If you’re an elite athlete today and don’t want to risk being accused of doping, you might want to skip your medicine. Don’t eat liver the night before a race. In fact, consider dropping meat altogether. Maybe avoid sex, too. Tests required by the World Anti-Doping Agency are now so sensitive, they can pick up trace amounts of banned substances from unexpected sources.
When Brenda Martinez, an Olympian and one of the top track and field athletes in America, tested positive for a banned substance in September 2020, the source was a prescription drug that is not athletically performance-enhancing or even prohibited: an antidepressant. Her pills were contaminated with a diuretic that was not listed on the label and is not allowed. The episode almost derailed her career.
“I have worked hard my entire life to get everything I have, and then I got this test, which threatened to ruin it all,” she told me in an interview last week.
Ms. Martinez and other athletes who inadvertently test positive for banned substances face multiyear suspensions from their sport if they aren’t exonerated. Considering how small the window is for most athletes’ peak performance, that can be a career death sentence.
But even if these athletes are able to prove they are not at fault for taking a banned substance, their positive tests are made public. As part of its effort to curb cheating, WADA requires the announcement of elite athletes’ violations, even after an investigation determines that the athlete is not at fault for their positive test results. Ms. Martinez, who has campaigned throughout her career against doping in her sport, knew that her positive test could tarnish her reputation.
“The announcement broke me,” she said. “My nightmare came to life. I don’t want other clean athletes to have to go through this.”
WADA is re-examining its policy on how to treat test results that come back positive because of contaminants this month, and Ms. Martinez wants to share her story to help change the rules. She says that’s necessary to ensure the authorities protect clean athletes as they expose real cheaters.
To do that, she’s talking publicly about her depression for the first time. She wishes she didn’t have to tell the world about her mental health history to protect her reputation. But she hopes something good comes out of telling people.
“I hope that, moving forward, not one more of us clean athletes will have to go through what I did,” Ms. Martinez said. “It was too traumatic to take a medicine I needed, only to get punished.”
A system that harms the athletes it is designed to protect
To be sure, doping is a real problem in sports. Lance Armstrong and Russia’s state-sponsored doping are just a few famous examples.
But it’s clear that the system is harming some of the very athletes it is designed to protect. Improved technology detects trace levels of substances, like hormones and diuretics that can enter our bodies unintentionally through food, medicine and contact. (If this makes you concerned about the food you’re ingesting, good.)
“More and more, innocent athletes meet everyday common sources that cause positives, whether it’s meat or allowable medication,” said Travis Tygart, the head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. “They are getting railroaded by the system.”
The agency alone has processed 28 proven no-fault cases since 2016.
A spokesperson for WADA told me that it has set up a working group to assess the risk of contaminants appearing in medicine or food, including meats, and recommend levels under which those contaminants do not need to be reported by WADA-accredited laboratories. The group has compiled recommendations that WADA will consider as it re-examines its policy this month.
WADA should change its rules to better protect athletes. That means creating new substance thresholds and not treating athletes like Ms. Martinez who test positive for trace amounts of these substances as guilty until a full investigation has been completed.
One model lies in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where the policy targets eight banned substances and sets thresholds for each one. It allows athletes who test positive for levels below those thresholds to continue their careers while further testing and investigation are underway.
‘It was hard for me to admit I needed help’
The culprit in Ms. Martinez’s test result was a diuretic called hydrochlorothiazide that contaminated her antidepressant. Typically used to treat high blood pressure, hydrochlorothiazide can serve as a masking agent for other banned substances. It was not listed on the medication’s label; she discovered that the substance was in the pills only after the remnants of the bottle were sent to a lab for analysis.
Ms. Martinez’s depression began after the 2016 Rio Olympics. She tripped in the trials for her main event, the 800 meters — a devastating blow. She regrouped and raced in the 1,500 meters instead, qualifying by 0.03 seconds. She ran well in her Olympic race, but an old injury flared up, and she missed the next world championship final. Then she learned that she was going to get a medal upgrade because a Russian doper had robbed her of a silver medal in the 800-meter race at the 2013 World Championships.
“Together it all became a lot to take,” she said. “This was not what I worked for. It wasn’t how I planned it.”
At first she felt angry. Then she grew exhausted. She didn’t want to run anymore. Then she couldn’t get out of bed.
A doctor prescribed her medication, which helped. But she kept her struggles to herself; only her doctor, her husband and two people at her sponsor, New Balance, knew about her depression and the medicine.
“It was hard for me to admit I needed help,” she said, “and I didn’t want to add any stress to anyone else’s life and worry them about me.”
Ms. Martinez grew up in Southern California and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants — a preschool teacher and a landscaper. When she showed promise as an athlete, her parents paid for her travel to meets by selling tamales they stayed up late to make after their day jobs. Her mother took another job to pay track club dues.
Ms. Martinez earned a scholarship to the University of California, Riverside, 20 minutes from home, and was a three-time all-American. But after college, she struggled to find a coach and was rejected by two Olympic development teams. Her husband gave up his running career and worked temporary jobs in demolition to pay their rent while she pursued her Olympic dream. Now she runs free sports camps for high school girls.
‘Sometimes it seems like they’re taking the approach of “Let’s try and ban as many athletes as we can.”’
Ms. Martinez is not the only athlete to get a surprising doping test result. A member of the Olympic softball team and an Olympic hopeful boxer tested positive, only to find out that they’d been exposed to banned substances through sex with their partners.
In 2018 a 90-year-old man in Indiana named Carl Grove, who set an age-group world record in cycling, tested positive for a metabolite of the anabolic steroid trenbolone. He lost the record and his national title and was issued a warning. The steroid was almost certainly in a liver dish he ate before the race.
The American Olympic long jumper Jarrion Lawson, the first man since Jesse Owens to win the 100 meters, 200 meters and long jump at the same N.C.A.A. championships, had a similar experience. After he ate a beef teriyaki bowl at a Japanese restaurant in Arkansas in 2018, he also tested positive for a metabolite of trenbolone.
His agent, Paul Doyle, tracked down the restaurant’s beef supplier, which said it collected beef from farms that, like many farms across America, treated cows with trenbolone to make them grow. Because Mr. Lawson could not recover an exact sample of the beef he’d eaten before the test, he was exonerated in part through old text messages about what he wanted to have for lunch that day and a receipt the restaurant had retained. But he lost 19 months of competition to a provisional suspension while he fought the charge.
“Had he ordered the chicken bowl instead of the beef bowl, he would have saved himself $2 million and his reputation,” said Mr. Doyle, referring to losses from sponsor contracts, competition earnings and legal fees. “It’s very frustrating. Sometimes it seems like they’re taking the approach of ‘Let’s try and ban as many athletes as we can.’”
After she got her positive result, Ms. Martinez had trouble sleeping and barely ate, driving an hour to practice with her husband, only to sit in the car and cry. She stopped running for more than a month.
“I felt like I let everyone down,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be alive. We are going to lose everything.’”
Fortunately, Ms. Martinez’s worst fears did not come to pass: A few months after her positive test, she was cleared of wrongdoing. Her sponsor stood by her. Now she has another chance at the Olympics.
Her first race since the test was on Sunday. She ran one of her fastest season openers ever.
“Compared to last fall, racing doesn’t scare me anymore,” she said. “I’ve been through harder things.”
Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is a writer and producer in Opinion. She produced the Emmy-nominated Opinion Video series “Equal Play,” which brought widespread reform to women’s sports.
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