A 62-year-old Vista sprinter who tested positive for a banned testosterone treatment in 2015 has the green light to resume competing in May 2017 — a lighter penalty than originally feared.

Greg Pizza last week was handed a 20-month suspension after making his case before a three-member panel of the American Arbitration Association, which met June 15 at a closed session in San Diego.

Greg Pizza of Vista and the Orange County-based Southern California Striders shows off a medal won at a recent Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut. Photo by Ken Stone

The North County real-estate man at first was told he faced a four-year ban. But since he wasn’t found intentionally doping — cheating to get an unfair advantage — the maximum penalty is two years.

According to an 18-page report, Pizza contended that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA, and USA Track & Field “made no effort whatsoever to specifically warn masters athletes … about prohibited substances, despite the fact that those entities know or should know that these masters athletes are most likely to need and be prescribed these therapies by their doctors.”

Pizza (pronounced PIE-zuh) had tested positive for the banned substance after winning a bronze medal in the 100-meter dash in his age group at the USA Track & Field National Masters Championships in Jacksonville, Florida.

At the San Diego hearing, panelists heard from Pizza, teammates in the Orange County-based Southern California Striders and Amanda Scotti, co-publisher of Folsom-based National Masters News.

The panel accepted Pizza’s explanation that he was under the impression that bringing his testosterone level into the “normal” range would not be an anti-doping rule violation.

Joe Ruggless, a fellow M60 sprinter and president of Pizza’s Orange County-based track club, said he testified for about 10 minutes.

“The crux of it was that they wanted to know if Greg had ever mentioned to me that he was taking a doctor’s prescribed testosterone before the discovery at the drug test in Florida. My answer under oath was no,” Ruggless said.

Greg Pizza (in sunglasses) races red-wearing teammates of the Southern California Striders — club President Joe Ruggless (left) and Damien Leake. Photo by Ken Stone

“They asked me if I believed that there should be doping rules for masters or should they just let anyone take anything. I said no — there needs to be rules, but masters athletes need to be held to a different set of rules than a professional or elite athlete because an aging athlete sometimes require medications that are on the banned list to improve the quality of their life.”

Scotti, who is Pizza’s girlfriend, said in a comment posted on masterstrack.com that “Greg’s sanction was the minimum that the panel, under the rules, could hand out, a very satisfactory outcome and we are very grateful to the arbitration panel for all their hard work and their very reasonable decision.”

(On Aug.3, a USADA spokesman said the AAA panel had the authority to reduce his sanction to one year, instead of the 20 months he was given.)

The report also noted: “Respondent presented testimony that National Masters News, the print publication widely known in this community, has not been provided any anti-doping information to disseminate in the publication.”

Pizza and his witnesses also testified that they were “unaware of the details of the anti-doping rules,” the panel report said. “They were aware of other masters athletes having tested positive, but Respondent did not relate that to his taking prescribed supplements for hormone replacement.”

Arbitration decision in Greg Pizza case. (PDF)

Gary Snyder of Massachusetts, chairman of the USATF Masters Track & Field Committee, declined to comment on the case. Nor would Pizza, who said he was “off the record for personal reasons.”

But Jill Geer, chief public affairs officer of Indianapolis-based USATF, told Times of San Diego: “We have anti-doping educational sessions for masters at each USATF Annual Meeting.”

She also said anti-doping information is included on every USATF masters championship event website, at multiple seminars over the past several years as well as on entry forms for USATF masters championships.

“We continue to develop anti-doping education for all of our members,” she said.

At the hearing, Pizza acknowledged that over the past three years he has been competing while ingesting hormones, including supplemental testosterone since 2014, in violation of the WADA Code.

“Respondent argues that it would be a travesty to penalize him for failing to heed warnings about [testosterone replacement therapy] that he never received, because those warnings were never directed to him,” the report said. “He took his doctor’s advice, just like many of the age 50 and over masters athletes that he races against, none of whom have been advised by USADA or USATF about anti-doping rules.”

But the panel noted Pizza was a professional Realtor “with no barriers preventing him from understanding his obligations under the [anti-doping] Code.”

Greg Pizza and Amanda Scotti at 2015 Pasadena Senior Games. Photo by Ken Stone

Pizza originally asked that he be granted a recreational therapeutic-use exemption — allowing him to compete with the testosterone treatment. But the panel limited its decision to the length of his suspension.

The national-class sprinter had asked for no suspension. But in announcing the ban Wednesday, USADA said: “Pizza’s 20-month period of ineligibility began on Sept. 11, 2015, the date his provisional suspension was imposed, and the period of ineligibility expires on May 10, 2017.”

His fellow masters had mixed reactions.

Don Schaefer, who called himself a longtime user of testosterone (“and know full well how it can improve a senior’s life”), agreed with Pizza’s contention that older-adult athletes shouldn’t be “considered and treated as ‘elite.’”

He said most female masters cannot defeat the best 10- or 11-year-old girls and many male masters are unable to defeat the best 11- or 12-year-old boys.

“There needs to be a shift by the governing bodies to understand that while our masters athletes are indeed incredible, they are not ‘elite’, and as a result the medical/drug needs of an aging athletic population need to be considered,” Schaefer said.

“The science is there as to what represents a ‘normal’ level for many of the missing hormones in seniors. “If [track and field] is only going to have the perfect and lucky genetic few to participate – the sport is dead.”

On the other side is Dr. Milan Jamrich, 66, a top-ranked high jumper who teaches molecular and human genetics at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

“If you need drugs for your health, take drugs,” Jamrich said. “Your health should come first, competition second. Enjoy the training, compete in smaller competitions and stay away from nationals and world championships.”

He said competitions where people on HGH and testosterone compete against “clean” athletes “do not make much sense anyway. And one more thing: If you get caught, do not argue that you did not know or that you are too stupid to understand the rules.”

In Pizza’s defense, Scotti wrote that “the full standard of care” described in a case involving tennis player Marin Cilic — reading the label, cross-checking ingredients against the prohibited list, making an Internet search etc. — is reasonable for elite athletes but not masters.

“This is not the standard in the community of masters athletes,” she said. “If that is the standard expected of these athletes, there was no general awareness of it.”

Ruggless, president of the Southern California Striders, said he argued against 2- or 4-year suspensions for masters athletes.

“Not letting them compete in any event, national or otherwise was ludicrous,” he said he told the panel. “I suggested they could put an asterisk by their name, don’t them race for medals or even be allowed to place. But do let them run in a controlled timed environment.”

Ken Stone, founder of masterstrack.com, is a teammate of Greg Pizza.

Updated Aug. 4, 2016