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The Who, Why, and How of USADA Testing

UPDATED: November 27, 2023

Effective anti-doping programs are necessary to help ensure that sport is safe, fair, and authentic – a fact that has long been recognized by the more than 660 sports organizations around the world that are signatories to the World Anti-Doping Code. As a Code signatory and the national anti-doping organization (NADO) in the United States, USADA complies with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) International Standards for Testing (ISTI), which outlines best practices for both the creation of test distribution plans and the execution of testing protocols.

Protecting clean sport and clean athletes around the country means that USADA tests athletes at every age and level of competition: from the most promising young athletes at Junior National Championships, to elite athletes heading to their third Olympic Games, to Masters level athletes competing on weekends. For the most part, the rules established by WADA apply to all of the athletes USADA tests, regardless of their age or competition level.

Keep reading to learn more about who gets tested, why, and how.

Elite Athletes

WHO: National and International Level Athletes

Under a congressional mandate, USADA is responsible for protecting clean sport in the United States by educating, testing, and adjudicating cases for a wide range of competitors, including the country’s most elite athletes. More specifically, USADA is responsible for managing the anti-doping initiatives that apply to Olympic, Paralympic, Pan American, and Parapan American athletes.

Many of the country’s highest-performing athletes are also part of USADA’s Whereabouts testing pools, which are regularly reviewed and updated in conjunction with recommendations proposed by each sport’s National Governing Body (NGB). These athletes must file Whereabouts information so they can be located for no-notice testing at any time as part of USADA’s test distribution plan.

Overall, USADA is authorized to test and adjudicate anti-doping rule violations for any athlete who:

  • Is a member or a license holder of a USOPC-recognized sport NGB.
  • Is participating at an event or competition sanctioned by the USOPC or a USOPC-recognized sport NGB or participating at an event or competition in the United States sanctioned by an International Olympic Committee-recognized international federation (IF) for sport.
  • Is a foreign athlete who is present in the United States.
  • Has given his/her consent to testing by USADA or who has submitted a whereabouts filing to USADA or an IF within the previous 12 months and has not given his/her NGB written notice of retirement.
  • Has been named by the USOPC or an NGB to an international team or who is included in the USADA Registered Testing Pool (USADA RTP) or is competing in a qualifying event to represent the USOPC or NGB in international competition.
  • Is a United States athlete or foreign athlete present in the United States who is serving a period of ineligibility on account of an anti-doping rule violation and has not given prior written notice of retirement to the his/her NGB and USADA or the applicable foreign anti-doping agency or foreign sport association.
  • Is being tested by USADA under authorization from the USOPC, an NGB, an IF, any NADO, WADA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), International Paralympic Committee (IPC), or the organizing committee of any event or competition.

WHY: Health and Ethics

Doping is a both a health issue and an ethics issue. First and foremost, USADA works to prevent doping because performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) can be extremely dangerous and even deadly in some cases. Athletes who use prohibited substances, such as peptide hormones and anabolic agents, are at greater risk of serious health complications, including liver damage, stroke, and heart attack. Doping can also lead to other side effects that last for years, impacting an athletes’ quality of life long after they leave the field of play.

In addition to endangering their own health, athletes who dope seek to gain an unfair advantage over their competitors, which undermines their competitors’ hard work and threatens the credibility of their sport. This win at all costs attitude also violates the underlying morals that make sport valuable to society.

Without anti-doping efforts, a performance enhancement arms race could ensue, which would be detrimental to the both the athletes who were willing to drug themselves to win, and the clean athletes they competed against. In the high stakes world of elite sport, anti-doping programs help protect athletes and sports from the physical and ethical effects of doping.

HOW: Deterrence and Detection

Testing is key to the detection and deterrence of doping, which helps ensure that all clean athletes can compete on a level playing field.

In relation to testing, deterrence principles explain that an increased number of tests, in conjunction with ambiguous testing times and locations, leads to greater perceptions of certainty among athletes. Knowing they could be tested at any time, athletes are therefore less likely to dope. With these principles in mind, USADA develops a strategic test distribution plan to ensure the efficient, effective, and intelligent allocation of testing resources.

In line with WADA’s International Standards for Testing (ISTI), USADA considers, at a minimum, the following standards when developing its test distribution plan:

  • Physical demands of the sport and possible performance-enhancing effects that doping may elicit.
  • Available doping analysis statistics.
  • Available research on doping trends.
  • History of doping in the sport and/or discipline.
  • Training periods and the competition calendar.
  • Information received on possible doping practices.

As part of its detection and deterrence methodology, USADA also employs the most advanced analysis methods available at WADA-accredited laboratories and maximizes the likelihood of detecting doping by retesting stored samples with state-of-the-art technologies. Under the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code, USADA can retest stored urine and blood samples for up to 10 years as ongoing advancements in testing methods enable increasingly sensitive screenings and longer detection windows.

Amateur Athletes

WHO: Non-National Level Athletes

Over the years, athletes and sport organizations have increasingly called for anti-doping efforts in amateur sport, recognizing that an unfair advantage is wrong at any level of competition. Responding to athletes’ calls for a level playing field, a number of sports have established robust anti-doping programs for amateur sport.

For example, USA Cycling developed the RaceClean Program, which works to increase testing and education at the amateur level to provide greater doping deterrence. USA Weightlifting also established a similar Lift Clean Program to fight doping at all levels of weightlifting competition, from national to local events, through anti-doping education and testing.

Even if they aren’t under the authority of a Code signatory, sports organizations and events can also contract with USADA to institute Code-compliant education, testing, and adjudication processes at various events.

WHY: A Culture of Clean Sport

Clean sport is worth fighting for at every level of competition and we are all responsible for creating a culture of clean sport. The use of performance-enhancing drugs in competition doesn’t become ethically justifiable because there is no prize money at stake, or because a retiree wants to feel like they did at 28. Likewise, performance-enhancing drugs can have profound health implications at any age and provide noticeable performance benefits at any competition. And maybe most importantly, a cavalier attitude about doping can make an impression on any young mind, regardless of whether it’s coming from a professional athlete on TV or a parent at home.

With anti-doping efforts at the amateur level, USADA is doing our part to make every playing field a level one.

HOW: Strategic Testing Plan

USADA works with NGBs, event directors, and sport organizers around the country to create anti-doping programs and testing plans that are appropriate for sports based on their resources and anti-doping goals. While developing those plans, USADA considers a number of factors, including:

  1. The number of tests to be collected.
  2. The athletes who will be tested. For example, USADA could test randomly-selected athletes, or test those athletes who place well, such as the top three finishers.
  3. When testing will occur.
  4. The type of sample collection – blood, urine, or both.
  5. Any special analysis of the sample collections that may be required (i.e. hGH, CIR, or IRMS detection methods).

More information on USADA’s testing protocols can be found here.

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