A Detailed Explanation At How PED Use In Motocross Is Policed
The use of performance-enhancing drugs in motocross racing has been a topic of debate for years, with a thread on Vital MX started by former professional racer Jeff Alessi being the most recent example of speculation. Through pages of debate between Alessi and members on the website, both sides argued their take that substances that are banned under the WADA Code (World Anti-Doping Agency) with little clarification (the thread has since been removed from the site). This has led to a second and even more intense debate, which as of December 15th is still up on the site.
Over the last six years, I have followed and chronicled the policing of PED use in the sport. Since then, two athletes have been dealt suspensions by WADA for infractions that occurred in the Monster Energy Supercross Series– James Stewart was issued a sixteen-month suspension for the use of Adderal without a Therapeutic Use Exemption in 2014 and Cade Clason currently faces a four year suspension for the use of Adderal without a Therapeutic Use Exemption in 2017. Suspensions for use of a medicine that is typically prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder is not as earth-shaking as what other sports face, such as rampant use of human growth hormone or anabolic steroids, and in both cases the issues have been chalked up to errors when filing the necessary paperwork for the Therapeutic Use Exemption approval, but it has proved that WADA is testing riders for substances and is not afraid to suggest a punishment to the FIM.
One key part of the WADA Code that has changed in the last few years is that athletes now often face a minimum four-year suspensions for violations, a decision aimed at Olympic athletes (previous suspensions were often two years, which meant that an athlete could serve their punishment and regain eligibility in time for the international competitions that take place every four years), hence why Clason’s punishment is so much greater than Stewart’s for the same infraction.
A list of the athletes that have been tested, plus the test count, is easily accessible via USADA’s Athlete Test History page. The image above is the list from the 2017 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship race season.
It’s important to note that a number of individuals have revealed that it is indeed possible to be on performance-enhancing drugs and still pass the test. That was the original motive of the 2017 Netflix produced documentary Icarus, which is now known for casting light on the full scope of the state-sponsored program that Russian athletes were a part of in the Sochi Olympics. In the film, Don Catlin, the scientist that developed the tests for the substances admitted that beating the tests is “very easy.” Tyler Hamilton stated in his book The Secret Race that racers had figured how long after taking a dose of erythropoietin that they would test positive, calling it the “glowtime,” and that they would hide from agents during that surprisingly short period of time.
The following feature was originally published in the February 2015 issue of TransWorld Motocross magazine, and included information from prominent trainers and decision makers at the highest levels of the sport. As with anything, there have been changes and amendments to the rules in the time since this story was sent to print, but much of the information remains the same. The Monster Energy Supercross Series still enlists WADA to assist with their testing procedures and the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship enlists USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency, an American non-profit organization that is responsible for the implementation of the WADA Code in the USA), both have collected samples from athletes at events each year, and both have stated that they will continue to do so in the future.
I post the feature for a few reasons. One is to share Seiji Ishii’s view that anabolic steroids, a topic in the online debate, certainly would benefit an athlete in ways different than the stereotypical “swoll bro” body that many associate the substances with. Ishii’s opinion was that if used in a particular way anabolic steroids, HGH, and testosterone use would greatly assist a rider’s recovery, not produce muscle mass.
A second reason is to show that Feld Motorsports and MX Sports has taken steps to address the issue and to explain the procedures. To have WADA and USADA come aboard are costly measures, and their involvement brings a level of validity and prestige. With agents on hand, riders have given urine and blood samples which have later been tested and had the results announced, with all but two instances passing without issue.
The final reason is to selfishly show that yes, there has been some media coverage of the performance-enhancing drug issue. Admittedly it is not to the same extent the way French media outlets dug through trash cans outside of riders hotels in the Tour de France or hounded riders in press conferences.
My opinion on the rumored use of performance-enhancing drugs in the past remains the same now as it did in 2014. “Unfortunately, a clean future will not be enough to quell the talk of past drug use in motocross, which could only be answered with every rider sharing the details of their careers in unapologetic, tell-all manner. But is that even something we want? Look at the way cycling, our only slightly comparable sport, has struggled to step out of the shadow in this post-PED era. It seems that all we can do is cast aside the past and focus on what comes next.”
