Steven LEVITT: My guest today, Travis Tygart, is the C.E.O. of USADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency. And if it weren’t for Travis, this infamous exchange never would have happened.
Oprah WINFREY: Yes or no, did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?
Lance ARMSTRONG: Yes.
WINFREY: Yes or no, was one of those banned substances EPO?
LEVITT: That, of course, is Lance Armstrong‘s infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey from 2013. The one where he called his cycling career “one big lie,” publicly acknowledging that he had doped to win his seven Tour de France titles. Lance didn’t come forth voluntarily. For over a decade he had vehemently denied that he had used the drug erythropoietin, better known as EPO, aggressively suing those who suggested he had doped. It looked like Lance had finally put the rumors to rest once and for all when in 2012, USADA, Travis’s organization, published a 1,000-plus page report, what they called their “reasoned decision,” that detailed evidence of the quote, “most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,” unquote. It included testimony from 11 of Lance’s teammates. He was stripped of his cycling titles and received a lifetime ban from all sports that follow the World Anti-Doping Code, including cycling.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: This episode is airing the week the Tour de France starts, but despite this, Lance Armstrong isn’t actually the main reason I wanted to talk with Travis today. I’ve devoted a good chunk of the last 25 years to trying to catch cheaters, everything from crooked sumo wrestlers to terrorists. So, for me to get to talk with probably the world’s foremost expert on cheating in sports, that’s like a dream come true. I’m sure we could talk all day about Lance, but there are a half-dozen other topics I want to hit as well, so I’ll have to use my time wisely.
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LEVITT: Travis Tygart, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Your job is to catch athletes who are using prohibited performance-enhancing drugs. And it seems to me that’s a thankless job because first off, the people you catch, they’re sometimes national heroes, beloved champions. And my hunch is that you’re not always welcomed when you’re finding these people are guilty.
Travis TYGART: While I understand the characterization of we’re here to catch athletes, we look at it entirely different than that. I think the majority — the overwhelming majority of athletes who are playing by the rules, they appreciate the fact that we’re protecting their right to compete on a level playing field. Because there’s really no bigger injustice in sport than if someone is cheated or robbed of their sacrifice to be the best that they can be under the rules that they agree to. So, yes, that means we have to catch those who are not deterred from cheating and of course, many times those individuals don’t like us or appreciate the fact that they’ve been caught. One journalist described us as the union for clean athletes and that may be exactly how we see it and probably the biggest compliment that we ever could be given. We do the right thing for the right reasons, not because of popular opinion or what people think of us quite honestly.
LEVITT: The second reason that I suspect your job is pretty thankless is the nature of doping and the limits of the testing technology. Legal limits on what you can do. Does that not mean that most cheaters get away with it, if they’re smart enough, sophisticated enough, and don’t make mistakes? Does that not make it almost impossible to catch them?
TYGART: I don’t think so. The idea of being a winner here in the United States — every kid grows up on a playground knowing that winners never cheat and cheaters never win. And so, there’s this moral community and I think moral ethic that many of our athletes have, that they want to be the best they can be. And yes, they’re uber-competitive and hyper-competitive. They don’t get to the elite-level without being that and willing to sacrifice sometimes their own health, their education, and career opportunities, but they know that they can’t look themselves in the mirror if they cheat to win. Wonderful example back in 2003 — Kelli White won in the world championships — track and field — the 100-meter and 200-meter. And she was doping at the time. And you look at her face — and she testified about this later to us. But you look at her face in front of 70,000-plus fans in Paris and she has this look of kind of disgust and shame in herself for knowing what she did. I really start with the premise that no athlete — no true athlete, particularly in the Olympic movement where you’re representing your country, you’re doing it for national pride and to be the hero that many kids around the world need you to be. That’s not where you want to start. Certainly, we want to continue to be innovative and have research and funds devoted to testing and developing scientific methods to ensure that, hey, the risk of getting caught is entirely too high. And it’s not worth taking that risk, even if you were otherwise inclined to go against your moral ethic — you’re going to get caught. You’re going to have, unfortunately, a cloud that will live over you for the rest of your life as being a cheater at the highest levels in sporting. And that’s an incredible deterrent that further enforces that moral code and makes it an untenable decision to cheat in the Olympic movement in the United States.
LEVITT: A few years after Lance’s fall from grace, Stephen Dubner interviewed him for a Freakonomics Radio episode called “Has Lance Armstrong Finally Come Clean?” Here’s an excerpt from that conversation.
