US is first country to start virtual drug tests on Olympic athletes like Katie Ledecky, Lilly King
In the wake of the national shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has initiated an unprecedented drug-testing program in which top Olympians conduct urine and blood tests in their homes on their own while being observed remotely on Zoom or FaceTime by USADA personnel.
The virtual testing program is the only one of its kind in the world and was begun as USADA’s regular in-person, unannounced drug testing has nearly ground to a halt due to social distancing and other health guidelines during the pandemic, USADA CEO Travis Tygart told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview Tuesday.
USADA’s decision to initiate the new program comes as many nations have stopped doing any knock-on-the-door, out-of-competition drug testing because of the pandemic, leading to worldwide concerns about undetected cheating in Olympic and international sports, Tygart said.
Earlier this month, USADA launched Project Believe 2020, inviting more than a dozen elite athletes, including Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Lilly King, to volunteer in the pilot program to virtually test themselves. The program is expected to last eight weeks.
“I felt very comfortable with the whole process,” said Ledecky, who administered her first test Monday in her Northern California apartment. “This is the perfect time to test something like this. I think it’s great for the circumstances we’re all in right now.”
Testing kits were sent to the athletes, who then must produce samples of their blood and urine when they receive an unannounced call from a USADA doping control officer, Tygart said. The testing is monitored by the officer on Zoom or FaceTime. The athletes then seal the samples and send them via overnight delivery to a World Anti-Doping Agency accredited laboratory for analysis.
The athlete must show the entire blood collection process on video, he said. That’s not the case, however, with urine collection.
During normal, in-person unannounced testing, a doping control officer of the same gender as the athlete is in the room with the athlete and observes the process. This is necessary because, over the years, athletes who were taking performance-enhancing drugs have tried to cheat by bringing a sample of untainted urine into a test and passing it off as their own.
Due to “obvious privacy concerns” over the internet videotaping of an athlete’s urine collection, Tygart said the pilot program has adjusted accordingly. It requires the athlete to show USADA personnel the inside of the bathroom through their phone or laptop, then set the device right outside the door during the collection process.
The doping control officer on the other end of the call keeps track of the time for any irregularities, and there is a monitor in the testing kit that registers the temperature of the sample to guard against the use of a foreign substance.
Tygart said USADA believes that visual observation of the room right before the test, timing the process and checking the temperature of the sample “are strong safeguards against manipulation.”
He added that USADA also can compare the athlete’s urinalysis with previous tests to flag any inconsistencies or irregularities.
“Honestly, I was a little skeptical of it at first,” King said. “Then after I did my first test, I think they really thought through all the potential loopholes with the testing. There are way too many factors that would go into providing a tainted sample for you to really pull that off during the test unless you were a ridiculously high-level crook.”
King said that testing the temperature of the urine is an important step. “When you have a random test, it would be kind of hard to keep a fake sample at a certain temperature for weeks on end before you know that you’re going to have a test.”
Unannounced testing of elite athletes around the world at their homes or training sites is considered the best way to catch those who are cheating, and has become as much a part of a top athlete’s life as training and nutrition. Athletes like Ledecky and King provide details of their whereabouts to USADA 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in order to be able to be located if they have been selected for an unannounced test. Not being available for a drug test can be grounds for suspension.
Ledecky said that in normal times, she is tested randomly with no notice an average of two times a month.
“I’m willing to be tested any day, any time,” she said. “It’s part of sport and part of my responsibility as an elite athlete to be drug tested and to compete clean. It’s something I feel very strongly about.”
She said she has “a little bit of concern” about the lack of drug testing around the world during the pandemic.
“I do have hope it will ramp up in the Olympic year, but it’s a little concerning and I don’t think it will give some athletes the same kind of confidence that they’re competing against clean athletes,” she said. “There’s still so much uncertainty out there about when we will get back to competing and training normally, so of course there’s uncertainty about testing too.”
Volunteering for the USADA pilot program sends an essential message, Ledecky believes.
“I want the people that I’m competing against to know that I’m clean and to feel confident competing against me,” she said. “I want them to know that I have this commitment to clean sport, and I hope they all do too.”