It is almost impossible to believe that cycling, track and field, and swimming aren’t rife with doping. A large swath of top cyclists have tested positive for PEDs or admitted doping; track and field had state-sponsored doping programs in Eastern Germany, China, and Russia, along with hundreds of other athletes testing positive for PEDs; swimming has had fewer widespread doping scandals, but dozens of swimmers have tested positive for PEDs, and the doping suspension and reinstatement of Yulia Efimova, and the doping accusations leveled at Katinka Hosszu, were huge stories at the Olympics.
All of which raises the question: Why does the triathlon, an Olympic event since 2000 that combines swimming, cycling, and running, appear to be so clean?
A quick search of “triathlon” in mainstream publications like USA Today or the Wall Street Journal returns not a single story, not even a hint, about performance enhancing drugs. The same cannot be said of track, swimming, or cycling, where you don’t have to be an insider to get the impression that many top-level performances are PED-assisted. Those sports have had enough revelations of widespread doping, bribery, and coverups that most breakthrough performances are suspect.
But not so triathlon. Why is that? It’s an endurance sport, an Olympic sport, in which international groups of athletes train in sometimes remote locations where out-of-competition testing is difficult and doping would be relatively easy. How did triathlon cultivate this pristine image, and is it warranted? Are triathletes somehow able to resist the pressure to cheat?
The short answer, according to top international triathlon coach Joel Filliol is that there is doping in triathlon.
“We just haven’t had a scandal recently with the power to blow up the issue,” Filliol said via Skype from his home base in Glasgow, Scotland. “So, we’re speculating, like we always do, but it would be naive to assume otherwise. That’s where sport is right now. As far as why we [in triathlon] don’t have more positive tests, it’s the same with all sports. From top to bottom in the anti-doping movement, there are incentives not to find [athletes doping] because it looks bad for the sport.”
“It’s bad publicity. National sports federations are fighting tooth and nail for government sponsorships and IOC grants, so a drug scandal would definitely hurt your chances [of receiving funding]. Triathlon is a relatively new sport—it was first an Olympic event in 2000—so there may be even more insecurity with its status as an Olympic event. ITU [International Triathlon Union] depends on the IOC grant to be in the Games and to function for the four years in between. We depend on being in the Games; it’s very important for the sport. And then, of course, once you’re in the Games, it’s about medals. There just is not incentive to find cheats.”
The disincentive from within to self-police, to catch and punish dopers is universal across all Olympic sports, and accordingly, many of the debacles that have stained cycling and track and field were uncovered by whistleblowers and journalists, not anti-doping agencies. From the outside, track fans zealously call out cheats on forums like the LetsRun message board, and cheating is vigorously investigated by running-related media outlets. By contrast, fans of triathlon and journalists who cover the sport, Filliol said, don’t seem interested in pursuing doping.
“Part of the problem is that because of its [clean] image, triathlon is not scrutinized all that much,” Filliol said. “Maybe if more people went digging they might find something. I think the one thing that’s clear is the press in triathlon—I don’t think you can call it that. It’s a hobbyist kind of media. The bloggers are buddy-buddy with athletes, they’re friends, and they want to retain their access. We don’t really have strong investigative journalism. I would say Ben Hobbs with TRS Triathlon is an exception.”
Filliol also explained that there is a disconnect between weekend warrior triathlon participants and their professional counterparts. “The majority of participants [in triathlon] don’t follow elite racing, so you don’t get much scrutiny or public outcry about doping by the pros. Actually, there’s ample evidence that doping is quite prevalent in recreational triathlon, in the age grouper ranks, so those readers are not much interested in calling out other dopers.”
The ARD TV revelation of systematic statewide doping in Russia focused largely on track and field, partly because there simply are more track and field athletes, and partly because top officials in track’s governing body, the IAAF, were found to be complicit in both extorting and accepting bribes for covering up positive tests. But Russian triathletes, Filliol said, were involved in that massive scandal too, though that fact wasn’t played up in triathlon-specific media or mainstream outlets.