"I DON'T THINK THAT IT'S WIDESPREAD, BUT IN ISOLATED CASES DRUGS ARE BEING USED. IT MAY NOT BE BY MANY PEOPLE, BUT THAT DOESN’T MATTER, BECAUSE IT'S IN THE SPORT ." — SEIJI ISHII, 2014
It's been known for years that drug use, be it recreational like marijuana or as sinister as human growth hormone, is in our sport. And in 2014, the powers that be in American motocross finally addressed the issue. Last year marked the first time that both Monster Energy Supercross and the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship enrolled in certified testing programs with either WADA (Supercross) and USADA (motocross), and it didn't take long for a positive test and rampant speculation to occur. As one would expect, the first findings of a professional racer using a banned substance and the pending outcome of the said case has cast a new level of doubt on the validity of the programs and the officiating bodies. Our place in the paddock has pulled us into numerous discussions about the subject, and to say that we haven't heard rumors regarding certain personalities or had our doubts about the legitimacy of a rider's training would be a lie. We've witnessed the transformation of a rider's body following months of offseason work with a new coach, and then watched their results improve the same way. The close relationship between motorcycling and cycling, along with the number of trainers that come from bicycle backgrounds, has raised the level of suspicion even further. But without the stringent testing methods from the accredited independent parties, there's been very little one could say about the situation.
The World Anti-Doping Code is now the standard for Monster Energy Supercross and Lucas Oil Pro Motocross. But because the premier championships run separately from each other, with Feld and the FIM in charge of Supercross, and MX Sports and AMA Pro Racing in charge of the Nationals, implementation of the code has become somewhat unique.
In the agreements between both racing organizations and anti-doping agencies, it is mandated that six passes for anti-doping officials be held at promoter will call and that a specially prepped control station is set up at every event, just in case the race is randomly selected for testing. The race officiators are notified of the agency's presence only on the day of the competition, and the chosen riders are required to give the necessary sample directly in front of the doping control officer to ensure there is no hidden apparatus being used to cheat the system.
The FIM is a signatory of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an international independent agency composed and funded equally by the sport movement and governments of the world, so testing and ruling over the Monster Energy Supercross Series occurs in collaboration with the organization under the World Anti-Doping Code. Since 2009, urine samples have been drawn in competition at least twice a season, and in these instances, WADA officials conduct the tests with assistance from both FIM and USADA personnel. In addition to this, WADA enlists a small pool of riders, which has previously included Chad Reed, Trey Canard, and Ryan Villopoto, in the whereabouts program that requires the athlete to provide officials with a detailed schedule of their year, which allows for out-of-competition tests to occur at random. Because of the FIM's state as a signatory, it is on them to hand down punishment to a rider should a WADA test come back positive. Prior to testing at the 2014 Seattle Supercross, no banned substances were found in any of the samples collected.
The use of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a non-profit non-governmental organization and national anti-doping organization that follows the World Anti-Doping Code, in the 2014 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship was announced just before the opening round in San Bernardino, California. Because USADA and AMA Pro Racing came to an agreement less than 30 days before the start of the series, that the approval process for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) can take up to 30 days, and officials felt they needed to properly educate riders, it was decided that the first year of the program would be conducted on the "non-National level." This allows a competitor to declare they are taking something that is on the list of unapproved substances during the actual test and allows them to apply for a TUE afterward. However, if the medical board decides not to grant the exemption for the belated TUE, the rider would then be considered in violation of the rules.
Three weeks into the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Series, the first random collection by USADA officials occurred and a number of riders were solicited for blood samples in Lakewood, Colorado. Those tested were notified of their results roughly a month later via a letter from USADA's Chief Executive Officer Travis Tygart, and every rider tested was found to be in compliance with the rules. A second collection, this time of urine, took place in August during the race in New Berlin, New York, and all riders were also deemed clean.
Still, issues arose over the summer. Some riders voiced their displeasure with the timing of the blood-testing procedures, while James Stewart experienced lingering problems from his positive test during the Supercross season and speculation of illegal IV use. There was also talk that a rider had actually tested positive for human growth hormone, but that wrongdoing by any athlete would be erased thanks to a theoretical "grace period" said to be in effect for the first year of the program. Others felt going through the TUE process was confusing, in that they could still race while using a banned substance such as an inhalable corticosteroid, even though their request for its legal use sat waiting for approval.
