What the introduction of PED testing for amateurs will mean for all open water swimmers

You thought the whole Lance Armstrong saga was infuriating or frustrating, annoying or downright appalling? As have we all. Yet little did we know where it would lead or how quickly it would affect swimmers.

Last week’s news of an agreement between WADA (World anti-doping agency), USADA (United States anti-doping agency) and the European Non-Government Sporting Organisation (ENGSO) under the umbrella of the Anti-Doping Convention of the Council of Europe, slipped out without much coverage but it is surely the precursor to one of the most significant changes in amateur open water swimming in the 238 years since our sport began, (or any other endurance sport for that matter).

Historically, most swimmers adhere to the principle of honour, that we say what rules we are swimming by, then we either succeed or not by those by rules. The fact that we are by and large amateurs in a marginal sport has meant ordinary open water swimmers, even if there are now a lot of us worldwide, have never been either concerned by MDLs (Maximum Daily Limits) or even prohibited substances.

I’ve never personally seen nor heard of a distance swimmer using EPO or stimulant, steroids or masking agents, beta-agonists or any of the endurance PED cheating of professional sports-people though I am not so naive as to believe it doesn’t happen. Captain Webb and many subsequent swimmers used brandy or alcohol to aid their swims and though alcohol was until now almost never used anymore but still legal. Many swimmers use copious off-the-shelf and even prescription levels of painkillers or anti-inflammatories to remediate the extreme stress and pain caused by long distance open water swimming and all the associated training. The use of caffeine is extensive to combat early mornings and late evenings for pool training not to mention using it fuel actual swims, (I like the effective ergogenic (stimulant) properties of caffeine and regularly stop imbibing to maximise the effects for swims).

But this isn’t the point. Those days are now over. We’ll look back on them with fondness for the ease of our previous lives.

  • As over the beginning of March, all registered distance swimmers with any Association or Federation, in Northern America, the EU and Europe and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) have to register with WADA. Inevitably other global regions will have to follow.
  • Observers for the various Associations and Federations are currently or planned to be trained to take urine samples immediately post any swim with a registered association. This will obviously start with the big associations, CS&PF, SBSCA, CCSA, MIMS, Gibraltar. The others will follow.
  • Santa Barbara Channel Swim Association are first off the blocks with their roll-out of the announcement of changes.
  • Swimmers unwilling to provide immediate post swim samples will NOT have their swim ratified by the Federation. Observer reports will not be forthcoming.
  • The 2013 WADA Prohibited List of Banned Substances now applies to distance swimmers for registered or booked swims. REGARDLESS of when the swim was booked.
  • Swimmers MUST register and have Doctor’s Therapeutic Use Exceptions (T.U.E.) Certificates where applicable for substances which are being used therapeutically and which are on the Prohibited List, (such as my asthma inhaler Salbutamol).
  • Some no-longer much used substances (such as alcohol) will now have maximum limits such as the alcohol doping violation threshold (haematological values) of 0.10 g/L. This means a fundamental change to the “As Captain Webb did it” over-aching guiding principle of marathon swimming.
  • Though not yet ratified, it’s likely that caffeine will have its threshold set as concentrations in the urine to exceed 15 μg/ mL for a swimmer-athlete to test positive for this substance. (This equates to a consumption of about 500mg per day, i.e. a maximum of 2 average cups of coffee at 300mg per cup).

What you must do now:

  • Educate yourself.
  • Download the list of Prohibited Substances above.
  • Check yourself that you are not breaking any rules.
  • Arrange a meeting with your General Practitioner to discuss AND certify.
  • If you are taking any prescribed medication, you will need a Certificate to so state for EACH substance for EVERY instance. (Backdating is not allowed, that’s one of the ways Armstrong cheated).
  • The “I didn’t know” defence has long been the refuge of PED cheats. That day is also over.

What you could also do now (not mandatory)

  • Register as a drug-free athlete with your national swim association. You are expected to be PED-free and If you are drug-free then this isn’t an issue but it’s a statement of intent. Of course should you register and later be caught, you face a mandatory lifetime ban from swimming at any level.

EDIT April 2nd: P.S. Don’t you realise yet the Internet is the perfect vehicle for April’s Fools jokes?

6 thoughts on “What the introduction of PED testing for amateurs will mean for all open water swimmers

  1. Pingback: Coffee And Caffeine Controlled By World Anti-Doping Agency – WOWSA

  2. Pingback: SBCSA announces drug-testing for marathon swims

  3. thanks for highlighting this – I had no idea and will need to check how it affects our charity EC relay teams this year!


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