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Older athletes testing positive for PEDs, says professor

Stu Durando St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Even after years of suspensions, public humiliations and stripped championships, athletes continue to use banned performance enhancing drugs at a substantial rate. And that use is spreading among older competitors, according to John Gleaves, a professor in the department of kinesiology at Cal State Fullerton.

Speaking last month at the National Athletic Trainers’ Association convention at America’s Center in St. Louis, Gleaves said it remains estimated that 23 percent to 25 percent of all athletes knowingly use a banned substance at least once during their careers. Experimentation has increased among masters athletes – those 35 and older who compete in things such as distance running and cycling competitions.

“It’s what no one is talking about now,” Gleaves said. “In cycling, swimming and track and field we’re seeing illicit use. There are a lot of lawyers, doctors and middle- to upper-middle-class people with disposable income and the social capital to be able to get quasi-legal prescriptions.”

Because there is little testing at masters events, few are caught. However, United States Track and Field did start testing masters athletes several years ago.

Soon thereafter, four athletes tested positive for banned PEDs and received competition bans. The group included a 68-year-old woman.

For many older athletes, the use of prescription medicines for various health issues can lead to positive tests, Gleaves said. Exemptions are allowed but some are skirting the rules in an area in which testing is not widespread.

Getting a handle on the problem in all areas of sports has proved elusive.

“The health risks are very real and can be lost in the noise,” Gleaves told a crowd of 75 athletic trainers. “We have to be comfortable with the idea that performance-enhancing drug use is not something that is necessarily going to be stopped.”

Robert Kersey, also a professor at Cal State Fullerton, outlined the top 10 most abused drugs as determined by positive tests conducted by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2012. The likes of steroids, human growth hormone and diuretics are on the list, but so are masking agents that can help athletes avoid positive tests.

Athletes seem to keep finding ways to stay ahead of the improvements and frequency in testing and seemingly are undeterred by the harshness of penalties.

For example, WADA increased its penalty for a first-time offense in 2013 from a two-year ban to four years. That means missing at least one chance at the Olympics.

Tougher stances are possible.

Night-time testing has been discussed because there are some drugs that can leave an athlete’s system overnight. Longer term storage of samples is another option to allow for more testing.

“All of these are great for catching athletes, but if the desire is to prevent use these aren’t typically great ways,” Gleaves said. “They rely heavily on stigmatization, abstinence-only messaging and punishment. This is where most of anti-doping has gone. This is a replication of the war-on-drugs approach, that we can scare athletes into compliance.”

Gleaves prefers an approach that he likes to compare to the battle against drunk driving.

He believes the answer is increasing education to decrease the number of athletes using the drugs instead of waiting for the drug use to happen and focusing on the testing and penalties.

“It’s education vs. testing,” he said. “All of the money is going to testing. Education is low. The money is all flowing into bigger and better tests, which creates this arms race of better tests and better ways to avoid detection. Hopefully the needle moves.”

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