Writer, Surfer
Cocaine wave

Some surfers haven’t been tested for drugs at all this year. Others have been tested six times. Some athletes believe cannabis products like CBD are legal. Others aren’t so sure. On the heels of Kissed By God’s release, where details around Andy Irons’ drug use during contests was made public, we spoke to the WSL and many athletes on tour to get an inside look into the very opaque world of drug-testing in professional surfing. Art by @space_bat_killer

The Inertia

I have a picture of Andy Irons saved on my iPhone. It was taken shortly after what was likely his final surf, and certainly his last in a contest vest – an inglorious loss to Kai Otton in Round Two of the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Portugal. The picture shows him reclined in a chair, sharing a joke with Kelly Slater. He wears a red t-shirt and dark blue jeans with the legs rolled up. His tanned feet rest on the event scaffolding and his head is thrown back as he laughs, eyes hidden behind the dark facade of his sunglasses.

Just days later he was dead. Cause of death: Cardiac arrest resulting from acute mixed drug ingestion.

The recent Andy Irons documentary Kissed By God is raw, grim, and honest. It details publicly for the first time the extent of Irons’ drug use and mental health struggles. The fact that Andy Irons battled drugs was a thinly veiled industry secret. We might hope that the fact that he was taking them during competition wasn’t common knowledge. In an illuminating section of the film, Bruce Irons reflects on the time Andy won the Rip Curl Pro Search event in Arica, Chile, part of the WCT in 2007. Bruce states that his brother won the competition while high on cocaine and other unspecified pills. He also describes scenes where drug dealers passed Andy bags of cocaine on the beach during the contest.

“That wasn’t the first or last time he won an event high on drugs,” admits Bruce Irons.

Clearly, at this point, drug tests in surfing were of little consequence. It was something the former ASP had addressed deep in the cavities of its selectively enforced rulebook circa 2010, but in practice, drug testing was little more than lip service. Athletes, by their own account, were rarely tested. After all, it was just surfing.

So what has changed? Did the death of a sporting icon who was leaving a compulsory World Tour contest alter the governing body’s approach to drug testing? Since the ASP transitioned to the WSL, surfing seems precariously positioned on the cusp of a new era. Olympic inclusion, involved partnerships with multi-billion dollar companies like Facebook, wave pools… The WSL is a sports league desperate for mainstream credibility. So, especially in light of the recent documentary that vividly details the loss of a multiple times world champion to drugs, what steps have they taken to actually combat the use of drugs in surfing?

In some ways, not much has changed. Drug testing procedures still lack transparency. The ASP didn’t want to talk about drug testing when Andy Irons was alive, and the WSL doesn’t want to talk about it now that he is dead. We are assured that testing occurs, but until now no one has discussed how often or what these procedures look like. We made repeated requests to the WSL to gain details about drug testing protocols. None were accommodated. This left us with only one place to go: directly to the athletes.

Sure, the WSL can refer to their rulebook and the glossy language of new protocols designed to legitimize the sport’s appearance, but the only individuals who know the reality of what has changed day-to-day are the surfers themselves. Of course, they’re under no obligation to discuss their knowledge of the sport’s drug-testing policies. It’s classified information. But, then again, many realize that by sharing their experience, they’re able to get a more complete picture of how professional surfing is handling drug-testing in 2018, and in doing so, they’re taking bold steps to legitimize their profession.

What follows is what we discovered about the WSL’s response to the death of Andy Irons through conversations with the athletes, what drug testing in professional surfing looks like eight years on, and how surfers feel about the revelations in Kissed By God and the use of drugs in their sport today.

Mick Fanning, a three-time world champion, 16-year WCT veteran, and close friend of Andy, was shocked by Bruce’s testimony in Kissed By God.

“That was the first time I heard of that,” Fanning told The Inertia, regarding Andy winning the Rip Curl Pro Chile while high on cocaine and other drugs. “‘Watching that movie, seeing that footage. I was like, ‘Holy shit. That was wild.’ That was in 2007. That was eleven years ago, and surfing was still finding its legs in the professional world, I think. It was such a young sport, and it was such a young time to be a professional. If we knew what was going to eventuate, more drastic changes would have happened a lot earlier.”

Fanning’s defense of the WSL is admirable, but it’s hard to sympathize with his view of surfing as a young, naive sport. Professional surfing was founded in 1976, after all.

