Drug-testing for masters athletes? Track officials grapple with question for the ages

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Drug testers did not summon Gary Snyder three years ago to provide a urine sample at the world masters track and field championships in Riccione, Italy, and he's plenty happy about that. After his competition in the 100 and 200 meters for 60- to 64-year-old men, Snyder realized that his prescription medication for high blood pressure qualified as a prohibited, performance-enhancing substance.

It had never occurred to Snyder, a year into his term as chairman of USA Track and Field's masters division, that he could have flunked a drug test and been banned from the very sport he was overseeing in the United States.

"That would have been embarrassing," Snyder said. "I don't know how I could have explained coming in 20th, or whatever it was, and taking drugs. Holy cow . . . I would have had to resign."

Now, as Snyder attempts to bring drug-testing to U.S. masters track and field in time for next summer's outdoor championships, he has a deep appreciation for the treacherous terrain he is negotiating. The population of athletes that competes in masters track and field events in the United States is older (ages range from 35 to nearly 100), slower and substantially more medicated than professional or Olympic-level competitors. Some participants say testing is expensive and would achieve little more than implicating a bunch of well-meaning grandmothers diligently taking prescription medications for non-competitive reasons.

"Any masters athlete over 40 is going to test positive for something, because at this age, we're all on something," said Val Barnwell, a men's 50-54 world record holder who won four gold medals at last summer's world championships in Lahti, Finland. "Who in their right mind would cheat at this level? To get what?"

Many would say Barnwell, 52, should answer his own question. It was after news broke in March that Barnwell had been slapped with a two-year ban after a positive test for testosterone prohormones in Lahti that USATF Masters officials found themselves persuaded that doping had become a serious concern, and that some sort of testing was necessary to prevent a free-for-all of drug use at U.S. masters track and field meets. Indeed, Snyder said he has faced rising pressure from other nations to follow the lead taken by a few countries in Europe that have implemented masters drug-testing.

The only place U.S. masters athletes currently face testing is at the annual world championships.

"To say that it's not an issue, drug use in masters, well, how can you say that after an athlete tests positive?" said Mary Trotto, 62, a USATF Masters executive committee member and active decathlete and heptathlete. "Some people wonder why we would even think about it, but unfortunately we do. We have to keep records and performances clean."

What is the point?

Athletes are divided on whether that, indeed, is the case; the issue has stirred a debate among the community's 8,500 members about what, exactly, masters competition is. Are masters track and field events merely organized opportunities for fun and games, healthful and friendly competitions in which like-minded adults seek to stretch their own physical limits?

Or, because they are sanctioned events that post entry fees, award medals and observe world records, do they take on a more professional stature? Are competitors owed some guarantee, or at least a reason to believe, that they are competing on a level playing field?

Ken Stone, a longtime track and field journalist who runs the Web site http://www.masterstrack.com, figures a small handful of masters athletes are surely taking performance-enhancing drugs. He simply doesn't care.

"Most people accept cheaters as, 'Those are the idiots who hurt themselves, and it doesn't bother me at all,' " Stone said, adding that drug-testing "is a waste of money, it goes against the ethic of masters track, it's a nuisance and it won't even stop the doping it pretends to attack. There are so many holes in drug-testing I can't even begin to list all of them."

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