Drug-testing for masters athletes? Track officials grapple with question for the ages

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; D01

Drug testers did not summon Gary Snyder three years ago to provide a urine sample at the world masters track and field championships in Riccione, Italy, and he's plenty happy about that. After his competition in the 100 and 200 meters for 60- to 64-year-old men, Snyder realized that his prescription medication for high blood pressure qualified as a prohibited, performance-enhancing substance.

It had never occurred to Snyder, a year into his term as chairman of USA Track and Field's masters division, that he could have flunked a drug test and been banned from the very sport he was overseeing in the United States.

"That would have been embarrassing," Snyder said. "I don't know how I could have explained coming in 20th, or whatever it was, and taking drugs. Holy cow . . . I would have had to resign."

Now, as Snyder attempts to bring drug-testing to U.S. masters track and field in time for next summer's outdoor championships, he has a deep appreciation for the treacherous terrain he is negotiating. The population of athletes that competes in masters track and field events in the United States is older (ages range from 35 to nearly 100), slower and substantially more medicated than professional or Olympic-level competitors. Some participants say testing is expensive and would achieve little more than implicating a bunch of well-meaning grandmothers diligently taking prescription medications for non-competitive reasons.

"Any masters athlete over 40 is going to test positive for something, because at this age, we're all on something," said Val Barnwell, a men's 50-54 world record holder who won four gold medals at last summer's world championships in Lahti, Finland. "Who in their right mind would cheat at this level? To get what?"

Many would say Barnwell, 52, should answer his own question. It was after news broke in March that Barnwell had been slapped with a two-year ban after a positive test for testosterone prohormones in Lahti that USATF Masters officials found themselves persuaded that doping had become a serious concern, and that some sort of testing was necessary to prevent a free-for-all of drug use at U.S. masters track and field meets. Indeed, Snyder said he has faced rising pressure from other nations to follow the lead taken by a few countries in Europe that have implemented masters drug-testing.

The only place U.S. masters athletes currently face testing is at the annual world championships.

"To say that it's not an issue, drug use in masters, well, how can you say that after an athlete tests positive?" said Mary Trotto, 62, a USATF Masters executive committee member and active decathlete and heptathlete. "Some people wonder why we would even think about it, but unfortunately we do. We have to keep records and performances clean."

What is the point?

Athletes are divided on whether that, indeed, is the case; the issue has stirred a debate among the community's 8,500 members about what, exactly, masters competition is. Are masters track and field events merely organized opportunities for fun and games, healthful and friendly competitions in which like-minded adults seek to stretch their own physical limits?

Or, because they are sanctioned events that post entry fees, award medals and observe world records, do they take on a more professional stature? Are competitors owed some guarantee, or at least a reason to believe, that they are competing on a level playing field?

Ken Stone, a longtime track and field journalist who runs the Web site http://www.masterstrack.com, figures a small handful of masters athletes are surely taking performance-enhancing drugs. He simply doesn't care.

"Most people accept cheaters as, 'Those are the idiots who hurt themselves, and it doesn't bother me at all,' " Stone said, adding that drug-testing "is a waste of money, it goes against the ethic of masters track, it's a nuisance and it won't even stop the doping it pretends to attack. There are so many holes in drug-testing I can't even begin to list all of them."

Despite the widely differing views, Snyder and the USATF Masters Committee met by conference call in mid-May and agreed to start an anti-doping education campaign at the U.S. championships in Sacramento in July, the first step to putting a drug-testing regimen in place.

"The message [USATF] Masters Track wants to send out is, 'We are going to testing,' " said Bob Weiner, 63, an executive committee member and middle-distance runner who was the press secretary for former White House Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey.  "Now we have to figure out how to do it."

There are myriad questions. Should officials consider testing no one older, for example, than 75? Should they make certain exceptions to allow some banned substances that are commonly prescribed to older folk? Should they offer more lenient rules than at the elite level, where athletes are held accountable for any substance found in their bodies regardless of how it got there?

Though a modified program makes sense to many masters athletes, it simply won't fly. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency won't support a seniors-only, watered-down program with reduced bans or a smaller list of banned substances (though an age cut-off likely would be permissible).

If you opt for drug-testing, you get the whole package, at least if you want the credibility offered by the international anti-doping code set forth by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Even so, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency Chief Executive Travis Tygart said, "there's sufficient flexibility in the WADA Code to put in place practical solutions" for the special challenges faced by the masters track and field community.

The multitude of prescription medications and supplements many senior athletes take might present the most daunting obstacle. Even in elite competition, athletes are allowed to use banned substances, provided they meet the requirements for exemptions known as "therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs)." Ensuring that TUEs are sought when required would be critical to preventing masters track and field from seeing a host of absurd positive tests. Many point to grandmother Kathy Jager as an illustration of how things can go awry; at age 56 in 1999, Jager flunked a steroid test after taking her menopause medication at the masters track and field world championships in Gateshead, England.

"There's going to be a bunch of TUEs," said Maxwell Hamlyn, 69, a world bronze medal winner in the middle distances and the chair of USATF Masters southeast region. "They'll have so many, you'll overcome WADA. They may not be able to handle it."

There is this, too: Athletes selected for drug-testing are required to be naked from the chest down and in full view of testing officials when they produce a urine sample. In short, it's not a dignified process. But anyone who refuses to produce a urine sample when summoned will be deemed as having flunked the test and will most certainly earn a ban.

Costs of testing

Barnwell, of course, did flunk a test. He claims he never knowingly took any steroid and says he resents the intrusion testing brought to a sport he competed in for amusement -- and by spending plenty of his own money. Indeed, masters track and field athletes pay their way to all events. There is no glamour, no fame, no prize money.

"I'm putting out $2,700 to go to the world championships," Barnwell said. "Why should I be tested? You're imposing your testing standards on me, and I'm getting nothing from it."

Barnwell said he had used Viagra, a supplement known as Animal Pak and other products and had no idea what exactly caused his positive test. (Viagra contains no ingredients that are banned; Animal Pak claims on its label that it contains vitamins, shark cartilage and ox bile, but it lists no steroids).

For sure, Barnwell said, he did not intentionally take steroids to enhance his performance.

"I use Viagra all the time," he said. "What if I want to have my lady with me and I want to have a beautiful night? . . . You're telling me I can't use X, Y and Z at this age? . . . No one is going to understand until they get busted for something when they are not using steroids. It's ludicrous."

Tygart disagreed, saying USADA would love to execute more random, out-of-competition testing of top-level masters athletes -- as it does routinely with elite athletes -- but simply does not have the funding to do so. In a few cases, however, USADA has targeted star masters athletes and caught them. And in recent weeks, another masters athlete was felled by a positive test. An Irish woman who won two medals at the March indoor world championships in Kamloops, British Columbia, in the 40-44 division tested positive for the stimulant ephedrine.

Implementing even a basic, in-competition testing program is not cheap. Urine tests cost upwards of $500 per shot. Testing even a small portion of the athletes that would typically show up for a national championship could cost $10,000 to $30,000. Snyder said U.S. masters officials expect to ask competitors to cover the cost of testing at the sport's national championships through surcharges on top of their meet entry fees.

It would, he said, be a small price to pay for clean -- or, at least, cleaner -- competition, and enhanced international respect.

It won't, however, eradicate the domestic turmoil over the topic.

"It's something foisted on masters athletes by the powers-that-be," said David Pain, 88, a San Diego attorney credited with bringing masters track and field to the United States in the 1960s. "This is insanity as far as I'm concerned."