“I think back then there was drug testing and stuff like that, but it was so random,” said Mick. “France was pretty much the one event. Usually, they would come down to France one day and do it then, and that was pretty much it for the year, so, yeah, it was just different times.”

But drugs in sport are not new, and a professional athlete taking drugs in competition is not trivial. Much less an athlete who was winning, and much less still a multiple world champion and global superstar. What if this had happened in another sports league? A fanbase might reasonably demand that the sport’s governing body conduct an investigation, even posthumously. If simply as a mark of respect for their athletes, it would seem pertinent to question the response of the WSL to the fact that Irons won competitions on drugs.

“I don’t know if the WSL will have to confront any of this publicly as it appears to be a total different organization now,” said Zeke Lau, currently ranked sixth in the world. “Back then it was the ASP ran by totally different people and was a totally different world. If anything, it would only be going backwards.”

To date, there have been only two professional surfers who have faced sanctions after failing drug tests. In 2005, Brazilian Neco Padaratz was banned for taking steroids after testing by French authorities. More recently Raoni Monteiro served a 20-month ban from all WSL competition after testing positive for a banned substance during the 2014 Pipe Masters. Publicly, Monteiro is the only surfer to have failed WSL-initiated drug tests.

I reached out to Neco Padaratz on Instagram. I found it ironic that in 2007, the year he made his return to the WCT after serving his drug ban, Andy Irons was winning competitions on cocaine. I wondered how he felt about being made a pariah as the first surfer ever to be banned for drugs while the recreational drug use of the three-time world champion was somewhat accepted. I wondered if Padaratz had seen Kissed By God and how he felt about it. Initially, he seemed willing to share his thoughts. Then he blocked me.

It has been challenging to get people involved in the WSL to talk about how drug testing may have changed following the death of Andy Irons. Yes, there is definitely drug testing, they have told us. Yet they refuse to give any details.

Dave Prodan, Senior Vice President of Global Brand Identity at the WSL, is normally happy to elucidate all matters pro surfing. However, he was unwilling to discuss drug testing protocols or any questions related to Kissed By God.

“We’re unfortunately not going to be commenting on anything directly,” Prodan wrote to me in an email. “For background, if helpful, the following is public knowledge:

– WSL’s Anti-Doping Policy was instituted in 2011.
– Prior to its implementation, the then-ASP Board of Directors had a desire to institute testing, but resource constraints at the time prevented it from happening.
– The passing of Andy Irons in 2010 expedited the implementation of the ADP.
– The ASP was acquired in December 2012. Owners and WSL leadership are committed to maintaining and enhancing the testing protocols for the sport.
– All testing is private and confidential – surfers and staff are tested both inside and outside of competition.”

Later, Prodan sent me a link to an outdated WSL Anti-Doping Policy from 2017. This was confusing since I already had a 2018 version. The WSL never responded when I questioned this discrepancy. However, it was significant. The 2018 Anti-Doping policy documentation states several clear aims, which appear in direct contradiction to the lack of transparency regarding drug testing within the organization.

Article 1 of the current document states that one of the main aims of the policy is to “maintain public faith in the integrity of competition at WSL events.” One might reasonably assume that the revelations that Andy Irons was not only given drugs on the beach during ASP competitions, but competed and won while taking these drugs, could harm the public perception of the WSL. Might it impact our faith in them as a serious, professional organization? Neither WSL spokespersons nor current WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt was willing to give an on-record response to this question.

In Article 6 of the policy, which covers testing procedure, it states: “All Persons are subject to Testing by WSL at any time or place, at any time of the year, in or out of competition, with or without advance notice.” Furthermore, they aim to “conduct an effective number of tests on Persons both in and out of competition during each Surfing Season.”

I wanted to know if every athlete was expected to undergo testing in every season. I asked if testing was mandatory and conducted regularly, and I was interested to find out how many tests were carried out last year, for example. Unfortunately, WSL spokespersons would not answer these questions, nor would they specify exactly what constitutes an “effective number of tests,” though we might presume it would be a number larger than zero.

“As far as testing goes I actually have not been tested yet since I’ve been on tour,” Zeke Lau told me in May of 2018.

However, he was quick to infer that this may be an anomaly and highlight the WSL’s professional approach to drug tests.

