Tuesday, December 06, 2022  |


Debacle beginning of change in boxing’s drug culture?


Usually, when athletes came to Victor Conte and his BALCO empire for help taking performance-enhancing drugs and evading detection, Conte would carefully research their sport’s anti-doping program first — scrutinize its banned substance list, examine when and where and how often urine or blood samples would be collected, determine which laboratories would test them using what type of equipment — and devise a detailed plan to beat it.

When boxer Shane Mosley and his handlers approached him in the summer of 2003, Conte didn’t waste his time.

They told him Mosley might be tested the day before the September fight in Las Vegas and immediately after it. That’s all Conte needed to know, all he needed to hear. No reason to sift through pages and pages of drug protocols, or sleuth out the calibration levels of a lab’s high resolution mass spectrometer, or calculate clearance times of detectable substances in case of an unannounced test during pre-fight training.

“That’s announced testing,” the doping guru says. “That’s IQ testing. If that’s all they do, why do I need to find out what’s on the banned list? And I never did bother.

“Boxing’s testing program is beyond a joke. It’s worthless.”

Conte had that thought in the summer of 2003, when he loaded up the 32-year-old Mosley with endurance-boosting erythropoietin (EPO) and a cocktail of other verboten substances for what would be a landmark 12-round decision over Oscar De La Hoya. The difference now is that more and more people are questioning boxing’s commitment to anti-doping as well.

For that, thank the demise of the March 13 superfight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. presumably because the former refused to meet the latter’s demands about pre-fight drug testing. Mayweather wanted regular urine and blood testing in the months, weeks, even days leading up the fight, similar to the anti-doping protocols most Olympic athletes face; Pacquiao agreed to some provisions and refused others. No fight.

So the public doesn’t get the epic clash it has been clamoring for. The sport doesn’t get a much-needed infusion of mainstream attention. The two boxers and their promoters don’t get preposterously rich, and Las Vegas doesn’t get a respite from the recession. But doping and boxing suddenly find themselves in the same sentence and that alone, Conte and others say, may be the greatest legacy of Pacquiao-Mayweather, regardless if they ever meet inside the ropes.

“Whether he meant to or not, Floyd has shown that the process is tainted and it’s going to be hard to overlook now,” says Margaret Goodman, the former chief ringside physician for Nevada and an outspoken critic of the sport’s anti-doping policies. “You just can’t ignore it any longer. There just is no rationale.”

Adds Conte: “I see this potentially as an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of drug testing. And here’s why I think this is so important for boxing and MMA: When you increase speed and power, you’re also increasing potential damage to the opponent. Crushing a baseball is one thing. Crushing a guy’s brain is another.”

* * *

Keith Kizer is the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which oversees professional boxing, Mixed Martial Arts and other forms of “unarmed combat” in the state. He is talking about the commission’s drug testing program.

“You have to be vigilant,” Kizer says. “And I think we are.”

Are they?

It depends on your perspective, depends where in the realm of relativity you sit. Pro boxing has no national or international governing body that mandates drug testing, leaving it to individual states in this country. And compared to most states, Nevada indeed is vigilant.

Texas , for instance. Instead of Mayweather in Las Vegas , Pacquiao will fight March 13 against Joshua Clottey at the new Dallas Cowboys stadium outside Dallas . The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation will oversee it.

Its anti-doping program?

Essentially there isn’t one. The state has the authority to demand urine testing for certain performance-enhancing substances “with probable cause,” according to TDLR spokesperson Susan Stanford. Without probable cause to suspect Pacquiao or Clottey are juiced up (neither has failed a past drug test), no drug testing is required to license the fight.

Nevada has upgraded its drug testing program several times over the past decade, ramping up its stimulant testing, then adopting the World Anti-Doping Agency banned substance list, then adding in 2008 the ability to demand random, out-of-competition urine tests at the commission’s discretion for any boxers licensed by the state.

Sounds good, until you consider:

ÔÇó Under Nevada ‘s program, you get 48 hours’ notice to report to the closest accredited lab for a random test, plenty of time for many banned substances to clear your urine. “That’s random testing?” Goodman asks. “That’s random announced testing. They might as well shoot up a flare to tell them a test is coming.”

ÔÇó In many labs, no one is following you into the bathroom and making sure the urine sample is indeed yours (as doping control officers do in Olympic-style testing), or closely checking identification so someone who looks like you isn’t showing up, or running DNA tests on the urine to rule out imposters.

ÔÇó Even if the sample is yours, Nevada doesn’t routinely test for erythropoietin (EPO) and several other potent substances that can be detected in urine using more sophisticated, more expensive, more time consuming methods.

ÔÇó While the Nevada commissioners can demand blood testing, which can find human growth hormone or identify endurance-boosting blood doping not detectable in urine, Kizer concedes they never have.

ÔÇó While Nevada has the authority to target-test prior offenders or suspicious athletes based on “cause,” it rarely does. Otherwise, Mosley would be subjected to numerous unannounced, out-of-competition tests based on his admission under oath to using EPO and other illicit substances before the De La Hoya fight. “And if you’re not going to do it on him,” Goodman says, “then who are you doing it on?”

ÔÇó Nevada doesn’t keep a log of previous urine and blood test results to track the longitudinal chemical profiles of athletes, in case certain markers indicative of performance-enhancing drug use appear.

