Editor's note: Welcome to our new VICE Sports Q and A, where we'll talk to authors, directors and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.
Premiering Wednesday on Epix, the documentary "Doped: The Dirty Side of Sports" takes a skeptical, oft-critical look at the sports war on performance-enhancing drugs. I spoke to director Andrew Muscato about the film (full disclosure: I appear in the film, as do other sports journalists) and what he learned by making it.
Q: The sports world has been fighting a war against performance enhancing drugs for more than 30 years. Who's winning?
A: It doesn't seem like anybody is winning. The anti-doping agencies, by their own metrics, aren't really catching anybody. And the athletes who aren't using PEDs aren't winning because they have to forgo their privacy rights, but still are competing against athletes bending the rules.
The only people wining are the people getting rich off these enhanced performances: Countries in the Olympics, sports leagues, team owners, basically everybody who doesn't get fingered for PED use—which is everybody but athletes.
Q: Your last film, "Schooled: The Price of College Sports," was about amateurism in college sports. How did you go from that to sports doping?
A: The through line between "Schooled" and "Doped" is the idea of athletes' rights. I was surprised that Olympic athletes have to forfeit their privacy rights in order to compete. Is that fair if the system actually don't work? My conclusion is that no, it isn't fair.
Similar to the [National Collegiate Athletic Association], the World Anti-Doping Association is this supposedly benevolent institution that is looking out for athletes' best interests. But WADA's policies and conduct seem as if they treat all athletes as guilty athletes.
Q: Your film argues that the systems currently in place to police performance enhancing drug use in sports both "overreach and underperform." How so?
The overreach at the Olympic level is that there is no privacy. You can be tested morning, noon and night. You have to give up your location and whereabouts 24/7, 365 days a year. WADA says you have to give all of that up just to compete at this level.
Where they underperform is that for a decade and a half they've proven they've been incapable of making any sort of dent in PED use in sports.
Q: What do you mean by "incapable?"
I mean test results. Major League Baseball, which has less invasive testing than WADA, has less than one percent of its tests leading to some sort of sanctions. WADA, when you take out therapeutic use exemptions for certain substances, is a similar one percent range. And the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is the same as WADA.
Meanwhile, surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that actual PED use is in the 20 to 30 percent range. Possibly higher. So it's clearly not working.
In 2013, a there was a PED study done in track and field, a prevalence study. It came out in full a few weeks ago from the British Parliament as evidence during a hearing about doping. It was a blind survey, with a handful of social scientists from Harvard and other institutions behind it. They went to two world track events. Of the people they surveyed, the data suggested 40 percent of track and field athletes are using PEDs. I'm not a statistician. Can't get into nitty gritty of the numbers. But that's still significant.
And what does it mean for WADA? We don't know. We don't know because we don't know what those numbers were in 2005. There are no regular PED prevalence studies. Everything is based on guesswork. When [USADA executive] Travis Tygart says in the film that drug testing is a deterrent, he has no basis to say that other than Travis Tygart says so. WADA should be at least having some idea if what they are doing is working or not. That's another example of underperforming.
Q: In the film, former Jamaican anti-doping executive Renee Anne Shirley says that testing is not a deterrent. Is she right?
A: Nobody knows. From the athletes I've spoken to, I don't think so. But my word is as good as Travis Tygart's. It's all based on anecdotes and guesswork. The conversations I've had with athletes say that the tests are beatable, and if you do get caught, you can rat out your coach or others to get reduced suspensions.
As Renee Shirley says in the film, if the athletes want to dope, they'll dope.
Q: What is a random doping test like for an Olympic athlete, and how invasive is the process tracking athletes for random tests?
First of all, most people are unaware that the testing isn't actually random. USADA, by its own admission, says it does "targeted" or "intelligent" testing. If I'm an athlete who had a whereabouts failure—I wasn't where I said I would be—most likely USADA will show up at my door within a few weeks.
Second, it seems like it's an acquired skill to pee on command and also pee in front a stranger. It's not like a doctor's office where you go in by yourself and pee in a cup. According to the stories I heard from athletes, there is very little space between the tester's face and your genitals as they are inspecting the urine coming out of your body. That's very invasive. And unsettling. With after-competition testing, it's hard to give 90 ml of urine after you've just poured everything out on the field. You have to be chugging water to produce enough urine, and that can take hours.
