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MacKenna On Monday: USADA The Biggest Dopes In Anti-Doping

mackenna monday usada

Travis Tygart was quick out of the blocks.

It was only the first day of the year and the head of US anti-doping was sticking it to the state-sponsored effort in Russia and their latest refusal to play by the rules and allow testers into the lab that was the beating heart of their cheating operation for so long.

“We hold athletes strictly accountable,” he opined, “so states that intentionally rob clean athletes and corrupt the Olympic values, through the worst doping scandal in sporting history no less, should also be held accountable.” He added the situation was “a total joke”.

So we’re in for another 12 months of this? Another 12 months of heads in the sand leaving arses in the air? Another 12 months of speaking out of both sides of mouths, of pointing fingers to deflect attention, of self-gain at the centre of the whole pseudo-effort to clean up sport?

mackenna monday usada

Enough. Please. Let’s at least cling to some last shrivel of dignity and do some critical thinking for ourselves.

Only six months back Tygart was at this again, as he sat before his country’s Helsinki Commission that was looking into drug use in sport around the Russia scandal. That he was even there with the attorney for Grigory Rodchenkov, Yuliya Stepanova, and Katie Uhlaender, showed his reputation in the sphere. However the eight-page letter he handed over demonstrated the bluster and hypocrisy that has carried him so far and so high.

“As an independent anti-doping organization, we view athletes, like Yulia and Katie – and their powerful stories – as our guiding light, our North Star… But, we need to ask ourselves something. And we need to be honest. How many more Yulias will we allow to be abused? How many more podium moments stolen from athletes like Katie…

mackenna monday usada

“In the US and in many countries around the globe, these key elements such as ensuring year-round, no-notice, out-of-competition testing for both blood and urine and conducting robust intelligence gathering and investigations, have been implemented and proved successful… Since our founding in 2000, we at USADA have advocated for a clear separation between those who promote sport and those who police it. To do so otherwise, we believe, is to encourage the fox to guard the henhouse. No matter how well intended it might begin, it simply does not work. The conflict of interest is too great and clean athletes will always lose out.”

What’s wrong with all that, you might ask?

Well, there’s this. As he calls Russia a joke it reminds that you shouldn’t point and laugh at others when your trousers are around your ankles.

So let’s meet Travis Tygart, the face and the voice of US anti-doping.

mackenna monday usada

Floyd Landis has long had it in for Travis Tygart, ever since his experience with him and his operation across the 2000s. According to the stripped Tour de France winner, anti-doping doesn’t work primarily because accountability and respect is a one-way street.

“Right now, if an athlete is accused of doping, they are expected to explain what happened,” he stresses. “Regardless of whether it’s a mistake in the lab, they are expected to explain what caused that event. The agencies themselves are not held to any kind of standard.”

In other words, the United States Anti-Doping Agency isn’t held to any kind of standard.

As Tygart was getting ready to take a swipe at the big, bad wolf in Moscow, the mirror was still in pieces as it saved a glance in it.

mackenna monday usada

Two weeks back we’d the incident in the UFC around fighter Jon Jones. Down to fight in Las Vegas initially, his bout was moved to Los Angeles when a pre-fight test came back positive and such was the blurring of terminology, it was explained away as an abnormality by USADA, basically that it was a hangover from another failed test in July 2017. Jones, in this case, didn’t have to clear his name as it had been done for him.

The UFC went one better, saying it was “a pulsing effect” from yet one more failed test in 2016. Let’s for a moment say that was all true despite some expert opinions refuting this. What we were factually left with was USADA saying a man in a brutal and dangerous sport had beneficial and illegal drugs in his body, and still cleared him to get into an octagon.

That is quite stunning.

Then again so much is for considering the ladder Tygart climbed to make a name for himself. Think of him and most people will recall the person that brought down Lance Armstrong. Even allowing for the fact it’s not strictly true – as really without the Feds going to others with a gun in one hand and a perjury penalty in the other to get the statements that caused the house of cards to topple – there’s an issue.

mackenna monday usada

Armstrong got a lifetime ban for what was actually a first-time offence, which is all it was when you strip away the emotion. However, Jones had two-and-a-half strikes and competed.

It’s been the same story over and again, with some athletes claiming they were scapegoats, and others rightly or wrongly getting a safety net. For instance, less than a year before Tygart wrote his words for the Helsinki Commission, at the World Athletics Championships, kitted out in the nation’s colours atop the most high-profile podium was Justin Gatlin and his two failed tests. USA. USA. USA.

And it goes on. Which begs the question of what USADA really does, as opposed to says?

As an example remember Mark Daly’s BBC Panorama work that unearthed so much evidence of wrongdoing via Nike-Oregon coach Alberto Salazar and his training camp that was and remains the hub of much US success. It’s now a full 32 months on from that and what have we got? There was one interim report from March of 2016 that said it was seeking more information with the contents, not for public viewing, but they were leaked.

mackenna monday usada

In it were strong suggestions from USADA that all of the runners that received L-carnitine injections from Dr Jeffrey Brown whom Salazar admitted set up the project around taking it (those runners included Dathan Ritzenhein, Galen Rupp, Tara Erdmann, Lindsay Allen, Alvina Begay and Dawn Grunnagle) were in breach of anti-doping rules.

“For the reasons set forth above, it appears highly likely that Galen Rupp received an L-carnitine infusion from Dr Brown in excess of 50ml in violation of the applicable anti-doping rules and in violation of Dr Brown’s duty to Galen Rupp not to cause him to violate the rules. USADA’s investigation of Mr Rupp’s potential violation is continuing.”

