Recently, the drug-testing program employed by prominent Asian MMA organization ONE Championship has come under intense scrutiny from media members, mixed martial artists, and the general public.
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In a now-deleted Facebook post from July 13, UFC veteran Will Chope, a current coach to several fighters on the ONE Championship roster, levied several allegations against ONE Championship and the promotion’s drug-testing system and claims made by the organization that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) would be inextricably tied to the system.
WADA is a globally recognized authority on anti-doping in sports, and the foundation was founded in 1999 by the International Olympic Commission. According to WADA’s website, [WADA] code compliance monitoring, anti-doping coordination, global anti-doping development, and athlete outreach, along with providing educational, scientific, and medical information, are the foundation’s key objectives.
Referencing an article from The Body Lock, then-titled “ONE Championship drug testing to commence in 2019 through WADA,” Chope wrote, “If you read the article, you’ll realize the title is bullsh*t.”
The article was written in response to a January report from Asian MMA’s James Goyder and a subsequent press conference statement from ONE Championship Chairman and CEO Chatri Sityodtong that ONE would introduce “WADA standard testing” in 2019. In the article, notable ONE athletes Martin Nguyen and Garry Tonon were quoted as having no knowledge of such testing.
During an interview with The Body Lock’s John Hyon Ko, former ONE lightweight and current ONE featherweight champion Martin Nguyen said, “I always thought it was mandatory to at least test for any anabolics, testosterone, TRT – just standard testing – in ONE Championship, until I found out that they really don’t test at all.”
In an interview with The Body Lock, ONE featherweight and Brazilian jiu jitsu star Garry Tonon said of the news, “First of all, I don’t think it’s true,” and has maintained no knowledge of any additional drug-testing measures beyond an apparent contractual clause, which Tonon told The Body Lock in a July interview stipulated that fighters are “not allowed to be on performance-enhancing drugs at any given point in time.”
Chope’s now-deleted post also delved into myriad claims about ONE Championship’s drug-testing system. “Supposedly they will be doing tests according to WADA standards. That doesn’t mean WADA is doing them,” Chope wrote.
The American martial artist continued, “I’m going to drop some inside knowledge and tell you the urine tests get sent to a lab in Taiwan. The doctor who tests these is a paid doctor that’s been working with ONE for years. Everyone knows ONE athletes are juiced. But this style of testing will allow ONE to hide results of guys they don’t want to be dirty and to throw guys that they don’t care about that are dirty under the bus. You can’t self-regulate privately and be non-biased and if you do self regulate it has to be public…….which it’s not! #F*ckONE!”
On July 14, Sityodtong himself responded to Chope’s Facebook post, writing, “Thank you for your post, Will. I actually agree with most of what you wrote. There are some errors, but I am not here to create beef. Unfortunately, when ONE Championship was started in 2011, there were no referees, judges, doctors, sanctioning bodies, staff, etc for mixed martial arts in Asia. We had to find good people like Oliver Coste, Warren Wang, Rich Franklin, Matt Hume, Ryo Chonan, etc to help out (or Asian MMA would never have taken off again).
“On a related note, WADA has a network of certified WADA labs. Stay tuned for a big announcement as we officially roll out WADA testing through their labs. (We have been doing test runs since late last year). We are far from perfect and we have made a ton of mistakes. I agree 100% with you there. I am also sure we will make more mistakes in the future because we are traveling in uncharted waters in most of Asia. That being said, I know everyone who works for ONE Championship is trying their best for Asian MMA.”
However, despite Sityodtong’s seemingly cordial response, Chope received a letter from ONE Championship Legal Counsel Yan Yan Lin on July 16, informing Chope that if he did not remove his posts – which he subsequently did – ONE would pursue legal action against him for alleged defamation.
In the wake of such an ordeal, additional scrutiny was placed on ONE Championship’s drug-testing program, of which little is known. The earliest recorded references to a promotional drug-testing program surfaced in January, the month when the report from Asian MMA was first published.
The report, issued via a tweet from Asian MMA’s James Goyder on January 9, read, “Have confirmed that @ONEChampionship plans to introduce WADA standard drug testing in 2019.”
