Performance-enhancing drug use permeates all competitive sports. Period. No single sport is morally above it. Athletes in every competitive environment exist who desire a competitive edge. Quite frankly, no sport is (or ever will be) safe from the controversies, the questions, and the distrust that accompany it. And while surf culture as a whole may more easily be associated with recreational drug use than performance enhancers, the WSL’s suspension of Raoni Monteiro after testing positive for a banned substance at the 2014 Billabong Pipe Masters is a reminder that competitive surfing is absolutely no exception. Monteiro’s suspension speaks volumes of the state of surfing – competitively, as a global community, and as a sport still growing out of its underachiever image.
Not surprisingly, any controversy related to drugs and surfing can bring us back to Andy Irons’ untimely death on November 2, 2010. No other loss has forced this community to take a more sobering look in the mirror. Not only were many of our champions living like rockstars, but we allowed it to be part of why we adored them. Beyond the outright admission from those close to him that substance abuse was an issue, fans could see it in the way he celebrated tour victories via media coverage, and somehow it came off as glamorous, as part of his mystique.
Andy spoke often of having demons, and in hindsight many still say we flat out watched him self destruct. After his death, much of the surf industry took heat for its head-in-the-sand policy, with many publications and sponsors waiting several months before even confronting the truth. Suddenly we became more aware of Andy’s passing as a cultural consequence, not just an isolated tragedy. Tom Carroll opened up on 60 minutes about his own struggles, Occy had already battled through recovery, and there’s been more than one film uncovering the culture of reckless abuse in some of the world’s most well-known surf towns. So Andy’s death is far from the only battle between a surfer and drugs – recreational, medicated, or otherwise – but somehow it was the one fight that made waves big enough to affect change in its top ranks. One of the ASP’s most beloved athletes, greatest competitors, and ambassadors for its sport died – arguably while under their watch – when he left a contest and never made it home.
That’s when accountability and professionalism in surfing actually became a thing.
By the next year’s World Tour, ASP officials were making tweaks to professional surfing’s new drug testing and anti-doping policy, and by the time the world’s best paddled out to Bells in 2012, that policy was in place. At the very least it would introduce some kind of accountability to the surfers themselves and the ASP. Back in 2005, Neco Padaratz was suspended from surfing in events when he was caught using anabolic steroids at the WCT event in Hossegor. He claimed the steroids were part of a treatment program for a back injury. Then, in 2013, the ISA stripped Mark Richardson of his Gold Medal for a positive test after his win in 2011. After a lengthy two-year reviewing process, the ISA’s decision was heavily debated, as Richardson tested positive for marijuana, which isn’t widely considered to be a PED. Kelly Slater even once said that there isn’t a drug that can make you surf better. Well…no. But drugs don’t make you hit home runs either.
But let’s not pretend the sport just busted a rising star. In 2014, Raoni Monteiro finished 35th in the ‘CT rankings, the second lowest result of a career in which he’d never placed higher than 23rd. It’s reasonable to ask if Monteiro was an easy person to make an example of when his results came back from the pre-Pipeline test. It even took almost a half year for the WSL to hand down their sanction, citing the need for an in-depth investigation along with Monteiro having the opportunity to respond to the results. But on the flip side of those potential questions and criticism is the fact that they certainly weren’t lenient on the Brazilian surfer.
Raoni Monteiro took the path often traveled in the case of athletes caught using performance enhancers. There are too many examples to count of the mainstream athlete who took something given to him by a doctor or trainer, either thinking the veil of ignorance will get them off the hook, or at least save face in the public’s eye. It’s the classic Tom Brady defense. “If I ignore it, deflect it, and distance myself from guilt, I will never have to apologize for my actions,” therefore making it harder for anyone to prove the athlete in question is a cheater, a liar, or all of the above. The WSL’s 2015 Anti-doping policy actually addresses these scenarios in article 10, in which they outline ineligibility for offending athletes. Depending on the substance in question, 10.1(c) outlines ineligibility of a minimum of one year and maximum of two years, depending on “the person’s degree of fault and the seriousness of the situation.” Monteiro’s twenty months puts him on the scary side of that scale, even with his “I didn’t mean to” testimony. So either WSL brass didn’t buy that plea or they wanted to send out a message to other competitors. All for a guy who claims he used a prescribed drug, and simply made “an honest mistake.” This is wildly different from American mainstream sports, where a Major League Baseball player will sit out half of one season for a positive steroid result and a maximum of a month and/or $10,000 fine for using a prohibited substance. In the NFL, an athlete would need to test positive for PED’s three times before getting a full year suspension. Monteiro’s career on the other hand, at 33 years old, is effectively over with the 20 month suspension. We’ll see him in a contest jersey again, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be sniffing a top-34 tour schedule.
Athletes in all sports play the risk/reward game daily when it comes to performance enhancers and drugs of all forms. For PED users, the narrow likelihood of getting caught coupled with the competitive edge gained can make it hard for even golfers to resist temptation. And if a golfer can use steroids, trust me, surfers can too. AAs for so-called “party drugs,” even in MMA you can fail a drug test with cocaine in your system and still fight if you’ve got the title on the line. All too often the risk has seemed too low to stop athletes from breaking the rules. Unfortunately, we need to impose much harsher consequences for many athletes to even think twice, when the only deterrent they should need is to look at the bright and talented people who left us too early.
I can’t speak on the other WSL athletes who may or may not also be violating some of the same policies, but we’d be foolish not to at least ask if PED use is the byproduct of a competitive culture that is growing alongside the money and attention. I don’t pose the question to implicate anybody wearing a ‘QS or ‘CT jersey now, but would you really be surprised to learn of another failed test tomorrow? We’d also be foolish not to ask about the prevalence of reckless recreational drug use on tour today. But that awareness alone says the surf industry, surf culture, and the sport’s competitive arena are actually pulling their collective heads out of the sand. They’re questions that weren’t being asked out in the open five years ago. And as a community, that puts us in a better place than where we all sat November 1, 2010.