It continued seemingly although we’ve no evidence of any actual work, let alone punishments. Right into the 2016 Olympics where Rupp won an historic bronze in the marathon. Meanwhile the investigation also supposedly continues right into today with no end and no action taken against anyone on that list. The only hope for those who care and who know the routine is that the FBI might deem the need for drug trafficking charges.

mackenna monday usada

None of this is fanciful either. Nor is it hidden. Nor is it particularly new. All in plain sight, only there’s so much to sift through that it can seem easier to give up and be fed the party line. With the continued hypocrisy though we just cannot let that happen.

Take the work of Thomas Hauser around USADA’s move into boxing. In 2015 he penned a wonderful article that whipped open the anti-doping fur coat and lo and behold we got flesh. There was Floyd Mayweather the night before his super fight with Manny Pacquiao getting a banned intravenous administration of fluids, expressly banned by WADA.

Yet nothing happened with the fight going ahead as the ruling authorities were not told until the bout was over, and then USADA handed out a Therapeutic Use Exemption 18 days after the fight. This quite clearly broke their own rules too.

mackenna monday usada

It wasn’t the first time the waters were muddied in a sport where such rules are paramount due to the obvious dangers. In 2012, Eric Morales failed a test before his clash with Danny Garcia and what emerged ought to have been a scandal. With an A positive, USADA said there wasn’t time to test the B sample thus they let the fight go ahead.

Except it later emerged that twice before that both the A and B samples of Morales had tested positive. Many experts have suggested this was like repeating and repeating until they got the outcome they wanted.

And around that, it’s no wonder Landis has so little respect. He recalls his case. “The machine they used on my samples, we asked to see the log files and the digital information when they did the test. They said fine but you’ll have to fly your lawyer to Europe and we will remove the hard drive and show you. I spent $20,000 flying my lawyer over and the day he gets there they said, ‘We took it out yesterday and deleted everything’.”

He also says they spun his blood sample 100 times to get the “right result”.

mackenna monday usada

There is another more personal reason for Landis’ dislike of Tygart. On August 18, 2006, the day after his father-in-law David Witt had committed suicide and with the authorities already in possession of his positive from the Tour de France, testers still arrived at Landis’ house.

“His death was national news and Tygart sent two guys to collect the urine sample at 5.30am,” he continued to recount. “I nearly murdered those guys. He just wanted to show he could do what he wanted, that was his fuck-you moment.”

Respect is earned.
Honesty is appreciated.
Trust is gained.
Loyalty is returned.

mackenna monday usada

To get a better understanding of USADA, all you’ve to look at is the very beginning.

Sow a seed in bad soil and the end result will be wilting and weak.

Dr Wade Exum had been director of drug control for the United States Olympic Committee from 1991 to 2000 and, piecing together the story, it goes as follows.

In June of 2000, he resigned from his role in frustration, claiming USOC leaders were hampering his fight against drugs. The following month a 30-page document was read out in the district court in Denver with further claims about half of the positives over the previous decade receiving no punishment, along with claims that his honesty saw him held back and denied promotion.

mackenna monday usada

The drip continued and it soon emerged that 114 US athletes that had doped were let away in the search for gold. By 2003, Carl Lewis came out and blankly said, “Who cares if I failed one?”. Ultimately though, in November 2004, the judge ruled against Exum, although by then change had long been enacted. In 2000 USADA was formed to clear up the mess he exposed.

Those close to Exum have said he was seen as the obvious choice for the new head role of USADA and, being overlooked for what he believes came about because of his work, irked him immensely. He obviously never got the job but when the top post in the anti-doping agency came open again later, instead it went to the general counsel for USOC across the time of that case and beyond. That person was Travis Tygart.

He’d been internal staff with USOC long before that, showing up the doublespeak around the need for separation of powers. Indeed he was part of the legal team assisting USA Swimming in the late ’90s during a cover-up around coaches who sexually abused athletes.

Yet now this is the voice of good in sport? The one we should listen to?

mackenna monday usada

Don’t expect any of this to get better though if you continue to nod and smile, for consider this. A number of years ago, figures were released showing the relative costs of drug testing for boxing bouts. For instance, a rival doping institution, VADA, offered a cheaper, more comprehensive service than USADA but the latter was far more popular.

Why? And even within USADA’s pricing structure, there were oddities. When Andy Lee fought Peter Quillin in November of 2015, the fee was $36,000. Six months earlier for that Mayweather-Pacquiao contest already mentioned it was $150,000.

It raises many questions but for years there’s been silence instead of answers. Maybe that’s little wonder.

A not-for-profit business making big money, they aren’t actually part of the US government although they receive hefty funding from them. It makes USADA an independent group that’s part of the entertainment sector, with many professing their frustration.

mackenna monday usada

Trevor Graham, a coach caught up and banned for life due to his part in the Balco scandal wrote that between 2006 and 2016 he’d been “bullied, harassed, attacked and demeaned” by them.

“The system that’s in place does not give a crap about clean athletes,” he went on to note. “They are only there to protect their own interest and if you piss them off, they will destroy you in any way possible.”

Given that lot, you might be surprised to hear Tygart is a very religious man. In going light on Justin Gatlin he even talked about that church-like ideal of redemption. But on Russia and so much else in this doping sphere, there’s a relevant bible verse he might already be familiar with from the book of John.

“So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…’.”

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.