Deep Inside the Laboratory Testing CrossFit Games’ Athletes for PEDs
Chad Schroeder contributed to this story.
It’s 9:54 AM on Thursday, September 5. I pull up to the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory in West Los Angeles.
This is home to the largest sports drug testing facility in the United States, responsible for handling and testing innumerous samples from WADA and Drug Free Sport.
I park and enter this nondescript building across a tightly-packed side street around the corner from a Trader Joe’s. I hand over my driver’s license, sign in, and don a white lab coat. I cannot take any photos or recordings of any kind; just notes on pen and paper and I’m to be escorted at all times.
At 10:00 AM, I’m lead into the laboratory behind a sealed door accessed only by keycard. Flanked on both sides by staff. We retrieve Anna Fragkou’s B urine sample from a storage refrigerator where it’s kept at around -20 celsius.
I put on a pair of gloves and inspect the sample for any evidence of tampering. I find none and sign my name to affirm its integrity. Now the testing process begins.
At this point, it’s important to note how we got here.
On August 22, Anna Fragkou, the 9th fittest woman on earth received an email notification that she failed a drug test, testing positive for Oral Turinabol, an anabolic-androgenic steroid known to promote muscular endurance and rate of recovery.
Fragkou, who was also Greece’s national champion, says she never knowingly took the substance: “I had never even heard of this substance before. I have never taken any such substances and I have always tried to be very conscious about what I eat and consume.”
CrossFit’s first known case involving Oral Turinabol came in July 2018 involving Nuha Almarri who tested positive for the banned substance after placing 34th at the Meridian Regional. Then last season, Chantelle Loehner tested positive for the same substance. Both athletes denied ever taking the steroid.
Oral Turinabol is far from a new steroid, however. Originally developed in East Germany in 1962 by Jenapharm, the substance was used to propel “East-German Olympic athletes to gold medal in the 70’s and 80’s” according to a 2016 Scientific American article analyzing cheating in the Olympics.
According to that same article, “Oral Turinabol was only detectable within five to seven days after ingestion” a decade ago. It was Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the Director of the Moscow and Sochi 2014 anti-doping laboratories, who discovered a new method for detecting the substance up to six months after it was taken. This new test was instrumental in helping the International Olympic Committee (IOC) re-test samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
It was during those retests that 111 anti-doping rule violations were found. Of those 111, approximately 80 involved Oral Turinabol, 35 were for Russian athletes. All told, 70 percent of positive tests were for Turinabol.
Less than two months ago, the number three athlete in Argentina tested positive at a local competition for Oral Turinabol. Mauro Acevedo openly admitted to taking the steroid more than two years ago while competing at the 2017 South Regional but ceased shortly thereafter. If we take Acevedo at his word, this positive test demonstrates how far back chemists are now able to detect traces of certain substances. Like Fragkou, Acevedo’s sample was also collected by Drug Free Sport.
The steroid also made headlines as the key ingredient in Russia’s state-sponsored doping program which employed hundreds of staff and scientists to mask the use of PEDs across multiple sports. The program administered banned substances as well as “directed, controlled and oversaw” the systemic cover-up of drug abuse by athletes from late 2011 until August 2015.
The West LA Laboratory is one of only two World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in the U.S. This is the largest, processing as many as 35,000 to 40,000 samples yearly.
A vast majority of CrossFit’s in-competition and out-of-competition drug tests are brought to this facility to be analyzed, though in certain circumstances other facilities across the world may be used. However, CrossFit uses only WADA-accredited labs.
Fragkou and her team asked me to attend the B sample test on her behalf as a neutral observer to ensure the process was handled professionally and bring some peace of mind that a neutral party was observing a test halfway around the world.
To my knowledge, this is the first time a reporter in CrossFit has been invited into a drug testing lab to examine the process.
The testing process is rigorous to say the least.
“Science isn’t easy,” one of the chemists said. Which is an understatement considering the approximate 25-step process we underwent on just one sample.
Even for negative samples, the process takes about the same amount of time; five to six hours.
If there’s a narrative out there that these samples are being handled without care or scrutiny that couldn’t be further from the truth.
CrossFit contracts Drug Free Sport to handle all drug tests; including in-competition and out-of-competition tests. This means that representatives from DFS are responsible for administering the collection of samples, sealing and supervising the process and transporting it to the lab where it’s handed off to chemists for testing similar to the one administered above.
CrossFit staff don’t ever touch it.
Like ordering off a menu à la carte, you pay for what you test for and CrossFit tests for pretty much everything, though it tracks closely to WADA’s banned substance list. Recently, CrossFit has expanded its sample collection to include urine and sometimes blood and hair.
CrossFit also made a giant leap forward in transparency. In the release of the Drug Testing Policy for the 2019-2020 season, CrossFit agreed to publish the “athlete’s name, whether the test was in-competition or out-of-competition, and the date of sample collection” for all positive tests. Previously, the policy stated that CrossFit Inc. will announce violations “at its sole discretion.”
CrossFit has a zero tolerance policy, meaning any athlete who tests positive for a banned substance will receive a sanction. CrossFit doesn’t distinguish between accidental ingestion such as a tainted supplement, or a clear intention to cheat through performance enhancing drugs. In one case, CrossFit issued a two-year ban to 2018 Master’s athlete Kelli Holm after she was able to show that her supplements were tainted with Endurobol, but a majority of positive tests result in a four-year ban from competing in a CrossFit event.
Probably less well known is CrossFit’s zero tolerance policy for athletes who fail to submit to a drug test, including those on and off the Registered Athlete Testing Pool.
