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Climbers in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics will be subjected to an onslaught of drug tests, but that won’t be entirely foreign to many of them. Drugs and the Olympics have been inexorably connected since the mid 1970s, when drug testing became standard. High- profile efforts to eliminate the use of PEDs by Olympians include the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999 and management of an ever-increasing list of substances prohibited at the Olympics by WADA beginning in 2004.
Climbing’s governing body, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), established its own anti-doping policy in 2010, and the organization uses WADA’s general framework—known as the Anti-Doping Code—for its guiding principles. World Cup winners are drug-tested, as are random youth finalists. In some cases, competitors have to cede their daily schedules so they can be drug-tested anytime and anyplace.
“It’s unlikely to see a lot of climbers using performance- enhancing drugs, but I am pretty sure there have been some climbers experimenting with them,” says the Czech Republic’s Libor Hroza, a former speed climbing world record holder who notes that he has heard rumors of doping on the circuit over the years. “The more life changing opportunities [that competitors] will have from becoming very successful climbers means higher chances that someone will dope.”
Thus far, competition climbing has mostly been scandal- free, at least in regards to PEDs, as opposed to some violations for recreational substances like marijuana and cocaine.
“I think that climbers are clean,” says Germany’s national team coach, Urs Stoecker, who holds a Ph.D. in muscle biomechanics. “You have other and better means [than PEDs] to increase your performance in climbing. I think most climbers increase their level while training, and recover professionally. The other reason is that climbing—especially lead climbing—involves a lot of technique, tactics and mental aspects. All this you can hardly dope at all. So the effect of doping would probably just enhance the conditional factors.”
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Hroza also asserts that doping cannot make up for a lack of proficiency on the wall, nor can it heal ragged skin—both of which play into a competitor’s training and results. “Your technique and the way you move has a huge influence on your climbing performance,” he says. “And your finger skin and nail splits will stop you from climbing—even though you might be physically ready to go again.”
Such rationale is sound, but the IFSC and the governing bodies in Germany, the United States and other countries around the world would not have explicit anti-doping rules unless the issue of PEDs had relevance to climbing—and a potential for violations.
Dr. Charles E. Yesalis is the co- author of The Steroids Game and has served as a consultant to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Olympic Committee. When asked about climbers’ potential to use PEDs, particularly as Olympic prestige looms, he says climbers are no different than other athletes: “It’s human nature,” he says of the temptation. “To gain an advantage is an innate part of humans, whether it be in business or war or sports.”
Yesalis cites three main categories of PED usage in all sports. The first category, the ingestion of stimulants, can be as minor as supplementing with caffeine (not a prohibited stimulant under WADA rules) or as major as taking amphetamines for added energy. The second category, removing and reintroducing one’s own blood cells (commonly called blood doping) improves an athlete’s endurance. According to WADA’s website, blood doping is most often done through the use of erythropoietin (EPO), synthetic oxygen carriers, or blood transfusions—all of which are prohibited. The usage of anabolics, the third category, is a vast arena that can include taking steroids or human growth hormone for increased strength and muscle building.
With the Olympics’ combining of various climbing disciplines, the three categories are increasingly pertinent for both training and performative purposes. “In the sport of rock climbing, I would say that arguably all three [categories of PEDs] could come into play,” Yesalis says.
The increased strength that comes with the use of anabolic steroids could equate to improved power and explosiveness in bouldering and speed climbing. Endurance in lead climbing could possibly be aided by doping. But perhaps more than performance in competition, cycled PED usage would allow climbers to train longer and harder—and recover faster. In a way, this means that competitors could continue to experience performance gains from PEDs even if active usage of the drugs has ceased.
A Complex System
The subject of PEDs in athletics quickly spirals into a tangle of organizations and federations; the topic becomes less about a single athlete being tempted to game the system than the bureaucratic structures that surround every competitor. In climbing, the IFSC at the international level, and USA Climbing, Climbing Escalade Canada, and others at national levels, have detailed (often slightly different) policies related to how and when competitors are drug tested. Testing is further complicated by the delineation of in-competitiontests (immediately prior, during, or after an event) and out-of-competition tests (unannounced and usually outside an event venue). For instance, some climbers are selected annually by the IFSC to be part of a Registered Testing Pool and potentially subjected to testing any time and any place.
“What frustrates most athletes is when not everyone gets evenly drug tested,” said Sean McColl, one of the few sport climbing athletes already qualified for the 2020 Olympics. “A lot of the time, it falls to the National Federations to run drug tests outside of competition times. I don’t mind being drug tested four times a year, and at the same time, I assume other athletes at my level are getting the same treatment.”
