Doping in Triathlon

The recent BBC Panorama program and David Epstein’s article on ProPublica has led many to ask, what about doping in triathlon?

First off, no one involved in high level sport was surprised at all the information about the Nike Oregon Project’s way of working that became public last week. It wasn’t news to those paying attention. In the last decade or so, an unusual number of rumors surrounding the work of Alberto Salazar came out in the mainstream media.  (Here, and here are a couple links worth following).

The courage that it took for Steve Magness and the Gouchers to come forward with their testimony and physical evidence should be commended. Given the huge role that Nike has in Athletics, it’s very difficult to speak out when you are still competing or working in the industry, for fear of retribution. Another former insider, John Cook, now mostly retired, had strong words to say about the issue and indicates that the problems with the NOP’s modus operandi are not new.

Does triathlon have a doping problem?

The answer is a definite yes. We have had Kona ChampionsOlympic champions and World Champions fail tests. In the mid to late 90s, and early 2000s, there is no doubt that triathlon suffered just like all sports from the wide spread use of EPO when there was no test in place.

Some estimations from the Sydney and Athens Games would have 5 of the 12 medalists either test positive or be viewed as highly suspect of doping. Subsequent world medalists are also highly suspect. Informal conversations with athletes and coaches reveal most of these suspicions are common knowledge. Like we have learned with the Armstrong case and others, where there is smoke, there is usually fire.

It’s likely that triathlon has had all the same issues as cycling, swimming and all high level sports, with transfusions, micro-dosing, weight loss peptides, abuse of corticosteroids, etc. While triathlon is not as lucrative as cycling and many other sports, there is plenty of money to drive those who will cheat. Furthermore, doping is often not about money, but driven by ego. History, and age-group doping, remind us that ego is often incentive enough.


Triathlon has the additional problem of a large part of the sport governed by a for profit group. Recently, WTC have implemented an anti-doping program, but one has to question the impact of positive tests on the value of their business, and as a result how much motivation there is for clean sport versus maintaining a clean appearance.

Furthermore, it is worrying that WTC maintain “results management” in their anti-doping program, which technically allows them to sweep positive tests under the rug. Obviously, the question here is not if they’re guilty of hiding positive drug tests or not, but the glaring conflict of interest that this represents.

The ‘medals or bust’ attitude of many Olympic federations and corresponding messaging to the athletes creates an environment where the athletes suffer immense pressure to perform. With that comes the pressure to look for shortcuts to performance. Adding to this, having former dopers and/or those with known doping links in leadership positions at some of these organisations compounds the scope of the challenge triathlon faces. With the extremely top heavy, winner takes almost all approach to prize monies and sponsors, in addition to this incestuous & self serving governance, triathlon could easily find itself falling into a toxic doping culture.

As evidenced time and time again, passing anti-doping tests does not mean an athlete is clean. The passport system is a good step, but increasing evidence suggests that it can be manipulated. There are simply more resources going into beating the systems than WADA can manage to keep with. In addition, tests are designed to minimise false positives. Furthermore, WADA has been very slow moving to act on tightening these loopholes (like the TUE question), and in many cases they won’t even acknowledge their existence.

Thyroid medication, for example, has been highlighted as a problem for years already, but we have still not seen significant action to end its abusive use. The so called ‘grey zone’ is essentially a bullshit rationalisation. If you are ‘levelling up’ to thresholds via medications or any drugs for illnesses you don’t have, you are cheating via the spirit of the rules or directly via the rules. Based on all of this, non-analytical evidence is increasingly important and must be followed up vigorously.

For those within the sport, here are some signs which may be viewed suspiciously: 

1. Rapid increase in performance not consistently maintained over a period of time and not at all consistent with past performances or expected progressions.

2. Rapid weight loss, sustained, and followed by consistent performances.

3. Association and/or sympathetic stance with known dopers, suspect coaches, managers or groups with a known doping culture, such as pro cyclists.

4. Unexplained absences from high level racing followed by return at a high level of performance.

5. Extraordinary ability to race at a very high level over a long period of time, often with lots of travel involved.


It’s not all bad news for triathlon. The biggest differentiator for triathlon at the moment is that we don’t yet have the culture of acceptance, rationalisation and normalisation of doping practises. From my unique vantage point, having worked directly with many of the top athletes in the world past and present, whom I know via direct experience are competing clean, it’s still possible to win in triathlon at the highest levels without doping.

I’m sure some outsiders look at the success of our squad and speculate that our athletes may also be doping. A high level of skepticism is understandable, and I look at other sports the same way.  However, I know, as do many of our athletes past and present, that our way of working with it’s focus on simplicity and fundamentals is still effective at the highest levels. We don’t recommend any supplements, and our athletes have no long term TUEs.

When the day comes that I no longer believe we can be competitive and win clean, that day will be my last day in high level sport.

photo credit: Doping, cos’è l’ autoemotrasfusione via photopin (license)

About the Author

Joel Filliol is one of triathlon's most experienced and successful professional coaches. He has been involved in endurance sport since 1989 both as an athlete and coach. As a coach he has worked with athletes at the highest levels including at the Ironman and Ironman 70.3 World Championships, the ITU World Elite and Age Group Championships, and multisport games such as the Commonwealth, Pan American, and Olympic Games.