The Real Dope on World Cup Ski Racing

Euro Fans 2Ski Racing magazine – November 2005

 The pending Winter Olympics spotlight that time every four years when we honor victorious sportsmen and women. The time when countries put aside political differences to celebrate sports ideals. It’s also, unfortunately, the time to focus on the latest doping scandal.

 And lately, there’s always a doping disgrace – whether unintentional, like Britain’s Alain Baxter (it was an inhaler!) or more blatant as in Canadian snowboarding’s  Ross Rebagliati (I didn’t inhale!). The whole idea started with good intentions – keep elite athletes clean of performance enhancing additives and you’ll have a pure form of sports victories.  This has somewhat morphed into a 900 pound gorilla looming over all levels of competition, with very strict parameters to be met by the athletes.

 There are several degrees of doping control, starting with our national association, USSA, leading up to FIS for international events, plus the separate-but-equal IOC rules at the Olympic level. All come under substance codes and prohibitions set by the World Anti-Doping Association, affectionately known as WADA.

 The WADA prohibited list reads like a Greek-meets-Arabic lunch menu, naming erythropoietin and spironolactones. But while they hit on the logical, like steroids, growth hormones, stimulants and narcotics, simple cold medications and even caffeine are disallowed.

 Here’s where the doping rules can be a bit restrictive – our winter athletes are already dealing with jet lag, old hotel heating and winter climates; when one gets ill they are pretty much limited to Echinacea and vitamin C. Any standard meds are prohibited, and it remains the athlete’s responsibility to know what amounts of any  prohibited substance are in any product.

 To enforce all this, WADA has set up an international random drug test system. If a ski racer has a Top 50 listing worldwide in an event, he/she gets added to the FIS Registered Testing Pool. Nordic athletes are also tested from the Top 50, while snowboard is Top 10 and freestyle takes the Top 30. Additionally, those placing top four at any competition are tested. Because of this top four rule, solid competitors like Bode Miller and Benjamin Raich can count on testing at almost every race they enter.

 Any competitor with a FIS license signs a personal guarantee to accept all FIS rules, including the anti-doping rules set up by WADA. This requires filing quarterly “Athlete Whereabouts” forms, which directs those top athletes to list all their locations every day for three months in advance. Once a name is drawn for random urine testing, doping officers will show up at each stated location, waiting at every site for a minimum of two hours until the officer makes contact with the competitor.

 Selected for a random test recently while in New York City, racer Jonna Mendes relates, “I had gone out to dinner with my boyfriend and had a glass of wine [alcohol is allowed out-of-competition]. When I came home, I used the restroom, then checked my phone messages and heard I’d been selected for random testing and to call right away. So when the doping officer showed up, she had to sit in my living room and wait two hours until I needed to pee again. This happened another time out West, when I was hosting a Bar-B-Q at my house and the officer showed up and just had to sit with my guests and wait until I could accommodate her.”

 Mendes, along with all other USSA athletes, had until end of November to complete their Whereabouts forms for the period January through March 2006. For any major schedule changes, like a snowed-out World Cup, coaches will typically notify FIS with the team’s update. Other than that, it’s up to the athlete to email or fax any schedule changes. Sister shows up at a race and wants to take you shopping? File an update. Or at least notify the coach, since they are always the secondary contact for the doping officer. But put simply, the Whereabouts information must be kept current year-round.

 If a name is selected for random testing, and the officer cannot locate the competitor, it counts. More exactly, three failed attempts to test an athlete in an 18-month period, is counted as a violation. And a first violation leads to a two-year ineligibility to compete. A second violation is a lifetime ban. This is serious stuff  for upper level racers. Plus, in the theme of team spirit, if a national organization like USSA accrues over a certain number of violations from team members, the entire association can be suspended for up to four years.

 Top Gun, Bode Miller has come out against the ‘ineffectiveness of a system that permits alcohol and bans asthma inhalers.’ As the doping controls become more time consuming and  invasive, we may start hearing more racers calling for change. See you at Torino…