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UFC’s anti-doping program is flawed and needs to be changed

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USADA’s recent inconsistent decision is the latest in a series of missteps by the organization. Iain Kidd lays out the pressing issues with the UFC’s anti-doping program.

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USADA

News came out yesterday that Carlos Diego Ferreira has accepted a 17-month suspension from USADA for disclosing his use of 7-keto-DHEA and testing positive for ostarine. Let me contextualize that suspension, and explain how it highlights some of the major issues with the UFC’s anti-doping program.

The most recent inconsistent decision

Ostarine is a selective androgen receptor modulator and the substance that Tim Means received a 6-month suspension for taking, after proving his ingestion was inadvertent. It’s also the substance Tom Lawlor is facing up to a two-year suspension over after he tested positive for the substance.

7-keto-DHEA is a mild fat-burning agent and DHEA metabolite which Lyoto Machida previously disclosed using (read more on 7-keto here). He received an 18-month ban for this violation of the UFC’s anti-doping policy.

So, Lyoto Machida received 18 months for disclosing that he took 7-keto-DHEA. Ferreira received 17 months for disclosing that he took 7-keto-DHEA and testing positive for ostarine (which turned out to be a hidden ingredient in his 7-keto-DHEA supplement). This inconsistency is a major issue.

How substances are banned and classified

7-keto-DHEA shouldn’t even carry a two year suspension. It is grouped as an “anabolic agent” despite not having any intrinsic anabolic effects, as WADA admitted to the UK’s advisory council on the misuse of drugs. It is banned because it’s a metabolite of DHEA, which does have anabolic properties. It’s classed as an anabolic agent—and as a result carries a two-year penalty instead of a one-year penalty—for this reason, despite not being an anabolic agent, and despite substances with similar effects only carrying a one-year suspension.

Technically, 7-keto-DHEA shouldn’t carry any suspension, because it doesn’t meet 2 of the 3 criteria set by WADA for a banned substance. The criteria are:

  • Potential to enhance sports performance
  • Actual or potential health risk to an athlete
  • Violates the spirit of the sport

7-keto-DHEA has no potential to enhance performance in sports. It in no way makes someone stronger, faster, quicker to react, or in any way gives an advantage over an opponent. It’s useful for losing slightly more fat than you would otherwise while dieting, and there are (unevidenced) claims that it can help reduce stress via its action on cortisol.

7-Keto-DHEA is an approved dietary substance which has been used and sold for around two decades, with no reports of health risks that I could find in that time. As 7-keto-DHEA doesn’t meet either of these standards, it should not be banned by WADA.

Athletes are banned from presenting evidence showing a substance is mis-classified

Unfortunately, UFC athletes are banned from challenging a substances inclusion on the prohibited list by the UFC’s anti-doping policy, which states:

WADA’s determination of the Prohibited Substances and Prohibited Methods that will be included on the Prohibited List, the classification of substances into categories on the Prohibited List, and the classification of a substance as prohibited at all times or In-Competition only, is final and shall not be subject to challenge by an Athlete or other Person based on an argument that the substance or method was not a masking agent or did not have the potential to enhance performance, represent a health risk or violate the spirit of sport.

Even in situations where other governing bodies consult experts and determine that WADA misclassified a substance, as happened with Mamadou Sakho, WADA still doesn't have to change their list. Despite these athlete-unfriendly policies, the UFC/USADA still chose to use this list and put this provision in their private anti-doping contract.

USADA’s inconsistency

Ferreira and Machida both had their policy violations happen in April this year. Despite Machida’s violation being for only 7-keto-DHEA, he still received a longer suspension than Ferreira. I reached out to USADA to ask why this inconsistency occurred. As with my previous emails, I have received no reply. There are various other problems with how USADA treated Machida as well.

Update: A few hours after this article was published USADA replied to my email simply directing me to this new story. The story does not explain how USADA calculated the reduction, it merely states that Ferreira received a reduction for using the resources available to him.