“I know that they usually test an entire round whether that is all the winners of that round or all the losers,” Lau wrote to us via email. “Just so happened I’ve always been the guy not getting tested. But I travel a lot with Kanoa and he has been tested about 6 times since he has been on tour. They have just added blood testing to the tour as of this year as well. So this is actually pretty standard in professional sports and is standard drug testing in Olympic Sports.”

Of the athletes I spoke to, most seemed to understand the necessity of having a clean, fair context for sporting competition, particularly because of surfing’s inclusion in the next Olympics. Some were quick to infer that drug testing is a serious and structured prerequisite for participating in WSL competitions.

“When it comes to competing, you want to be competing against people that are clean,” Mick Fanning told The Inertia. “You pee in a cup. You have to get fully naked. It’s legit.”

Brazilian WCT competitor Caio Ibelli agrees and sees the necessity of rigorous drug testing protocols.

“I think it’s important to keep the integrity of our sport, especially with the Olympics approaching,” said Ibelli. “The WSL has been on it drug testing all the athletes. Last year I got drug tested at least 6 times.”

I asked Caio if he was surprised to hear that one of his competitors had never been tested.

“I think it’s weird, and honestly I don’t know how he dodged all of that,” said Ibelli. “I don’t think Zeke or anyone on Tour would do anything, everyone knows they will get caught if they do something they are not supposed to.”

It does seem odd that Zeke Lau, an athlete at the highest level of his sport with nearly two full seasons under his belt, has never undergone a drug test, while others have been tested multiple times. I asked Conner Coffin, currently ranked 16th on the WCT, if this discrepancy was surprising.

“Since it’s completely random I could see how you could always just miss the random selection,” Coffin said. “Sometimes they do winners, sometimes losers, sometimes every other winner and loser…but that’s all shit that we’re probably not supposed to know!”

However, he was quick to point out that approaches to drug testing may have improved in recent years.

“Since they have (changed from ASP to WSL) they’ve started doing the testing and definitely holding all of us to a higher standard,” said Coffin. “We get tested for all kinds of drugs, not just performance enhancing drugs. I got tested two times last year and once so far this year.”

Mick Fanning also highlighted this progression and the fact that drug testing has become more of an expectation for professional surfers in the years since Andy Irons passed away.

“People get tested, you know, pretty regularly,” Fanning told us. “I think the most I ever got tested throughout the year was about four or five times. It’s very professional now. I know the girls are getting tested a lot more. With Steph (Gilmore) in the past, they’d just walk up to her house and knock on the door and she’d have to do it, and that was out of competition. Yeah, look, it definitely became a lot more frequent.”

Drug testing on the women’s side was also highlighted by current world number 3, Tatiana Weston-Webb, when I asked how many times she’d been tested.

“Probably around five times,” Weston-Webb told us. “This is my fourth year on Tour.”

I asked Tatiana where her tests had taken place and what sort of education the athletes are given about drugs by the WSL. She said it happens during competition.

“Snapper, Trestles, Brazil…I think I’ve been tested two times at Snapper,” Weston-Webb told The Inertia. “They (the WSL) provide a full list/book of which drugs are allowed and not allowed. If you ask any of the WSL doctors about any med they will give you a yes or no.”

But despite this apparent tightening of drug protocol and communication with athletes, the WSL’s public output regarding drug policy remains hazy. To their credit, this may be intentional, as they hope to keep athletes on their toes. But the lack of transparency also leaves room for questions. Something many observers have found lacking clarity is the organization’s official position on marijuana. Appendix 2 of the WSL Anti-Doping policy (which specifies Illicit Substances) lists:

“Natural cannabinoids, e.g. cannabis, hashish and marijuana (Cannabinoids) and Synthetic cannabinoids e.g. 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other cannabimimetics (Cannaboids).”

Despite this, a growing number of athletes have been affiliated with companies like Weedmaps, either producing or advocating the use of banned substances. While there may not yet be any current full-time WCT athletes with sponsorship from cannabis companies, within the past two years, Mason Ho, Bruce Irons, Jack Robinson, and WSL Big Wave World Champion Billy Kemper have all competed at the highest level of WSL competition. All have professional affiliations and/or endorsements with companies in the marijuana industry.

The Weedmaps house.

