Thursday, January 14, 2010

WADA: Good Cop, Bad Cop

By Brian Alexander, Outside Magazine
[Editor's Note: Presented without comment.]

WADA, The International agency that oversees drug testing in sports, has done a solid job of cleaning up some rotten games. But a growing number of critics contend that it's become overzealous and arrogant, sometimes trampling the civil liberties of athletes in the process. As the case of Winter Olympian Zach Lund illustrates, they have a point.

SINCE I ALREADY know Zach Lund's life story, I can't help it: The first thing I do when we meet is stare at his shiny bald head. He looks good bald, though he also looks more like an ordinary guy who works out than an Olympic athlete. He's fit, compact, and so unassuming that, as we stand around in his hotel room at the Hilton Universal City, gazing at the Hollywood Hills, he seems a little amazed to be here in the heart of showbiz.

Lund has spent the past ten hours smiling, talking, and emoting for NBC, which has been shooting profiles of athletes expected to make the U.S. Winter Olympic team in Vancouver. The day was fun but a struggle, too. Lund has overcome a lot to succeed, but he's mainly known for getting kicked out of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, thanks to a drug-related suspension that he and many others believe was unfair. Inevitably, Turin is what everybody asks about, so, later that night when we sit down to dinner, he wants to make sure I understand his full story.

Lund, 30, makes his living in "a crazy-ass sport" that most Americans watch for a few minutes every four years. He races on a glorified cafeteria tray called a skeleton sled, down twisty ice tracks at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour. Back in 1992, he was a 13-year-old kid living in a Utah mountain town when the USA Luge people came through and held scouting tryouts. Lund's showing earned him an invitation to Lake Placid, New York, to be part of the development squad. He was thrilled. He'd wanted to be in the Olympics since he was nine and watched Carl Lewis compete in Seoul. He was so taken with the pomp and spirit of the Games that he ran into his backyard and started doing wind sprints.

Unfortunately, soon after Lund was picked, his mother was diagnosed with melanoma, and he stayed home to be with her. After her death that year, Lund's dad worked two jobs to help support his son's Olympic dream. Lund worked, too—Home Depot, airline baggage handler—and took a few college classes, but skeleton was his life. With Salt Lake City hosting the Winter Olympics in 2002, he hoped to make the team, but injuries from a car accident kept him from doing well at the trials. Finally, in 2006, he flew to Turin as the favorite.

A shadow loomed, though. The previous November, at a competition in Calgary, Lund had tested positive for a drug called finasteride, an anti-baldness medication that had been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the Montreal-based outfit that sets drug-testing and enforcement policies for every Olympic and many non-Olympic sports. Lund started battling premature hair loss in 1997, so when WADA was formed two years later and then developed its first list of banned substances in 2004, he checked it carefully. He checked again when his doctor switched his medication brand. Finasteride wasn't mentioned. Even so, Lund always told doping-control officials he was using it.

In 2005, WADA added finasteride to its list, saying the drug could mask the use of steroids. That year, Lund didn't check the list. That may seem dumb, but Lund wasn't doing anything different than he'd been doing for years, and he simply forgot. He kept telling doping officials he was using the anti-baldness drug, and nobody said a word. He'd even been tested after finasteride was banned and declared to be clean.

WADA presides over a worldwide network of national satellite organizations that, ultimately, answer to WADA. In the United States, the affiliated group is the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a mostly taxpayer-supported organization based in Colorado Springs. As Lund's home-country doping agency, USADA had first crack at disciplining him, and the agency, along with Lund and his lawyer, L.A.-based Howard Jacobs, arrived at a deal in January 2006. Though USADA recognized that Lund hadn't gained any performance advantage from the anti-baldness drug—and that there was no evidence he'd ever used steroids—Lund agreed to have his results from Calgary nullified and to accept a public reprimand for failing a drug test. In return, USADA would not press to ban him from future competition.

WADA, then headed by Dick Pound, a former Olympic swimmer from Canada and a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee, didn't like the deal. WADA regulations specified tougher sanctions for a failed test, so it appealed to a panel of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the Lausanne, Switzerland–based outfit that acts as judge and jury in these situations. At a hearing in Turin just before the Games started, Jacobs argued that Lund had made an honest mistake. He insisted that finasteride shouldn't be on the banned list in the first place, because it didn't mask steroids. But CAS, at WADA's urging, refused to hear him out.

CAS ruled against Lund, and on the day of the opening ceremonies in Turin, it suspended him for a year. He was immediately expelled from the athletes' village. A sponsor, Speedo, dropped him. Pound publicly ridiculed him, suggesting that Lund cared more about his hair than being an Olympian. Lund went home broken. Two Canadians won gold and silver in skeleton.

After his suspension, Lund rebounded to win the 2007 Skeleton World Cup title. Then, at the beginning of the 2008 season, WADA announced it was removing finasteride from its list. Instead of acknowledging the possibility that finasteride shouldn't have been banned to begin with, it issued a statement claiming that WADA-affiliated labs had created new techniques that rendered it ineffective as a masking agent. The details of those tests were not divulged.

WADA said no to Lund's subsequent request that his record be cleared. This means that if Lund should fall afoul of WADA's rules again, he could be banned from the sport for life, even prevented from coaching.

Lund remains bitter about it all."That was a kick in the gut," he says during our dinner. WADA, he says, "has no one to answer to, and they're taking down honest people. And the government doesn't care..."
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