PHOTO BY KOHJIRO KINNO, COURTESY SNAC
Today’s guest columnist is Victor Conte, founder and CEO of SNAC System, Inc., a nutrition company and training facility for more than 20 current or former world champion boxers.
Sha’Carri Richardson and fans of Olympic competition are about to become the victims of an outdated rule by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
There are good, strong, moral rules that exist in sport today, and then there are ridiculous ones that belong in the garbage heap. Testing elite athletes for marijuana use falls into the latter category.
There is no credible evidence that marijuana is a performance-enhancing substance. The fact that WADA and USADA recently raised the allowable limit for THC in urine from 15 ng/ml up to 150 ng/ml—a 10-fold increase—shows both agencies realize this a questionable rule.
How many puffs of a legal substance is too many for an athlete? Two is OK, but four tokes is too many?
I understand, perhaps as well as anyone, that a rule is a rule and the rules should be followed and all of that, but I also believe that “exceptional circumstances” and other factors should be considered on a case-by-case basis when a questionable rule results in a severely damaging penalty. Consider, for instance, that under WADA and USADA rules, there are different classifications of banned substances, and that USADA allows athletes to use some of those substances out of competition. In other words, some are not allowed at any time; others aren’t allowed during competitions.
Sha’Carri Richardson’s biological mother died a short time before the U.S. Olympic Trials. She says she was having difficulty dealing with the pressures of the upcoming competition—and then her mother died. She admits that she attempted to calm her nerves by using a legal substance that is banned during competitions—marijuana.
USADA officials claim the reason marijuana is prohibited is because it can help an athlete relax before a competition, which can in turn enhance performance. In my opinion, that is utter nonsense. I do not believe there is credible evidence to support such stupidity.
One of the most important words in regard to the rule of law is the word “reasonable,” yet the rule deeming marijuana a prohibited substance is simply not reasonable in any way, shape or form. On the other hand, it does seem reasonable for a person to consume a beer or a glass of wine to help deal with the added pressures and stress that come with, say, the loss of a family member. Marijuana should be considered in the same classification as beer and wine.
The glaring injustice in anti-doping enforcement lies not in a rule that results in a nonsensical suspension but in the substances that are not included in WADA and USADA’s out-of-competition categories. There are 70 potent stimulants and 12 potent narcotics that aren’t on the OOC list. It’s open season for athletes to take substances such as the potent stimulant phentermine (similar to amphetamine) and powerful pain medications such as oxycodone (an opiate) without concern during the out-of-competition testing period. These are truly dangerous drugs that should be tested for at all times.
What’s more, different drugs are detectable for different periods of time. Under the current rules, if Richardson had chosen to use the highly addictive oxycodone (which is undetectable in a urine test in four days or less) instead of marijuana (up to a 30-day clearance) to deaden her pain, we might still be excited to watch her compete in the upcoming Olympics for the coveted 100-meter gold medal and the title “World’s Fastest Female.”
In my opinion, USADA is far from the so-called gold standard anti-doping program that some claim it to be.
In 2011, Dr. Margaret Goodman found the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) program, which pointedly does not test for marijuana during the out-of-competition testing time frame nor any other time. However, VADA, whose clients are boxers and MMA fighters, offers 24/7/365 testing that is more stringent than USADA’s, and Goodman says she is open to testing athletes from any sport who would like to join the program. The VADA program tests for “all prohibited substances at all times,” using only one list. This approach provides a far more effective way to deter the abuse by athletes of dangerous stimulants and narcotics. VADA also has a better policy in place for catching athletes’ frequent—and pervasive—use of synthetic testosterone.
It is also my opinion that USADA and World Anti-Doping Agency officials need to be held accountable for maintaining such an ignorant, unrealistic policy for so many years, especially given that, as of 2019, USADA CEO Travis Tygart paid himself a reported salary of more than $530,000 for running a nonprofit that is funded in part by U.S. taxpayer dollars. Tygart’s salary far exceeds the $400,000 a year salary of the President of the United States.
When athletes make small and understandable mistakes like Richardson did, there most certainly should be a public acknowledgment of wrongdoing, accompanied by a sincere apology, but the penalty should also match the violation. In today’s world, it’s always possible that high-caliber athletes are using performance-enhancing drugs. In this case, though, I believe Richardson was simply a victim of an outdated, unscientific relic of a doping rule.
Now an outspoken advocate for clean sport, Conte served four months in prison in 2006 following a federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, better known as BALCO, where he helped develop an undetectable designer steroid used by world class athletes. All of the boxers Conte currently works with participate in the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association drug-testing program.