To cover the athletic side of the story, we enlisted highly accredited trainers Seiji Ishii and Aldon Baker. Both were competitive cyclists and were witnesses to the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs during the pinnacle of cycling's popularity, which is what ultimately drove them away from the sport. (Baker states, "That's somewhere dark that you're not coming out of. Even a teammate of mine committed suicide.") Despite their bold stances against doping and support of strict testing, they have endured accusations of bringing sophisticated drug programs into motorcycle racing. Baker's involvement with Carmichael, Villopoto, and Roczen has resulted in increased skepticism, but the South African points out that no rider has failed a test while on his program and that after parting ways, no former rider has revealed a hidden element to Baker's methods. "If you go down that road with a rider, you're in bed with them forever," Baker states. "There's no way that you could actually split up, and I've split with enough riders that probably don't like me anymore."
We presented Ishii and Baker with the same questions, which touched on their knowledge regarding the use of banned substances and methods in motocross, the ease of getting "on a program," the effects that would come from consumption, their opinion of the current testing procedures, and what impact it will have on the sport. Both replied with straightforward, informative answers that are seldom seen in motocross.
When explicitly asked if he's been approached by a rider to help with doping, Ishii was direct in his response: "I've been pulled into situations with current or up-and-coming competitors where they have shown me drugs and needed help with them or asked me to put them on the program a handful of times. I've also been called into a meeting where the drugs were laying on the table and the rider said, 'I've been on these drugs and I think they are messing me up. I know that you can help.' And not only are these drugs against the rules, they are illegally procured."
Baker has encountered similar scenarios only twice, and his answer brought an immediate end to the conversations: "I have had a couple ask, 'What about your days with Ricky? There is a lot of talk of this and that.' I've only had two conversations like that where I said, 'If, and I'm not implying, you think at some point in time I’m going to walk up with some prescription or something that you need to take, you need to get that thought out of your head. It ain't ever going to happen.' But that's the only time—when it was about the truth of Ricky's dominance."
Like anything illicit, performance-enhancing drugs are rather simple to procure. Although many think of back-alley transactions between a dealer and hulking gym goer, we managed to find vials of erythropoietin (EPO) and human growth hormone (HGH) for sale online from foreign pharmacies and advertised in publications produced by our parent company, all for around the price of an exhaust system. Of course, the quality of said substances are extremely uncertain, but there is always the slim chance of acquiring American medical quality drugs via a paid domestic doctor. "I don't know what doctor would be crazy enough to put his license and career on the line," Baker says. "I don't know how that would all work, or how much EPO even costs. Thank God I've never even had to look down that road to figure out the scenario."
However, Ishii countered by saying, "There are enough people in this industry with a way of accessing these things, and I think the pattern is once somebody does it, they are open to helping someone else do the same. That's how it was in cycling, too."
The two agreed that EPO, a glycoprotein hormone that controls red blood cell production, would result in a benefit to a motocross rider's physical performance, but that the gains of increased oxygen transportation to the muscles would be marginal when compared to a sport such as cycling. "Cycling is one dimensional in aerobic capacity and anaerobic fitness," Ishii says. "Motocross has huge mental, skill, and risk-taking components, so the differences are not as stark. But yes, you are gaining an advantage by doing something illegal."
Baker echoed the idea, saying, "It would help get oxygen to the muscles, just on the physical side. If you have a guy that has immense talent that's also going down that road, he would get a gain out of it, for sure."
In Ishii's opinion, the use of anabolic steroids, including HGH and testosterone, would have a larger effect on a motocross rider, but for different reasons than one would think. "I think what will help someone more in this sport is the ability to recover faster, which would come from growth hormones," he shares. "No one is trying to get ripped, but just trying to do more work and feel better. Growth hormone, testosterone, and cortisone are all used so that you can do more work and to me are what would make the most difference in the sport."
The idea of a "performance enhancing drug" is not limited to substances that will increase one's physical abilities. Many of us know someone who feels they are at their best when in a slightly altered state of mind, and it's no different in motocross. There have been often-joked-about instances of riders sneaking to outhouses for a pre-race puff of marijuana to calm their nerves, which despite the decriminalization processes sweeping the nation, remains strictly forbidden in all rulebooks. Others have relied on stimulants to sharpen their focus, and the use of a prescribed, albeit banned, amphetamine started the situation James Stewart is currently embroiled in with the FIM.
