- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

COLORADO SPRINGS — They are a friendly group — a pair of lawyers, a teacher, a scientist, a sports marketing major and a couple dozen more from different walks of life.

They are the 39 full-time employees of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and they don’t wear black hats or white coats.

They rarely deal in shades of gray, either.

Nearly every one is a sports fan, and the reason many of them turned down more lucrative and less taxing jobs elsewhere is, to a person, almost unbelievably idealistic.

“I thought to myself, this may be the last good chance we have to do something about drugs in sports,” said Larry Bowers, a Ph.D. and one-time top-notch racquetball player who oversees the science part of the USADA operation.

They are tightlipped — absolutely won’t talk to the media about any case that is pending. So mentioning the names Justin Gatlin or Floyd Landis on a visit this week gets you nowhere, even though there would be plenty to say if they could.

That strict code of silence often puts them behind in the court of public opinion, where people want to believe athletes are telling the truth.

“In the public’s mind, we’re fighting from behind and that’s unfortunate,” general counsel Travis Tygart said.

But that won’t change. The rules don’t call for it. As thorough and rigorous as USADA’s system of testing, adjudication and education might be, maybe the biggest thing the group has going for it is its reputation. Within the international sports community it is, on the whole, sparkling. If it is tarnished even a little, the progress of the last six years could be diminished or called into question.

“We believe we’ve made great strides,” CEO Terry Madden said. “There are other countries now copying the USADA model, which is all about independence and transparency.”

USADA was founded in 2000 by the U.S. Olympic Committee, which badly needed to transfer the testing of athletes and the resolution of drug cases from individual sports to an independent agency.

Before USADA, the USOC managed the testing program. When there were doping positives, it was the responsibility of the sports’ national governing bodies to handle the adjudication process and levy sanctions.

“The U.S. anti-doping system didn’t have a great reputation,” USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said. “There was a perception that it was the fox guarding the hen house.”

Now, USADA is responsible. Based a few miles away from the USOC, working on a $12 million annual budget that comes from the USOC and the federal government, the doping control agency has established a sophisticated pattern of testing to try to catch drug cheats.

It is made up of a battery of in-competition and out-of-competition tests, spread over 69 sports, including the Paralympics. About 2,500 athletes are considered at a high enough level to have their names entered into the pool of those who could be tested outside of competition. All are required to fill out “athlete location forms” — quarterly logs of where they’ll be at any given time over the coming three months.

For out-of-competition testing, about 90 independent contractors — Doping Control Officers — are spread around the nation, knocking on doors and surprising athletes, who are asked to give on-the-spot urine samples, often at their homes, and sometimes at their jobs or training sites.

Out-of-competition testing is considered USADA’s most effective weapon against doping, though it administers about as many in-competition tests, much like the ones that snared Gatlin and Landis. (Landis’ test was administered in Europe, by a different agency.)

“There’s the perception that, c’mon, you knew there was going to be testing,” so how could you get caught, said Kate Mittelstadt, who runs the testing program and was the second person hired at USADA, after Madden. “But it happens a lot.”

Samples are sent to a lab at UCLA — that’s where the guys in the white coats are — and if a positive test on the “A” part of the sample comes up, the athlete is notified and given a chance to attend the testing of the “B” backup sample a few weeks later. It only counts as a positive test if both samples test positive.

For cases that proceed, the lab data and any information the athlete wants to provide is given to a panel of three to five people on a review board — lawyers, lab experts and doctors. The panel gives its recommendation to USADA, which forwards its decision to the governing bodies of the athlete’s sport, the USOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Simple as it sounds, that transfer of information is important because it keeps everyone in the loop. Transparency. No secrets here.

If an athlete is found guilty of doping, he can appeal, first to a panel of North American arbitrators, then to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Europe. The appeals process can last more than six months.

Of the nearly 40,000 tests USADA has conducted over the last six years, not even 400 have come back positive. That’s less than 1 percent and that’s either very good, or kind of bad, depending on how you look at it.

The good: Clearly USADA is having a deterrent effect. The bad: Less than 1 percent? It seems like they should get more.

“The vast majority of our athletes are clean, we’re quite sure of that,” Madden said. “Are we catching everyone who’s doping? The answer to that is no.

“But we believe with all the testing we’re doing, we’re creating a deterrent effect, and with those we’re catching, we’re sending a message to other athletes who are deciding whether to go the right way or the unethical way.”

It is the education aspect of USADA that might be the most important, yet most overlooked, part of what they do.

Starting with kids at the grass roots and working all the way through the elite athlete programs, USADA is trying to teach athletes the difference between right and wrong and the health risks of using performance-enhancing drugs.

Through handouts, extensive information on their Web site and even a hotline, anyone can find out what is and isn’t legal. The goal is as much to keep this generation of athletes clean as it is to influence the next.

“This generation has already decided whether they want do it right or wrong,” Madden said. “We’ve got to get to the next generation and educate them.”

The USOC lavishes praise on USADA. Still, in the “call to action” chairman Peter Ueberroth gave to all American sports entities about the drug crisis Thursday, he made it clear that the anti-doping agency can’t do it all by itself.

“USADA is a success story, particularly in the area of testing and adjudication,” he said. “But in order to prevail in this fight, we must broaden the effort.”

Some might find it surprising to know that the majority of athletes who are tested are among USADA’s biggest supporters. Mittelstadt said most feedback she gets is positive, though sometimes there is some crankiness in the immediate moments after a doping control officer knocks on their door.

“When someone tests positive, it doesn’t look good for any Americans,” American triathlete Hunter Kemper said. “I’d love to know every American athlete can actually be clean and adhering to the ideals of fair play and competition. It makes the whole experience better.”

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