Now, this all might seem fine. If I'm a clean athlete, I have nothing to hide. No big deal. But when less than one percent of these tests lead to some sort of sanction, it seems like a very big invasion for the sake of clean sport theater.
Q: How far back does doping in sports go, and at what point did the sports world begin to see it as a problem, as something that needed to be prohibited and policed?
A: In making the film, I discovered that it was first looked at as a problem within the context of the Cold War. The Soviets and East Germans had access to science the rest of the world didn't have access to, and they were winning medals, and therefore it was unfair. Then the United States developed its own steroids, and back and forth it went.
Q. Why is there such a difference between the very low number of positive tests and the much larger number of athletes who surveys indicate are doping?
The fingers are pointed at sports institutions, executives, policy makers and decision makers. Jamaica is a good example. The country signed onto the WADA code, but wasn't catching people because they weren't doing the testing properly. Another thing I found in WADA's 2011 board meeting minutes was the fact that EPO—an blood-oxygen endurance booster that is one of the all-time worst PEDs—had not been tested for in a majority of athlete samples collected in the world. Roughly 2,000 out of a quarter of a million samples were tested!
That would seem to suggest—as former WADA executive Dick Pound wrote in a report to the organization—that there really isn't an appetite among sports executives and countries of the world to enact meaningful anti-doping programs.
Q: Speaking of that, what do you make of recent reports that Russia had—or has—a large, state-sponsored doping program?
A: You realize not a lot has changed. The Cold War is over. But the Olympics are still the main platform for sport as nationalism. All the benefits that a country would receive for good Olympic performances still exist.
One of the unintentional effects of WADA is plausible deniability. Russia can say, "we care about stopping doping, we signed up and give lots of money to WADA." I've looked. Russia does give additional money to WADA, beyond what's required. Then you turn around and find Russian athletes saying there is state-sponsored doping.
Q: After examining this subject in depth, do you think sports leagues and governing bodies are genuinely interested in preventing and punishing doping, or in creating public perception that they are genuinely interested in preventing and punishing doping?
A: I would say the latter. I thought you had a very good quote on Twitter: There's not much money in catching athletes who dope, but there's money in making it appear that way. (Editor's note: somebody reads our Twitter feed!) You have that now. The veneer of effective anti-doping, but no data to show that effective anti-doping is going on.
Where my faith was shaken the most was looking at USADA's activity in boxing. It seems that USADA is essentially selling their brand. For a fee, someone like Floyd Mayweather can associate his name with USADA. But it's disingenuous for him to say he's being subjected to Olympic-style testing. He's not. He's not being tested year round, not subject to whereabouts requirements. He's only subject to what is in his contract with USADA.
Q: WADA's list of banned substances has over 200 items on it. Why is cannabis on that list?
I asked Dick Pound about that. His response was that it's illegal in many places, so for them to be seemingly endorsing it by not including it would seem wrong. That's kind of a funny rationale. But that is their party line.
This gets into another funny thing—the kind of smoke and mirrors of how a substance gets on the list in the first place. There's a lack of scientific proof that a lot of the substances are even performance-enhancing. No studies done. But there are three criteria for determining what goes on list.
One, a substance can go on the list if it's performance-enhancing. Like I said, there's no proof of that in many cases. Two, a substance can be harmful to athlete health. Well, almost anything can be harmful depending on how you use it. Three, a substance can "violate the spirit of sport." That's the choose your own adventure criteria.
With marijuana, they make the case that it kills brain cells. That's No. 2. And you can say it falls under No. 3 because it breaks the law to use it, and if you're breaking the law you're not an honest person.
I kind of laugh at the criteria, because you can make a case for anything to go on the list.
Q: The film also discusses substances that aren't on WADA's list—potentially dangerous painkillers, including the post-surgical drug Toradol, which is used extensively in football. Can a painkiller be considered a performance-enhancing drug?
Well, I think you could make the case that they meet all of the criteria. So there's a hypocrisy there. We're going to place certain drugs on the list because we say they are bad for athlete health, but this other class that has been demonstrably bad for athlete health are swept under the rug.
The problem is, you need painkillers to endure a season in NCAA football or the NFL. And like we see in the film, you see painkiller use and abuse in basically all sports around the world. That's a constant. A reliance on them to get on the field, or to last through a tennis match. The sports governing bodies know if there was stricter enforcement of painkillers, sports might disappear—or at least the level and amount of sports that we consume might disappear.