ARMSTRONG: I mean, I raced in a generation and on a team that was amongst 20 other teams that all did the same thing. Every single one of them did the same thing. I went to the team in ‘92. And the sport of cycling in the mid-‘90s, EPO was like wildfire. And we were holding out, holding out, holding out. Just assuming that, “Come on, there has to be a test for this,” and we got to this moment where we looked around and were like, “Oh my god. We don’t have a choice.” Or, well, we do have a choice. Our choice is to go home. We could just quit. Retire. But if we want to stay and fight — you know, we were all walking around with knives, because we were told we were going to a knife fight. And next thing you know, everybody had guns. And we said, “Oh sh*t, these boys are carrying guns.” And so in the spring of ‘95, we went to the gun store.
LEVITT: Do you remember when it was that you first became pretty certain that Lance Armstrong was doping?
TYGART: To this day, it’s seared in my mind. We left an interview with an athlete — actually, Tyler Hamilton — up in Denver, Colorado where my general counsel and myself at the time spent two days with him and his lawyer and heard the evidence that he presented and combining it with the evidence that we already had from other riders, as well as the documentary evidence, as well as testing results that we had that were abnormal. I remember walking out that second day saying, “There’s no doubt in my mind that they perpetuated one of the greatest frauds that the sports world has ever seen. And I think it means we have no choice, but to move forward.”
LEVITT: And when was that, Travis? What year was that?
TYGART: So, that was 2011. I think? End of 2011.
LEVITT: I think it was in 2001 or 2002 that I became convinced that Lance was cheating. I was a young professor. This was before Freakonomics even. And I was sitting in my office. And the phone rang. And on the other end of the line was a guy named Greg LeMond. And it was crazy for me because I grew up in Minnesota. And Greg LeMond was such a hero of bike racing. He was from Minnesota as well. And I’d never met him. And he said, “Hey, I’ve heard that you’re good with data and good at catching cheaters. And Lance Armstrong is a cheater. Can you help me catch him?” And at first, I thought that Greg LeMond was a little crazy. And we ended up talking for three hours on the phone. And actually, to say we talked is kind of a misnomer because really he talked for three-hours straight. I spoke so little that I remember about once every 30 minutes Greg would say, “Hey, hey, are you still there?” And I’d say, “Yes.” and he would just keep on going for another 30 minutes. The thing was, he talked with such knowledge about the science and such specificity about particular incidents that at the end of the three hours I was just completely convinced that what he was saying was true. No one could have enough imagination to have made up what he was telling me. I got off the phone and I began collecting data from the Tour de France, and I never figured out a methodology that could really prove that there was cheating. But it was clear from the data that the improvements that Lance and his team had made were bigger than any improvements that any team in the history of bike racing had ever made. Now, that’s not enough obviously, to do what you did. But here’s my point of that: If even I knew that he was cheating in 2001 or 2002, there must have been so many people, so many authorities — why do you think it is that the organizations in charge of cycling didn’t do anything? They must’ve known. What were they thinking?
TYGART: That’s a great story. And I know Greg LeMond, and have both talked, but also listened to a lot of what Greg has to say. Greg is infamous for saying that E.P.O., one of the drugs of choice during that time period — for which there was no test — can turn a donkey into a thoroughbred. And I think that’s a pretty apt description. But listen, I think in ’99, there was a positive test on Lance Armstrong that was due to him trying to gain an advantage for a glucocorticosteroid that the sport at the time decided not to move forward on and allowed him to fabricate a prescription for that. But the whole story would have stopped if the sport at that point would have done its job. ’01, there were some tests on some E.P.O. results that should have triggered an investigation. These were all tests that were done by the International Cycling Union. The self-interest for cycling rather was not to cause this story to tumble. Because it’s against the promotion interest of the sport. They covered up these tests because, ultimately, having an American win — and listen, I’ve said it before — I firmly believed there was going to be an American cyclist because there were corporate interests behind having an American bring back cycling to the United States for the gear companies, the helmet companies, the bike companies, the sunglass companies, all the companies that profited off the Armstrong story. And look, It was against the financial interest of the sport to hold him accountable because it was gonna wreck the story and ultimately take away the profits that were flowing into the sport.
LEVITT: You talked at the beginning about how you don’t think athletes naturally want to cheat because the whole spirit of athleticism is wanting to win fairly. But I would say if you’re in charge of cycling as a sport, at the same level, how do you live with yourself knowing that you’re overseeing a sport that’s completely corrupt? Somehow those two things don’t go together with me. It doesn’t seem like we should believe in the spirit of athletes and also think that the C.E.O. of the International Cycling Union would be willing to look the other way just to make a little more cash.
