COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The anti-doping police are sending out a new message to the AARP crowd: We're keeping an eye on you, too.
Looking more skeptically at events outside of elite and Olympic circles, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has suspended nine masters athletes for positive tests so far in 2011. That accounts for more than one-third of the 25 sanctions the agency has announced this year. Among the masters to test positive was one competitor in his 50s and three in their 60s.
The agency wants to cut down on what it says is an increasing number of older-age cheaters, an effort critics decry as petty and a waste of money for a cause that is already operating on limited resources. But cheating needs to be stopped throughout sports, the head of USADA says.
"We get calls from athletes about doping that's happening in their sports at all levels," USADA CEO Travis Tygart said. "We've also had event organizers call us and express their concerns and their desire to put in a good anti-doping program."
USA Track and Field, for instance, requested a USADA presence at its masters national championships this summer after international organizers told the American track organization it would stop accepting U.S. records if it didn't ramp up its anti-doping program.
Testing at nationals resulted in three suspensions, all from people who either disputed their test or said they got tripped up by a tainted supplement.
Craig Shumaker, 63, admitted to taking a doctor-prescribed testosterone gel that he knew would trigger a positive test if he was selected. He was, and received a two-year suspension, which carries the customary contingency that he must submit to more tests when he's reinstated. His win at nationals in shot put and second-place finish in discus have been erased, though Shumaker insists the drug gave him no benefit.
He said he has no intention of going off the drug, commonly prescribed for people diagnosed with low testosterone, and said the positive test pretty much marks the end of his days as a competitive thrower.
"There's a little bit of sour grapes for me," Shumaker said. "My body type hasn't changed. I weigh the same as I have for 15 years. You hear the rumors, 'He was taking this, taking that.' But most of us, we're just here for the camaraderie. I think it's a bigger issue that masters track needs to fess up to. People want to maintain a healthy lifestyle and there are medicines that can help you, so why should that ban you from competing?"
As is the case with elite athletes, masters can apply for a Therapeutic Use Exemption for drugs that are legitimately prescribed by a doctor. However, Shumaker and others who tested positive decried a process filled with too much red tape that they say often results in rejection — not worth it to the athletes who claim to be competing more for fun than winning.
"At our age, it's not so much about, can I get some cheap 50-cent gold medal without my name on the back" Shumaker said. "You go there to be with friends. You cheer for the guy who gets 10th as much as the guy who gets first."
Gary Snyder, the chair of the masters track and field competitions at USATF, said his staff "did a fair amount of soul searching before implementing this nationally."
They decided to go ahead with it because they felt it was good for the sport.
"There was a substantial amount of education put forward," Snyder said, noting there were eight seminars offered before the program went in place. "People had ample opportunity to listen in, ask questions, find out if they were possibly taking medication they shouldn't have. My opinion is these three folks apparently didn't attend them, or didn't spend the time and energy to go online" to learn about the banned-substance list.
Cyclists accounted for the other positive tests, in part because USA Cycling chose to increase its testing numbers in non-elite events, asking USADA to go to national championships, a number of state championships and a few odd regional and local races, "based on tips we got," said USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson.
"I'm ecstatic about it, frankly," Johnson said. "It's not as though doping just became an issue in masters cycling. It's been going on at this level for some time. If you don't look, you'll never find a problem."
As was the case with the track athletes, the cyclists' stories varied widely. Two suspensions were handed to people implicated in an ongoing case involving Joe Papp, a cyclist who pleaded guilty to selling HGH and EPO over the Internet, but whose testimony has helped USADA nab several cyclists for doping.
A more recent suspension was handed to a 62-year-old cyclist who refused to submit to an out-of-competition test and had been heard bragging to friends about his ability to race while doping.
One of the track athletes who got caught, Fred Kieser, told The Associated Press he made a genuine mistake and deserved what he got; he bought a tainted supplement from a nutrition store that he insisted provided no help. He received a reduced, eight-month ban and said he believed testing at masters events was a good idea.
Tygart said runners who admit their mistakes and move on are the rarity. He said it's no surprise that people who get caught cheating have some issues with the system.
"You have to take what they say with a grain of salt," Tygart said. "Certainly, it's not a waste of time to protect the integrity of competition and protect clean athletes."
After receiving her second suspension, shot putter Kathy Jager, 68, said in an email to the website masterstrack.com: "I have never nor will I take medication for the purpose of performance enhancing. I train hard, but take pride in my honestly earned accomplishments."
Jager said she has lipodystrophy, a medical condition she says accounts for her muscular body style.
One of USADA's core missions is to convince athletes at the grass-roots level that, besides being against the rules, taking performance-enhancing drugs is dangerous. It has fewer chances to actually enforce those rules at that level; high schools and colleges aren't governed by the USADA rules and there isn't enough money to police every local event sanctioned by, say, USA Track and Field or USA Cycling.
Tygart conceded that spending money on masters events does put a strain on budgets, but he believes it's a worthwhile effort. He says the positive results at masters events "feeds into our belief that, unchecked, in a win-at-all-costs culture, some athletes and parents will do whatever it takes to win."
"Whether it's scholarships or bragging rights, there has to be a check against that," he said. "Some chance that someone might get caught if they're trying to beat the system at that level."