By Rick Maese
July 16 EUGENE, Ore.
July 16 EUGENE, Ore.
Emily Infeld disappeared into a tent. She had placed second in the 10,000- meter race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Her adrenaline was still rushing, but she knew that wasn't what was needed at that particular moment.
She had been met by a young man in a blue shirt shortly after she crossed the finish line. He introduced himself and asked her to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that they had met. Then he followed her around the track, toward the television cameras, past the reporters, into the awards ceremony and a news conference. He couldn't take his eyes off her the entire time, finally escorting her into the tent, through a pair of double doors, one of which had a sign identifying it as a restricted area.
This is how it starts, the complicated, precarious system of drug-testing elite athletes. It's a system that has been in the spotlight this year, with charges of a massive, state-sponsored doping program by Russia that has cast a long shadow in the run-up to next month's Summer Olympics. The goal of the testing system is to ensure that athletes are clean, competition is above-board and the Rio de Janeiro Games feature competitors armed only with their training, smarts and whatever genetic gifts have been bestowed upon them.
Everything hinges on the test. The step-by-step process of testing athletes' blood and urine reveals all the possible pratfalls. American athletes, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Olympic Committee hope it also illustrates why the program in place in the United States is a far cry from the one that landed the All-Russia Athletic Federation and the Kenyan track and field team in hot water that could exclude them from the Olympics. USADA conducted more than 10,500 tests last year for the USOC, and with the help of Olympic athletes, they described the procedure in intimate detail for this article.
It's a process that usually starts right when the competition ends or at unannounced visits to an athlete's home or training facility, when the athlete must submit a urine or blood sample and sometimes both. The doping control officer has one objective: He or she must witness every step. "It was a little weird at first, and I was a little self-conscious when I was younger," said Infeld, 26, a Georgetown University graduate who will be competing in her first Olympics. She recalls having submitted to at least five tests this year; USADA records say she has been tested a total of 10 times in her career. "I don't really care at this point," Infeld added.
Tests become routine
To aspire to the Olympics is to surrender a degree of privacy and autonomy. Athletes in the drug-testing pool must submit "whereabouts," which is essentially their anticipated location, at all times, in case USADA plans a surprise test. They must make themselves available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days out of the year. They go online to fill out their whereabouts quarterly, providing training times, competition schedule and any other travel plans. They can then use an app on their smartphone to provide daily updates. Some choose to be very specific with what they share.
"That's the hardest part," said English Gardner, a 24-year-old sprinter who will represent the United States in the women's 100 meters in Rio. "Saying I'm going to the grocery store to pick up eggs for breakfast. But first I have to tag in and tell USADA I'm going."
Three missed tests count the same as a positive and can result in a suspension. For Gardner, it's all pretty routine. She said the officers came almost weekly last fall, often at dawn. She doesn't mind. "I'd rather they test me more," she said. "I'm clean. I have nothing to hide."
The doping control officers show up with a testing kit and an iPad. The entire process is paperless. If they intend to draw blood, they will be accompanied by a phlebotomist, and if they're testing a minor, they will have a chaperone on hand for an extra set of eyes.
The tests are never random. If an athlete is receiving increased testing, it's not by accident. And if they're being tested for blood, in addition to urine, it's likely because they compete in a sport, such as cycling or track, in which abuse often involves substances that are easier to identify in blood.
"The idea of just choosing people off a list and showing up is not in my opinion an effective way of allocating resources," said Matt Fedoruk, USADA's science director.
The test itself is the same whether it takes place at an athlete's home or at a competition. The doping control officer offers three sealed cups and three sealed Styrofoam kits, allowing the athlete to inspect each for tampering before choosing one. The kit has a bar code and seven- digit identification number that will be essential for tracking purposes.
After a detailed explanation and clicking some boxes on the iPad, the officer and athlete will visit a restroom together. An important key to the whole process: The officer must have a clear visual of the specimen collection.
"I know some of the guys have honestly spilled pee because their hands are shaking. It is pretty weird," said Nathan Adrian, a three-time gold medalist and defending 100-meter freestyle champion heading to his third Olympics.
Athletes are required to pull their shirt up to mid-torso, drop their pants to their knees and roll up their sleeves to their biceps. "In case I have something in my shirt or something," Infeld said.
There are products on the market that aid athletes in hiding urine samples on their body. In 2005, Minnesota Vikings running back Onterrio Smith was famously caught with a Whizzinator, a kit that includes dried urine and a fake penis, commonly used to cheat drug tests. More recently, a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation found an unnamed Russian athlete who, according to a WADA report issued last month, "used a container inserted inside her body (presumably containing clean urine). When she tried to use the container it leaked on to the floor and not into the collection vessel."
With the doping control officer just a couple of feet away, the athlete must fill the cup with at least 90 milliliters of urine, about the size of a perfume bottle.
"It's hard," Infeld said, "especially when you run a long race like that. You sweat a ton."
After her second-place finish earlier this month, Infeld initially failed to provide 90 milliliters, which meant she had to drink more water and wait several minutes until she was ready to return to the restroom with the doping control officer.
That process can take one minute or more than an hour depending on the athlete and his or her hydration level. Once the cup is filled, the athlete then divides the urine into two glass bottles — "A" and "B" samples — from the Styrofoam kit. The bottles each have a locking mechanism with metal teeth that can be opened only with a special tool at the testing lab. The athlete is instructed to tighten the lid.
Then, for the first time, the doping control officer is allowed to touch the bottles, ensuring the lids are locked into place to prevent leaking or tampering.
