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The Catch-22 of Anti-Doping Testing For High School Athletes

Very few school districts have an anti-doping testing program. As a result, high school athletes and coaches who compete at national tournaments and meets where testing occurs are sometimes unfamiliar with the process.

by Aaron Gordon
Jul 13 2017, 5:15pm

This story is part of a series about former high school high jumper Eric Thompson, who in 2007 tested positive for a small amount of cocaine while at a junior national meet and was subsequently suspended by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. His case set a precedent for future anti-doping sanctions.

The vast majority of the 7.8 million high school athletes in the United States will never take an anti-doping test. For one, it's expensive. In 2013, the New York Times reported that school districts in Illinois, New Jersey and Texas each paid a private company at least $100,000 per year to set up steroid testing. In Illinois, a $100,000 fee paid for just 500 tests per year, Craig Anderson, executive director of the Illinois High School Association, told the Illinois Radio Network.

But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it's not particularly clear whether the testing is all that effective and worth the cost. During the 2014-15 school year, the University Interscholastic League in Texas tested 3,023 students for steroids. Only six tests came back positive, a .02 percent rate that is far below the US Anti-Doping (USADA) average of about 1-2 percent positive tests per year. Anderson told the McHenry Times that only three positive tests that resulted in disciplinary actions occurred in the five years the Illinois testing program was in place. Citing cost and effectivity, in June the Illinois High School Association announced it had ended its testing program.

Most school districts don't bother with the cost. As a result, most high school athletes who compete at events that fall under USADA's testing umbrella are experiencing anti-doping testing for the first time, which is a bit of a catch-22. Many of them will not learn the ins and outs of anti-doping until they compete in a major event. But, in order to ensure a fair testing process, they must learn the ins and outs of anti-doping.

Educating high school athletes on anti-doping, especially the WADA anti-doping code, is difficult. According to their annual report, most of USADA's budget last year ($11.5 million of the $19.7 million) went toward actual testing of elite athletes. The bulk of their high school outreach comes at the events themselves, where USADA sets up booths and has representatives on hand to answer questions. Last year, USADA spent $2.9 million on "education and awareness."

High school athletes who compete at events such as the Junior Outdoor Track & Field Championships are subject to anti-doping tests. Photo by Joe Robbins-USA Today Sports

"We do reach out to high-school level athletes, as best we can, to make sure they are educated on anti-doping rules, supplements, testing and other important information," USADA spokesman Ryan Madden told VICE Sports. "Most often, this occurs through resources such as booths, presentations (both in person and webinars) and educational materials that are sent to them. We also try to be a resource for athletes facing potential substance abuse issues, and the most important thing is to get young athletes help when they need it. We also, obviously, educate through online tutorials, resources posted on usada.org, and social media."

For its part, WADA is in an even worse position to educate high school athletes. WADA primarily interacts with national anti-doping agencies like USADA, monitors testing labs, and sets the banned list. It rarely interacts with athletes individually. It also has an Education & Prevention page of its website geared towards athletes, including kids books and card games.

For high school athletes, this means much of the onus on anti-doping education rests on coaches and parents.

Coaches from major metropolitan areas who have experience training young elite athletes will be far more familiar with anti-doping protocols than the odd high school coach who happens to have a transcendent talent on her hands. Indeed, many young athletes who show tremendous promise at young ages move to urban areas to train with those coaches. But if they don't, they're getting doping advice from amateur coaches who are donating their time. In those cases, they probably know just as much about anti-doping as the kids do.

This was exactly Eric Thompson's situation as a Junior Olympic champion high jumper in high school. His high jump coach, Eric Smith, works in insurance and told VICE Sports he gets paid $1 by the school district for being a coach. Smith says he does it out of love for the sport and mentoring kids. Thompson's track and field head coach at the time, Chad Lakatos, was an inexperienced head coach, who didn't know to emphasize the ramifications of a positive drug test. He now uses Thompson's story as a cautionary tale for his current athletes.

So, like the vast majority of high school athletes, Thompson was mostly on his own when it came to testing.