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UFC's Recent USADA Failures Highlight Dangers of Supplement Use

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterFebruary 9, 2016

Yoel Romero reacts after defeating Ronaldo Souza in a middleweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 194, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

One aspect of the UFC's stringent drug-testing policy, administered by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, has come under a bright spotlight. In recent weeks, two high-profile drug failure cases—Yoel Romero and Tim Means—have been attributed by the accused parties to tainted supplements.

The unregulated supplement industry as a whole is akin to the Wild West. Hundreds of products sold at health and wellness stores such as GNC contain ingredients that are not listed on the label.

The United States Food and Drug Administration keeps a database of supplements that are known to be tainted. The list includes everything from products listed as weight loss aids that contain hidden sexual performance drugs to muscle-building supplements that contain banned steroids.

Means was scheduled to fight next weekend in the main event of a UFC event in Pittsburgh but was removed from the fight when USADA informed him that he'd tested positive for a banned substance during a random pre-fight drug test.

He later said that the illegal substance flagged by USADA was ostarine, a SARM (selective androgen receptor modulator) that is known in the bodybuilding community as one of the most powerful anabolic agents available.

Ostarine has been found in over-the-counter supplements, and lawsuits have been filed against companies alleged to have mismarketed products that contain it.

Romero, one of the UFC's top middleweights, claims that a tainted supplement also led to his failure. Romero's manager Malki Kawa told The MMA Hour that a supplement Romero took after his December win over Ronaldo Souza contained a substance that was not on the ingredients list.

Kawa also said that his team and USADA sent the substance for testing, and the banned ingredient Romero failed for was discovered in it.

USADA will not comment on cases that are ongoing.

But the news surrounding both cases has caused plenty of questions to be asked about the supplements fighters take and, more importantly, what happens when athletes truly believe they have ingested a banned substance without their knowledge.

First and foremost, USADA's policy on supplements is a simple one. It amounts to this: You are responsible for what you put into your own body.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 10:  Tim Means celebrates his win over John Howard in their welterweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at The Chelsea at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on December 10, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

All fighters on the UFC roster are required to go through USADA's education process, and during those classes, the volatile and unknown nature of supplements is directly addressed. USADA's educators continually stress that the industry is unregulated and there is no way to know what is actually in the product you are ingesting.

USADA's official stance on supplements of any kind is that "there is little, if any, evidence to support the need for supplement use."

The agency also maintains a comprehensive supplement website for athletes enrolled in its program called Supplement 411. USADA's stance on supplements is reiterated multiple times on the website. There are pages explaining why dietary supplements are bad for you alongside stories that explain why supplement labels might be misleading.

A video on one page explores advertising claims made by supplement makers and explains why "Guaranteed Steroid Free" might be anything but. There is also a list of supplements USADA considers to be high-risk.

If an athlete is adamant about using a supplement, there are avenues to ensure the product is as safe as possible. But contrary to popular belief, USADA does not maintain a pre-screening process for athletes curious about a supplement they want to use. In order to pre-screen a supplement, the athlete must use a third-party supplement-testing agency such as NSF International or LGC Informed Sport.

USADA does not endorse any third-party testing agency, however, which means any results produced by them will carry very little weight in the sanctioning process.

According to USADA CEO Travis Tygart, the athlete is still ultimately responsible for what he or she uses, even if they use a product containing a substance that is unlabeled and "contaminated."

"Our position is that you should be fair-warned. Know what you are taking and why you are taking it," Tygart said.

So what happens if an athlete is able to demonstrate that their positive test came from a contaminated substance?

If Kawa is correct and Romero's supplement contained a hidden ingredient that he was flagged for, and if Means' camp can demonstrate that he, too, ingested a tainted supplement, then what? Both men would likely be given a two-year suspension for the test failure in normal circumstances.

Would the presence of an unlisted substance in a supplement they believed to be safe result in a reduction of the sentence or perhaps even negate it completely?

USADA has no hard and fast guidelines on circumstances like this, or at least none that Tygart is willing to offer.

Instead, there are multiple factorswhat Tygart refers to as "mitigating circumstances"taken into consideration when it comes time for the third-party judge overseeing the case to make a final decision.

Has the athlete in question gone through USADA's education program in its various forms, which include in-person classroom sessions and online help? Were they able to comprehensively prove the inclusion of a banned substance that was not listed in the ingredients?

"All of that will be considered when the judges ultimately decide what sanctions will be put in place," Tygart said. "And that is built into the rules to allow for a reduction or a mitigation."

The evidence in favor of the athlete must be sturdy. Tygart referenced the famous case of former Major League Baseball star Rafael Palmeiro, who claimed he'd been administered a tainted vitamin B-12 supplement after failing a test for stanozolol in 2005, as an example of a "tainted supplement" excuse that did not hold water.

"That was just an excuse. The proof was totally different," Tygart said. "It can't just be an athlete saying it came from a supplement they were using because we know that would be the excuse of every athlete any time they have a positive test for any prohibited substance."

Travis Tygart
Travis TygartGeert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press

The cases for Romero and Means are not expected to be wrapped up any time soon, and USADA will not discuss the particulars of each case until the process is over.

If they are able to provide sufficient evidence that they unknowingly ingested a tainted supplement that caused a test failure, each athlete could receive a shorter sanction length than expected.

But any punishment is still punishment. Any time spent on the sideline means missed opportunities to earn money.

If USADA's relentless random drug testing was enough to make an athlete think twice before using performance-enhancing drugs, then perhaps seeing punishments handed down for athletes who made the mistake of using tainted supplements will cause them to consider whether or not they really need that supplement they've been eyeing in the first place.

"We don't say 'Don't use supplements.' We tell them it's their decision," Tygart said. "But don't just use them because your coach says they will make you bigger or faster or stronger. Make an informed decision and be cautious. Do it the right way, both for your health and to ensure you don't have a positive test from it."

Jeremy Botter covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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