“I think it should be a 4 year ban if you fail to take a test. If it’s only 1, and you know you might test positive, then personally I would be inclined to ‘refuse to take a test’ and take the 1 year ban over the 4 year ban."CrossFit Games Athlete
The Registered Athlete Testing Pool is like an unofficial verified badge signifying that you’re one of the fittest athletes on the planet, or at least fit enough that CrossFit wants to be able to validate your fitness claim at any given notice.
Athletes in this pool are required to provide CrossFit their complete contact information and whereabouts quarterly so that a Drug Free Sport agent can reach them at any time to conduct a drug test. Failure to take this test may result in an automatic 1-year sanction, but the rules clearly state it could be longer if the situation warrants.
CrossFit has issued two 1-year bans for failure to take an out-of-competition test.
In 2015, California Regional athlete Ryan Fischer provided inaccurate whereabouts, failing to cooperate with Drug Free Sport agents which resulted in a failure to take the test. Then in 2016, Central Regional athlete Laura Phelps-Sweatt also failed to meet with agents when requested to submit to an out-of-competition test.
Morning Chalk Up spoke with several athletes in the testing pool who were granted anonymity in order to speak candidly about a sensitive topic. Two athletes characterized the one-year ban as not harsh enough.
“I think it should be a 4 year ban if you fail to take a test. If it’s only 1, and you know you might test positive, then personally I would be inclined to ‘refuse to take a test’ and take the 1 year ban over the 4 year ban,” said one athlete.
“If you know you aren’t clean, and you deny the test to save your ass, I think a 1 year ban is more or less a version of a plea bargain. I feel like only a guilty person would take this route, so the 4 year ban should also be the penalty for this,” said another athlete.
However, testing pool athletes currently serving out a sanction for any reason don’t receive a free pass of no testing to dope up and cycle off before returning to competition. CrossFit’s policy explicitly states that those athletes “will remain in the Testing Pool and subject to drug testing.” Failure to do so may result in further sanctions.
I feel that this is all very random. There are people who go through the season without being tested at all, people who are rumored to be cheating. Then there is the Open, where I do not know if there is any testing whatsoever.Anna Fragkou
With CrossFit’s changes to the Games’ season last year came a massive expansion in the number of official events and individual competitors in the sport. In the 2018-2019 season there were 14 Sanctionals; this season there are 28 across six continents.
Sanctionals are contractually required to abide by CrossFit’s drug testing policy and allow CrossFit to conduct tests at their event, which includes providing space and access to athletes as needed throughout the event. CrossFit’s head of Sanctioned and Licensed events confirmed that athletes receiving invites are tested at some point through the pipeline.
Privately, we spoke with several Sanctional organizers across the globe who confirmed that Drug Free Sport was on hand testing at their events.
While Sanctionals are not contractually required to conduct their own tests of podium finishers, at least one Sanctional opted to do so at their own expense. Dubai CrossFit Championship has conducted its own drug tests for multiple years including at last year’s season-opening Sanctional.
“An athlete tested positive for Endurobol and Ostaine at the CrossFit Games. They qualified for the Games via the Worldwide Open. How do we know they weren’t taking this before/during the 2019 Open to help them qualify? We don’t...and that’s an issue."Alex Parker
During the 2018-2019 season, six athletes were caught with banned substances in their system as a result of HQ’s directed testing at Sanctionals; four of those cases were outside the United States.
While Sanctionals offer CrossFit the best opportunity to test multiple athletes simultaneously, CrossFit’s direct qualification through the Open leaves potential testing gaps with more than 300 athletes earning spots through the global community qualifier.
Former Games athlete Alex Parker, who has been outspoken in voicing her opinion about ways the CrossFit Games can improve, recently weighed in on Instagram and brought this up:
“An athlete tested positive for Endurobol and Ostaine at the CrossFit Games. They qualified for the Games via the Worldwide Open. How do we know they weren’t taking this before/during the 2019 Open to help them qualify? We don’t...and that’s an issue,” she wrote on Instagram.
Parker was referring to 44th placed athlete Katie Trombetta. There’s a decent chance that Trombetta, who was a top five finisher in three Sanctionals last season, took at least one drug test. But Parker’s comments illustrate a point of frustration.
Fragkou echoed this concern in a recent interview before the news broke.
“I have been found guilty of using a substance that I have never before heard of. I feel that this is all very random. There are people who go through the season without being tested at all, people who are rumored to be cheating. Then there is the Open, where I do not know if there is any testing whatsoever. That of course can scramble the results a lot.”
Fragkou, who qualified directly through the Open as Greece’s national champion, was tested for the first time this season on March 29, right after the Open concluded.
Validating athletes’ claims.
Over the past two seasons, a total of 34 athletes have tested positive for banned substances from both in-competition and out-of-competition tests conducted by Drug Free Sport at the direction of CrossFit.
Coming to a distinct conclusion as to why the apparent uptick in the frequency of PEDs popping up in the sport of CrossFit would be near impossible. Is it because more athletes are taking PEDs with the intention to cheat the system, or is it that athletes are not paying close enough attention to over-the-counter supplements that contain a banned substance? Or is it that CrossFit has increased the number and types of tests thereby resulting in more positive tests?
In all likelihood, it’s a combination of all of those and more, and that’s one of the reasons why the sanction doesn’t distinguish between accidental and intentional ingestion. A failed test is a failed test and the worst thing that can happen to the sport of CrossFit is the belief that no one is paying attention.