You might believe that USADA punishing the fighters so severely is purely down to their hands being tied by the policy. That’s not true. For instance, when Nate Diaz admitted to using a banned substance at a press conference—during the in-competition period, as defined in the anti-doping policy—he received no punishment. That is despite there being nothing in the rules that allows USADA to waive punishment completely for a fighter who intentionally used a prohibited substance.

USADA have the discretion to treat fighters fairly, as they demonstrated in the Diaz case. They just apply it in an apparently arbitrary manner - one which doesn’t benefit the majority of fighters.

By now it is apparent that there are serious issues with the UFC anti-doping policy. The policy is designed to restrict athlete rights, USADA is inconsistent in their decision making, and the only recourse for athletes is a “neutral” Arbitration service

Transparency

There are transparency issues as well: USADA seem to only give comment or information to media who are uncritical of them. In mid-November USADA’s head of PR contacted me to request I send them questions for a Q&A to be published on Bloody Elbow. I gladly did so. As soon as my articles criticizing their handling of the Machida situation came out, they stopped responding to any of my inquiries.

USADA is an agency funded, in large part, by the U.S. government and holds life-changing power over thousands of athletes. It should be above such pettiness. The inconsistent decisions regarding athletes, the refusal to provide information to journalists who won’t act as uncritical mouthpieces, the PR attacks on athletes under its purview... these are not the actions of a supposedly neutral, professional organization. USADA needs to do better, and that starts with taking criticism on board.

Evidence-led decision making

The entire prohibited list needs to be based on evidence, which isn’t the case with the WADA prohibited list. Currently, WADA has no need to provide evidence that a substance meets any of the criteria necessary to be banned. In fact, WADA has openly admitted to banning substances purely because athletes take it.

WADA banned meldonium before having any evidence it enhances performance or affects athlete health. Worse, they banned it before even knowing how to accurately test for it. That led to several athletes being wrongly suspended after WADA admitted it had no idea if they took the banned substance before or after it was banned. That is the organization USADA & the UFC choose to rely on for their prohibited list.

Just now, substances are banned purely because WADA says so. There doesn’t need to be any evidence it enhances performance or is a danger to health. There is also no official channel by which athletes can challenge a substances inclusion or classification. The decision is made by unaccountable bureaucrats, and once it’s made, no dissent is tolerated. Thanks to the agreement to USADA the WADA prohibited list by the UFC and USADA, UFC athletes are now bound by those same rules.

There needs to be a punishment system based on the severity of the offense, which isn’t currently the case. At the moment, you can receive the same punishment for taking the world’s most powerful anabolic steroid and taking a mild fat burner like 7-keto-DHEA. Someone taking several substances is likely to receive the same punishment as someone taking one. Someone taking a substance during a fight receives the same punishment as someone taking one during training.

Athlete's rights

Athletes need to be able to challenge their punishment in a genuinely neutral setting. The current arbitration policy forces athletes to use an arbitration service operated by McLaren Global Sport Solutions, who have a “strategic relationship” with both WADA and USADA.

These Arbiters will only rule within the lines of the anti-doping policy. Just now the arbitration process specifically looks at the violation in the context of the anti-doping policy. It doesn’t examine whether or not the policy or prohibited list are even fair in the first place. This is a problem, because UFC athletes are forced to agree to the policy in order to continue having a job.

What if an athlete decides the anti-doping policy has unfair provisions and they no longer wish to compete under such onerous terms? Sorry, you don't have that choice. The UFC has no obligation to release you from your contract, so you can’t even fight elsewhere to make your living. What if the UFC changes the anti-doping policy and adds draconian new provisions; surely you can leave your contract then, right? Nope. Your only choice is to agree, or choose a different career.

Fighters put everything on the line to entertain us, and most of them don’t get paid much for doing it. For the “privilege” of fighting in the UFC, they have to inform USADA of their whereabouts every day, consent to peeing in cups or giving blood on demand, and agree to be subject to the punishments decided on by the whims of unaccountable bureaucrats for even the most minor violation of the policy. That’s not an acceptable state of affairs and something—a lot of things—need to change.