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Covid disrupted drug testing. Athletes hope that doesn’t taint Tokyo Olympics

The pandemic slowed efforts to test athletes around the world for performance-enhancing drugs. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

U.S. Olympic swimmer Lilly King didn’t mince her words when she was recently asked how the covid-19 disruption might impact doping at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I would definitely say some of the countries that have not been as trusted are probably taking advantage of the time that they had without testing,” said King, the champion breaststroker who’s trying to defend her Olympic title next week.

King was tested more than 20 times after the pandemic halted competitions and shut down drug testing in much of the world. Meeting with reporters at the U.S. Olympic trials last month in Omaha, she was asked whether she expects cheaters to be competing in Tokyo.

“As always,” King said, “unfortunately.”

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Coming off a 2016 Olympics that was marred by the Russian doping scandal, Olympic and doping officials are striving to keep the Tokyo Games as clean as possible. When the Olympics were postponed and international competitions canceled, however, many drug-testing agencies stopped visiting athletes and labs stopped analyzing athlete samples. According to World Anti-Doping Agency numbers, testing was down 45 percent in 2020 from the previous year.

Asked whether some countries might use the pandemic as an excuse to be lax with testing and less rigorous in enforcing the World Anti-Doping Code, WADA Director General Olivier Niggli conceded it was a tricky question.

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“The concerns in terms of potential countries — and I won’t give names — the concerns exist independently of the pandemic,” he said in an interview. “Was it reinforced by the pandemic? I don’t know. … We don’t have that impression. I don’t have any evidence that this would be the case. There are countries that are more lenient than others. I think they would do that independently of the pandemic. I don’t think the pandemic has really been used as an excuse.”

The bar to clear is a relatively low one. While Russia’s systemic doping program and ensuing punishment drew global headlines, a WADA report found that more than 4,000 Olympic athletes in Rio de Janeiro — more than 1 in 3 competing there — had no record of a drug test in the year leading into the 2016 Games. In 10 sports considered to be “high risk” — including swimming, track and field and weightlifting — a total of 1,913 athletes had no record of testing.

Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, calls those 2016 figures “unacceptable” and says even if the testing returned to pre-covid numbers before the Tokyo Games opened, that still might not be enough to sufficiently ferret out cheaters.

“We can’t have a repeat of Rio. It’s plain and simple,” Tygart said. “And shame on the global system if that happens.”

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Anti-doping officials say the lack of testing for much of 2020 might not necessarily have an impact on the Tokyo competition, as it’s the months leading into the Games that matter most. Because performance-enhancing drugs can pass from an athlete’s system and their impact can wane over time, the six-month period preceding a Games is the most important stretch for testing. Plus, as Niggli pointed out, “You don’t dope because suddenly you’re in a lockdown.

“Those who want to dope and have that mentality may try to take advantage,” he said. “The athletes who are not dopers are not going to transform into dopers because there’s less testing.”

WADA’s most recently released figures show a sharp rebound in testing numbers. There were 54,308 tests worldwide in the first quarter of 2021. While that represents an increase from six months earlier, it still trails the first quarter of 2020 (56,754 tests) and 2019 (68,291).

Testing continued to ramp up as the Games drew closer. There were 24,430 athlete samples collected worldwide in May by more than 150 different anti-doping agencies — the highest number since February 2020 — and last month that figure topped 25,000. For February through May, the number of out-of-competition samples actually exceeded the number taken in the same months in 2019.

“This is all good news leading into Tokyo,” said Tim Ricketts, WADA’s director of standards and harmonization.

At past Olympics, the IOC would take over jurisdiction of athletes and be able to test them once they reported to the Olympic Village ahead of competition. For the Tokyo Games, Olympic officials were able to test athletes for a two-month period ahead of the Games.

“Given the conditions, I think we’ve done pretty much everything we possibly could with the support of the IOC and the International Testing Agency,” Ricketts said.

Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.