The Weedmaps house on the North Shore from a few years ago. Image: Weedmaps

In recent years, there has been a cultural and legal shift accepting marijuana use. Some states in America, including California, have legalized the recreational use of cannabis, but its application as a potential training or performance aid is still a matter for debate. In spite of this, several athletes told me that CBD oil is used by WCT surfers, perhaps more commonly than many people realize.

“They (the WSL) haven’t really spoken much about marijuana specifically, but I think they treat it just as any other illegal drug with the same penalties,” Tatiana Weston-Webb told The Inertia. “I don’t use CBD oil, but I’ve seen other athletes using it, so I’m not very aware of the leniency on those products.”

Both Zeke Lau and Conner Coffin went a step further, telling me that the WSL had expressly permitted the use of CBD products.

“Yeah we can use CBD stuff, but have to make sure there is not THC in it,” Conner Coffin told The Inertia. “They (the WSL) told us at a meeting somewhere along the way.”

The WSL did not respond to multiple requests for comment related to the use of CBD products, which creates an opaque confusion about an important policy for surfing’s governing body as the Olympics fast approach. Protocols surrounding drug testing have perhaps been expedited as a result of Irons’ death, as the WSL claims, but there remains a lack of transparency around the subject of drugs in general.

I wondered what other changes may have been implemented as a direct result of Andy’s death. Kissed By God reveals that Andy Irons suffered from bipolar disorder, potentially amplifying his self-medication with drugs. It would seem necessary for the WSL to be equipped to safeguard the mental health of their athletes, and according to Weston-Webb measures have been taken to prepare for this eventuality.

“The WSL provides a full-time psychologist at any moment anyone needs,” Tatiana told us. “I think he’s been there three years or so. Especially if something tragic happens they always remind us that they’re at our disposition.”

Mick Fanning also pointed to an informal support network through friends and family on tour; though he did acknowledge that a man who doesn’t want help cannot be helped. This perhaps alludes to the fact that Andy Irons kept his struggles with Bipolar disorder largely under wraps.

“There have been chaplains on tour for a long time,” said Fanning. “They’re always there to help out if you need. So there is a lot of support there, but at the end of the day, it’s still up to the individuals to put their hand up and ask for that help. It can be tricky if that person doesn’t want to do it.”

But communication and openness is a two-way street. The cloak of silence about drug testing within the WSL is hardly conducive to positive change. That we were forced to learn details only through reaching out to athletes willing to speak to the reality of those changes is meaningful in itself. Despite this, athlete testimonies suggest that the death of Andy Irons has been a catalyst for some changes. Surfers appear to be tested for drugs more regularly, and more randomly than they were in 2010. Without more information, it might be a stretch to call the protocols rigorous, but they certainly seem improved. In terms of support for athletes, we might question the relevance of a religious figure like a chaplain on Tour, but the recent appointment of a full-time psychologist seems like a progressive shift. All of this, of course, is befitting of a professional sports organization whose athletes will take part in Olympic competition in Japan, 2020, and whose global fanbase grows daily. It’s high time surfing grew up.

It remains to be seen whether the WSL will issue a public statement regarding Irons’ drug use during competition and the scenarios described in Kissed By God. After all, the organization had different owners at that time. Judging by their unwillingness to address specific questions with this piece and guarded approach to drug policy in general, it would seem unlikely. Drawing a line in the sand, rather than burying your head in it (clarifying the WSL’s ruling about the use of CBD, for example) would appear to be a smarter play. While it would be unfair to say that the ASP allowed the use of drugs in surfing during Andy Irons’ rise and fall, based on the conversations and information yielded by this report, it feels fair to say the sport’s governing body did very little to curtail it. Luckily, that seems to be changing. The fact that a single surfer had been tested six times in a year is certainly a departure from the organization’s operations nearly a decade ago.

Ultimately, Irons lived and died as not just a professional surfer, but one of the greatest ever. His contribution to WSL history is as significant as their contribution to his. As such, it is difficult to accept that the WSL doesn’t feel obligated to respond to his tragedy or details made public in Kissed by God in a clear and open manner, be that in words or actions. Confront things or not, the legacy of Andy Irons will not be tarnished. He is as deeply venerated in death as he was in life, and he remains surfing’s tragic hero. There is nothing to gain from sullying his memory, but responding appropriately to his story is vital.


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