Every year athletes are getting better, records are being broken, and competition is getting tighter. The difference between being at the top and being an afterthought is often narrow. Gaining that "extra edge" is imperative and makes all the difference. Sometimes that edge comes with a hefty price. Tainted supplements contaminated with illegal drugs regularly cost pro athletes their reputations and livelihoods, and cost aspiring amateurs the chance to ever realize their dreams.
High profile athletes often win their cases against supplement makers, but not without suffering devastating blows to their reputation. UFC star Yoel Romero recently won a case against Gold Star Performance Products to the tune of $27.45 million; money he may never see and will likely be hard pressed to collect. The failed test cost Romero a shot at the title (he later received a title shot years later) and had him sit out of competition. It also cost him a hit to his reputation, with many fans ignoring the verdict or believing him to be a cheat due to his impressive physique.
Likewise, another high profile UFC star, Josh Barnett, is suing a supplement maker, and has won his arbitration against USADA (United States Anti Doping Agency) after demonstrating that his failed test for the SARM ostarine (a selective androgen receptor modulator, part of a new class of investigational drugs being studied for numerous indications, including muscle growth) came from a tainted supplement he purchased and consumed. As Barnett had failed several drug tests for anabolic steroids earlier in his career, he came under heavy scrutiny, with few giving him the benefit of the doubt. His failed tests previously led to high media exposure, notably being stripped of the UFC heavyweight title after a failed test, as well as being the focal point of Affliction MMA’s collapse after his pre-fight test before his fight against Fedor Emelianenko (the greatest heavyweight on the planet at the time) was nixed. Despite winning his arbitration, this may have been a career ender. Barnett is now 41 years old and hasn’t fought in 3 years.
The struggles professional athletes go through, even in sports like MMA where testing is above any of the major pro leagues, pale in comparison to what amateur athletes go through, especially those on the national and world stage. Typically, the legal systems in the US and Canada assume innocence until proven guilty, but in the world of drug testing, it is the opposite. Athletes are presumed to have intentionally cheated until they prove otherwise.
In Canada, this gets particularly nasty, bordering on witch hunt levels. The governing body that oversees drug testing of athletes in Canada, the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP), overseen by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES), has set up the rules where even if athletes can demonstrate they took a tainted supplement, they are still at fault. In fact, while both USADA and the CCES use the WADA protocol, USADA has historically considered mitigating circumstances for reduced sentences before arbitration, while the CCES automatically moves for a 4-year ban from not only competition, but any practice related to the sport or any other sport overseen by the CADP. Athletes must fight through arbitration to attempt to get a reduced sentence. A 4-year ban is an absolute death sentence for amateur athletes, that is their entire University career.
When it comes to arbitration CCES hires teams of lawyers and consultants to “prove” intentional ingestion, an expensive ordeal paid for by the taxpayers. This policing is paid for, yet often the athletes travelling to world competitions to represent Canada do not even have their flights paid for. Athletes are tasked with paying their own legal representation for arbitration and are not compensated even if they win. In fact, the CCES has a history of challenging arbitrators’ rulings when they go against the CCES and moving to a second arbitration, costing more money and time to “prove” intent of an athlete that has already won in arbitration against all odds.
The lab utilized is seen in arbitration as a neutral third-party, despite being paid for by the CCES and never once having sided against the CCES. Christiane Ayotte, the head of the lab the CCES uses (INRS), is called to testify as a neutral expert witness, despite the significant conflict of interest in holding an exclusive and lucrative contract providing testing for an agency that makes their mission abundantly clear. As a fail-safe to show amateur athletes are always guilty, they are made to answer a multiple-choice test at the beginning of their amateur career, and another shorter test at the start of each year. This is a short multiple-choice test in which if they get the answer wrong, the correct answer is shown at the end of the test, and the athlete immediately redoes the test; repeating this process until the athlete receives 100%. This 100% grade is used in arbitration to demonstrate the athlete was adept and fully informed about the risks. The entire Canadian system is set up to make an example out of any athlete “busted”, even if it is shown to be from contamination.