As mild as intravenous hydration seems, the conflicting rules regarding its use in professional motocross are bound to create a number of problems. A common method of reviving an exhausted rider after a long day, particularly during the Nationals, its use during the day of competition is banned in both the Supercross and outdoor National rulebooks, unless its use is viewed as a matter of safety. For instance, the updated 2015 Supercross rules read: "At no time during the meet will a rider receive any type of intravenous hydration unless such hydration is deemed medically necessary by medical personnel as a result of an emergency medical situation (example: heat stroke) encountered by a rider, during, or as a result of competing in, the meet. Once a rider receives such hydration during the meet, the rider will be permitted to compete only after the chief medical officer has deemed the rider safe and has released them to continue in the meet."
While that rule permits IV use and would even allow a rider to continue competing pending certain circumstances, it's superseded by section M2 of the WADA Prohibited List, which states: "Intravenous infusions and/or injections of more than 50 mL [~3.4 tablespoons] per 6 hour period except for those legitimately received in the course of hospital admissions, surgical procedures, or clinical investigations." Simply put, IV use of any kind is illegal without first filing for a TUE and receiving approval from the drug-policing agencies, a process that takes up to 30 days.
Ishii and Baker feel the AMA, FIM, and MX Sports have failed to cover the IV issue properly, due in part to the lack of inspections that occur to the motorhomes that dot the pit area. What takes place inside the million-dollar buses between motos has been speculated for years, and many say it's more than just a change of riding gear. "I said to Roy Janson [MX Sports event director] that they should be able to come into anyone's motor home on the property at the race," Baker says. "Because that's not the rider's property, that's the race property. They should have a group, maybe Roy Janson and one other person, so that they can do these checks randomly. Because a motorhome is off limits, anything goes in there? That is wrong. At this level, they need to be accountable and the riders need to know. They can check the motorcycles to make sure that everything is right, and it should be the same way with the rider."
Since the cycling federations have handed down a number of penalties in the last two decades, we wondered if it's common for it to take months before the final verdict on a failed test is reached. "Some of the official rulings take a while, because they have to do everything exactly right and give the proper time for people to respond," Ishii says. "But once it's official that a rider has tested positive, all of the steps happen. And when the B sample is tested and it's positive, it's over. You can appeal, but once it's positive, you're not riding." The cyclist not only feels pressure from the sanctioning body, but also scorn from the teams and competitors. "If what happened to James happened in cycling, there wouldn't be a question of if they could ride. They wouldn't—it's super clear-cut. With the teams and the MPCC [Movement For Credible Cycling, a union created on July 24, 2007, by seven sponsored teams of professional road cyclists], they have a self-made association and are policing themselves. If a rider on a team has a positive finding by WADA, the team now kicks the rider off without the governing body saying anything."
Baker backs up the statement by saying, "When they come out with a finding, there's an automatic deal. Can a person appeal? Yes, but there is a timeframe when they have a meeting and call it. This [Stewart's case] seems really vague and unique to my understanding."
Like we mentioned earlier, most of the sample collections have been strictly urine. This is certainly more cost-effective and easier to conduct than the complicated biological passport that WADA and USADA can build from a series of blood tests, but only using urine allows the possibility of missing or altered information of the body's substance levels. "A blood test will always be more telling than a urine test, because in a urine test the concentration of the solutes is dependent on the hydration of the athlete," Ishii shares. "If you are a guy that they are only urine testing and you are at the very limit of the allowed tolerances of a product on their limited list, like caffeine, it's in your best interest to dilute your blood by drinking a shit ton of water."
Although Baker and Ishii see shortcomings in the current testing model, they feel the involvement of the international organizations brings legitimacy to the entire sport. By holding athletes accountable for their actions and to a widely accepted code of conduct, it shows outside sponsors that racing is truly athletic and more than just a spectacle of crashes and jumps. "When I bring up drugs in motocross, a lot of people say, 'What are you worried about? We are not that big and will never get that big,'" Ishii states. "But we want it to be that big. And if you want it to go there, at least look at the flipside and say, 'Now we know what not to do.'"
"I think it's good that they've used a worldwide standard, because it keeps them from looking at their own interests. All of these organizations, like Feld Entertainment, produce these events as entertainment and don't want to lose people from the sport," Baker shares. "They don't want people missing, and I get that. They have invested a massive amount to put the show on. But if you have a worldwide affiliation, like with WADA and USADA, then it's independent. I would not want the AMA to do the testing, because that could get silly. I want it to be independent and random, so that you pay the money and these guys show up at any time they want. That's the fairest way and hopefully the clearest."