In a recent effort to educate American competitors on the complexity of the issue, USA Climbing brought in experts from the United States Anti-Doping Agency to give a presentation following the 2019 Sport and Speed Nationals. USA Climbing also provides online resources so American competitors can check whether certain medications are prohibited. There are a handful of unsuspecting drugs that can cause a competitor to fail a drug test. McColl offered insight on his own experience of failing a drug test:
“In 2001, at the Youth World Championships, I was taking Claritin as recommended by my doctor
because of Hay-fever and extreme allergies. The Claritin I was taking had Pseudoephedrine and so I failed the drug test after lead climbing. I had to ship back my trophy and was disqualified from lead. I then started taking a different type of Claritin without any Pseudoephedrine, which I still do to this day. The bottom line is that an athlete is responsible for what goes into their body. I knew I hadn’t done anything “wrong,” by any training standards, which probably made me more motivated for the next year, when I won again, and passed the drug test. I went on to win five Youth World Titles during my youth career.”
Still, even established protocol and rule sets coupled with education may not guarantee climbing an effective system. “You look at the more well- known, sophisticated—meaning, financially sophisticated—sports, let’s say cycling. Well, they do all that [testing] and more, so you’d argue cycling doesn’t have a drug problem?” says Yesalis, referencing scandals that have tarnished multi-stage cycling races since the early 2000s and gave the sport a negative reputation it still can’t shake—despite the presence of thorough drug tests.
In fact, climbing’s greatest asset for combating PED usage, scandal and drug-testing bureaucracy thus far might have been that it was insular and grassroots.
“I think that compared with many other sports there is very little medical intervention with athletes’ training,” says Ian Dunn, a coach of Great Britain’s climbing team. “Climbers train either with other climbers or on their own, and they don’t have a doctor/physio tagging along. If someone turned up at a gym with a doctor who was seen giving them all sorts of pills, it would be seen as very suspicious.”
The various parties in all sports are enmeshed in a constant chase: WADA is trying to identify the latest and greatest doping chemicals while the sports federations try to catch perpetrators who are trying to find new ways to pass the tests. And in some cases, members of national teams do regularly see physicians or have physicians traveling with them.
“It’s a game where there’s no doubt in my mind that the users have always bested the testers,” says Yesalis. “Often because the testers are always playing catch-up, they’re not terribly well- funded to find new drugs, and they’re not the FBI or Interpol.”
Current drug testing of competition climbers’ blood and urine samples is done by accredited laboratories around the world that report their findings to WADA, which then compiles the results as longitudinal data. For instance, 2017 anti-doping figures indicate that 265 sport-climbing athletes were drug tested under WADA’s charge. For reference, consider that cycling tested more than 23,000 athletes.
To be completely effective, drug tests for climbing would have to be conducted frequently on all athletes at all times of the year and at any time during the day or night without schedule or warning. Such thorough methodology is too costly to be practical. “If you really wanted to be serious about it, you’d give a gazillion dollars to the testers to develop more sophisticated tests, you’d bring police in like crazy to do sting operations. And for what?” Yesalis asks. “Frankly, I think our money would be better spent dealing with the opioid crisis by a hundredfold.”
If PED testing increased in frequency and efficacy, there could still be criticism for the system under which it resides: Supporting anti-doping work is a policy of climbing federations. This structure creates potential for ethical conflicts of interest. On the one hand, it is in a federation’s best interest for their athletes to perform the best, and as with Russia, that pressure led to cheating. On the other hand, those federations are the entities that risk being tarnished most when athletes—or, God forbid, entire national teams— fail drug tests. In recent years, Russia made headlines for having hundreds of its athletes implicated in state-sponsored doping that spanned multiple Olympic sports. Although Russia denied meddling in drug-testing data or methodology, the scandal has resulted in numerous blanket suspensions, bannings, bad publicity, and investigations that continue to this day.
Another question is the adequate punishment of competitors who do fail tests. Given that competitors who take PEDs to gain muscle will still reap strength benefits even after finishing a drug cycle or paying a penalty, Dunn believes that climbing should be prepared to ban for life anyone caught using drugs for systematic performative gains.
A Philosophical Crux
The anti-doping policies of the various climbing federations are at best limited or flawed because PED usage and drugs are constantly evolving. At worst, anti-doping policies exist solely so competition climbing can maintain plausible deniability regarding the presence of PEDs in the sport. Yesalis describes the presence of anti-PED policies generally in sports as a façade, “purposely put up to help sell a sport as mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet.”
Whatever the extent of current PED usage in climbing, the Olympics will bring increased publicity and participation to the sport, resulting in an infusion of money. With that could come greater temptation and greater means for breaking the rules. For the time being, the community might find the most comfort in the fact that the strongest climber is not always the best climber.
Says Stoecker, “My opinion is clearly that to be the best climber, you don’t have to dope but just train hard and intelligently.”
This article appeared in Gym Climber #4