TYGART: It is hard for us to believe — those of us who have a moral compass and look at doing the right thing. But when you’re a sport promoter, your job is to promote sport. It’s to bring in revenues. It’s to have higher contracts for your broadcast agreements or your sponsorship agreements. And there’s this conflicting interest to both promote and police. And we’ve seen it time and time again. We saw it in baseball in the late 90s and the early 2000s. We’ve seen it recently in biathlon. We saw it over in Russia. They’re really willing to turn a blind eye to some of the cheating that might go on. They’re ambivalent about it to a certain extent because it’s so profitable and beneficial and they don’t want to have to make tough decisions against the athletes that they’ve invested hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in and the athletes who bring in that much profit. And trust me, it is really easy if you’re not committed to doing the right thing in all circumstances, to find a way to justify doing the wrong thing. I’ll never forget in the middle of the Armstrong case — and it might’ve been one of the low points. I got an email from someone that sat on the board of a publicly traded company — one of the Fortune 500 companies — just ripping me apart. Yes, he cheated. Yes, it was fraud. But you shouldn’t do anything about it because the outcome was justifiable and was worth it. And I’ll never forget walking into my bedroom after I received that email late one night and telling my wife, “This is the saddest thing I’ve seen. Here is a corporate leader, one of the top companies in the globe, quite frankly, who was coming after me, acknowledging that what he did was wrong and against the rules, and yet was willing to justify it because the outcome was going to be potentially bad for cycling. I don’t take any joy or pride in that — that was not my choice. My choice is to follow the rules that we make an oath to uphold, to ensure that clean athletes have an opportunity. And it was the slam-dunk case, the most powerful evidence that we’ve ever had. So, — okay, what if I was the head of cycling? Would I turn a blind eye to it? There’d be a whole lot of reasons and motivation to do it, tens of millions of dollars coming in on the Tour de France and the legacy and having to wipe away seven Tours de France. And can you imagine if the head of the U.C.I., the international cycling union, or even U.S.A. Cycling was on my board or making the decision in that case? They’d find a way to stick it in the drawer and be done with it. And that’s why it’s so critically important for us to have independent organizations of people who don’t have a sports promotion role upholding and enforcing and protecting the rights of clean athletes to compete on a level playing field.
LEVITT: So, I have to say I met Lance twice. And he scared me, both as a person he scared me and his legal team and entourage that viciously harassed people — that scared me. Did he scare you?
TYGART: You know, death threats against your family and all that kind of stuff that, weren’t directly from him, fans and followers of his — that’s not fun stuff to have to deal with. But no. Look, I take confidence in the truth; amazing group of people here to provide support. And while it’s not fun and you don’t necessarily like being the bullseye of all the attacks or the lawsuits, you just do the job that you’re sworn to do because there’s athletes out there who are counting on you to take the brunt of that. In a way, the reaction clearly indicates some sort of malfeasance and cover up. And that just furthers the determination — and I think it should, of people in my position. We can’t let politics or bullying or efforts to destroy us stop us. The truth is what we’re always after. And we’re not going to let those kind of tactics deter us from getting to the truth.
LEVITT: His tactics worked pretty well though. Because as far as I can tell, USADA was essentially the last line of defense. If you guys hadn’t gotten him, it kinda seemed like he was walking. Because everybody else seems to have given up. Is that a fair assessment?
TYGART: I think that’s exactly right. I’ll never forget a Businessweek article Labor Day of 2012. And it concluded with “Lance Armstrong might be the only athlete that’s too big to fail.” And that was before our reasoned decision came out. And it was basically complimenting their media, political strategy in coming after us and attempting to smear us and our process and our motives. Then our reasoned decision and thousands of pages of evidence came out, a month later. And the tide and the truth was ultimately revealed. And people then, gravitated towards the truth and saw exactly what was going on and what I’ll say is we were sorry at the time Lance didn’t come in like 11 of his teammates and sit down with us. We gave him every opportunity to do that, and he never did. Because I think he would have brought in a wave of additional riders, but also evidence that would have allowed that system to be cleaned up, even quicker and more efficiently than it ultimately did. And that was the low point of the investigation when instead of coming in and sitting down with us and being truthful which could have benefited him as well from a sanctioning standpoint, like it did the other riders, he went and sued us and tried to block our efforts to get to the truth.
LEVITT: Do you think it was outright bribery and intimidation that let Lance go along so long? Or was it just the natural conflict between the incentives of the promoters?
