Detect and deter.
When the UFC first launched its comprehensive anti-doping policy alongside the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) those were two core values at the heart of the plan.
The idea was to root out the fighters who were trying to game the system by taking copious amounts of performance-enhancing drugs. The second part was setting a precedent for the rest of the athletes to simply avoid illegal substances altogether because the punishment could result in sanctions that could easily knock them out of the sport for two years on a first offense while forever branding a giant “C” on their chests, which marked them as cheaters.
Of course, a great number of fighters on the UFC roster didn’t really fall into either category. A growing population of athletes have continually cheered on USADA’s drug testing and reveled in the new anti-doping system that weeds out the fighters who couldn’t get by on natural ability.
Then a funny thing happened—fighters who didn’t knowingly cheat or take banned substances started getting popped by the sophisticated drug testing system that was literally finding a needle in a haystack. Time and time again, athletes were returning positive results with trace amounts of a banned substance in their bodies, but under the anti-doping policy as it first began some sort of punishment was almost always handed down.
That’s why the USADA has made new revisions to the existing UFC anti-doping policy to protect fighters from those exact situations like the one that could have knocked Nate Diaz out of his fight against Jorge Masvidal at UFC 244.
At the time, Diaz nearly pulled himself out of the main event after one of his drug tests was flagged by the USADA. Ultimately, it was determined that Diaz didn’t knowingly cheat and instead he showed trace amounts of a banned substance that was found in a multi-vitamin he was taking at the time.
Under the new policy, the USADA is changing the way they deal with cases just like that one.
“The changes to the policy we’re all really excited about,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “It’s a great evolution of the program and we’re actually hopeful other sports who are interested in protecting clean athletes more effectively and creating fairer systems, this will be the model for it and something we’ve been pushing both the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and other programs for the past couple of years to try and do something along these lines.
“We’re excited about this next step and where this can lead anti-doping hopefully.”
The changes being incorporated have also been part of a USADA agenda to hopefully enact similar rules on a global level for some time now as the organization thrives for the best possible anti-doping program in sports.
Under the new rules, the USADA has targeted eight specific substances along with threshold levels for each one that will not result in athletes automatically being flagged for a doping violation. Instead, in instances where a fighter tests positive for one of these eight substances, and the amount is below the threshold level, USADA will tag them for an atypical finding.
The fighters who fit this specific criteria won’t be subject to penalties or sanctions, and while additional testing and monitoring will take place, the athletes will be able to move forward with their careers rather than sitting on the sideline for weeks or even months waiting for a judgment to be rendered. Fighters could still be subject to a doping violation and subsequent penalty if the USADA establishes that the athlete intentionally used or knew the substance was illegal and/or “recklessly disregarded” an obvious risk when using a prohibited substance.
Here are the substances added as part of the new UFC anti-doping policy along with the threshold levels required for a test to be flagged as an atypical finding:
Decision Concentration Levels. Adverse Analytical Findings reported at a concentration below the following decision.
Concentration Levels shall be managed by USADA as Atypical Findings.
• Clomiphene: 0.1 ng/mL1
• Dehydrochloromethyltestosterone (DHCMT) long-term metabolite (M3): 0.1 ng/mL
• Hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) and metabolites, Torsemide: 20 ng/mL (Out-of-Competition only)
• Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs): 0.1 ng/mL2
• GW-1516 (GW-501516) metabolites: 0.1 ng/mL
• Epitrenbolone (Trenbolone metabolite): 0.2 ng/mL
• Zeranol: 1 ng/mL
• Zilpaterol: 1 ng/mL
One other drug called Higenamine has been listed as a prohibited substance in-competition but not out-of-competition moving forward.
Some of these substances will stand out almost immediately from recent doping cases involving UFC athletes including the long term metabolite found in DHCMT, better known as oral turinabol, which was the drug that has been found in UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones’ body numerous times but was determined to be the result of a long-term metabolite that continued to appear through a “pulsing” effect. SARMs include substances like ostarine and LGD-4033, the latter of which was found in Diaz’s body before his fight at UFC 244.
Because of the advancements in the technology used in drug testing and detection, laboratories are able to find trace amounts of substances that, while banned, most likely weren’t ingested by an athlete seeking to enhance his or her performance.
According to Tygart, the timing of the rules changes coincides with a number of cases that the USADA dealt with not only in the UFC but through some of their other testing programs like the athletes competing in the Olympic games as they’ve been pushing for changes on the global level.
“I’ve called it around here the perfect storm,” Tygart said. “On one hand, really good advancements in laboratory technology where they can see trace, minute levels where even 10 years ago they never could see and then these substances like SARMs, like Ostarine which you mentioned is a type of SARM (selective androgen receptor modulator), but other things that are being treated like our cattle here in the U.S. and around the world are being treated with and also the growth of the prescription medication supply chain.
“Even now in the U.S., we’re seeing prescription medications bought from reputable pharmacies that are made over in India and China and they have levels of contamination that are totally fine from a health and safety standpoint and the FDA isn’t concerned with the low level of contamination but it’s such given the technology in the laboratory that it will cause a positive test.”
