TOKYO — The low numbers came in from across the globe and covered most every distance, from 100 meters through the marathon. The reasons behind all the improving times throughout the sport of track and field were every bit as diverse: better shoe technology, better running surfaces, less wear and tear on bodies during the COVID-19 pandemic and just a good old-fashioned itch to start running for real again.
Another possibility: For the better part of three months during the pandemic, testing for performance-enhancing drugs came to a virtual standstill worldwide. Only in recent months has it begun to ramp back to normal.
It’s one of the uncomfortable realities of the Tokyo Olympics. Not a single one of the approximately 11,000 athletes competing over the next 17 days has been held to the highest standards of the world anti-doping code over the critical 16-month period leading into the Games.
Statistics provided by the World Anti-Doping Agency pointed to a steadily improving situation as the Olympics approached, but they do not mask the reality that over the entirety of 2020, there was a 45% reduction in testing around the world compared with 2019 — a non-Olympic year in which the numbers wouldn’t normally be as high anyway. In the first quarter of 2021, there was roughly a 20% reduction in overall testing compared with the same three months of 2019.
“Unless you’re a fool, you’d have to be concerned,” said Travis Tygart, the CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency.
The thought of simply abandoning testing for any period of time runs counter to one of the central tenets of the anti-doping system — the prospect that any athlete can be tested anywhere and at any time.
The uncertainties and danger presented by the Coronavirus, especially during the opening months of the pandemic, resulted not only in the suspensions of leagues across the world and eventually the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics themselves but to the virtual halt of the drug-testing programs that are designed to reinforce the competitive balance in sports.
In April and May 2020, while business as usual was shut down in nearly every aspect around the globe, WADA reported a total of 3,203 tests. There were 52,365 during those months in 2019.
USADA, along with anti-doping agencies in Norway and Denmark, were among the agencies that tried to bridge the gap. They started pilot programs in which they sent in-home drug tests to athletes, asking them to give urine samples and small dried blood samples while collection agents looked on via Zoom. But those programs, while notable for their ingenuity, covered only a small fraction of athletes in a small segment of the globe.
“We would be naïve to think that there were no people who sought to take advantage of this lull to break the anti-doping rules,” WADA director general Oliver Niggli told The Associated Press. “However, there are a number of factors that mitigate that risk.”