How easy is it to beat a testing program like Nevada’s?

“As simple as walking across the street,” says Travis Tygart. “It’s good for PR, to give the appearance that you’re testing, but nothing more.”

Who is Tygart ?

He is the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which handles drug testing for Olympic athletes in this country using regulations created by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). He’s also the person whom members of the Mayweather camp contacted during negotiations for the Pacquiao fight to learn about the so-called “gold standard” of performance-enhancing drug vigilance.

“It’s a fundamentally different approach,” Tygart says when asked to compare his agency’s program to others in U.S. professional sports. “The WADA approach is to use best practices and policies and procedures to truly protect the rights of clean athletes. Other programs are simply there for PR purposes. ÔǪ Anybody with a heartbeat can find ways around them.”

Pacquiao initially agreed to three blood tests in the run-up to a March 13 fight — once at the introductory news conference in January, again 30 days out and in the locker room immediately after the fight. The Mayweather camp shook its head. The next proposal was 24 days out. Another no.

USADA would never agree to such provisions because it amounts to announced testing and because of the wide variety of banned substances an athlete could take in the period between tests. If it is administering the drug program, it chooses when and where to test, and how often. There is no fudge factor. No compromise. No preferential treatment for boxers who stand to make $40 million each from a single fight.

Under USADA rules, athletes must file quarterly calendars of where they’ll be and when, making themselves available for urine and blood testing between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., seven days a week, 365 days a year, anywhere on the planet. Suspicious athletes or past offenders regularly are target tested, sometimes two, three, four days in a row. The urine and blood results are recorded over the years to create a biological profile, so even the slightest change will hoist a red flag.

A comprehensive program, yes. Impervious? Hardly.

Athletes can miss two tests every 12 months without repercussion. Sprinter Marion Jones passed an estimated 160 drug tests in her career before admitting she took steroids. Conte’s stable of BALCO athletes were caught only after USADA obtained a used syringe containing “the clear” — an previously undetectable designer steroid — and reverse-engineered a test for it.

There are other problems. The blood test for human growth hormone has been around since 2004, and an athlete has yet to be caught with it, perhaps because it can detect HGH going back only two days, if that. There still is no known test for autologous blood doping, where an athlete removes his own blood, stores it and re-infuses it to boost endurance by increasing his levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Even the urine test for EPO, Conte insists, goes back only 19 hours if the drug is administered intravenously. And who knows what new-fangled designer steroids are out there.

“You could test every athlete every day, and even then you might miss something,” Kizer says. “You do what you can.”

* * *

The big question is: Can they do more? Should they?

The true extent of doping in boxing is unknown, certainly. No one is checking off a box on a survey saying they regularly ‘roid up before fights. But the anecdotal evidence is growing, and doping experts say substances like anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and EPO have a bigger impact on boxing than most sports because of their recuperative benefits during heavy training and because of their strength and endurance boost during the actual fight.

There’s also the argument that if doping is so prevalent in pro sports such as baseball and football, why wouldn’t elite boxers be using them as well with so much at stake?

“I looked around and, from what I saw, everybody was doing the same (stuff),” heavyweight Tommy Morrison, an admitted steroid user, said in 2005. “It wasn’t something that was talked about openly. But when you looked around, you could tell.”

Kizer isn’t convinced his program needs radical overhaul to catch the drug cheats.

“I’ve still never had a drug testing expert come to this commission and say, ‘You’re behind the curve, you need to be blood testing, you need to be EPO testing,'” he says. “Mr. Mayweather has every right to demand it. But that’s a private negotiation and not something we’re involved in.”

It is that very demand which is so encouraging to people like USADA’s Tygart , less for its subject than its origin.

“What’s most important here is you have athletes who say we want this,” Tygart says. “We’ve long encouraged athletes to take ownership of their sport. It’s too easy for those who are running a sport and profiting from it to just want to have the best athletes on the field or in the ring, even if they’re all doped up. That shows real progress from the athlete standpoint, that they’re aware of these issues. Hopefully that momentum continues.

“That’s what ultimately happened in the Olympic movement. The athletes brought change. The athletes have to want clean sport. They have to say, ‘We’re not going to fight big fights if there isn’t drug testing in them.’ You don’t want to hijack big fights, but it might take a couple big fights that don’t happen.”

It’s not that easy, of course. If Nevada suddenly instituted USADA-style testing, promoters might take lucrative fights to places with less stringent anti-doping regimens. Nevada also runs into jurisdictional issues by sending someone across state borders in search of a boxer to urinate in a cup. And who’s paying for it? Currently, the Nevada commission foots the bill, which might explain why it isn’t routinely subjecting urine samples to the $400 EPO test.

“Nobody wants this,” Goodman says. “Can you imagine if both fighters agree to testing before the fight, which is what you should do if you want to do it right, and someone came up positive and you’d have to cancel the fight? Can you imagine? Everyone is worried about the money aspect and not the safety aspect.”

Conte is hopeful, just not overly optimistic. Call him cynical, but understand he once had a window into the dark side of doping. He knows how effective these drugs are, how rampant they are, how easy they are to use without fear of detection.

“Here’s the real question: Do they want to know?” Conte says. “Do they really want to know what people are using — how much and how often and by whom? That’s the question for boxing.”

His answer?

“I’m not sure they do.”

Mark Zeigler is a staff writer at the San Diego Union-Tribune