637 Days To Go is my blog, which was originally started with exactly 637 days until the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. And now it's been re-started with 637 days until the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Pee in this cup please

If you follow professional cycling at all, you will be familiar with the endless doping scandals. Any exceptional performance is looked upon with scepticism due to the shady past of the sport and its links to performance enhancing drugs. Top riders from the history of the sport have all been linked to (or busted for) using various types of drugs. 

These professionals get tested regularly and whilst methods for avoiding detection exist, it seems science is catching up and it's getting harder and harder to cheat. The sport is getting cleaner, performances are becoming more believable and the sport is slowly regaining its credibility.

But it is not just the professionals that undergo a constant drug-testing regime; but also Paralympic athletes like myself. You might not think that riders would attempt to cheat 'just because we're not professionals' but this is not the case. There have been several cases of riders being caught and banned in Paracycling – and I, for one, am glad to be part of the testing pool. I want all my performances to be credible and want all my competition on the same level as myself.

I am always subject to random drug testing at competition. For instance, when I won my first gold medal in Australia this year, I was whisked away for testing. And (in general), if you win a medal at the World Championships, or set a new world record, you will also be selected for testing.

But this is only a small part of what helps keep the sport honest. Myself and most international riders are on what we call the "Whereabouts" scheme. Every 3 months I have to fill out a daily itinerary detailing where I will be 24 hours a day. (I know this sounds arduous, but you can update it regularly so it's not as bad as it sounds.) 

Here's how the program works: I fill out a rough guide to where I'll be in advance. Most importantly – I must designate 1 hour a day for testing. I MUST be where I say I'll be for that hour. I can change the time and location of this hour at any time, as long as I am in the new location at the new time, etc. If the testers come and try and find me during that hour – and I'm not there... I FAIL. It's the same as a positive test.

The testers may also try and spring a surprise test on you – and visit you outside your designated hour. This is why you need to tell them where you will be 24 hours a day. However, (for instance) if your bike ride goes longer than expected and you're not back home when you thought you would be – and they show up – as long as it's outside your designated hour then you are 'safe'. It's not considered a failed test or violation.

BUT – if they DO find you, then you MUST submit to a test. Refusal is tantamount to a fail.

We all have access to our Whereabouts info online and can update it any time as often as we need to. For instance, if I decide to spend the night at a friend's – I simply log in, update the info and away I go. They can come test me there instead if they want to. Furthermore, you can just text updates to them off any mobile phone, so there really is no excuse to be caught out. It's a pain and not always easy to remember to do, but it's part of my life and something you simply have to get used to.

I've only been on the scheme for a few months, and as of yesterday hadn't had the testers come and find me. As the weather was pretty poor I had decided to do my training indoors on the turbo trainer. I was in the middle of my living room, earphones on, wearing nothing but my cycling shorts and my carbon leg – pedalling away furiously... when I thought I heard a knock at the door. As I had earphones on and the turbo makes some serious noise – I wasn't sure.

I stopped pedalling, took the earphones off and listened. Sure enough... another knock. Damn it!! I hopped off the bike and made my way to the door. I cautiously opened the door and peered around the side of it (trying to hide the fact I was mostly undressed and sweating heavily!). Plus the sight of my carbon leg (essentially a carbon post) would be enough to frighten the casual observer so was trying to keep it hidden.

And lo and behold... it was the drug testers; there for my first surprise home visit! Talk about bad timing. 

You are allowed to make them wait as long as you want – until you are ready (or able) to give a sample. However – you MUST remain in their sight for the entire time until you do so – so you must invite them in. You don't need to feed or water them (or even talk to them) but they have to stay with you until the test is done. I could have hopped back onto my bike to finish my training session and they would have had to stand there and watch until I had, but there's no reason to prolong things if you don't need to.

So I attempted to towel off some of the sweat, threw a shirt on, swapped my carbon leg for my walking leg and got down to it. The test involves filling out some paperwork to confirm your identity, then it's off to the toilet with one of the testers and a sample bottle. They must witness the urine passing from your body into the sample bottle. That's right – someone has the unenviable job of watching me pee. This is to ensure the urine isn't coming from a bag strapped to my leg or some other source. It's very weird – but something you soon become accustomed to.
The sample is then poured into two different containers – known as your A-sample and B-sample. If you ever test positive for anything (testing is done on the A-sample), then you can request the B sample is tested also for confirmation. This helps ensure that IF a sample was to become contaminated somehow, then the other sample would clear the athlete. It's rare – but there have been instances where an athlete was cleared after subsequent testing of their B-sample.

Everything is verified and the samples locked in bottles, sealed in bags and then sealed in a box. You sign some more paperwork to confirm everything... and then they are off. The samples get tested in a lab somewhere and you only ever hear from them is there's a problem. Otherwise you just wait for the next test!

It was all over and done with in under 30 minutes. I closed the door behind them as they left and hopped back on the bike to finish my training, still laughing to myself over the state I answered the door in. Ah... the life of an athlete.

But as my friends said to me: you know you've made it in this world when someone actually wants to come to your house to collect your urine.

[As a footnote to this post, I would like to add that a few weeks later I received a letter in the mail from the anti-doping unit that oversees my testing. Basically thanking my for my cooperation and informing me that my test was clear. My initial reaction when I first opened the letter and saw who it was from was one of fear. Not because I had anything to hide as I know I compete cleanly, but because I wasn't expecting a letter to inform me of the negative test results. Normally no news is good news, so a letter was a sign (to me) that something was wrong.

But my previous testing had been in competition (and in Australia) so they just didn't send a letter to inform me. Despite living a clean lifestyle and watching everything I take, eat and drink to ensure that none of it is on the banned list, there is always that fear that something will have become contaminated by a banned substance and somehow get into your system. It has happened to athletes before and if it were to happen to me, I would have little recourse to try and prove it. So that scenario is the only thing I worry about.

But not very much.]

For a follow-up to this post, you may want to read about my further experiences with anti-doping here: This time they are out for blood