Kevin Crowther, the director of AMA Supercross and Pro Racing Relations, agrees that the use of WADA and their methods are a step in the right direction: "It's something that we need to do. There are a lot more rumors than reality, so by doing this, our top athletes can say, 'Look, I have been tested and I'm clean.'" Although the meddling of Union Cycliste Internationale officials with Lance Armstrong's samples stressed the validity of the procedure, Crowther promises that the same thing cannot happen in Supercross: "There is no way for us to say, 'Oh, a test for rider A came back positive, but we don't want to mess anything up because he's a Monster rider.' That is ludicrous. We do not have the ability to do that."
Should a rider test positive for a banned substance at an FIM- and WADA-sanctioned event, their fate lies in the hands of both parties. As a direct signatory of the WADA code, FIM is responsible for handing down punishment to the rider in question after both the "A" and "B" sample shows the same illegal element and a provisional hearing between the FIM International Disciplinary Court takes place. If WADA feels the FIM's verdict on the case is either too harsh or lenient, they retain the right to overrule the decision and levy a resolution of their own.
With one failed result in five years of testing, it seems like the practice is paying off, but Crowther knows the industry still has its share of doubts and unresolved issues. "Obviously everyone hears the rumors," he says. "But over the last few years we've tested a lot of riders and some of them were ones that we've heard rumors about. The situation we had this last season was our first yet, and we've tested roughly 25 of our top athletes in both the 250 and 450 class."
He went on to address the IV issue as well by saying, "To be honest, it hasn't been a huge concern for us, because I don't think riders are running to their motorhomes for an IV at a Supercross. We will probably get to the point where you will see an AMA official at a Supercross or an MX Sports official at a motocross race making house calls and sticking their heads inside rigs. The industry has asked us to do that. It only takes one bad apple, and we have a bunch of great guys who want to compete on a level playing field."
Carrie Coombs Russell, vice president and CFO of MX Sports, told us that testing in the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship was often discussed between their group and the OEMs, but that it took time to find a reliable third party for the job. "Because it's not our expertise, we felt more comfortable if it was [with] a reputable independent agency that was out there," she says. "Roy Janson started the investigations, did his due diligence, and reported to me that USADA was interested in getting into motorsports." As mentioned earlier, MX Sports enrolled in the "non-National" tier of the program, a decision Coombs Russell says was to properly inform riders of USADA's requirements during the first year of testing.
"That is why we took the path of education at all of the races and the meetings that we did and in the pamphlets we gave out," she continues. "A lot of people are not educated on this, especially for the first time, and they may not realize the supplements or medications they are taking need a TUE, so this was part of the education process."
All aspects of the testing are untouched by MX Sports, a process Coombs Russell detailed. "Because we don't do the testing, we contract it out to USADA, we get a letter which says: 'The following samples were tested, and at this time, none require further follow-up as indicated below.' Then we have a list of riders and what their result is. We take that as the process was administered with them through their protocols and procedures, and they found no violations. These results are issued as a result of our non-National status, and that is all we know. So if someone got a TUE after the fact, it's nothing that we are involved with."
Coombs Russell discredited the much-rumored "grace period" that was said to strike away any positive test result of 2014 by simply stating, "That is ridiculous. It did not happen." If a rider's A and B samples ever contain a banned substance, USADA will have full jurisdiction over the matter with no involvement by MX Sports.
Like the FIM, MX Sports is also looking at options of inspections on motor homes or tractor trailers for any prohibited materials. "We've asked our legal counsel to give us an opinion letter and if it is part of the rules," Coombs Russell shares. "It's definitely something that has been brought up and we are currently investigating. It's not off the table at all, but we are reviewing what our legal limits are." She reiterated that testing will remain a part of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship by saying, "I think everyone is onboard with moving forward on the testing. It's a matter of whether or not we go to 'National' status. And we haven't made that decision yet."
Unfortunately, a clean future will not be enough to quell the talk of past drug use in motocross, which could only be answered with every rider sharing the details of their careers in unapologetic, tell-all manner. But is that even something we want? Look at the way cycling, our only slightly comparable sport, has struggled to step out of the shadow in this post-PED era. It seems that all we can do is cast aside the past and focus on what comes next.