The passion of anti-doping chief Travis Tygart
Travis Tygart knows there’s no simple way to stop doping in sports. He’s run the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for more than a decade and was on the front lines during the cycling doping scandal that ensnarled mega-abuser Lance Armstrong. Cleaning up sports, Tygart emphasizes, is a long-term fight that demands the will to effect cultural change.
Perhaps a scientific breakthrough in testing would alter the landscape, but it’s the everyday slog on behalf of clean athletes that fuels Tygart’s passion and the mission of USADA. Russia’s state-sponsored doping that led to the banning of more than 100 athletes from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio is the most recent news to cause one to ponder: Is the goal of clean sports even possible? Executive editor Paul Costello got Tygart’s take on what’s next in the struggle to level the playing field.
Costello: What are the major lessons learned from the Rio Olympics about global anti-doping efforts?
Tygart: Obviously, the state- and sport-run doping system in Russia was exposed. I think the covering up of positive tests for athletes and sending those athletes to major international competitions opened the eyes of a lot of people to the lengths that some will go in order to win. That it was exposed shows the tremendous advancement in the effort to clean up sports. I don’t think we would have gotten to the point of exposing a government-run, sport-run system that’s been in place for decades but for major steps that have been made in the anti-doping fight over the last 10 to 15 years.
Costello: One former anti-doping official said, “Anti-doping is all about trust. Trusting your competitors and trusting the drug testers.” What happens when that trust is eroded? How do athletes regain that trust?
Tygart: Listen. It is about trust. Athletes have to trust that those in the position of authority to protect their rights are doing everything they can — obviously within the law, within the rules — to ensure that their rights are protected. It’s the greatest injustice in sport when athletes or teams who are playing by the rules get robbed of their accomplishments, their successes or their victories because someone cheats them. We’re here to fight as hard as we possibly can. And the answer for athletes is not to throw in the towel and join the cheaters. The answer is also not to quit the sport. The answer is to double down on their efforts to win the right way, to be outspoken about the need for all countries to be held to the highest standards, and really demand that sport authorities and leaders are held to account that cheating doesn’t happen.
Costello: What are the ramifications of cheating?
Tygart: Doping just inherently undermines the very value of sport. If it becomes a win-at-all-costs, stop-at-nothing endeavor, then it loses its value and all the good that flows from that — hard work, teamwork, dedication to a common goal and how to be tenacious in accomplishing that goal. Those are the very things that make people successful in relationships, as well as in careers and in life.
Costello: Do you understand the mind of a doper?
Tygart: Well, we hear all the pressures that they’re under, and different influences they face, whether it’s coaches, or supplement marketing, or team pressure, or the pressure to maintain a family and to provide for themselves.
Costello: Why is it so difficult to clean up sports?
Tygart: The will. I think we have to decide: Is this a fight we’re willing to win for clean athletes? Are we willing to let clean athletes truly compete clean? Sport frequently wants just the best entertainment as long as there’s no bad news, even if it’s an unfair event. Human nature is such that people are always going to look for some advantage if they think they can get away with it, and the benefits of getting away with it are sometimes so high. The culture of sports is much better today than it was during the cycling cheating. We’ve just got to ensure that progress continues to be made and hopefully one day we truly return the playing field to clean athletes.
Costello: As far as diagnostics and testing, have there been significant leaps forward?
Tygart: I wouldn’t limit it just to testing, because testing is just one aspect of the overall program. The testing, the investigations and the results management process have advanced significantly since 2000. You have to look at pre-2000 to really get a sense of the progress that has been made. In 1999, you had myriad rules and regulations. There was no uniform list, so athletes in different sports were subject to testing for certain substances that others in different sports weren’t subjected to. Some countries had policies; others had no policies. It was just a mess. Some called it the wild, wild West. Since then, the world has come together. Close to 400 sports have signed the World Anti-Doping Code, which unifies and harmonizes anti-doping policies across all countries that compete in the Olympics. A uniform list, uniform sanctions, uniform collection process — all of those are material to having an effective program.
Costello: What’s a realistic goal as far as eliminating doping?
Tygart: One athlete getting robbed of their dream is an injustice. We have to fight as if we are going to win this for all clean athletes.
Costello: You know there are some who believe that the anti-doping effort has failed on many counts. They feel it’s time to drop the rules and legalize doping.
Tygart: If you get rid of the rules it’s not going to be a level playing field. Certain people just by their natural physiological reaction to the drugs respond in different ways. If the drugs work and the athlete responds to them, these are game-changing responses. If you have a body that can maximize the use of drugs like EPO, you’ll win or be at the front end of the competition. You will also have an arms race. There would have to be set therapeutic-use allowances, and competitive athletes would just go above that if they thought more of the drug would do them some good. You would have to draw the line somewhere, because some athletes are going to push themselves to the brink of death. We saw that in cycling in the late ’90s: a rash of young cyclists who were dying of cardiac arrest because they were using too much EPO. Perhaps most importantly, human competition is what we want out of sport. True athletic competition, as we know it and value it. I’m the father of three young kids who play sports. I’d like to see them get and learn life lessons through sports. If we allow doping at the elite level, it’s just a matter of time before every kid in this country is having to seriously contemplate — to get a scholarship or make the varsity team or even make the junior varsity team or the eighth-grade soccer team — which of these drugs am I going to inject in myself?
Costello: I guess you’re saying, where does it stop?
Tygart: Yeah. It just trickles down all the way. There is no stopping point.
In this 1:2:1 podcast, Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, talks about what it's going to take to clean up sports, and why it matters.