In Major League Baseball, there is constant hand-wringing over the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. But boxing fans and the media are left to throw up their hands in frustration at the haphazard way the problem is dealt with in their sport.
Yet another example surfaced this past week, when World Boxing Organization super bantamweight champion Nonito Donaire tweeted that Guillermo Rigondeaux was backing away from his alleged agreement to participate in random testing through the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) for their April 13 bout. The back-and-forth that ensued again showed how ridiculous—and unfair—the current state of the sport is when it comes to doping.
In the United States, doping controls in organized combat sports vary state to state. There is no one set of rules that fighters are compelled to follow in every jurisdiction. In the face of outdated official testing methods, combatants are basically obligated to police each other. This has left some boxers in the position of having to defend themselves repeatedly against allegations of wrongdoing, while others use their fame to force their rivals to voluntarily submit to stricter testing methods. It’s an untenable situation in the long term.
In the end, Rigondeaux and his team agreed in writing to the VADA tests. But the sport can’t continue to depend on big names such as Donaire to use their superior negotiating power to set the terms. Donaire’s insistence on VADA testing may be philosophically right, but he is obviously pushing his own agenda, whatever else he might say publicly. And a handful of stars shouldn’t be the ones deciding the rules when it comes to such a critical, career-altering issue as performance enhancers.
Admittedly, VADA’s involvement is a good step in the right direction. Headed by Dr. Margaret Goodman, who has extensive experience in combat sports, the organization is using carbon isotope ratio urine testing. In simple terms, this looks at whether the source of testosterone in an athlete’s body is natural or from a drug. Their method caught Lamont Peterson, who tested positive for synthetic testosterone after his victory over Amir Khan in Dec. 2011. Former World Boxing Council welterweight Andre Berto also failed a drug test taken under the VADA regimen, costing him a rematch with Victor Ortiz last year. But the problem with VADA is found in its very name—it’s voluntary.
The NFL and its Players Association are currently discussing the implementation of testing for human growth hormone. But there’s no equivalent association with national jurisdiction in boxing, so the only way this could be definitively resolved is through federal legislation. That’s not likely to happen anytime soon. So what should be done?
It will take one of the bigger state athletic commissions—Nevada, California, New Jersey or New York—to take the lead in utilizing stricter procedures such as carbon isotope ratio testing. Even then, the onus should not be on fighters to have to prove their innocence. The commissions should have the burden of proof, just like Major League Baseball has in relation to its players.
That would be the best-case scenario. Unfortunately, the state athletic commissions are government bodies run by political appointees, and are in general resistant to change. That reality, plus the absence of Congressional intervention, means that it will probably take a tragedy in the ring for real change to happen.