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There are problems with USADA's Q&A on Lyoto Machida

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Following a USADA Q&A on MMAFighting.com, Iain Kidd has some serious issues with the answers given by the drug testing organization regarding the suspension of former UFC champion Lyoto Machida.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Machida vs Dollaway Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Over on MMA Fighting, Marc Raimondi had an interview with USADA PR person Ryan Madden regarding Lyoto Machida’s suspension. There are a few interesting facets to this, including at least one factual inaccuracy in USADA’s answers; in response to a question about Machida’s suspension, the USADA spokesman claims,

You asked about his sample; it was analyzed by the WADA-accredited laboratory at UCLA, and showed extremely elevated levels of DHEA consistent with someone who was taking 7-keto. As is within his rights, he then asked for his b-sample to be tested, which we did and that too came back with elevated levels. It's probably also worth noting that those levels were not just slightly elevated, but more than 15x higher than what we would expect to see from an individual who was not using this particular prohibited substance (emphasis mine).”

Notice the claim that Machida had elevated levels of DHEA? That doesn’t add up. 7-keto-DHEA doesn’t elevate your DHEA levels. It can’t. 7-keto-DHEA cannot be converted into DHEA. USADA claim his sample is consistent with taking 7-keto-DHEA, but also contains 15x more DHEA than normal. That’s not a finding consistent with taking 7-keto-DHEA, so one of those statements must be false.

DHEA is a more potent substance than 7-keto-DHEA. DHEA can be converted into steroid hormones, 7-keto-DHEA cannot. This is a very important distinction. Claiming Machida’s sample contains 15x more DHEA than a normal person is an accusation that could cause significant harm to his reputation. After I pointed out the factual inaccuracy of this statement to Marc Raimondi and the USADA spokesman, USADA then informed me they planned to amend their claim.

Update: USADA have since amended their statement in the MMAFighting.com article, adding a correction which confirms that Machida did not have elevated DHEA levels.

It should be noted that a week ago, on November 16th, I sent four questions regarding USADA suspensions to the same spokesman quoted in Marc Raimondi's article. Following my op-ed on Machida's suspension, the spokesman then got in touch with me and asked me if I would agree to conduct an email Q&A and publish USADA’s responses. I agreed, and sent a detailed list of 19 questions within half a day of that conversation.

The questions were sent on November 19th. The questions were specifically designed and structured to elicit factual answers and minimize the possibility of spin. You can read them at the bottom of the article.

I received no response from USADA after sending those questions on November 19th until today, when I informed them I was planning on publishing this piece and gave them the opportunity to respond. I was informed that USADA is "Still working on your responses, but needed to address the education issue first, why we went with the MMAFighting piece first." It should be noted that I have reason to believe Mr. Raimondi sent his questions several days after either set of my own.

The inaccurate statement about DHEA wasn't the only question that elicited a concerning answer. When questioned about Machida’s claim that he was threatened with a longer suspension for going to Arbitration, the spokesman responded,

Threatened? No. Of course that's not accurate … I think it's entirely possible that given Mr. Machida's degree of negligence -€” which in all honesty, is extremely high -€” his team decided that it was in his best interest to take the 18 months instead of risking the possibility of having a full two-year sanction be imposed by an arbitrator.

The spokesman pointedly didn’t address whether or not USADA would request the full two year punishment from the arbitration, or whether they would request the reduced 18 month suspension. He also didn’t note whether or not anyone at USADA told Lyoto Machida they would seek the harsher penalty if he chose to go to arbitration. This is important, because at Jon Jones’ arbitration hearing, the panel specifically declined to even consider a penalty longer than one year because USADA hadn’t asked them to.

Jon Jones was facing a suspension of one year, with up to two further years for aggravating circumstances. Aggravating circumstances can include things like using multiple banned substances, which Jones' sample contained, but the panel noted that “[USADA] did not invite the Panel to make a finding that such circumstances existed. The Panel therefore declines to do so.

In other words, because USADA didn’t ask the panel to punish Jones beyond the one year, they didn’t even consider doing so. This strongly suggests that the arbitration panel considers USADA’s wishes when determining the maximum punishment. This is why it’s important to know whether or not USADA told Machida they would be seeking an 18 month or 24 month punishment for his offence at the hearing. The spokesman didn’t mention that at any point.

I doubt it was ever stated as a threat, but even if there was just an implication that USADA wouldn't explicitly request 18 months as the maximum punishment from the arbitration panel, that's still concerning. I asked if this was the case, but did not receive an on the record response by publication time.

If USADA did,in fact, tell Machida that they wouldn't request the shorter 18 month punishment if he chose to exercise his right of arbitration, that’s a problem. If USADA determine that 18 months is the “fair” punishment for Machida, and then specifically ask for a longer punishment because he exercised his right to a hearing, that’s not okay.

It must be noted that the arbitration panel is neutral and ultimately decides on the punishment itself, but based on the above there are good reasons to believe they at least take USADA's requested punishment into consideration when making their decision.

When Marc Raimondi brings up 7-keto-DHEA’s lack of performance enhancing benefit, the spokesman gives his shortest answer of the entire session, and it’s an incredibly misleading one. He states, “The reality is though that this particular substance is on the WADA Prohibited List because it meets at least 2 of 3 criteria for inclusion.

And look, we talk to athletes all the time and tell them that by taking untested, unproven and potentially harmful products for no clinical purpose, they run the risk of not just of an anti-doping rule violation, but negative effects on their health, well-being and probably their legacy (emphasis mine).”

