USADA Spearheads Decade-Long Charge of Anti-Doping
"I think it was a normalized culture," USADA CEO Travis Tygart, pictured right, told FanHouse this week at the agency's annual science symposium. "The entire sports world grew so quick financially, including the Olympic sports that really took off after the 1984 Olympics. What did all that money, fame and glory bring? It brought the temptation of doping."
As the independent body charged with testing and disciplining U.S. athletes competing in Olympic sports, USADA has no official role in how Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA test their athletes. That's not to say USADA hasn't had some sway on the matter over the last decade.
USADA was instrumental in uncovering the fact that Bay Area Lab Co-Operative (BALCO) was distributing performance-enhancing drugs to several elite athletes from track stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, to NFL and MLB players. Part of it was the fact that it received a gift in the form of a syringe shipped to the agency's Colorado Springs headquarters by disgruntled track coach Trevor Graham, a substance that was identified by the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory as THG ("The Clear"). Later in 2003, former IRS agent Jeff Novitzky led a raid on BALCO's headquarters.
It was the sort of investigation that Tygart said would be hard to fathom before USADA's creation.
"The sports themselves were like a fox guarding the hen house," Tygart said. "They didn't want to uncover the dirty side that might have existed at the time. By uncovering BALCO, you could see the cheating culture that existed before we took over. We wanted to dismantle that culture."
USADA continues to work alongside Novitzky, now an agent with the FDA, as he looks into whether seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong and his teammates conspired to create a doping ring. (USADA has refused to comment on the ongoing investigation.) Other leagues have adopted the same approach as they work to flag athletes for so-called non-analytical positives, where an athlete can be suspended if, for example, law enforcement can prove he or she received a shipment of steroids.
But it's USADA's ability to bring scientists from all over the world together to discuss the latest in anti-doping research that should be thought of as USADA's greatest accomplishment in its first decade, according to the NFL's consulting forensic toxicologist Bryan Finkle About 90 people in the anti-doping field from a couple dozen countries attended the four-day summit on emerging research that concluded on Monday.
"They have the uniquely been able to unite major laboratories around the world in scientific effort," Finkle said. "There has been more collaboration and serious discussion between scientists. Such free and open dialogue is encouraged by USADA. That did not exist 15 years ago."
In the years since USADA's founding along with constant prodding by Congress, MLB has gone from no testing to no suspensions for a first-time steroid offender to the current policy that calls for a 50-game ban for a first offense. MLB has also instituted blood testing for human growth hormone in the minors this past season and has expressed interest in doing the same in the majors, which would need approval by the players' union.
"As the bar gets raised, it gets raised of everyone," Gary Green, MLB's medical director. "I think they've been instrumental in improving testing and have put money in that area."
While more the baby of former United State Olympic Committee President Peter Ueberroth, USADA is also a founding member of the Partnership for Clean Competition. The PCC, which counts every major sports league in the U.S. as partners, funds anti-doping research.
"I think MLB and the NFL have moved substantially in the right direction," said Gary Wadler, a physician in New York and chairman of WADA's Prohibited List and Methods Sub-Committee. "Have they gotten to the brass ring? For me the brass ring is accepting the WADA code (that calls for an independent testing program). They haven't gotten that yet, but they are moving in that direction."
Tygart admits he didn't know what a doping protocol was when USADA's first CEO, Terry Madden, asked about one a decade ago. Now, USADA has gone a long way of setting up such procedures -- even for sports it doesn't directly influence.
"It's been an incredible experience," Tygart said. "Hopefully, we've started to give clean athletes hope they can grow up and compete without performance-enhancing drugs."