USA TODAY: Can drug testing programs do more than create media frenzies?


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georges-st-pierre-39.jpg(An abridged version of this story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)

For UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and challenger Johny Hendricks, pre-fight gamesmanship has taken on a whole new meaning.

With their 170-pound title fight scheduled for Nov. 16 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the two have engaged in a sometimes public, sometimes private back-and-forth over enhanced drug testing – a topic that has quickly turned into a public relations battle between the fighters and their proxies.

It started when St-Pierre, who has long been dogged by both subtle implications and outright accusations of performance-enhancing drug use, suggested that both fighters sign up for supplemental testing to be done by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) in the months before their UFC 167 headlining bout.

Initially, Hendricks seemed supportive of the idea. But when questions arose over whether St-Pierre would pay for the extra testing himself, or whether he had agreed to a deal that would allow VADA to use his name and likeness on its website in exchange for free or discounted testing, Hendricks’ camp became worried, according to Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer, who spoke to representatives for both fighters on an August conference call.

“In the meeting, [St-Pierre's trainer] Firas [Zahabi] said, and I’m paraphrasing here, VADA’s comping Georges 100 percent so they can use his name and likeness on their website or whatever,” Kizer told MMAjunkie.com. “[Hendricks' manager] Ted [Ehrhardt] was very concerned.”

VADA president Dr. Margaret Goodman denied that the organization had reached any such arrangement with St-Pierre.

“VADA is not paying for GSP’s tests,” Goodman wrote in an email. “GSP has submitted complete payment for both he and Mr. Hendricks.”

Hendricks, however, seems far less interested in participating, which has led to a media battle between the two fighters. First the French-language Canadian cable network TVA Sports reported that Hendricks had declined to enroll in the VADA program. That prompted Hendricks’ manager Ehrhardt to counter that it was St-Pierre’s team that had declined to participate in supplemental NSAC testing through a World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited lab in Salt Lake City.

“[St-Pierre]‘s had a black cloud over him for years (with) people thinking he’s on HGH (human growth hormone) or whatever they think he’s on, and I think he’s trying to clear his name, and we just happen to be the fight that he’s doing it,” Ehrhardt told MMAjunkie.com.

According to Kizer, any supplemental testing programs are left up to the individual fighters, but the focus should be on ensuring fair, clean competitions, and not on public image campaigns.

“Legitimate testing should be about legitimate testing,” Kizer said. “It shouldn’t be about bullying people to pay you money or else you’re going to get your buddies in the press to write negative articles about them. It shouldn’t be used by a fighter to say, ‘I’m doing this because I think my opponent’s dirty,’ or to basically plant that seed in fans’ minds.”

That’s fine in theory, but in practice that seems to be exactly what such enhanced testing programs typically boil down to. One fighter declares his willingness to enroll in VADA testing, suggesting that if his opponent refuses it proves he’s clearly got something to hide. That’s a brand of public posturing that is “unfortunate,” according to Goodman.

“Beyond education, VADA provides an athlete an opportunity to demonstrate his/her commitment to clean sport,” Goodman wrote. ” … Enrollment in VADA is voluntary, and no judgment should be made on any athlete not participating.”

And yet, as the dust-up between St-Pierre and Hendricks demonstrates, such judgments – at least in the court of public opinion – are one thing these enhanced testing programs can be guaranteed to produce. That, and maybe a little pre-fight psychological warfare.

For his part, Kizer said he has little interest in being involved with either.

“I don’t want to play these games,” Kizer said. “If they don’t do [supplemental testing], that doesn’t mean anything. If they do do it, it still doesn’t necessarily mean anything. We don’t play that kind of pressure game here.”

Of course, that doesn’t stop the fighters – or their representatives – from playing those games among themselves.

As we’ve seen, supplemental testing programs can certainly be used that way, allowing one fighter to wield the power of the unstated accusation or even the vaguest public insinuation against his opponent. As for whether they can also result in meaningful change for a sport, that’s still struggling to find effective ways of combating performance-enhancing drug use in all its many forms, the jury is still out.

For more on UFC 167, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

(Pictured: Georges St-Pierre)

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