TYGART: I think the natural incentives for sure. And you’ve got to remember those in the sport, the administrators, the doctors, they’re not in testing programs. So, while we may test an athlete and suspend and discipline, until those athletes come forward with the truth it’s hard for us to get evidence against those in the sport, particularly people who live around the world. So, it wasn’t until we had a number of positive tests and eventually were able to convince those riders to sit down — and all of them going back to that moral ethic said, “We never wanted to do this.” Many of them came in at our request voluntarily because they wanted to see this sport change for the good. And our effort was always — yes, the athletes were going to have to receive some consequence because they made their choices. No one held them down and stuck needles of E.P.O. in their stomachs. However, the nature of the culture was very coercive. On the scale of culpability, the hierarchy, they were much less culpable than the president of the sport that oversaw this corrupt culture, the doctors, the trainers. And so, our ability to get them to come in and sit down with us and be truthful was what allowed us to achieve the goal that we wanted, which was to dismantle the corrupt system, not just punish the athletes moving forward.
LEVITT: What’s amazing to me is that with the number of people involved — suppliers, teammates, coaches, doctors, girlfriends, and wives — how they managed to keep it a secret as they did for as long as they did. That huge web of people. Eventually, you cracked it. Eventually, it fell. But when hundreds of people know, how can you not expect it’s going to become public?
TYGART: Yeah. I think two things. One, they have described it as the omerta, right? Like the mob term. You don’t step out. You don’t tell the secrets of the family. In large part, why one of the riders came forward was because he had a positive test. He got suspended. And while he had multiple opportunities to come forward at the time he didn’t. And then, when he tried to return to the sport, they — in large part, Lance, kept him out. And that frustrated him and made him mad and said, “I’m coming clean with what’s going on because you guys turned your backs on me during the time when I kept the secrets within the family.” The second thing I would say is, while a lot of people knew, the athletes were pretty savvy in not spreading it too far. And they did do a lot, particularly as the testing system got up around the world. ’98, ’99, 2000, 2001, more people knew what was happening at that time. But there were very few people that actually had eyes on the fraud that was being committed. And then those that did had an interest in not getting it out or being truthful about it because they would have to implicate themselves and be held accountable to it as well.
LEVITT: My guess is that if Lance was just a little nicer to people, he could have kept up the facade forever. Is one of the lessons here, just to be nice to people along the way?
TYGART: Listen, someone during the course of our investigation said, “No one’s going to take a fall for Lance,” meaning he didn’t make many friends throughout this process. But it’s hard to say. I think what you hope is that if you do have a charismatic, A-type ultra winner, that person uses that personality to set a wall of cleanliness or moral decision-making where the price of going against whether it’s that person or that community is too high, that then can emphasize and reinforce the idea that these rules are here for a purpose. And they’re here to protect everyone, and we’re going to go to great lengths to ensure that they’re upheld.
LEVITT: How many hours of your life do you think you devoted to that Lance Armstrong case?
TYGART: Oh, God. That’s a great question. I don’t know. I’d say too many.
LEVITT: Did the pursuit of justice with Lance become more personal to you than with other cases?
TYGART: No. We have a motto here that we’re going to attempt to exonerate the innocent just as hard as we try to convict the guilty. And so, in a situation like that you don’t prejudge it. You just continue to follow the evidence and see where the evidence ultimately leads you. Their whole effort was to try to make it personal. I joke sometimes they put the bullseye on the bureaucrat at the organization. Our board is led by Edwin Moses, great Olympian, equal in stature to an Armstrong or any other high-profile athlete. And they weren’t coming after him because the strategy is not to make global icon versus global icon. It’s, find the sport bureaucrat, the person making the decision, and that happened to be my role. I accept that. I just continue to focus with the team on what the evidence is and our effort to pursue getting to the truth. So, it doesn’t become personal at all. And it shouldn’t.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with the head of USADA, Travis Tygart. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about advances in testing and also — horse racing.