7-keto-DHEA isn’t an untested, potentially harmful product like the spokesman apparently implies. It’s not some obscure research chemical that has never been tested in humans. 7-keto-DHEA has been tested and shown to be safe for human consumption.

Notifications have been filed with the FDA informing them of 7-keto-DHEA’s inclusion in dietary supplements, including supporting evidence that it is safe. These notifications include evidence that show, to the FDA’s satisfaction, that the substance is safe for consumption. The FDA has never raised any objection to 7-keto-DHEA’s inclusion in any product, nor has it raised any safety concerns about 7-keto-DHEA’s use, nor have any of the (many) studies on 7-keto-DHEA found deleterious health effects.

The question of whether or not 7-keto-DHEA belongs on the prohibited substances list, and whether or not it should be classed as a non-specified substance, are of vital import to Machida’s suspension in particular. Despite that, the spokesman didn’t meaningfully address the question, and instead redirected with an implication that 7-keto-DHEA is an untested, potentially harmful product. I asked the spokesman why he chose to imply that about 7-keto-DHEA, but did not receive an on the record response by publication time.

Several of these answers paint Lyoto Machida in a poor light, while benefiting USADA's image. Factually inaccurate and arguably misleading responses do not befit an organization that has “demonstrating honesty and fairness in every action that we take” as a core principle.

Here are the questions I submitted to USADA which they have thus far not responded to:

All of the below, even where not specified, relate to USADA’s relationship with the UFC. There’s quite the number of questions, and some mild redundancy, but I wanted to make sure we covered all of the relevant information around recent topics of interest.

  • Let’s start with the basics. USADA is a signatory of the WADA code. How much discretion does USADA have in how to interpret or modify that code when it comes to their work with the UFC in particular?
  • b) Does USADA maintain the right to re-designate substances between the specified and non-specified categorizations, or is adhering to the WADA categorizations is a requirement of being a signatory to the WADA code?
  • c) Is USADA able to utilize its discretion under section 10.5.2 of the USADA/UFC anti-doping program to reduce suspensions for non-specified substances to 6 months, specifically where USADA determines the substance in question has little to no performance-enhancing benefit and was not taken with the intention of illegally enhancing performance, or is USADA unable/unwilling to take the potential performance enhancing benefit of the specific substance into account?
  • USADA tends not to release the exact laboratory results of tests, unlike some athletic commissions. Is this an internal decision, or is it a requirement under HIPAA or some other federal statute?
  • An assumption I’ve relied on in some things I’ve written is that if USADA has evidence from the drug tests they perform that an athlete’s story doesn’t add up, they would use it - for instance, if the athlete claims to have taken a supplement with a small amount of a substance in it, but the lab returned a result which is too high for that to be the case. Is that a fair assumption to make? Would that be evidence USADA would take into account?
  • Something I’m increasingly concerned with is the apparently arbitrary nature of WADA’s drug designation process. Both in banning substances, and in classifying them as specified or non-specified substances. Now that’s on WADA, not USADA, but does USADA share those concerns, and does USADA take any action to try to challenge some of these decisions?
  • There’s a good recent example; 7-keto-DHEA. Here’s a substance which has almost no performance enhancing effect. Even as a fat burning aid, it’s barely more effective than green tea, and that’s going by studies funded by vested interests looking for the best result possible.
  • Now, it’s WADA who made this decision, so I understand if you don’t know, but why was it banned?
  • b) Does USADA agree that it should be banned?
  • 7-keto-DHEA is classed as a non-specified substance. From my reading of WADA’s own guidance on this, that means it’s a substance they feel is unlikely to have been credibly taken for purposes other than to deliberately cheat. From what I can see from the list, most things found in legal over the counter supplements are classed as specified substance. Yet 7-keto-DHEA isn’t. Does USADA support this designation, especially since it seems like an odd, arguably incorrect, choice to class 7-keto-DHEA as an anabolic agent on its own merits?
  • Does USADA request DHEA tests which differentiate between the ingestion of DHEA and 7-keto-DHEA, or does the test only check for metabolites which both DHEA and 7-keto-DHEA could produce?
  • What is your understanding of how WADA make the decision of substance being classed as specified vs. non-specified?
  • Does USADA feel this sometimes seemingly arbitrary decision, which can cause athletes to be banned for an extra year, is fair to athletes?
  • There is nothing in the WADA code which separates drugs based on their potency. This means someone a powerful anabolic steroid, the benefits of which can persist for years, even a decade, after their administration, gets the same punishment as someone taking a fat burner which the research shows to be barely more effective than drinking green tea. Does USADA agree that this is a logical or fair way to handle potential punishments?
  • Does USADA have any discretion to reduce punishments based on the potency of the substance involved? If so, how much discretion?
  • What is the lowest punishment possible to an athlete who is found completely at fault for ingesting a substance, openly admitted to using it and carelessly didn’t check if it was banned, where the substance is shown by research to be essentially useless for enhancing athletic performance?
  • Does USADA agree it is fair that an athlete found to be taking an extremely potent performance-enhancing substance can potentially face a suspension half that of someone taking an essentially benign substance?
  • Does USADA feel it is right or correct that WADA can and does ban substances with no evidence that they enhance performance, and with no chance for an athlete to appeal a suspension on the grounds that there is no evidence it enhances performance?
  • Does USADA feel it is right or correct that substances banned for reasons of athlete safety can carry the same punishment as substances banned for performance enhancing reasons?