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Posted: October 15, 2005

Triathlon: Drugs in Ironman - Something to Prove?

“You know we have drugs in running and we have drugs in cycling. Then you say triathletes don’t use them? That’s ridiculous.”
While top pros Stadler, Al-Sultan, Reid, Fuhr and Badmann disagree on the extent of the drug problem, they share the view that more must be done to ensure the sport is clean. (Photos: Steve Bower)

Kona, Hawaii (October 14, 2005) -- The Ironman has always been considered a clean sport. That is until last year when Germany’s Nina Kraft became the first World Ironman Champion to test positive for taking a performance-enhancing substance.

Many observers suspected that Kraft’s win was drug-enhanced after she won the race by nearly 17 minutes - the largest victory in Hawaii in 12 years. “Her bike was ridiculous,” said Paula Newby-Fraser, eight-time Ironman Hawaii Champion. “There she was, blowing away the competition, even riding past the professional men.”

Kraft admitted to using EPO, known to stimulate the body’s production of red blood cells, allowing endurance athletes harder and recover faster. She said her coach and boyfriend pressured her into taking the drug and didn’t request analysis of her backup sample. Kraft was disqualified and is currently banned from Ironman events worldwide until October 16, 2006.

“Despite Nina’s positive test, I don’t think it’s a big problem in our sport”, said Peter Reid, three-time World Ironman Champion, who is looking to win his fourth title here this Saturday. “I’ve won this race cleanly three times.” Known for his work ethic and legendary 40-hour training weeks, Reid says there’s not enough money in the sport to induce athletes to cheat.

Last year’s winner, Germany’s Normann Stadler agrees. “I’m clean and I believe my competitors are as well. If I didn’t think that, I’d go crazy.” Stadler was tangled up in PR controversies in Germany last year after openly criticizing his fellow country woman. He still speaks openly. He told the Citizen: “Nina’s not clean. That’s why she’s not here.”

Germany’s Faris Al-Sultan, who placed third at Hawaii last year, is more skeptical. “You know we have drugs in running and we have drugs in cycling. Then you say triathletes don’t use them? That’s ridiculous.”

The issue exploded this year, with two more Europeans in the spotlight: Katja Shumacher and Rutger Beke, who appealed their doping charges. As has 2005 Ironman Lanzorte winner, Spain’s Virginia Berasategui Luna.

This may just be the tip of the iceberg. ”What we have to do is fight against the cheaters”, says Al-Sultan. “When I mentioned testing our athletes who were training out of country to the Secretary of the German Federation, they responded positively. This year, all of us training in San Diego have been tested by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on behalf of the German Federation. So there is something being done. More is required, though.”

Canada’s Heather Fuhr, who was moved up to second from third after Kraft’s disqualification, agrees. “I’ve never been tested out of competition.”

Fuhr believes that's because countries' triathlon federations focus on testing their Olympic-distance triathletes. "The unfortunate thing is Ironman is not an Olympic sport and I think the funding doesn't necessarily go to testing Ironman athletes," Fuhr said. "It goes to testing short-course athletes that go to the Olympics.”

While they may not agree on whether drug use is widespread, the athletes and the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) share a sense of urgency to prove the sport is clean.

Historically, drug testing practices for Ironman drug testing are limited. The top 3 finishers plus a sample of the next seven are tested in each race. Otherwise, testing out of competition is left to each country’s federation.

The WTC is taking a tough stand on the issue, recently releasing its most stringent anti-doping guidelines to date.

“Ironman is always striving for excellence, and maintaining clean events and promoting a healthy lifestyle is the key in that equation. We take our athletes’ safety and well-being very seriously and believe it’s important to take a stand on this issue,” says Ben Fertic, President of Ironman.

Certainly no one is more interested in the issue than Switzerland’s Natascha Badmann, who was last year’s champion but denied the chance to come cross the line first: “That was sad for (Ironman) history and for the athletes. I really hope that’s something that’s never going to happen again. “

This article was also published in the Ottawa Citizen, reprinted with permission of Lynne Bermel

© Copyright 2005 Lynne Bermel

Lynne Bermel, a former world-ranked pro Ironman competitor, is a senior marketing & PR consultant living in Ottawa. She is also a freelance writer and TV sports show host. You can reach her at: lynnebermel@rogers.com.

You can access previous columns by Lynne at: LB_Columns

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