Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Virtual doping tests shouldn’t just be for the pandemic, they should be here to stay

Posted on 8 May 2020 by Julia Cook

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World champion Noah Lyles is one of the athletes participating in USADA’s virtual doping testing program.

The way we test elite athletes for doping has remained largely unchanged for years. If this was a system that worked then perhaps we could be forgiven for not adapting, but when we look at the face of anti-doping worldwide we are seeing a system of controversy, conspiracy and mistrust. It’s clear something has to change. 

Enter virtual doping tests. 

Due to social distancing measures, drug testing for elite athletes has been largely suspended worldwide.

Instead of sending people to see the athletes, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) began looking at whether the procedures could be done virtually. This is a process that they were already considering over the last few years. COVID-19 just expedited the process.

Athletes have always had to give an hour a day, everyday, when they are available to be tested. The same guidelines still exist but instead of a knock at the door, they will instead have to answer the phone.

They complete the protocol, including paperwork, sworn testimony, bathroom tour and testing via video link, under the watch of a doping control officer.

There will always be those trying to cheat the system, but USADA is trying to stay one step ahead. The athlete must measure the temperature of their urine to prove it is fresh and blood samples are sealed on camera. Anti-doping laboratories have ways of knowing if urine is old, and if the athlete sent someone else’s it wouldn’t match their blood sample they gave on camera. 

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Five time Olympic champion Katie Ledecky is a fan of the new initiative.

The biggest limiting factor is that in virtual testing, athletes only give a few drops of blood that’s then tested in the laboratory as dried blood, when in-person an anti-doping officer would extract three test tubes. There are challenges to the dried blood tests but they are better than no tests at all. 

This is a way to ensure that anti-doping continues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but these are practises that anti-doping should be aiming to adopt in the long-term regardless. They provide anti-doping agencies a solution for flying doping-control officers all over the world, meaning access to athletes in remote locations, as well as saving money and ensuring that athletes are tested more frequently. 

For athletes, there are benefits – less intrusive testing, the knowledge of more tests and therefore cleaner sport, and safety in a time when they are desperately calling for it.

In-person tests are not completely on their way out. Countries where the internet isn’t easily available will need them, checks to ensure the virtual procedures are working are necessary, as well as time to catch up with the technology.

Like all new ideas, there will be teething problems at the start, but in the long-run what we will see is an improved anti-doping system, one that keeps up with the times, ensuring more testing. This is what clean sport needs. A combination of virtual and in-person testing is the way forward, and something we need to roll out globally. 

The world is going virtual. Anti-doping must follow.