon, historically, are those high risk winter sports.
In 2003, researchers wrote, “These data suggest that blood doping is both prevalent and effective in cross-country ski racing, and current testing programs for blood doping are ineffective.” The authors were referring to a review of blood tests already collected from anti-doping entities as far back as the 1989 Nordic Ski World Championships. The article, “Abnormal Hematological Profiles in Elite Cross-Country Skiers: Blood Doping or?”, published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, found the likelihood of blood doping prevalent amongst those within the sharp-end of the race field.
Again, in 2018, researchers examining newly released testing data confirmed “suspicious blood values” from previously tested cross-country skiers. None of this may be news, but it’s worth reflecting upon as anti-doping agencies have curtailed testing since last March.
Of late, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has been one of the more transparent anti-doping agencies. USADA updates weekly the number of doping tests administered to U.S. athletes under its auspices and makes that information public. In March, as a response to changing travel dynamics and social distancing, USADA began what it called “mission critical” testing. In other words, the scale of in and out-of-competition testing was reduced.
For comparison, in 2019, USADA reported a total of 117 tests in biathlon, 74 of them during Q1. USADA aggregates skiing and snowboarding as one sport that includes all disciplines under the U.S. Ski & Snowboard umbrella. Altogether, those sports accounted for 309 tests in 2019, including 152 in Q1 alone.
USADA has released 2020 testing numbers for Q1. According to USADA, these include six tests total for biathletes, all taken out-of-competition. For the ski and snowboard sports, 67 tests were administered in Q1. Comparing Q1 in 2019 to Q1 in 2020, that’s a reduction of 68 tests in biathlon, and 85 in skiing and snowboarding over a similar period. (The International Biathlon Union held a World Cup in Feb. 2019 at Soldier Hollow that may have increased in-competition testing for U.S. athletes. USADA reports 42 in-competition tests for biathlon for Q1 2019, when the event was held. In 2018, USADA reported no biathlon in-competition tests for Q1-Q3.)
FasterSkier has reached out to USADA to learn about testing numbers for Q2 and Q3 in biathlon, and skiing and snowboarding. We’ll update this story if those data become avaiable. However, the general trend in testing is downwards. USADA reports a total of 3452 tests across all sports the first 90 days of 2019, and 2060 tests over the same period in 2020. That’s a reduction of 40.4 percent.
All this is to say that USADA, considered by many to be an anti-doping agency with integrity, has scaled back testing. By extension, one may assume that most of the nations involved in anti-doping have reduced testing too. Using the U.S. as an example is not to insinuate biathletes or cross-country skiers in the U.S. are doping, it is simply reliable data that tells a story of testing constraints. If reduced testing is happening here, it’s likely worse in nations with less anti-doping oversight.
Futterman’s Tweet rings loud and it’s worth stating again: “There is no way to sugarcoat this — 2020 was a great year to dope and not get caught.”
Followers of track and field will know the men’s 10,000-meter world record was broken on Oct. 7 by Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei. The previous world’s fastest for men in the 10,000 was set in 2005. The same day, Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey broke the world record in the women’s 5000m race – a record that stood for 12 years. Fast track, fast conditions? Primed racers with little fatigue? It’s all possible. So too are the more cynical explanations associated with decreased anti-doping oversight.
For reference, we have provided the public USADA testing information for three U.S. athletes: U.S. Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee, and Simi Hamilton and Jessie Diggins of the U.S. Ski Team. Depicted in the data below are USADA anti-doping tests. During the season when athletes are traveling and/or racing, other entities like the International Ski Federation (FIS), or the International Biathlon Union (IBU) in Dunklee’s case, may also test athletes. This is not a comprehensive list detailing the number of times each respective athlete has been tested. The testing information is included to provide a frequency comparison of USADA testing before and during the pandemic.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.