The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has announced the initiation of an unprecedented at-home drug testing program which will involve top Olympians conducting self-administered urine and blood tests while being observed remotely on Zoom or FaceTime by USADA personnel.
The new virtual testing program is currently the only one of its kind in the world and was created since in-person drug testing was stopped in recent months due the lockdown measures implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19.
In the beginning of April, USADA launched Project Believe 2020, with 15 elite athletes who volunteered to participate in the pilot program and conduct the virtual drug tests on themselves. The program is designed to last eight weeks. As part of the new virtual testing procedure, the athletes receive test kits and go into their bathrooms to collect urine samples while leaving their laptops or devices outside the room. For the standard in-person procedure under normal circumstances, the USADA officer would normally be present during the sample collection and wait outside the bathroom. Or, alternatively, an officer of the same gender could be present in the room with the athlete during the testing procedure. However, in the new virtual procedure, the USADA officer monitors the procedure remotely via a camera, while the sample collection time and the athletes’ temperatures are monitored to ensure they are collecting the samples in real time.
The new blood test uses dry blood sampling, a new technology where athletes are required to prick their arms and collect drops of blood into the container. In contrast to the process of urine collection, the athlete must also demonstrate the entire blood collection process on video. Then, athletes are required to package their samples and send them back for testing in the lab.
“I felt very comfortable with the whole process… This is the perfect time to test something like this. I think it’s great for the circumstances we’re all in right now,” Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky said in her interview with USA Today.
According to Travis Tygart, USADA CEO, the program allows athletes to prove they have remained clean during the lockdown. “It was going to unnecessarily create a question when those athletes went to Tokyo and won, where people would say, ‘You won but you weren’t tested during the pandemic,'” he said. “How unfair is it for athletes who will be in those circumstances?”
However, Tygart admits that the new system has its own specific limitations, which include potential sample tampering and manipulation. In his interview with ESPN, he stated, “The people who play clean want to be true heroes and role models… We also know there are some bad folks out there who will attempt to exploit it. For the good of the athletes, anti-doping has to reinvent itself in times like these to stay relevant.”