Q: You talked to a middle-aged writer and amateur bike racer, Andrew Tilin, who took testosterone to see what it was like—including what it would be like to get busted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. What did he learn by taking the drug, and what did you learn by talking to him?
A: He learned that these drugs are everywhere. He kind of had a buffet of what he wanted to use and how to obtain it. He talks about going to anti-aging clinics. But he wanted to be as legit as possible. So he just went to his doctor and had a rationale for why he needed testosterone as a middle aged man. Any answer he gave the doctor the right answer. He was able to legally obtain it. That's not surprising consider so accessible today. And if it was a placebo effect or not, he felt enhanced performance. His race results improved. He felt like a better athlete. That's anecdotal proof that this stuff works and can be easily obtained.
Q: How is it that we, as a society, prohibit athletes from taking testosterone and other PEDs—but at the same time have anti-aging clinics and testosterone gel prescriptions for the non-sports public at large, the things that were easy for Tilin to access?
I don't know. I'm not making those decisions. But as someone making a film about this, it strikes me as very odd and very convenient. When the punishments are handed down, they are handed to the athletes who use and not to the owners or the executives who enable this behavior.
Q: What are the consequences that come out of the two anti-doping failures you identify—overreaching and underperforming?
A: The consequences are that, unfortunately, the casual average fan is sold this kind of fraudulent bill of gods that sports are somehow cleaner than they once were because of these rules. That's an intended consequence.
Q: If sports continue to prohibit PED use, is there a better, more effective way to do it?
Well, I think first on the Olympic side and with sports that subscribe to WADA code, it could be more ethical with regard to athletes' rights. You will never have a perfect system, but it can be better. I think infringing on privacy is crossing the line. You can criticize player unions in the United States all you want, but at least they have best interest of constituencies at heart. If I'm a clean athlete in the NHL, NBA, NFL and I think not enough is boing done, at least I have a union as a platform. Olympic athletes will never have that platform. They have no say in the system.
Accountability needs to be put in place on other levels beyond athletes. Look at the executives, the coaches. WADA will say, "we are going after doctors and coaches." But I think the root of the problem is that Russia can be a stakeholder in WADA and compete in Olympics despite testimony that they are engaging in state sponsored doping. There's supposed deterrence for athletes, but none for anyone else involved. You'll never see a NCAA-style death penalty in the Olympics.
If you look at Dick Pound's report, it's pretty spot on. A very through analysis of the flaws of the system. The takeaway is that it's flawed from top to bottom. From the athletes who use, to the sample collectors, to the labs interpreting test results, to the the executives that are supposed to be promoting sport. Pound's recommendations were for oversight across the board.
I think the system, as it operates now, at best will be able to catch the occasional offender here or there. A whole reworking is needed.
Q: If that's the case, should we do what we once did with alcohol and just end PED prohibition?
A: You pointed out in some of our discussions for the film that there are a lot of things that society allows adults to use that are prohibited for minors. The argument that if pro athletes are allowed to use this stuff it will filter to high school level? I guess. But high school athletes are already doing it. The athletes who want to use this stuff are going to use it.
A boxer like Paulie Malignaggi, who I talked to for the film, he went through his whole career undersized and was never a hard puncher. He said he would have benefited from PEDs. But he always wanted to know how good he could be himself, to know that he could win that fight. I heard the same rationale from [Olympic shot put thrower] Adam Nelson. Doping is ultimately a choice athletes make with and for themselves. Its involves deeper psychological issues that I don't' think any amount of testing can change or influence.
It's amazing how many buzzwords exist in anti-doping. The idea of "clean sport" and "leveling the playing field." Everyone gets swept up in the second one as a reason to ban PEDs. But there is no such ting as a level playing field. If you got rid of all drugs, you wouldn't have it. And if you gave everybody drugs, you wouldn't level the playing field. Everyone responds differently to drugs. And everyone without drugs has different coaching, different advantages. If we really want a level playing field, why don't we get rid of the seeding brackets in March Madness?
I think a lot of the anti-doping efforts feed into the fantasy of sports that we all kind of wish existed. But the reality of 21st century revenue-producing sports is that if there is something that will help athletes get on field and play, and play at a high level, athletes are going to want that. And we will, too.