“When ARD investigators revealed a list of positive Russian tests that had been covered up, there were four from triathlon,” Filliol said. “Whether that was four positive tests from one triathlete or four different people is not known. What is known is that there were never any bans as a result. When the IOC passed the buck and let individual sport federations decide whether to ban Russian athletes from the Olympics [in July, one month prior to the Olympics], ITU very quickly allowed the Russian triathletes to compete in Rio, claiming none of the Russian Olympic triathletes were involved in the positive tests. It was very quick—there couldn’t have been much of an investigation. It’s possible [that ITU investigated and cleared Russian triathletes], I guess, but surprising. Put it that way.”
ITU didn’t respond to questions about its decision to clear Russian triathletes for the Olypmpics. Update 12/19/2016 5 PM CST: Erin Greene responded: “The Russian athletes were allowed to compete because none were named in the McLaren report, and all had undergone extensive in and out of competition testing outside of Russia. Like many triathletes, they often train outside of Russia which means they had undergone testing from various anti doping bodies.”
The motivation and independence to catch triathlon dopers may be low, but you would not guess that from the confusing alphabet soup of overlapping anti-doping agencies taking blood and urine samples. For example, U.S. pro triathletes may be tested by USA Triathlon, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the International Triathlon Union, the U.S. Olympic Committee, or the International Olympic Committee. ITU does its own testing of sprint and Olympic distance (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run) events, separate from WADA, USADA or the IOC, with its own budget and testing pool, but doesn’t publish who has been tested, how often, and by whom.
Similarly, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), a privately owned organization that operates long-course Ironman events, has its own anti-doping program. Doping control is an expensive, logistically difficult undertaking, and WTC receives no Olympic funding for it because Ironman distance isn’t an Olympic event. Consequently, Filliol said, “The chances of being tested [at a WTC event] are fairly low. Some would describe Ironman as a free-for-all.” (The WTC disputes this, and sent along a report that shows they conduct more out-of-competition drug testing than many anti-doping agencies.)
Predictably, most anti-doping organizations are unable or unwilling to speak to the conflict of interest inherent in their structure. I received party line statements from WADA, ITU, IOC, and the WTC confirming that they were doing a bang-up job, absolutely dedicated to targeted testing, deterrent education, and punishment of dopers—as you would expect. All, though, admitted the enormity of their task, as dopers remain a step ahead in drugs of choice and micro-dosing methods. [USADA asked not to be included in this assessment.]
Most of the People Of The Anti-Doping Acronyms hailed the Athlete Biological Passport system as their secret weapon in doping control. What they didn’t mention is that it’s prohibitively costly to implement correctly. Filliol recalled a conversation he’d had with a physiologist who estimated an ABP requires maybe 11 tests in a year, almost one a month, to establish a baseline. Testing an athlete a couple of times a year, the physiologist said, does not create a credible baseline.
Sport scientist Ross Tucker concedes the more tests, the better to legitimize ABP, but would not hew to a specific number of tests per year. “The more the better, obviously, because that sets a more consistent baseline,” said Tucker. “I don’t know if I’d necessarily say 11 though. If a person is spending time at altitude, and some at sea level, then you need more because you’d want to get a fuller picture for what altitude does to them, establishing the variation in values this causes. Whereas if someone is just at sea level, you could get by on fewer.
So I think rather than saying ‘11 is a magic number,’ what you’d want is a collection of as many tests as possible in as many different situations as possible. It would probably require double-digit measurements, but should be viewed as a continuous (longitudinal) monitoring tool, where the more information you have, the better.”
Ironman Anti-Doping, for example, reported 100 athletes in their ABP program, and 253 ABP tests in 2014. Assuming athletes in the pool are tested with equal frequency, no athlete is tested enough to establish a baseline. ITU has 20 athletes in its ABP pool, who were tested 92 times in 2014, so better, but still probably not enough.
