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Stanford University School of Medicine

USADA Chief Travis Tygart on doping in elite sports

Travis Tygart has headed the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency since 2007, he was on the front line of the doping scandal involving mega-abuser Lance Armstrong earlier this decade, and he has testified on the issue before Congress and international anti-doping organizations numerous times.

I recently spoke with Tygart for a Q&A in the fall issue of Stanford Medicine magazine. We talked right after the Rio Olympics so I asked him first: What were the major lessons learned from Rio about global anti-doping efforts? "Obviously, the state-and sport-run doping system in Russia was exposed," he told me. "I think the covering up of positive results for athletes and sending those athletes to major international competitions opened the eyes of a lot of people to the lengths that some will go in order to win."

I was curious too about what happens when athletes lose trust that their competitions are fair and drug free. How is that trust ever regained?  Trust is, Tygart stressed, the key issue: "Athletes have to trust that those in the position of authority to protect their rights are doing everything they can, within the law and rules, to ensure their rights are protected. It's the greatest injustice in sports when athletes or teams who are playing by the rules get robbed of their accomplishments, their successes or their victories because someone cheats them."

Days before the Rio games were to begin, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins called for an end to the ban on performance enhancing drugs. In her Post column she wrote:

Abraham Lincoln once famously said that prohibition 'makes a crime out of things that are not crimes.' WADA has done exactly that. Its short history traces the same path as American Prohibition: a raft of unintended consequences breeding new forms of sin greater than the sin it was supposed to stamp out — as the Russian doping crisis so amply demonstrates. Individual rights have been infringed on, money has been wasted, and gangsterism has flourished, while failing to protect the health of athletes. Looming over it all is a portentous bureaucracy that exhibits more pratfalls than a Charlie Chaplin film.

Not surprisingly, Tygart vehemently disagrees with Jenkins. Legalizing doping, he believes, would begin an arms race and catapult performance enhancing drugs into the stratosphere. "...Human competition is what we want out of sport -- true athletic competition, as we know it and value it. I’m the father of three young kids who play sports. I’d like to see them get and learn life lessons through sports. If we allow doping at the elite level, it’s just a matter of time before every kid in this country is having to seriously contemplate — to get a scholarship or make the varsity team or even make the junior varsity team or the eighth-grade soccer team — which of these drugs am I going to inject in myself?"

More of our conversation was captured in the Q&A and this 1:2:1 podcast.

Previously: The power and limits of zeroing in: Stanford Medicine magazine on diagnostics
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

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