By Ken Stone
Nearing retirement, Texas optometrist Scott McPherson decided to try a new sport — a “hobby,” he called it. A year ago, he took up race walking.But his new career was cut short when the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced it was banning the Lubbock man from official competition for four years.
“McPherson, 60, tested positive for the presence of an exogenous androgenic anabolic steroid and/or its metabolites,” USADA said in a July 17 news release that drew wide comment on running message boards. He insists he is innocent of intentional doping.
The test came after he won the 3,000-meter walk in his division at the mid-February USA Track & Field Masters Indoor Championships in Albuquerque. His time of 20 minutes, 6.27 seconds wasn’t exceptional, though. And he had no rivals in the 60-64 age group.
A day earlier, he won the mile race walk in 10:37.67 — also unopposed in his age group.
Still, he’s been asked to return his gold medals, according to USATF Masters Track.
McPherson didn’t contest the USADA action and was publicly mum on the punishment until this week, when he responded to a Times of San Diego query.
What happened? How did he fail a drug test?
He’s not sure. But he said in a phone interview: “I was sitting in these bleachers and my hand touches this gob of lotion [as he leaned back to support himself] — it was beige. And the lady next to me said it’s only hand lotion, so I rubbed it in.”
Noting his slight frame — 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds “dripping wet” — he said it didn’t take much for possibly adulterated lotion to get into his system. “I sent them a picture of me. If this is me on anabolic steroids, it’s ridiculous.”His other theories: The tested urine sample was someone else’s, or one of his “partial” samples was commingled with a tainted one during the testing procedure.
McPherson, a former “back-of-the-pack” 5K and 10K runner with bad knees, said he was dehydrated after his 11 a.m. race Feb. 18 and couldn’t immediately produce a full sample.
“So I drank all this water,” he said. “And then the last sample was more than enough. … There were two other partial samples on the table — along with others — unlabeled that [the tester] dumped. I said: ‘This one’s enough.’ He said, ‘No, we have to dump the other two. Sign right here.’”
He said his paperwork showed two samples, but “it was actually three. There were two partials and a full. I had my distance glasses on. You know, when you’re 60, you can’t see as close. [The tester] said: Sign this and sign that. It was very chaotic in that room. There was probably maybe seven or eight athletes as well as myself. All these partial samples,” perhaps five or six.
He said he didn’t keep track of the partials because he’d gone back the bathroom.
“The one sample wasn’t enough, but then he started willy-nilly dumping in two others,” McPherson said Wednesday. “I have no idea.” (As a result of the extra time in doping control, he missed his afternoon flight home, he said, not getting back until midnight.)
McPherson didn’t learn of his positive test until he and his wife, Tonya, returned home from the late March World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships in Daegu, South Korea. (He was a distant last in the 3,000-meter walk and fifth out of eight in the 10K walk.)
He began a back-and-forth with USADA.
He sent the Colorado Springs-based agency a list of all the over-the-counter vitamin supplements he took. He sent the back panel of a protein drink.
“We sent them everything that we could think of,” he said. “In fact, we fully responded to all their questions. … But their bottom line is they are never wrong — I’m guilty until proven innocent.”
Ultimately, he folded.
“My wife says: ‘This is a hobby. We’re not paying for an attorney,’” he recalled. He said USADA called his theories “unprovable.”
“I said, ‘Fine. Do whatever. Continue with the process. I’m done.’”
A USADA spokeswoman disputed McPherson’s accounts and allegations.
USADA says McPherson’s claim of “chaos” in the testing room “is simply not accurate. All samples of the athletes collected that day were done in strict accordance with the established international standards and USADA’s policies to ensure the integrity of the collection and comfort of the athletes.”
Though this was a masters event, “all of the same gold-standard processes were in place and followed like our year-round elite Olympic program,” she said.
In fact, USADA said McPherson never offered the “chaos” contention in the months leading up to the sanction.
“He also had the right to raise any and all of his complaints to independent (not affiliated with USADA) judges, and he chose not to,” said USADA, which also insisted that “all sample kits are labeled, and the partial sample kits are identified through a ‘partial kit number.’”
USADA, which says it found no other positive drug samples at the New Mexico meet, says McPherson, as all athletes, had the right to challenge the four-year ban by going before independent arbitrators.
“In the notice letter and several subsequent letters we sent to Mr. McPherson, we explained his rights including his right to contest the matter to independent judges,” USADA told Times of San Diego. “He chose not to do this.”
USADA also says it recommended in writing that McPherson reach out to the USOC Athlete Ombudsman’s Office, which the anti-doping group says he did.
The appeal process doesn’t require a lawyer — and carries no charge to the athlete, USADA said. “Additionally, athletes have numerous options for legal referrals (from the USOC Ombudsman) for assistance, including pro bono legal clinics and pro bono attorneys.”
Does McPherson have any appeal rights now?
“Generally, no — because Mr. McPherson was given multiple opportunities to contest the matter before independent judges,” USADA said Thursday, “but he knowingly waived his right to do so. That said, if athletes have new information regarding their case after a sanction is announced, they can provide it to USADA for consideration.”
After being sent USADA’s responses, McPherson on Friday showed frustration while sticking to his story.
“I’m choosing not to get into this fight back-and-forth,” he said in a brief phone chat. “It was chaotic. They say it’s not. They say I was offered attorneys without charge, [but] they were going to charge me $1,000 to test my hand to see if it was actually the lotion. No, no, no. I’m not getting into that.”
He declined any further comment.
But the debate continued online.On masterstrack.com, one comment noted his unbeefy physique and said: “If he’s using steroids, he should demand a refund!”
Said another: “The story about chaos in the testing area is also scary. If I ever get tested, I would have my phone out videoing the protocols.”
Thomas Sputo, a 57-year-old thrower, said: “Until someone can get a court to rule that USADA is a state actor (which they most assuredly are), no athlete has any of the constitutional protections that we as Americans hold so dear.” He listed bans on unreasonable searches, and the rights against self-incrimination and to face your accuser.
“USADA also does not allow discovery, which effectively means that USADA can withhold exculpatory evidence that would clear an athlete,” Sputo said. “Yeah, real fair process going on.”
On letsrun.com, 10 pages of comments follow the USADA news release posting, with many mocking the system or the athlete, or both.
“It’s a bit like putting Martha Stewart in prison while murderers are free to roam the streets,” said one. “You can tell the guy is getting old as he didn’t give us a creative excuse; he should have said something like ‘I confused it for Viagra.’”
In the Wednesday chat, McPherson argued for his innocence by noting he and his wife are deacons in the Second Baptist Church of Lubbock and has good standing in the community, having done optometry for 20 years.
“Most folks don’t even know I was competing,” he said. It was a “way for my wife and I to meet new people and travel.”
He said his friends at church laugh at what he calls the “comical” notion that he’s an athletic doper.
“I had to get something notarized” for USADA, he said, “and I told [the notary] what it was for, and she says: ‘You got to be kidding.’”
Ken Stone is editor and founder of masterstrack.com.
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