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USADA survey: U.S. athletes feel pressure of win-at-all-costs culture

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A majority of U.S. athletes responding to an anti-doping survey said they feel pressure from higher-ups to win medals, and the spotlight shines only on those who pile up victories.

Though athletes have often cited the win-at-all-costs culture as a reason they cheat, only a slim number of those surveyed said they would be tempted to take performance-enhancing drugs.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency received responses from 886 athletes in a wide-ranging survey, released Tuesday, that gauged their feelings about a number of issues regarding performance-enhancing drugs.

Sixty-five percent agreed when asked if the U.S. Olympic Committee and individual sports federations pressured elite athletes to win medals; 61 percent agreed with the statement: “When I am failing people are less interested in me.”

Travis Tygart, the CEO of USADA, said he wasn’t surprised at the high percentage of athletes who feel they’re part of a “win-at-all-costs” culture.

“It is exactly what we hear from athletes about why they chose to dope when they have, and why we must change this culture if we hope to fully return the playing field to clean athletes,” he said.

But when asked if they would be tempted to use PEDs under a variety of circumstances, including if their coach recommended it, no more than 9 percent of the athletes responded “yes” to any of the scenarios.

USADA billed this as the largest survey of its kind. It was sent last year to 2,000 athletes in the U.S. testing pool. It got the most responses (149) from track and field.

Only 7 percent of the respondents said they had been tested more than 50 times over their career — an interesting figure during a summer in which Serena Williams has suggested she’s discriminated against because she gets tested more than most tennis players.

The plurality, 36 percent, said they’d been tested between once and five times. Authorities commonly increase the number of tests for high-ranked players and players coming off long layoffs.

When asked how other anti-doping programs compare to USADA, 34 percent said they were less effective or not effective, while 49 percent replied “I don’t know” — a high number in an era in which Olympic sports have been bombarded by a stream of reports about Russian doping. Thirty-five percent disagreed with the notion that their international competitors were adequately tested when compared to themselves.

“Certainly, the Russian state-sponsoring doping scheme showed that there are major international players not running an effective anti-doping program, but actually running a “dope to win” program,” Tygart said.

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WATCH LIVE: Simone Biles returns to U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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Simone Biles‘ comeback continues at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Friday night.

Biles enters her second meet since the Rio Olympics, where she earned four gold medals.

She is a clear favorite to win her fifth U.S. all-around title, which would break the record she currently shares.

LIVE STREAM: U.S. Gym Championships — 8 p.m. ET (for Olympic Channel subscribers)

Biles showed her comeback was for real at her first meet back three weeks ago, winning the U.S. Classic despite an uneven bars fall. Her all-around score was the highest in the world since Rio.

Friday marks the fifth anniversary of Biles’ first national title, when she was a braces-wearing, first-year senior gymnast oozing with talent but also unproven. She became so dominant that the prevailing notion was that everyone else was competing in a non-Simone division.

A new generation of women go up against Biles in the two-day meet that concludes Sunday.

That includes Ragan Smith and Morgan Hurd, who won the U.S. and world all-around titles in Biles’ absence last year, and Riley McCusker, who led the U.S. Classic going into the final rotation.

Gymnasts are competing to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

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Ragan Smith defends U.S. gymnastics title, competing through pain

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BOSTON — When Ragan Smith won the U.S. all-around title last August, her margin of victory was greater than Simone Biles‘ average the previous four years.

At the world championships in October, Smith fell off the balance beam in qualifying and still posted the second-highest all-around score, just .001 off the lead. If Smith hit all four routines in the final, she would be crowned the world’s greatest gymnast of 2017 (during Biles’ break from the sport).

But as the all-around final began at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Smith crutched out of the training gym. She suffered three torn left ankle ligaments on a warm-up vault, according to the Dallas Morning News, that needed four to five months to heal.

Smith is expected to compete in the all-around at the U.S. Championships on Friday and Sunday (broadcast schedule here), looking to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

The ankle still hurts sometimes. So do her three or four broken toes. Smith doesn’t know the exact number because she doesn’t like to get medical check-ups before meets. She would think too much about the diagnosis.

In fact, Smith said she felt pain in practice every day for the last year.

“Everything starts hurting worse because we’re getting older,” said Smith, who turned 18 last week. Smith added that a coach joked to her recently, “You already have a 100-year-old body.” 

“Everybody I feel like has injuries here and there,” she said. “Everybody’s like banged up right now. We [gymnasts] are so strong mentally and physically that I feel like we push through it.”

Back home in the Dallas area, Smith marks her goals on a dry-erase board. The chief one for her two summer meets is this: Be the best Ragan I can be.

“That’s all I’m really striving for this competition,” she said Wednesday.

Smith did not do the all-around at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago, skipping floor exercise because she wants to debut it as a surprise this week. She called Classic “a practice run,” where her best result was third on beam.

Only two gymnasts per nation can compete in a world all-around final. If Biles is one of them, then Smith has to beat out Morgan Hurd (who won the 2017 World all-around title after Smith’s injury) and Riley McCusker (second to Biles at the U.S. Classic).

Smith, the youngest Rio Olympic alternate, is determined to compete on the elite level through 2020. She can take motivation from her bedroom wall and that dry-erase board, both of which had the same quote posted — “She believed she could so she did.”

“These coming up years, it’s definitely who’s in the game the longest. It’s definitely who’s not injured,” she said. “That’s pretty much who they pick, I feel like. You’re training your whole life for one year of gymnastics because that’s when you have to be at your highest peak. I definitely feel like it’s who’s in the game the longest and who can survive and who can help their body the best.”

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