Amateur athletes often do not have the means to fight their case. High profile professional athletes can afford legal representation and the fees to test all their supplements with a third-party lab. This significant cost is typically out of reach for aspiring amateurs. Further, even if an amateur athlete wins arbitration, they have typically lost an entire season or more, and have also lost their scholarship. On top of this, the negative exposure can impact the attention they receive, potentially stalling their career before it begins. Amateur athletes often get limited assistance in learning the risks and have little support in picking out safe supplements to take.
One specific case I am intimately aware of demonstrated that even with an impeccable defense the CCES does their best to discredit an athlete. A team of lawyers are used to defend CCES’ position of intentional doping, and little care is given to the athlete’s defense. In fact, in this athlete’s case, legal counsel was sought and a third-party lab utilized to test a pre-workout. The third-party lab found contamination, whereas INRS did not, at first. In fact, while looking at the results of the positive and negative side by side, I noted that the testing protocol was dramatically different. What was being tested for was also different. It turns out that the third-party lab was using the appropriate test, whereas INRS was not. To clarify, based on the level of metabolites found in the athlete, the standard protocol was insufficient to find contamination if it was indeed contamination as it would be below the detection threshold. Despite having the third-party labs results and the reasoning from the lab on why they used the protocol they did, as well as the athlete’s statement, INRS opted to use the standard procedure then dismissing the claim of contamination. With significant push back for retesting, on a subsequent attempt by INRS’ they found contamination. This did not stop the CCES from seeking a 4-year ban.
Moving to arbitration, Christiane Ayotte testified she believed the athlete had intentionally been ingesting ligandrol, a SARM that has been front and center of supplement makers’ intentional spiking, and which may give little to no benefits for a young female athlete. Ayotte testified that it was her belief the athlete “stopped using the substance too late” which is why the metabolites found were so miniscule and then intentionally spiked the supplement before sending to the lab to match contamination. This is despite, as I will detail below, the manufacturer being busted for intentionally spiking supplements with both SARMs and anabolic steroids, with multiple parties involved facing jail time. This position borders on insanity, and the defending expert witness from the third-party lab testifies the athlete would need a Ph.D. in chemistry to “maybe” know how to intentionally spike the exact amount of ligandrol into the remaining retained supplement to be consistent with the metabolite levels found. After the athlete’s expert witness and attorney were dismissed, the CCES was afforded the opportunity to have Ayotte give a further statement to discredit the athletes position, with no chance of rebuttal from representation. Despite this, the athlete won arbitration and for lab expenses to be reimbursed, which the CCES appealed and refused to compensate. The cost they would have spent on the appeal would have amounted to nearly 100x the cost of the testing, as the CCES did not want to establish the precedent that athletes could be reimbursed for fees.
Despite horror stories like above, many supplement manufacturers put in materials sourced from disreputable companies leading to contamination. Others intentionally add illegal performance enhancing drugs so that the products work better. In a recent high-profile case, a group of individuals operating out of numerous companies and facilities intentionally distributed anabolic steroid and SARM-laced supplements through legitimate distribution methods. From the FDA website:
“The indictment alleges that the defendants sold hundreds of thousands of illegal products, including anabolic steroids, nationwide and internationally, fraudulently representing that those products and pills were high-quality, legal dietary supplements. According to the indictment, the defendants created an illicit manufacturing company and routed sales of illegal products through trusted distributors, knowing that the products were unsafe or could not legally be sold to consumers.”
The specific example I previously spoke of regarding an amateur Canadian athlete was devastated by this illegal scheme. Recently, I saw a post on a friends Facebook, a body builder, commenting “I don’t know what’s in this stuff but it works.” It was a Blackstone Product, and I was obliged to share this information with him. The FDA keeps a database of products they have found are tainted with illegal drugs, however a recent article suggests that less than half of what is found to be tainted is recalled. This is not even considering the products that may be tainted, but haven’t been tested.
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