Distrust and whispers
With 2,500 Olympic athletes in the drug-testing pool at any given time , USADA needs a deep roster of doping control officers. USADA, which is headquartered in Colorado Springs, is a nonprofit agency that receives $9 million in federal grant money annually; it took in an additional $3.7 million from its contract last year with the USOC. It has 52 doping officers on staff, spread across the country.
Most are part-time contractors, and many have other careers. Regular 6 a.m. wakeup calls and open bathroom visits tend to breed some familiarity between officer and athlete. American athletes say they trust the system in the United States. They often tweet out notices when they're woken early in the morning for a test or visited at practice, often employing a hashtag such as #CompeteClean OrGoHome.
That comfort doesn't always extend to other nations or international competition. They also know that many athletes have used performance-enhancing drugs and never turned in a positive test — Americans included.
"I've never seen anything fishy with my own eyes, but you never know what goes on behind closed doors," said runner Jeremy Wariner, a three-time Olympian and four-time medalist. "With what's coming out now, it's an unfortunate situation."
Wariner, who failed to qualify for the Rio Games, has been tested 71 times by USADA and many more times competing overseas. Distrust and whispers can be inherent in a sport in which a tenth of a second can have a profound impact on money, fame and legacy. But Wariner says sound testing can alleviate that and at least provide the semblance of a balanced playing field.
The doping control officer tries to assuage any concerns on the front end. The athlete places the bottles into plastic bags and then back into the Styrofoam box. The bags are sealed, and then the box is, too.
After the athlete clicks a few more boxes on the iPad and offers a signature, the information is instantly transmitted to USADA and the testing lab, and the athlete receives an email.
The officer then usually will pack the kit into a gray UPS envelope labeled "biological sample." At a big event like the Olympic trials, USADA officials will pack up to 24 kits into a blue bag, a plastic seal locking the zippers into place to prevent tampering.
If there's blood involved — it's typically less than a tablespoon, so it won't affect competition or training — the samples are shipped in a box along with cooling packs and a thermometer. The blood must stay between 35 and 46 degrees to remain viable for testing and arrive at the lab within 36 hours of being drawn.
Trying to keep pace
Nestled in the foothills of the Wasatch mountains in Salt Lake City sits a nondescript brick office park with no signage out front. The UPS deliveryman arrives at least once every day and must get buzzed inside. Most doors in the space require a key card for entry, cameras are situated on the ceiling inside, and there's 24- hour security on hand, too.
The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory is one of two labs in the country accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency and one of only 34 in the world. It processes 20,000 drug tests in a year for a variety of sports organizations, including around 5,000 for USADA.
Once the UPS shipment is unpacked, the "B" sample heads straight to storage and the "A" sample is prepped for testing. The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory is about the size of a tennis court, with wires, tubes and high-tech equipment spread across the room. As Daniel Eichner, the lab's executive director, says, "The work we do is important but not always the most glamorous."
Each sample goes through a variety of tests as technicians check for steroids, hormones, masking agents, stimulants, blood doping and gene doping. They're looking for traces of any of the items included on WADA's list of banned substances.
While most positive tests are still the result of an illegal substance, the labs and USADA are increasingly relying on athletes' biological passports to identify suspicious changes in an athlete's biochemistry. Using previous urine and blood tests as a baseline, they can spot biomarkers that act as red flags and could indicate an athlete has used a performance- enhancing drug, even if a specific substance wasn't detected in testing.
As drug testers try to keep pace with drug users, the WADA list of banned substances changes every year. In 2006, for example, the section pertaining to growth hormones listed five banned substances. Ten years later, that same section specifies more than 30.
"In the last 10 years, we've made efforts to be a lot more proactive," said Eichner, who was formerly the science director at USADA. "We look at the scientific and the medical literature and try to predict the substances that may be used in the future."
The lab technician doesn't know the source of any sample. There is no name attached to the kit — just the bar code and seven-digit ID number. They will run the sample through every test and report the results without ever knowing whether they had caught an aspiring college athlete, a veteran Olympian or perhaps just received a surprise quality-control sample from WADA to make certain the lab is doing its job.
"That's all we'll ever receive, just a unique ID code," Eichner said. "It's important for us to maintain our independence in that way. We're neutral."
The doping scandal that has enveloped the Russians involves allegations of a state- sponsored program that centers on misconduct at the Russian lab during the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. The Moscow lab was suspended by WADA and lost its accreditation in April.
In the past few months alone, WADA has suspended the accreditation of the lab in South Africa — previously the only accredited lab in Africa — in addition to labs in Beijing; Madrid; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and Lisbon. The lab in Rio de Janeiro, which will need to process thousands of tests during the Olympics, was suspended in June because of "nonconformity with International Standards for Laboratories" but still could be given a green light to continue testing before the Rio Games begin Aug. 5.
At the U.S. lab in Salt Lake City, after tests are run, the results are uploaded instantly to WADA and then dispersed to USADA and in short order communicated to the athlete. The "B" sample, meanwhile, lives on.
The samples USADA collects during competitions remain at the lab for up to 10 years and can be analyzed down the road for new substances or as technology improves. They're locked in secure rooms inside industrial refrigerators that are kept at minus-112 degrees. At any time, USADA can call them out to be retested.
U.S. athletes who say they have nothing to hide don't mind the prospects of future testing. If anything, they just wish other countries had a system and resources that matched the one here.
"I'm happy they're trying to crack down elsewhere," Infeld said. "I don't think they're cracking down as heavily as they should. The more they do it, the more people they'll catch. But I know I can only control me and my training. I just have to do my best at that." Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.
Rick Maese is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.