USADA backs supplement program for athletes

The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has announced its official recognition of NSF Certified for Sport dietary supplements as lower-risk products, in an effort to help curb the number of contaminated supplement cases under its jurisdiction.

The announcement falls short of granting full immunity to an athlete if he or she were to fail a drug test due to a contaminated NSF Certified for Sport supplement -- but according to USADA CEO Travis Tygart, such a case would be extremely rare and considered in any potential punishment.

"Hopefully, with this recommendation, athletes are only going to be using these lower-risk supplements," Tygart told ESPN. "Major League Baseball has used NSF Certified for Sport as its exclusive third-party certifier over the last decade or so, and they have not had a single positive test come from those supplements.

"I think in the event an athlete were to prove they only used NSF Certified for Sport products and proved that is where the positive test came from and there was no performance-enhancing benefit, they could go all the way down to a public warning, which is the baseline sanction."

Today's combination of ultra-sophisticated drug testing methods and an unregulated supplement market has led to a significant number of cases in which athletes are found to have failed a test due to the use of a nonbanned -- but contaminated -- supplement.

The issue has been particularly prevalent in the UFC, which partnered with USADA in mid-2015. According to the UFC, there have been 75 announced sanctions under the UFC anti-doping program, 27 of which were determined to be caused by nonintentional use. That accounts for 36 percent.

Just last month, USADA announced the resolution of four cases in which athletes tested positive for the banned substance Ostarine in trace amounts consistent with contaminated supplements. Each athlete accepted a six-month sanction, however, three of the four cases took longer than six months to adjudicate.

According to Tygart, no method of supplement use is risk-free. A recent article published by USADA, MLB, UFC and the U.S. Department of Defense, however, laid out certain criteria for a third-party certification program, all of which is met by NSF Certified for Sport, meaning USADA views it as a relatively safe product.

"On the UFC side, we're only three years into the program," Tygart said. "If you don't know any better, and your coaches or your team is pushing a certain supplement, and you can walk into a store in the U.S. and purchase it over the counter, you just assume they're safe. And unfortunately, that's not the reality of the market.

"We're trying to give our athletes a real tool to make a smart decision."

According to Tygart, USADA is also in favor of the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) establishing more threshold limits for certain banned substances.

Laboratory-testing measures have evolved to the point of detecting substances by picograms/milliliter, or one-trillionth of a gram per milliliter. Establishing a threshold of what constitutes a positive test, as opposed to a simple positive/negative, could help mitigate cases caused by contamination.

Tygart said USADA is open to setting those thresholds itself if need be.

"We've seen water contamination cases, meat contamination, supplement contamination," Tygart said. "We've had half a dozen contaminated medication cases. This is a medication that does not contain a prohibited substance, coming from reputable pharmacies. The issue is laboratories' ability to see 1,000-fold lower levels of these substances, which athletes are picking up through other areas that are not indicative of intentional cheating.

"We've been pushing WADA as best as we possibly can to understand and appreciate these issues. We've wanted to wait on WADA, and again, I think recommending this third-party certified supplements cures the problem to a certain extent. We would love for WADA to take leadership on setting thresholds, but at the end of the day, we're going to do what's right for the athletes within the programs where we have that flexibility."