According to USADA, six of the 61 triathletes in their testing pool are currently serving doping sanctions, while 475 of the roughly 2,500 athletes in other sports are serving doping suspensions, meaning triathletes are caught doping about half as often as athletes in other sports. And according to a 2014 WADA report, a similar trend of triathletes being caught doping less often than other athletes exists globally.
Pro triathletes themselves seem cautiously optimistic that their sport is different, that it is cleaner than others. British triathlete Non Stanford told The Guardian in 2015 that she is tested frequently, in and out of competition, which leads her to think triathlon is fairly clean. “I get tested at home, early morning, in the evening, they turn up at training, so from my point of view they are doing a good job. They are cracking down and I think triathlon is pretty clean. Maybe I am being naive.”
South African Richard Murray, who was fourth in the 2016 Olympic triathlon, responded via email: “I agree, triathlon has remained quite a clean sport...I’m thinking it may have something to do with it being a young sport—there is not a lot of money, at least from the athletes’ side, in order for the sport to move towards doping, [things like] having private doctors.”
Murray went on: “I have noticed that testing in long course events is not as prominent as it is in ITU/Olympic distance events. I’ve been on the WADA doping list [pool] since about 2011, and in South Africa they are very professional and frequent with visits to test me. Having a track record goes a long way [toward proving triathletes are clean]. Most of the top guys in ITU/Olympic triathlon have been racing well for years—guys like Javier Gomez, Mario Mola, the Brownlee brothers. When new people pop out of nowhere or start winning out of the usual, then it does bring some suspicion.”
In letter to national triathlon federations earlier this year, the ITU anti-doping department wrote that they would act on doping red flags and suspicious performances: “The monitoring shall also be based on ITU’s intelligence gathering and shall include the acknowledgment of various red-flags such as significant performance improvements, suspicious behaviour, follow-up testing on atypical findings, filing failures and missed tests, etc.”
To Filliol, though, the appearance of vigorous doping controls is a facade. “That’s anti-doping theater, the feeling that the reality of the situation is nothing like the image they try to portray. We know testing is not uniform from country to country, and certainly insufficient for the task of providing a comprehensive anti-doping program. My squad is made up of athletes from different countries and I can tell you, out-of-competition testing varies wildly—some are never tested, others are tested regularly. And in Rio, we sure didn’t see much testing.”
Swiss Olympic silver medalist Nicola Spirig seemed to confirm the disparity between anti-doping mission statements and reality in a 2012 Facebook post. She blasted an out-of-competition test that took place in Austria, though she didn’t mention which entity was doing the testing: “Drug testing yesterday at race briefing in Kitzbühel: 15 athletes to test, all brought into one hotel room with two chairs and one bed… only one doctor to take blood and only one chaperon for 15 people?? 4 athletes done in 2 hours -only 11 more to go at 8pm!!! Instead of organizing more doctors they in the end let half of the athletes go untested. Very, very unprofessional of the responsible ones for organization of that doping control.”
Filliol believes that triathlon’s relatively short history may be working in its favor. Being a “young” Olympic sport, he reasoned, it does not have the damaging baggage from decades of scandals—particularly the 1970s and 1980s—that swimming, track, and cycling are saddled with, and the onus to maintain its unsullied reputation is strong. But strong enough to somehow exempt triathletes, of all athletes, from what seems nearly universal human behavior—the willingness to cheat?
Despite Filliol’s well-nourished cynicism, he retains a bit of hope that triathlon is somehow different. “Maybe triathlon’s clean image is warranted. In cycling and, to some degree in athletics, there’s a feeling [among athletes] that you can’t win clean, that you have to dope to win. And the number of past medal winners who’ve now been found to be doping bears that out. Triathlon is a sport you can win clean. I know that—I coach the World Champion. And that’s the feeling among elite triathletes, that it’s possible to win clean. That’s not to say there is no doping in triathlon or that my athletes haven’t been beaten by someone who’s doping.”
“But I couldn’t do what I’m doing if I didn’t believe you can win clean.”