UFC and USADA significantly revamp anti-doping policy to better address contaminated supplements

Ken Pishna
MMA Weekly
Dana White and Jeff Novitzky - Jon Jones scrum
Dana White and Jeff Novitzky - Jon Jones scrum

The UFC's anti-doping policy nearly cost them their UFC 244 main event when Nate Diaz tested positive for trace amounts of a banned substance. The problem with that scenario wasn't that Diaz was caught cheating, it was that he was caught with a substance that showed up in non-performance-enhancing trace amounts caused by a contaminated multivitamin.

The UFC and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) had already been far into the process of revamping the UFC Anti-Doping Policy at that point, so they were able to manage the situation and keep Diaz's fight with Jorge Masvidal intact, but it was a high-profile example of the ever-changing landscape of anti-doping, which led the two entities on Monday to reveal significant changes.

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While the UFC Anti-Doping Policy, administered by USADA, was a game-changer for catching fighters trying to gain a performance-enhancing advantage, anti-doping analytical abilities have evolved to allow laboratories to see lower and lower levels of substances in an athletes’ urine or blood sample, according to USADA.

On the one hand, these are great advancements to detect low levels of prohibited substances from intentional use. On the other hand, this ability has also detected trace levels of substances in an athlete’s system that are there not from intentional doping but from completely innocent sources of contamination and which have not provided any performance advantage. 

Why did the UFC and USADA revamp the UFC Anti-Doping Policy?

In USADA's UFC and Olympic programs, they have shown scientifically that many trace-level positive cases have resulted from athletes consuming contaminated meat, medications, and nutritional products like multivitamins.

“We are really excited about the evolution of the UFC program and hope it becomes the model for all sports that truly want to protect the rights of clean athletes,” said USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart. “For several years, we have pushed for change to ensure that athletes can trust the food, medications, and supplements they use without fear of being treated like intentional, hard core cheaters. We expect these changes to go a long way in allowing this to happen and to show athletes who compete clean that their decisions will be supported and validated.”

The more sensitive analytical abilities necessitated the need for a policy change to deal with athletes who are caught in the web of contaminants, which amongst other changes, was something that was addressed on Monday.

What changed in the UFC Anti-Doping Policy?

The most significant change made to the policy to more justly address certain trace-level laboratory findings is the establishment of the UFC Prohibited List and the inclusion of evidence-based decision concentration levels for substances that have shown to be consistent with contamination throughout the global anti-doping system. In this regard, the UFC Prohibited List has been amended to incorporate the WADA Prohibited List except for these specifically identified substances which will have decision concentration levels.

The list of identified substances that will now have low-level decision concentration levels means that USADA will treat athletes’ samples that contain those substances below the decision concentration levels as atypical findings. An atypical finding will result in additional testing and/or investigation. These atypical findings are not treated as violations absent more evidence showing that the athlete intentionally or recklessly consumed a product causing the atypical finding.

This is what happened in Nate Diaz's case. His sample showing an atypical result was further tested and shown to have been caused by an organic, vegan, plant-based daily multivitamin, which is why he was cleared to fight by the UFC, USADA, and the New York State Athletic Commission.

In addition, under the UFC Prohibited List, IV infusions/injections over 100 mL are now only permitted if they are determined to be medically justified and within the standard of care by a licensed physician and administered by a licensed medical professional. The change to the rule is designed to provide athletes access to the medically-required care they need, while ensuring they are unable to manipulate the rule to gain an unfair advantage.

How can UFC athletes steer clear of contaminated substances?

The UFC Anti-Doping Policy also now includes a definition of Certified Supplements to recognize the value of third-party supplement certification. In April, USADA announced that the NSF Certified for Sport program meets the essential criteria for a third-party certifier set forth in a consensus paper and is available to athletes to reduce their risk if they choose to use supplements. While USADA continues to recognize and recommend only NSF Certified for Sport for its domestic, U.S.-based programs, the UFC rules recognize additional third-party certifiers recommended in other parts of the world given the organization’s global athlete population. 

All UFC athletes will be directed to use only those supplements certified by one of the following accredited certification agencies: NSF Certified For SportKolner Liste (Cologne List), Informed Sport Trusted by Sport, HASTA (Human and Supplement Testing Australia), and BSCG (Banned Substance Control Group).

Absent other evidence of doping, where an athlete’s positive sample is caused by either a certified supplement, or other environmental contamination (such as food, water or prescription medication), the athlete will not be sanctioned under the UFC Anti-Doping Policy.

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“Putting forth a fair anti-doping program with due process protection is integral to having a strong and comprehensive program,” said UFC Senior VP of Athlete Health and Performance, Jeff Novitzky.  “A combination of the pervasiveness of low level contaminates in our environment and the increased levels of testing sensitivity of anti-doping laboratories has created an explicit need for decision concentration levels to ensure that the program is penalizing intentional cheaters and not those athletes who have been faithfully adhering to the anti-doping policy.”

Added Hunter Campbell, UFC Chief Business Officer, “UFC and USADA remain committed to the dynamic landscape of anti-doping and will continue to comprehensively review the UFC Anti-Doping Policy, together with independent experts and state athletic commissions, to ensure it remains the most effective and comprehensive anti-doping program in all of professional sports and provides fairness and due process to all UFC athletes.”

A copy of the UFC Anti-Doping Policy can be found at ufc.usada.org.

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