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LEVITT: This week’s listener question comes from Krista Goss and Krista writes, “Hi, Steve, thank you so much for this podcast. I look forward to it every week. I especially love the episode with Daniel Kahneman. As a mom of a two-and-a-half year old, I found the observations about persuasion and decision making really clarifying. It definitely helped explain why my usual efforts to convince my daughter to eat her dinner — ‘It’s delicious. It’s good for you. You can have ice cream after,’ — always fail. And why, when I take the opposite approach — ‘It’s my food and I’m not sharing,’ and ‘I’m going to eat it all up,’ works every time. Along those lines, it made me wonder what would happen if we did the same thing for Covid-19 vaccinations. What if we told every American in the U.S. that they had until July 4 to claim their free vaccination, and any unused vaccinations would be shipped overseas? I suspect that it would trigger that base childish desire to claim what we feel is ours and to prevent others from taking it. What do you think?” So, Krista, what do I think of your idea? I love it, I absolutely love it. It is so simple and so absurd that I think it would really work. Now, I don’t think it’d be a very popular policy, but I also think that it would lead to a stampede at the vaccination sites. We just need to figure out how to convince the Biden administration that it’s a great idea. Please send me your questions, the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I can’t promise you I’ll love your idea as much as I love Krista’s, but I do promise that I read every email that’s sent.
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LEVITT: Before I started the interview with Travis, I said, “I have to use my time wisely, not spending it all on Lance Armstrong.” Well, I did a pretty lousy job in that regard. But honestly, I was just so riveted by the story I didn’t want to stop. So consequently now in the second half, I’m going to have to bombard Travis with questions because I’m not letting him go until he explains all the cutting-edge techniques in doping detection. And also, I’m really eager to hear what USADA’s strategy is for protecting my own personal favorite athletes, thoroughbred horses, when USADA takes over responsibility for horse doping next year.
LEVITT: So, I’ve heard radical proposals for overhauling the detection of doping. The first one, which I’m sure you hate, is just to legalize everything, to let athletes do whatever they want, even if those actions are self-harming. And am I right? You think that’s a terrible idea?
TYGART: I do. But that’s honestly not my call, right? At the end of the day, if sport and society say that’s what we’re going to do, we’ll shut down and go find something different to do. I think the negative outcomes would all be devastating to sport and sport is a valuable institution, maybe one of the last institutions that is supposed to be a teacher of life lessons to kids.
LEVITT: So, look, I don’t think it would be a good idea either. But I think on many dimensions we do already allow kids to destroy themselves. Bulking up to 300 pounds can’t be a good idea for football players. And competitive gymnasts and ballerinas being as thin as models — seems like that can’t be good for the young women involved. But we don’t ban it because it doesn’t involve external features. It doesn’t involve the taking of drugs. For me, the line is hazy. Obviously, what I think you’re saying is, “Look, that’s not my job. I’m a police officer. I’m an enforcer of a set of rules, which have been put out by governments or by the agencies that govern these sports. And my job is just, if something’s prohibited, to try to detect it.” But I do think that there’s a deeper philosophical question floating around in the background about where to draw those lines.
TYGART: To go a little bit deeper on legalizing it — so, it’s entertainment. They’re adults. We have metal bats in baseball at some levels and wood bats. Sport evolves. And this is a way just to evolve human performance. I basically come down to four points. Number one, there is this responder versus non-responder issue. Some people, based on their natural, physiological reaction, respond well to the drugs. Others don’t respond to it. And this is one of the biggest arguments that elite-level athletes make. They say, “Look, if I’m not a natural responder to human growth hormone, for example, but someone else is, they’re going to get the position on the team. That’s not really fair. That takes out my hard work. That takes out my sacrifice.” The second point is the arms race. Cheating athletes aren’t going to be satisfied with 100 C.C.’s of testosterone if they think 200 C.C.’s is going to help them. And 200 C.C.’s is not going to be good enough either if they think 500 is going to help them. And soon, you push them into an area where they’re going to be making individual choices, or maybe with doctors, maybe with coaches, how you maximize the use of the drugs to maximize your performance. And I think you’re going to see them cross that line in dangerous ways. And sport then becomes, get best responder, then get the best chemists who can create a special drug for you to maximize your performance in a safe and healthy way. The third point is the marketability and value of that type of sport. We like watching humans ride up in the Tour de France, not robots. But you could artificially enhance humans to the point where it’s not sport. It’s cyborgs going up the mountain. What’s interesting is as I sit on my couch and watch a basketball game, I’m thrilled knowing that, hey, I used to do that. Oh, if I just use some H.G.H., maybe I could be in the N.B.A. today? That’s not what we want to see. And then, the last one is the trickle-down effect. And yeah, your point about offensive linemen in high school getting up to 300 pounds — they put themselves in potentially unhealthy situations. I think the trickle-down effect of using performance-enhancing drugs — if you have to do it to make the elite-level, you’re going to have to do it to make the high-school level, and then the junior-high level. And before you know it, parents at eight and 10-year-old soccer are saying, “What drugs work for your kid? Or don’t work for your kid?” And that creates an environment that is really unhealthy and not one that we want to go down.