On January 21, Sityodtong first commented on the report at a press conference for the ONE Championship: Hero’s Ascent event, which took place on January 25. In response to a question about the report, Sityodtong (beginning at 53:33 of the press conference’s YouTube stream) answered with the following:
“I’ll be announced the details… it is true that we began doing WADA testing actually last year, and so we will be announcing this year. Good news is, last year, we did a lot of tests and 95, 97% of our athletes came out clean, and so we are just now in this, ramping up, but this year is going to be full-out WADA testing.”
As noted in The Body Lock’s article at that time, there were no published results of any drug-testing failures, passings, nor any news as to what would happen to the apparent 3-5% of ONE athletes who did not “[come] out clean.”
The most recent statement invoking WADA in regard to ONE Championship’s drug-testing program came in July when Sityodtong replied to Chope’s Facebook post. In the now unavailable comment (as Chope deleted the original post), Sityodtong wrote, “On a related note, WADA has a network of certified WADA labs. Stay tuned for a big announcement as we officially roll out WADA testing through their labs. (We have been doing test runs since late last year).”
In a statement to The Body Lock, WADA Manager of Media Relations and Communications Maggie Durand wrote, “We were recently made aware of these claims.”
Durand also pointed out that “ONE Championship was not and is not a WADA Code Signatory – therefore they do not fall under our remit.”
According to the official WADA website, “[t]he World Anti-Doping Code (Code) is the core document that harmonizes anti-doping policies, rules and regulations within sport organizations and among public authorities around the world. It works in conjunction with six International Standards which aim to foster consistency among anti-doping organizations in various areas: testing; laboratories; Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs); the List of Prohibited Substances and Methods; the protection of privacy and personal information; and Code Compliance by Signatories.”
In order for WADA to act within its role as a governing body and oversee an organization’s drug-testing program, that organization must be a signatory of the code.
Signatories to the WADA Code include ASOIF (Assoc. of Summer Olympic Intl. Federations) members, AIOWF (Assoc. of Intl. Olympic Winter Sports Federations) members, an extensive list of National Olympic Committees, and many others.
Combat sports associations such as the World Association of Kickboxing Organization (WAKO), the World Karate Federation (WKF), International Federation of Muaythai Amateur (IFMA), Federation International Amateur Sambo (FIAS), and others are also signatories to the Code.
“We would also point out that WADA is not a testing agency,” added Durand, dispelling any notion of WADA conducting drug tests within ONE Championship or any other organization.
Durand noted that it is possible ONE Championship decided to base their purported drug-testing program after WADA’s standards, but as the promotion has yet to become a signatory, WADA has no idea whether or not its guidelines are being adhered to.
“Some non-signatory sports organizations model their anti-doping rules and testing programs on the model rules and guidelines and International Standards that WADA makes publicly available to our stakeholders on our website. It may be that ONE Championship have decided to model their program based on these documents, but as they are not Code Signatories and do not fall under our remit, we cannot be certain of their rules or program and if either are (sic) WADA compliant,” wrote Durand.
In response to Sityodtong’s touted “big announcement” about “WADA testing through their labs,” Durand explained how ONE Championship’s status as a non-signatory would preclude WADA from any association to them, even in the case that a WADA-accredited laboratory was involved in the testing.
“While conducting testing in a WADA-accredited Laboratory certainly indicates that the laboratory is WADA-standard, it does not mean that the testing is being conducted as part of any WADA-approved program. Our accredited laboratories may conduct testing for clients other than WADA Signatories in accordance with the International Standard for Laboratories; however, this does not associate their clients to WADA in any way.”
Given ONE’s notable lack of transparency, as well as the dearth of athletic commission oversight in Asia, the fact that ONE is not a WADA signatory plays a massive role in the validation of any drug-testing program ONE may or may not implement, as evidenced by Durand’s statements above. ONE has been quick to invoke WADA, a renowned organization, yet WADA has only just heard of ONE’s claims and reiterated that without signatory status, they cannot confirm any of ONE’s assertions.
As for whether or not WADA and ONE Championship have any plans to coordinate a drug-testing program in conjunction for 2019, as originally alluded to by Sityodtong; 2020, or beyond, Durand wrote, “Not for the time being.”
ONE Championship did not immediately respond for comment.
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.