The numbers alone tell a disturbing story.
During the first nine months of 2019, antidoping organizations collected more than 231,000 blood and urine samples from athletes for testing for performance-enhancing drugs. During the same period in 2020, with the coronavirus making collection a high-risk event, antidoping organizations collected about 111,000 samples. In April alone, when cities and countries around the world were locked down, only 576 samples were collected, compared with 25,219 for the same month the previous year.
As the coronavirus pandemic has swept around the world, killing more than 1.1 million people as of Friday, it has caused lengthy lockdowns and untold economic hardship.
But those same restrictions have also significantly reduced the ability of antidoping officials to collect biological samples, and that, experts said, has created a ripe opportunity for cheating as close monitoring of thousands of athletes before the Tokyo Games this summer is expected to begin.
“That is a constant worry, even when there are no COVID-related issues,” said Dick Pound, the founding president of the World Antidoping Agency. “It’s more concerning now.”
With winter sports that are considered high risk for doping about to begin their World Cup seasons and the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics only eight months away, antidoping officials say the need to get testing back to previous levels is critical. This is particularly essential at competitions, they say, since those offer the best chance — given current travel restrictions — to catch athletes using illegal stimulants that have an immediate effect on performance.
“It would be naïve for us to think people have not taken advantage this time,” said Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Antidoping Agency.
Tygart knows that a certain number of the nearly 3,000 athletes based in the United States that his agency tracks have been taking illegal performance enhancing drugs. He said they told him so.
While so many athletes were stuck at home with little to do during the pandemic, USADA worked with researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a survey about doping. More than 1,400 athletes in the USADA testing pool participated in the anonymous survey.
Just under 10 percent said they had taken a banned performance-enhancing drug during the past 12 months, including 2.5 percent who admitted taking the most potent drugs, such as testosterone, human growth hormone and drugs that increase red-blood cell production and oxygen capacity. Another 4 percent said they had used marijuana, with the rest admitting to using less potent drugs illicitly, such as medication for asthma that can improve lung capacity or drugs that modulate hormone levels.
Tygart said he saw all of this as something of victory, since studies of doping prevalence from the past decade have recorded anonymous admissions of guilt from as many as 40 percent of respondents.
While the athletes in the USADA study admitted to far lower levels of doping, they expressed deep skepticism that their rivals were abiding by the rules. More than 50 percent said they believed international athletes had used the lull in testing caused by the pandemic as a doping opportunity, and 30 percent said they suspected American athletes had done so.
“Without testing, the confidence in the system goes way down,” Tygart said.
And the temptation remains. Just 42 percent of those surveyed said integrity in sports was more important than financial gain.
James Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the World Antidoping Agency, said testing numbers had been on the rise since May, though they still remain far behind last year’s figures, in part because so many competitions, where a lot of testing occurs, had been canceled. . In September, 17,643 tests were conducted, compared with 26,638 during that month in 2019.
Fitzgerald said national and regional antidoping organizations were doing their best while adhering to limits the local health authorities have placed on their activities. But he added that WADA does have other tools.
“While testing is important as a means to catch cheats and as a deterrent, it is not the only strategy available,” Fitzgerald said. “There are other angles of attack being pursued, which include intelligence and investigations, technology and research, sample storage and re-analysis, and the Athlete Biological Passport,” which can track dramatic changes in blood and hormone levels over time.
The damage to sporting integrity, though, may be done already. Studies have shown that even one cycle of performance-enhancing drugs that quickly leave the body can produce benefits that last as long as four years. That would certainly make a cycle that took place last spring beneficial at the Olympics next summer, or the Winter Games in Beijing in February 2022.
“That is why we have a four-year ban for many of the people we catch,” Pound said. “So the benefit will no longer be there.”
Athletes, sports officials and fans who have learned to observe standout performances with a degree of skepticism took note when runners broke three longstanding long-distance records recently. Records in the men’s and women’s 5,000 meters and the men’s 10,000 meters, all of which had stood for more than a decade, fell in early October. Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya has broken the record in the women’s half-marathon twice since the beginning of September, including last weekend in Poland.
As unfair as it is to question the validity of performances without evidence, the dearth in testing will lead to raised eyebrows as long as it continues, harming those who compete and win cleanly more than anyone else.
“Half my job is to be the skeptic, but it is inherently unfair to question an athlete’s performance because testing could not happen through no fault of their own,” Tygart said. “They deserve the presumption of innocence.”