LEVITT: So, the second proposal was made by Aaron Zelinsky many years ago while he was a Yale law student. His idea is just to require that blood and urine samples be kept for 30 years with the understanding that these samples will be retested as future doping detection technologies emerge with athletes stripped of their titles if we can figure out they cheated in the past. And this to me seems like a really good solution, where you’re fighting such an uphill battle because the detection technology always lags behind the cheating technology. So, what do you think of this idea?
TYGART: Well, that concept is incorporated into the current program. We store samples for retesting. There is a 10 year — so, not a 30 year, but a 10-year statute of limitation. We hold on to blood and urine samples that we collect for that period of time and can retest those as technologies develop in the future. I guess I would challenge a little bit your assumption that we’re behind. You look at some of the sophisticated doping schemes — most recently, Russia, a state-sponsored scheme with money from the state, law enforcement, military intelligence officers, the former KGB, now the FSB involved, and that’s been exposed by the testing. So, it was Yuliya Stepanov who ultimately got a sanction for two years, who then came forward as a whistleblower. And look, we are limited by the science. That said, we had our first annual research symposium in 2001 in Denver, Colorado. And we identified at the time, four different major drugs or methods that there was no test for. There was no test for human growth hormone. There was no test for E.P.O. There was no test for designer steroids. And there was no test for blood transfusions. In part, sport didn’t want a test for it. They were ambivalent. And you remember baseball — we love the home run. Let’s profit from it and watch it. As long as it’s not leaked or exposed in the media to make the brand look bad, who really cares? You now fast forward — and even Lance Armstrong in his interview with Oprah acknowledged this — in ’09 and ’10 he was convinced he would be caught and claimed that he wasn’t doping at that time because of the advancements in the testing. And you look at it today, we now have solutions. Human growth hormone test is available, E.P.O. test is available designer steroid test is available, and the athlete biological passport that looks at both urine and blood parameters. Honestly, if you’re in the Olympic movement under our testing program and ones that are similarly run like this around the world, you are a fool to attempt to get away with it today. Because you’re going to get caught. And you’re going to get exposed. And you’re going to get a lengthy suspension.
LEVITT: One of the things I love about keeping those samples around is that it just imposes a huge psychological cost on cheaters. If I cheat and get away with it, and I know it’s done, then I’m in pretty good shape. But if I win, and I have it hanging over my head for the next decade that any day a change in technology is going to reveal that I cheated, that seems to me to be one of the most powerful deterrent effects you could ever hope for.
TYGART: You’re spot on, Steven. And that’s why it’s there, right? You want that deterrent effect. And, while the sort of shame part of it and the fear part of it, if someone is intentionally cheating and benefiting from it, you want them always to have to look over their shoulder and know that at any point, the truth is going to come out. You know, we would love to put our results management process out of business, right? We have no more cases because that means no athletes are choosing to intentionally cheat. I think the reality is on a deterrent model, that there’s going to be a certain percentage that even if the risk of getting caught is 100 percent, if there are rewards associated with it, some people are going to try to take that risk. Our research suggests there’s 10 to 20 percent that are never gonna cheat. They’ll quit the sport if they feel like that’s the only way they can win. You have another 40 percent, sort of the deterrables. You can deter them if you build the system in a way that catches them, and the cost-benefit analysis to them is not worth. But then, you’re going to have a small percentage — who knows what it ultimately is — 10, 12 percent of people that, hey, if there’s 1-percent chance they think they can get away with it, they’re going to try to get away with it. And we have to make sure that they’re not successful in doing that.
LEVITT: The athlete biological passport, to me, is one of those really awesome innovations that changes the nature of the game. Could you just explain quickly what that is and why it’s so effective?
TYGART: So, it’s a tool that we’ve been using where we test an individual athlete numerous times, over time. And then we compare the test results, basically their biological markers, both in the urine and in the blood — we compare them to themselves, as opposed to the general population over time. And so the easiest example I typically give is, for those of us who get their cholesterol tested, if you go in on day one, to your doctor and it’s good, let’s say. Doctor says, “Hey, you’re doing great stuff. You’re not eating fatty food. You’re not smoking. You’re not drinking. Great job. Keep it up.” If you go back 60 days later and get your cholesterol tested and it’s bad, your doctor’s going to say, “Wait a minute. You, obviously, have been smoking and drinking and eating fatty food and not exercising because your cholesterol marker has gone through the roof.” That’s the basic concept. And we look at dozens of markers in the blood and in the urine, steroid numbers, E.P.O. numbers, hematocrit, which is percentage of red blood cells. Other markers, that over time, if they fluctuate in certain percentages, you know that something is going on that’s not natural. And you can rule out any other environmental factors that might be causing those fluctuations and you can hone it in on — hey, the only way you get this 35-40 percent increase in your hematocrit from day one to day 15 is because you’ve been blood doping or you’ve used E.P.O. So, it automatically can trigger a case. And it’s become a very effective component of the toolbox to best detect and deter athletes from cheating.
