A layman’s guide to drug testing in the sport of swimming

Inspired by some comment-section discussion about the often-confusing world of official drug testing, we at SwimSwam decided to put together a quick, simplified version of the FINA and USADA (which runs USA Swimming’s doping control program) drug testing processes:

FINA Drug Testing Policy

Let’s begin with FINA, which regulates drug testing at the international level based on the rules of the World Anti-Drug Agency (WADA). FINA has two major avenues in which it tests – in-competition and out-of-competition.

In-Competition Testing

As its name would suggest, this is the type of testing done at and during meets. Now a quick note here: FINA is responsible for drug testing at all events it hosts, which includes World Championships and World Cup events. FINA also has a hand in drug testing at the Olympics and Youth Olympic Games, but collaborates heavily with the IOC, following its rules and procedures.

In competitions put on by one of FINA’s member federations (like USA Swimming or Swimming South Africa), that regional federation is responsible for drug testing. We’ll get to USA Swimming’s policies below.

For those FINA competitions, though, there are two ways an athlete can get drug tested:

  • A handful of athletes are selected for general testing before the competition. These would be close to what one might call “random” testing, because the athletes are supposed to be selected before the race or meet begins, though the word “random” itself doesn’t appear in the FINA rulebook.
  • Any athlete who breaks a World Record is immediately drug tested. No World Records are ratified until the athlete passes this drug test.*

*Note: if there is no FINA drug testing at a meet where an athlete breaks a World Record, the athlete is given a 24-hour window to submit to a drug test.

On top of that, FINA can also show up at non-FINA-hosted events to conduct what is known as “unannounced doping control.” FINA drug testers can conduct testing at events hosted by any of its member federations without giving the athletes or even the federation any advance notice.

This is presumably to keep the federations themselves from protecting their own athletes, but it also adds one more testing opportunity and extends the threat of being tested to a wider range of meets.

Out-of-Competition Testing

The other way athletes can be FINA-tested is through out-of-competition testing. The process goes like this:

A group of athletes are entered into the FINA Registered Testing Pool based on their athletic performance. Here are the criteria for who gets entered:

  • Swimmers ranked top 12 in the world in a long course event
  • Swimmers ranked top 8 in the world in a short course (meters) event
  • Divers ranked in the top 8 on 10m Platform or 3m Springboard
  • Divers who finished top 3 at the most recent World Championships or Olympic Games
  • Open Water Swimmers ranked in the top 8 of the 10K World Cup or the Open Water Grand Prix
  • Open Water Swimmers who finished top 3 at the most recent World Championships or Olympic Games
  • Synchronized Swimmers who finished top 3 in team, duet or solo at the most recent World Championships or Olympic Games
  • Water Polo teams that finished top 3 at the most recent World Championships or Olympic Games

Plus two more major categories:

  • Any international-level athlete currently serving a suspension
  • Any athlete making a return from retirement after leaving the pool

The pool is adjusted 4 times a year, so each quarter the pool of names looks different, with athletes moving in and out of the group.

For these athletes, some intensive registration is required to let FINA Doping Control know where they are and how to get in contact with them at all times for the upcoming quarter. These athletes also have to give FINA a daily 60-minute window where they will be available for unannounced testing. This can be at practice, at work, at home or wherever the athlete wishes, but FINA can arrive at the specified location during that hour unannounced at any point to drug test the athlete.

Missing one of these tests or failing to file the whereabouts paperwork properly can count as as strike against an athlete. Three strikes equals a doping violation, though just one missed test or paperwork can be classified as a failed test if it’s determined to be an athlete refusing a drug test or otherwise trying to tamper with the drug testing process.

You can read FINA’s entire doping control policy here.

USA Swimming Drug Testing policy (Run by USADA)

For our American-based audience, let’s take a quick look at how USA Swimming tests, which is set up quite similarly to FINA’s system.

(We’ve since updated this section to better reflect USADA’s role in the doping control process. USA Swimming does not have its own, separate drug testing program – its doping control efforts are run by USADA, the national body that regulates all drug testing for all Olympic sports.)

USA Swimming’s doping control program is entirely run by USADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees all the major drug testing in the country’s Olympic and Paralympic sports.

Once again, there are distinct categories for in-competition testing and out-of-competition.

In-Competition Testing

USA Swimming tests swimmers at its major competitions. Typically, the testing slots are determined before the meet for each event to try to get a random sampling of swimmers. For example, the 3rd-place finisher in the women’s 100 back might be pre-selected as a doping control subject – then whoever happens to finish in that position will be notified after the race that they need to be drug tested.

As we mentioned in the FINA section, an athlete can also be tested by FINA at a USA Swimming meet, though USA Swimming itself is responsible for the brunt of doping control efforts at its own meets.

Out-of-Competition Testing

Like FINA, USA Swimming has its own pool of athletes who must provide whereabouts information and be regularly available for drug testing. USA Swimming’s qualifications to enter the pool are below:

  • U.S. National Team members
  • Athletes representing the U.S. at certain international competitions (meets like the Olympic Games, World Championships, World University Games or Pan Am Games.)
  • Any athlete in the FINA Registered Testing Pool (requirements outlined in the above section)

USA Swimming makes sure to point out that any USA Swimming-registered athlete is eligible to be tested outside of competition, but that athletes in this pool will be tested regularly. Athletes in the pool are subject to testing from WADA, FINA, or USADA, all of whom work independently of one another.

These athletes, too, file quarterly reports on their whereabouts to give drug testers the ability to find the athletes selected for testing. USA Swimming also uses the three-strike system for missed tests or paperwork filing failures.

You can read about USA Swimming’s Doping Control policy here.


Junior Athletes

Much discussion has centered on the testing of junior (under 18) athletes. As it stands now, there is no separate, special testing policy for juniors either under FINA or USA Swimming. However, that doesn’t mean that no junior athletes are tested – any athlete who qualifies for one of the above testing criteria can be tested whether they are under 18 or over.

Essentially, junior swimmers are treated exactly the same as senior swimmers – they are eligible for the same in-competition and out-of-competition testing based on their successes in the pool.

The only major difference is that less junior-centric meets hold in-competition doping control, and junior national teams aren’t subject to the same kinds of testing policies that overall national teams are. For example, the USA Swimming website announces its random, in-competition drug testing will take place at U.S. Nationals in August, but there is no mention of doping control on the event page for the Junior National Championships a week earlier. Of course, any junior swimmer good enough to place highly at senior nationals, or who qualifies to represent the U.S. internationally, will be subject to the same kinds of drug testing as any senior swimmer in the same position would be.

Other Testing

All of this discussion, of course, ignores the other avenues athletes can be tested through. Continuing on the topic of junior swimmers, high school swimming can have its own doping control policy, varying by state and school. The NCAA has its own set of drug testing policies that work much like FINA’s and USA Swimming’s with in-competition and out-of-competition testing that even stretches outside of NCAA competition season.

The current state of doping control seems to rely heavily on the threat of testing to deter athletes from using. With all of these various avenues for testing, an athlete who is knowingly doping seems to be taking a significant risk of being found out. Of course, all of these organizations test with different frequencies, and serve athlete pools of varying size, meaning some athletes can escape testing for long periods of time, while others undergo testing multiple times in a short span.

And as always, the list of things to test for continues to grow. Just this past weekend, WADA added Xenon and Argon gas to its banned list, more evidence that athletes continue to find new and improbable ways to gain physical advantages. The true test for modern drug testing, of course, is keeping up.

Leave a Reply

Notify of
1 Comment
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

anyone interested in the topic should read this http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/CFJ_10_2013_Doping_Warkentin5.pdf

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

Read More »