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Behind the Scenes: Dr. Larry Bowers Explores Anti-Doping from a Science Perspective

Having been a part of USADA since its inception in 2000, Dr. Larry Bowers is a leading voice in the fight for clean sport. He has authored more than 100 papers, books, and other texts on a wide range of subjects, including drug metabolism and analytical toxicology, while also testifying as an expert witness for cases related to testing protocol and the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

As an internationally recognized expert in anti-doping science, Dr. Bowers balances his responsibilities at USADA with his role as an advisor to international drug testing organizations and a member of the Food and Drug Administration Medical Devices Advisory Committee.

Recently, Dr. Bowers took some time to share his thoughts with us on anti-doping science after more than two decades in the field:

Question: What’s it like to be on the front lines of anti-doping?

Dr. Bowers: It is both challenging and extremely fulfilling. From a science standpoint, we’re always following new trends and trying to assess the doping risk associated with different drugs.

Because anti-doping is extremely time-sensitive, we have to fund the right studies, utilize the latest research, and work efficiently to make sure that we can protect athletes. Science is one the greatest tools guiding our fight against doping in sport.


Question: In recent years, has it been getting easier or harder to fight doping in sport?

Dr. Bowers: I would just say the challenges are increasing. With the relatively unregulated sale of drugs and “dietary supplements” online, as well as the rapid expansion of pharmaceutical compounds, it can be a complicated landscape at times.

I remember once inviting a speaker to a USADA Science Symposium, I believe it was 2005, and he couldn’t understand why we would be interested in his work on Selective Anabolic Receptor Modulators – known as SARMs – until we pointed out that the structure of his compounds was being shown on a European body building website calling it the performance-enhancing drug (PED) of the future. Before that, he had no idea that the subject of his medical research was being looked at by athletes for performance-enhancing benefits.

I’m saying that to highlight the point that anti-doping science can be both complicated and formidable, but the reality is that we have very talented, bright people on our side who get up every morning and continue to fight the good fight. Doing our best to protect clean athletes and helping to preserve the integrity of sport makes going to work every day a pleasure.


Question: How are athletes finding out about and accessing these substances?

Dr. Bowers: In general, athletes are not doping alone. There are some fairly knowledgeable chemists and exercise physiologists who post comments about drug use on websites and in chat rooms. Other athletes also share information online about the drugs or methods they are using and the effects.

Unfortunately, there are also unscrupulous physicians and advisors who are willing to support an athlete’s transition to doping for a part of the fame and fortune. I sometimes marvel at how athletes come to trust these so-called expert advisors.


Question: Why do athletes risk their careers and health by taking banned substances?

Dr. Bowers: The short answer is that they’re willing to sacrifice their own health and wellness in pursuit of the huge rewards that are available in sport. In some cases, it’s hard for an athlete to believe that a rival beat them without using a performance-enhancing drug.

The “win-at-all-costs” attitude can also lead athletes to rationalize the need to dope and make other poor decisions. I also think there is a sense – especially among younger athletes – that the negative side-effects of PED use only happen to other people.

My biggest concern right now is that someone is going to make a compound with insufficient care, sell it on the internet, and create a repeat of the eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) epidemic in the 1980’s that occurred as a result of contaminated L-tryptophan, which was a dietary supplement sold at health food stores. In 1990, it was thankfully removed from the market, but not before there were at least 37 deaths and more than 1,500 cases of EMS in the United States.

As George Santayana once said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


Question: Any other thoughts?

Dr. Bowers: These are defining days in the fight for clean sport, and ultimately, we want clean athletes around the world to know that there is a committed group of people at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency who wake up every day and work as hard as they can to preserve a level playing field. That’s what this is all about.

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