LEVITT: So, here’s what I’m confused by. Obviously, the Russians got caught. That was a massive doping program going on for years and years. And it required a whistleblower to open it up. And it seems like much of your success comes from whistleblowers rather than from the testing itself. But it sounds to me like you’re saying, “No, the testing is so good we don’t even need whistleblowers. Cause we’ll catch them anyway.”
TYGART: I’m for sure not saying that. I’m saying there’s a toolkit. And the arsenal of tools that we have to combat it, when done properly and combined together is really powerful. And testing absolutely is a key element of that. And of course, it can be better. And of course, we want a simple, pregnancy-type test that could tell us if you’ve ever doped, and if you ever will dope. We don’t have that but we’re pushing for that. But the combination of testing and intelligence gathering and whistleblowers. We had over 500 tips to our Play Clean line last year that allowed us then to both investigate where appropriate and test where the information was credible. And we had a major increase in our positivity rate based on testing. The saving of samples that I mentioned, and retesting — that’s a key component. That type of program is what gives athletes the confidence that their decision to compete clean is the right decision. They get sometimes compelled when they think, “Oh, the person next to me is not being tested or is getting away with cheating so I can get away with it too.” But today, athletes know, “Hey, we’ve all agreed to these norms. There’s benefit to these norms of not cheating.” And you don’t step out and cheat because you’re going to pay a heavy cost if you do.
LEVITT: So, let me switch to equine athletes. In the news lately, because of the Medina Spirit positive test for doping in the Kentucky Derby, which is really shocking. Both because it’s the premier race — and Bob Baffert, one of the premier trainers in horse racing. And then we get this positive test. If I understand correctly, a law was passed in 2020 which is going to hand over control of doping in horse racing to USADA in 2022?
TYGART: We still have to reach an agreement with a new organization set up under that legislation, the Horse Integrity Safety Act, but yes, come July 1 of 2022 we will be responsible for implementing the independent national anti-doping and medication control program in the sport of thoroughbred horse racing.
LEVITT: Historically, this has all been done by state boards that are working relatively independently. I’m surprised that the sport of horse racing would want to give up control. I mean, we’ve talked about how the cycling authorities don’t want to give up control. Was this forced upon the horse racing industry or did they volunteer to give up control of this doping issue?
TYGART: You’re exactly right. Thirty-eight different state racing commissions that have their own individual rules, protocols for the labs, testing, methodologies, legal processes, and none of the states wanted to give up any control, quite frankly, even though many of the rules were antiquated. I’ve said it before, I could get on my son’s Thomas the Train and drive through the loopholes in many of those rules. But what slowly began to happen was people within the industry, who were concerned about the health and welfare of the animals, as well as many who didn’t want to have to cheat in order to win, recognize that these drugs, just like many other sports without an effective regulatory system, were penetrating and allowing cheaters to win. There were some indictments that came out in March of 2020, last year, from the F.B.I. and the U.S. Attorney’s office and they charged some very high-level vets, trainers, and exposed the dark side. And then there was a rash of deaths in Southern California and there was a movement to potentially put a referendum out to the public to vote on whether horse racing should continue in the state or not. And so, there was a groundswell of industry people that came together, went to Congress, came to us, to force the industry to a large extent to accept the legislation and get it passed, as it was last year, and signed into law. Now, that doesn’t mean everybody in the industry wants it to happen. In fact, there’s been some lawsuits filed by certain groups to stop it. But at this point we’re moving forward with building the infrastructure in order to have an effective program in thoroughbred horse racing.
LEVITT: So, a lot of people probably don’t realize that USADA, your group, is a privately funded organization. I think many people would have expected it was part of the government, which it is not. In horse racing, who pays for it?