Recognizing that numerous athletes across several sports were dealing with similar situations like the one Diaz encountered, the USADA decided it was time for a change.
“It was that perfect storm—advancements in technology and the global marketplace whether it’s meat or prescription medication that’s allowable or dietary supplements and even that’s a bit of a misnomer because it includes multi-vitamins, vitamin C, that kind of stuff—and we’ve seen prenatal vitamins and even gummy vitamins contaminated with these drugs,” Tygart explained.
“It’s just inherently unfair from our point of view to treat low-level positives coming from those sources as you do intentional cheats. So what this does is accounts for that as best we can and we’re really hopeful it’s going to have a more fair and just program going forward.”
Tygart added that the issues the UFC fighters are facing are similar to those who compete in the Olympics because athletes in these two sports are just inherently going to use supplements to help with training and preparation.
“One area that is akin that we saw in the first days back in 2000 of our Olympic program is that supplement use is ingrained in the culture,” Tygart said. “We’re doing our best to try and change behavior where athletes still have a choice and if they decide to use supplements, they do it in a healthy and safe way that it’s not going to cause positive tests. I think you’ll continue to see that effort evolve as it has in our Olympic program.”
As part of the revisions, fighters who fall under the circumstances where a positive drug test is returned with one of these eight substances, and the concentration levels are below the allowed threshold, will still be allowed to compete as the USADA investigates the situation.
“It’s treated as an atypical [finding]. It’s not an automatic assumption of an intentional violation to put in a sanction,” Tygart said. “This is equally consistent if not more consistent with innocent use at this level for this substance. We then will do follow up testing, we might interview the athlete and if we determine through that investigation that it’s the tail end of some intentional use, then they can receive a sanction but that’s not the assumption right out of the gate.
“The athlete is free to compete and it’s treated as an atypical finding. It doesn’t mean it was intentional cheating. It means it was flagged and you’re going to do additional research, investigation on it to determine [what happened] but it doesn’t rise to the level of being intentional cheating.”
While these rules are in place to separate unintentional use for those specific substances as compared to valid instances of cheating, Tygart cautions athletes that even the most meticulous research into a supplement could still result in a positive test.
“[Nate] Diaz mentioned it in his comments that he only eats all natural foods and there was no way he had a positive test for something synthetic like [LGD-4033] and this is an education point. He probably genuinely believes when he has a supplement that says ‘all-natural’ that it’s all-natural but it’s not,” Tygart said. “It’s contaminated with synthetic substances and even the all-natural claim might come from nature but it’s being synthetically made and manufactured.
“So our education around supplements in particular is critically important for athletes in the UFC program just as it was in the early days in our Olympic program.”
Another change to the policy involves USADA including a definition of certified supplements to “recognize the value of third-party supplement certification.” Earlier this year, USADA announced the NSF Certified for Sport program, which essentially earmarks certain products to help reduce the risk to the athletes who want to use supplements.
While it’s still not an infallible system, athletes are at far less risk when using the NSF products because they have undergone third-party testing.
Now the USADA is looking to extend that same program on a global level with recognized anti-doping agencies and the third-party verification systems they use in effort to offer athletes options who may not live and train in the United States.
“We and the rules agreed, given the global nature of the sport, agreed to look at our equivalents around the world, the NADAs (National Anti-Doping Agencies) around the world where they’ve recognized other certifiers that they’ve done the due diligence on,” Tygart said. “So we’re totally comfortable, particularly given the global nature of the sport and the athletes in the UFC, where we’ve settled in respect in that aspect of the rules.”
The full text of that rule change is listed below along with several agencies and certified supplements that fall under this program.
Any supplement certified by (i)(a) NSF Certified For Sport, (b) Kolner Liste, (c) Informed Sport, Trusted by Sport, (d) HASTA (Human and Supplement Testing Australia) or (e) Banned Substance Control Group (BSCG) or (ii) any other supplement certification organization that has been endorsed and/or approved by a NADO (National Anti-Doping Organization) and mutually agreed to by UFC and USADA and announced to the Athletes.
IV USAGE BY ATHLETES
The final revision made to the UFC’s anti-doping policy involves IV usage by athletes.
According to the USADA, “under the UFC Prohibited List, IV infusions/injections over 100ml are still prohibited in-competition and out-of-competition unless they are determined to be medically justified and within the standard of care by a licensed physician and administered by a licensed medical professional. The change to the rule is designed to provide athletes access to the medically-required care they need, while ensuring they are unable to manipulate the rule to gain an unfair advantage.”
All of these changes came about because the USADA recognized that alterations to the anti-doping policy were needed and that is perhaps the most important part that Tygart wants to convey to both fans and athletes alike.
Tygart and the USADA always want to detect the athletes who are cheating and deter anyone else from using a banned substance but adaptation and evolution are two more key elements that must be taken into consideration whenever anti-doping is concerned.
“We’ve advanced the policy here with the UFC where we’re really excited about this enhancement,” Tygart said. “We think it’s more fair for athletes and we’ll do our best to ensure we’re not otherwise punishing innocent athletes and removing them from competition because they ate meat or used an allowable medication or had a multi-vitamin or another supplement that otherwise should be fine to take.”