These low numbers were from all over the world and covered almost every distance from 100m to the marathon. All the reasons for the improvement in track and field times were just as varied: improved shoe technology, better running surfaces and a desire to run again.
Another possibility: For the better part of three months during the pandemic, testing for performance-enhancing drugs came to a virtual standstill worldwide. It has only recently begun to return to normal in the last few months.
It is one of the unpleasant realities of the Tokyo Olympics. None of the 11,000 athletes who will be competing in the Games over the next 17-days has been held to the highest anti-doping standards over the 16-month-long period leading up to the Games.
The World Anti-Doping Agency provided statistics that pointed to an improving situation. However, they don’t hide the fact that there was a 45% decrease in testing across the globe over 2020 compared to 2019, which is a non-Olympic-year in which the numbers would not normally be as high. The overall test results showed a roughly 20% decrease in the first quarter 2021 compared to the same three months in 2019.
Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S Anti-Doping Agency, stated, “Unless you are a fool, it’d be prudent to be concerned.”
It is against the core tenets and principles of the anti-doping program that athletes can be tested at any location, any time.
The dangers and uncertainties posed by the coronavirus in particular during the first months of the pandemic resulted in suspensions of leagues around the globe and the postponement the Tokyo Olympics. It also led to the halting of drug-testing programs designed to increase the sport’s competitive balance.
WADA reported that there were 3,203 tests performed between April 2019 and May 2020. In 2019, there were 52,365 tests.
USADA was among those who tried to close the gap. They started pilot programs in which they sent in-home drug tests to athletes, asking them to give urine samples and small dried blood samples while collection agents looked on via Zoom. These programs were notable for their inventiveness, but they only covered a small portion of athletes from a small section of the world.
Oliver Niggli, WADA director general, stated that it would be naive for us to assume that no one tried to use this lull in anti-doping rules. “However there are many factors that mitigate this risk.”
According to Niggli, there are:
— The requirement for athletes to report their whereabouts was still in effect throughout the entire pandemic. This at least increased the likelihood of an examination being conducted even when they weren’t being done as often.
The most effective anti-doping programs are those that combine intensive training with a competition on site. Many training centers were shut down and many sporting events cancelled during the pandemic.
Anti-doping has many other deterrents. These include long-term storage of samples, investigations, and athlete biological passports. All these can lead to positive results over time.
Despite the fact that anti-doping protocol violations get the most attention, the vast majority don’t.
Nevertheless, athletes are well aware of breaks during testing and say it is difficult to ignore.
“That’s always an concern for an athlete,” stated Emma Coburn, an American steeplechaser who won bronze in Rio de Janeiro.
It is not just about running.
“I would certainly say that some of the countries who have not been trusted are probably taking advantage the time that they did without testing,” stated swimmer Lilly King. King has spoken out about the long shadow doping casts on her sport. “Personally, I know that I have been tested more than 20 times in the last year. So I know that the Americans and I are being taken care of.”
USADA is one of the few anti-doping organizations that records the number of drug tests administered to an athlete. Edwin Moses, two-time Olympic champion in 400m hurdles, and chairman emeritus at USADA, believes WADA and other agencies should do the same.
Moses stated this week in anti-doping testimony before Congress that “without transparency to the testing numbers we have to question if these Games will remain clean, as IOC promises.”
WADA sent independent observers to inspect testing protocols prior to the Rio Games 2016. They found that 4,125 of the 11,470 athletes had never been tested before that Olympics and that 1,913 of them competed in high-risk sports. The observers noted that it was a data set which “highlights the (in)adequacy) of test distribution planning in these sports by IFs or NADOs.”
Tygart stated that “You were starting at a completely unacceptable place for athletes being held to the highest standard, and the badness could only have gotten worse due to the reductions of testing due to COVID.”
There are many possible explanations for the large number of personal bests, NCAA and national records and world records spread across track and fields over the past year.
Among the possibilities spelled out in a recent Runners’ World story were ideal racing conditions that in some instances included time trials, where runners run alone and against the clock, so as to avoid person-to-person contact that can occur in crowded conditions.
The much-debated advantages of shoes are well-known. Technology has advanced to make them more suitable for sprinters and long-distance runners. There were also the benefits of long periods of unaffected training that aren’t interrupted by the demands of an athlete’s schedule, which requires peak performance at the perfect times.
There were more than 12 examples of eye-opening moments that were produced during the pandemic. This was around the time the sport had stopped normal operations. As the Olympic season approaches, the trend has continued throughout the spring and is expected to continue as more athletes are expected to maximize their performance.