TYGART: The states are currently paying for it. And obviously with the gambling market, the states get money to run these programs for the good of horse racing. Hopefully, as well, to protect its integrity. Because it has a major impact on the betting market. If you’re playing by a different set of rules, it’s not open and transparent than it’s skewing the market to those that have that information. And the hope is it’s going to clean that up, help welfare and safety for horses, and give owners and trainers the opportunity to do it the right way and still win and compete at their best.
LEVITT: What I find interesting about this application versus with human athletes is these horses, of course, have no choice. They’re being subjected to these drugs. And I know that oftentimes people have a mixed reaction to USADA’s role because you’re the bearer of bad news, but I suspect that you’ll be in a much more popular position catching cheats in horse racing because nobody likes people who hurt other people with their cheating.
TYGART: Listen, I think you’re spot on. Equine animals and equine athletes are beholden to those that are entrusted to provide for their health, and their safety, and their welfare. And to see a naturally beautiful animal be abused in the way that some of these animals have been abused by giving them performance-enhancing drugs, it’s just a cruel and unusual situation that I think there should be a lot of sympathy for.
LEVITT: Absolutely. I think that it’s also a really interesting intellectual problem in the sense that there’ll be a richness to the data because of the structure of the way the industry works. So, a given trainer handles many horses and that will allow USADA, I think, to have the ability to look for patterns in a much more general sense than you’ve been able to look for with human athletes. And I suspect that the fingerprints of cheating will be — actually, maybe I’m making a pitch for myself, cause I love these data detective problems. And I love horses. I’m volunteering my services to help you do some of the data detective work to try to suss out these patterns.
TYGART: Yeah. For sure. We obviously are familiar with your work and we’re in. What’s awesome in this industry is that because of the gambling market, the data is very available and it’s there. And so, us being able to tap into that and use it in a predictive fashion is going to be essential.
LEVITT: You obviously have a strong moral code. Is that something you were born with? Do you have any self-awareness about where your unusual devotion to morality comes from?
TYGART: It’s funny. I would hope that it’s not unusual. Maybe it doesn’t manifest itself in others in the news. And we see only those who don’t have a high moral code. But I think it’s an everyday trait and value that many people that I know and interact with certainly have. Certainly, my parents and my grandparents, my grandfather was a first-generation Lebanese-American. And he was hardworking and firmly believed in all the great things that America at the time stood for, and despite what he faced, continued to treat people as equals. And so, I think that obviously had a big influence on me. But I think it’s just the natural way that it’s supposed to be. And I’m sorry that we don’t celebrate that more in our society today. But it shouldn’t be that extraordinary.
LEVITT: I think it is extraordinary though. I don’t know if it’s human nature or the way we raise kids. But look, I just look at my own experience with sports. I played high school basketball. I know you played high school basketball. If I tried to take a charge, and I knew I wasn’t set, and the guy knocked me over, and they called a charge, I would never get up and say to the referee, “Oh, no. That was really — that was a blocking foul. You should give me the foul. That wasn’t fair.” When you played sports, were you inclined to actually tell the referee that you had committed a foul when you had? Or did you think it was okay to maybe fudge around the edges?
TYGART: So, rule wise, the referee makes that call, not the players. And maybe that’s a cop-out to say you play to the referee, but listen, I fought and competed and hustled as hard as anybody and would out-work and work smarter in training and baseball and basketball. But I’ll play to the ref. It wasn’t my role to make the call for the ref. If the ref asked, “Hey, did you touch first base, or did you tag up properly?” I wasn’t going to lie. But I didn’t necessarily feel like it was under the rules of my obligation to tell either. I think what’s really important here at USADA with our elite-level athletes, it can’t be one of those things where you’re a do-gooder and have integrity or ethics written on the back of your jersey because those are the teams that get lit up by 100 points in a high school basketball game. That’s not a really good sell. Winning of course in our society is important, but what’s more important is winning the right way. And so, yes, it’s being competitive. And yes, it’s working hard. And yes, it’s enjoying victory, but not by cheating or through some fraud that allows you to become the champion.
LEVITT: If I were a doper, Travis Tygart would give me nightmares. And if we really manage to team up on horse racing, USADA with all its tricks and me, maybe able to find one or two hidden insights buried in the data, crooked horse trainers better look out. To listen to Lance Armstrong’s interview with Stephen Dubner, it’s Freakonomics Radio episode number 342 called “Has Lance Armstrong Finally Come Clean?”
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levey is our producer and Dan Dzula is the engineer; our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Brent Katz, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
TYGART: We have an inline roller skater, who was a minor, whose dad and coach had him on one of the most sophisticated doping programs we’ve ever seen. I — we didn’t even know it was a sport under our jurisdiction.