Golf one year away from Olympic drug testing

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – For the vast majority of potential Olympic golfers, the 2016 Games are still little more than a notation on the calendar, distant milestones akin to retirement or 50th wedding anniversaries.

On Wednesday, however, things start to get very real.

That’s the beginning of the one-year countdown to the date – May 6, 2016 – when every potential Olympic golfer, male and female, will be subject to the testing protocols of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Golf will return as an Olympic sport Aug. 11, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Those protocols, which make the PGA Tour’s policies look like “testing lite,” include daily “whereabouts tests” requiring golfers to provide their locations so they can be tested any time, anywhere, and blood testing, which is the only method for identifying human growth hormone. The PGA Tour does not include either procedure in its anti-doping efforts. Some anti-doping officials consider the variations between the drug-testing policies of the Tour and the World Anti-Doping Agency to be subtle, yet essentially substantial.

The job of shepherding golf into this new world of anti-doping falls to Andy Levinson, the PGA Tour’s executive director of policy administration who also serves as the executive director of USA Golf, the organization tasked with running golf’s Olympic teams in the United States.

In an exclusive interview with GolfChannel.com, Levinson, who is referred to in Tour circles as the circuit’s anti-doping czar, said the education process for potential Olympic golfers already has started.

“Olympic anti-doping was a significant topic at the PGA Tour’s annual player meeting in January and it was also a topic of discussion at the LPGA’s first player meeting in January as well,” Levinson said. “We’re going to continue to have one-on-one meetings with players, managers, spouses and player support personnel so that everyone is well aware of what’s involved.”

That education process intensified this week at The Players with officials from the International Golf Federation hosting an anti-doping meeting on Monday. Another meeting was held on Tuesday between Tour officials and various player managers to discus the anti-doping differences.


Timeline: PGA Tour and drug testing


Levinson said there will also be a document issued later this summer and distributed to potential Olympic golfers outlining everything they need to know about the Games from anti-doping to travel and athlete housing in Rio. He said he also expects to have one-on-one meetings with golfers as the May 6, 2016, deadline approaches.

“I do anticipate players will have more questions as they focus on it more and we get closer to the Games, and as we sit down with them I fully expect to answer any questions they might have,” Levinson said.

The Tour began drug testing in 2008; since then, its testing officials have become as ubiquitous as courtesy cars at Tour stops, and players have become accustomed to periodic sample requests.

“Testing is not fun. Nobody likes going through the process, going and peeing in a cup and having guys watch you, but it’s part of the deal. I think most guys get that,” said Matt Kuchar, who currently would be just outside the testing pool based on his position in the Olympic Golf Ranking.

What many players probably don’t get is how dramatically testing will change starting next May for those who are placed into the registered pool, which will consist of anyone qualified for the Games according to the Olympic Golf Ranking.

Currently qualified for the United States’ men’s team are Jordan Spieth (world No. 2), Bubba Watson (No. 4), Jim Furyk (No. 5) and Dustin Johnson (No. 8). On the women’s side it’s Stacy Lewis (No. 3), Brittany Lincicome (No. 6) Cristie Kerr (No. 7) and Michelle Wie (No. 10). Any golfer who plays his or her way onto those lists would be added to the pool until the fields are finalized on July 11, 2016.


DIFFERENCES IN POLICIES

“Whereabouts testing” will require players to inform the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) where they are going to be for one hour each day between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. so they can be tested.

USADA officials say a smartphone app will allow competitors to report their locations instantly, but the penalty for a missed test can be severe – three whereabouts testing “failures” will count as a positive test.

“I don’t know all the details, but for a period leading up [to the Olympics], we understand what other athletes go through,” said Graeme McDowell, who currently would be included in the pool and would fall under the jurisdiction of Irish testing authorities. “They have to account for their whereabouts at all times because they can be tested at any time. We understand that things are going to be different and I think we’ll all accept. I don’t think anyone has anything to hide.”

Golfers will also be subject to blood testing, which is not part of the Tour’s anti-doping program but is currently the only way to detect HGH. While steroids will always be the face of anti-doping, many golf fitness experts contend that HGH would be the drug of choice if a professional golfer were inclined to dope.

“It’s a big concern, obviously,” said Travis Tygart, the CEO of the USADA, the organization that will oversee testing next year for America’s potential Olympic golfers. “All you have to do is look at page 28 of their [anti-doping] policy and they ask the question, in the FAQ guide for players, ‘How can hormones be used to enhance performance in golf?’ Then you look back and say, ‘if that does all that good and gives me a performance advantage and I’ve got no chance of being caught for it ... That’s a concern.’”

HGH dramatically speeds recovery from injury and produces more energy, and since the Tour, unlike the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA, does not conduct blood testing it is impossible to police.

“We don’t conduct blood testing and even if we did the detection window for HGH is very limited in the current tests,” Levinson said. “If, for example, we had evidence that someone were using HGH or in possession of HGH or had admitted to using HGH then those would be violations.”

Levinson said he regularly meets with officials from the USADA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to discuss the ongoing development of blood testing, and even as other sports leagues embrace blood testing to combat HGH use, technology advancements are giving anti-doping officials more options.

