A sprinter with an Orange County-based track club faces a four-year ban from competition after testing positive for a prohibited hormone replacement therapy.
But at age 62, he’s not going quietly.
Greg Pizza of Vista has revived a debate over how the sport protects itself from unfair doping. He doesn’t think older athletes should be caught up in the dragnet for Olympic-class cheats.
“Why should we risk public humiliation for using what our own doctors prescribe — not for enhanced athletic performance but to simply provide a better quality of life, to replace what has gone missing?” Pizza (pronounced PIE-zah) writes in the February issue of National Masters News.
“Do we ban athletes for replacing the knee they used to have or the hip that no longer performs as well as it did when younger? Why are some aging bits of ourselves OK to replace but not this easily testable one?”
Pizza argues that he should be allowed what’s known as a recreational TUE — therapeutic use exemption — allowing him to escape penalties. He says he’s being denied this option because he medaled at a national meet.
He tested positive for testosterone, a prohibited substance, after taking third in the 100-meter dash in his age group last July at the USA Track & Field National Masters Championships in Jacksonville, Florida. (His wind-aided time was 12.76 seconds, behind Oscar Peyton’s winning 11.58.)
But the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which conducts spot drug testing at a small number of USATF masters meets, is throwing the book at Pizza, who says he has taken the banned therapy since 2013.
That year, he says, he had blood tests to learn the cause of some “disturbing changes” in his health, including extreme fatigue, mild depression, low libido, weight gain, slow injury recovery and constant soreness.
“I’ve been active my entire life and couldn’t understand, and didn’t like, what was happening to me,” he wrote in the monthly track magazine, published out of Northern California by his girlfriend, Amanda Scotti.
“The test results confirmed what my doctor suspected — low testosterone levels. He put me on a course of supplements to raise my levels,” he wrote.
Pizza, who stands 6 feet and weighs 175 pounds, called his health improvements “astounding” and “felt like my old self again.” He had run track in high school, but not college. (He played football at Western Michigan University.)
By late 2014, after a several-years break from competition, he resumed sprinting at a national-class level.
“The guys who had beaten me before were still beating me, and by about the same margin,” he says. “The testosterone use was not intended as a performance enhancer and, judging by the results, was not contributing to any successes with the exception that it allowed me to feel good enough to play.”
Now Pizza thinks his track days are over. But he’s hoping his case, which is going to arbitration in the next few months, may yield a lesser punishment.
He says USADA general counsel William Bock, who led the Lance Armstrong doping investigation, told him that the best he may be able to suggest would be a two-year suspension and a mark by his name on the banned list that he takes testosterone for medical reasons.
“I suggested to him that there ought to be different standards for older athletes, and he replied: ‘A lot of other people think that too.’”
Normally, athletes sanctioned by USADA aren’t identified until after the process has run its course. Pizza decided to tell his story before he knew his fate “in an effort to educate others, create some dialog and perhaps be a catalyst for some policy updating.”
USADA told Times of San Diego that it would comment Thursday.
Adult age-group track and field, also called masters track, was founded by David Pain, a San Diego lawyer, in the late 1960s.
Drug-testing for older track athletes didn’t begin until the 1990s, however. It led to two-year suspensions for an Arizona grandmother in 1999 and a New York sprinter in 2009. Also banned for two years was a 43-year-old distance runner, Eddy Hellebuyck (for blood-boosting EPO).
Other sanctioned U.S. masters athletes include a 51-year-old marathoner, Kristi Anderson, handed a year’s ban in 2014.
Masters meets in the United States didn’t begin random testing until 2011.
Pizza quotes a letter to USADA from his La Jolla physician, Dr. Jonathon Kalman:
“I would like to make it clear that the initial inquiry and eventual treatment of Mr. Pizza was never about performance enhancing within competitive sports,” Kalman wrote. “My therapeutic approach with Mr. Pizza is quite common in integrative medicine and is supported in the medial literature to address his symptoms.”
Kalman raised Pizza’s testosterone levels to what he called midrange; 500-700 nanograms per deciliter. He noted support in a 2004 article in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
“I understand that many, many people do not understand the reasons and benefits of testosterone therapy beyond the generic ‘it builds bigger muscles’ mentality,” he said Wednesday. “If a person is still young enough to have sufficient levels in their system, they would have no reason to find out more about it.”
He says the simplest way to put it is that testosterone simply wears out — just like joints — in older athletes.
Pizza’s quest for change isn’t new. He says a masters cyclist and triathlete, Sloan Teeple, “fought the good fight with USADA over this very thing.”
Teeple, of Texas, tested positive for synthetic testosterone and received an 18-month suspension in June 2013.
Pizza says Teeple’s attorneys forced a change in USADA rules allowing the recreational TUE.
“However, the wording for who can apply for and be granted this type of TUE needs badly to be refined,” Pizza said. “It appears that if I wish to pursue this I am looking at about $15,000 in legal fees to do it.”
He says USADA is open to possible changes in the exemptions for therapy.
Pizza says he’s being backed by his track club, the Southern California Striders, with many members in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Although a USATF-recognized track club cannot have a banned athlete on their roster, club President Joseph Ruggless (also an sprint champion in his early 60s) and other members of the club “have been extremely supportive, many volunteering to attend the [arbitration] hearing and speak on my behalf if allowed.”
Pizza concedes his fate is sealed.
“I have been told by Dr. Kalman that this is a lifetime testosterone therapy, which I do not intend to stop,” he told Times of San Diego.”Unless there is a modification to the rules, I would see no way to come back.”
In his article, Pizza added: “Fair or not, rules are rules, and I am in violation. But there is a real disconnect between the governing sports bodies and the needs of aging athletes.
“They are not considered when these policies are put into place. I never dreamed as an over-60 man, running in track meets with same-aged runners for fun and exercise, that I would ever be devoting this much time and energy to something like this.”
He says masters track needs to come to grips with “quality of life medications” on the USADA banned list.
“We are the very definition of a recreational athlete. We step away from our real careers for a few days and pay our own way to go partake in a fun and healthy endeavor,” says Pizza, a county resident since 1977.
But taking part in track “is not for me worth the tradeoff of returning to the way I felt before I began HRT,” he writes in a 2,500-word article.
“I find it such a sad irony that the very substance that enables me to be active, healthy enough and wanting to compete is the same substance that will prevent me from being able to do so.”
Ken Stone, a Striders teammate of Pizza, has covered masters track since 1996.