One such test by scientists at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., measures HGH in urine. According to the George Mason team, the USADA-funded project would give testers a larger window to detect HGH – from just a few days using the current blood test to possibly two weeks in urine  – and would alleviate athlete concerns that come with blood testing.

“Specifically for golfers or athletes who are involved in sports that have fine motor skills involved you just want to make sure that there’s not anything whether it’s sticking a needle in the arm or if someone has an issue with a blood draw of any kind that it won’t impact their performance,” Levinson said.

Tygart remains cautiously optimistic that the science is improving but warns that the technology still needs to be developed.

“We saw some of the science early on a few years ago and it just wasn’t ready for implementation into the athlete world. We try to continue to help develop it, but it’s just not there yet,” Tygart said. “If it was a realistic possibility [to test for HGH in urine] we’d love to do that. It almost nullifies the need for blood. But it’s not there and our science guys are not convinced it’s going to be there in the near future.”

Out-of-competition testing will be another new experience for golfers.

Although the Tour considers tests administered on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of tournament weeks out-of-competition, compared with the testing protocols in other Olympic sports it is a much lower threshold than what will become the norm next May.

“We’re a little bit different than other Olympic sports, even other professional sports, in we do have access to our athletes on a year-round basis and we do conduct that testing year round,” Levinson said.

Potential Olympic golfers will also be subjected to the complete WADA list of prohibited substances, which the Tour deviated from, however slightly, when the circuit introduced testing in ’08, including corticosteroids (anti-inflammatories), certain allergy and asthma medications, and certain forms of pseudoephedrine (a decongestant).


Video: Tygart explains the player education process


THE TRUTH IN TRANSPARENCY

But the biggest difference, at least according to Tygart, will be the introduction of a much more transparent testing program.

The Tour’s policy is to announce violations of its anti-doping program involving performance-enhancing drugs, but not recreational violations.

Unlike WADA and USADA, the Tour also doesn’t reveal what drug caused the violation – a change the circuit made after the first year – or how many golfers are tested.

“There are some slight differences to the WADA code and that’s not unlike any other major professional sports league in the United States,” Levinson said. “WADA has its opinion about its own policy and feels strongly about that, but the PGA Tour was able to develop a policy that is a smart policy and focused on golf and the other professional sports have been able to develop policies to do that as well.

“They may not be exactly in line with WADA but that doesn’t mean they’re not comprehensive, good policies.”

But for Tygart and the other anti-doping agencies, transparency is a corner that simply can’t be cut. For the USADA chief – who led the investigation into the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, was involved in Major League Baseball’s BALCO scandal and was once described as the “Eliot Ness of sports” – full disclosure accompanied with independent verification are the cornerstones of an effective anti-doping policy.

“If you have the obligation to not give a sanction or to stick the file in the drawer and not go forward, I’m not in any way suggesting that’s what [the Tour] have done, but the policy allows for that. Without any accountability elsewhere it’s hard to know for sure,” Tygart told GolfChannel.com.

“We’ve certainly seen other high-profile sports, cycling in the past, where in ’99 with Lance Armstrong’s corticosteroid positive, that’s exactly what the sport did. After the report that just came out detailing that sad saga it was clear they did it because it was going to be harmful to them and to the sport.

“That’s the pressure and the tension that you have going back to the fox guarding the henhouse. It’s awfully difficult and in our experience impossible to both promote and police your sport because you have this inherent duty to make the brand look good and not have any bad news out there.”

Tygart also points out the importance of full disclosure when it comes to testing statistics. In 2014, USADA administered 9,497 drug tests – including 6,292 out-of-competition tests – and publicly discloses all athletes’ testing history. For example, Lindsey Vonn, a U.S. Olympic skier and Tiger Woods’ former girlfriend, was tested five times last year according to the USADA website.

The Tour’s policy has no such transparency.

“We do not disclose our specific testing details but I can say that we’ve conducted thousands of tests since the program’s inception,” Levinson said. “The players know that they can be tested any time throughout the year with no limit on the number of tests conducted on them throughout the year.”

But Tygart says it’s less about player participation than it is public perception when it comes to transparency.

“Our athletes came to us and said, 'look, we want to have this information on our website,’” Tygart said. “We want to show how many times we’ve been tested. We want to remove any doubt.’”

The byproduct of the Tour’s silence, however, is confusion when a player – like Johnson last year – takes an extended break.

Last August, Golf.com reported Johnson had been suspended for six months after failing his third test for cocaine. The Tour and Johnson denied the report, which cites an unidentified source, and returned to the Tour in February at the Farmers Insurance Open

In March, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem acknowledged the potential pitfalls of the circuit’s policy and the impact innuendo could have on otherwise innocent players. 

“We reserve the right to [announce violations] but we generally don't make public comment on it. That's not to say we wouldn't ever, depending on the facts,” Finchem said. 

“If it triggers a situation where a player is stepping away from the game or getting, maybe being suspended but we really don't know, does that create confusion, and that's one point that we are giving some thought to on that particular situation.”

But the USADA policy has no such ambiguity and Tygart points out that staring next May the names of golfers who enter the Olympic testing pool will be published, just like Vonn’s. “It’s something clean athletes want,” he added.

It’s just one of many things that will change in 12 months for potential Olympic golfers as the Games inch closer and that distant notation on the calendar suddenly becomes very real.