1st Person: DHMC’s Merrens Joins USADA Board

  • Dr. Ed Merrens, chief clinical officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, talks during an interview on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Merrens's office at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. Merrens was recently named to the board of directors for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the body responsible for drug testing and analysis for events such as the Olympics. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dr. Ed Merrens, chief clinical officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, has his credentials from different Olympic Games that he has atteneded over the years displayed on a table during an interview on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Merrens's office at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. Merrens was recently named to the board of directors for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the body responsible for drug testing and analysis for events such as the Olympics. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Charles Hatcher

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2017 12:04:50 AM
Modified: 11/15/2017 12:04:54 AM

Lebanon — Dr. Edward Merrens believes doping, the act of performance enhancement in international athletic competition, is a worldwide crisis with far-reaching political, economic and societal ramifications. So much so that Merren decided to bring his expertise to the table.

The chief clinical officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, a Dartmouth College graduate and current Norwich resident, Merrens is no stranger to the world of international competition, to athletes and their ailments and the national pride involved in major competitions like the Olympic Games. He served as team physician and medical director for the U.S. Biathlon Association from 1998-2014 and as a U.S. Olympic Committee team physician for the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Torino, Vancouver and, most recently, Sochi, Russia.

Last week, Merrens was named to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s board of directors at a time when international performance enhancement is at a crossroads. Sanctioned, institutionalized doping by Russia, first discovered in 2015, has forced the World Anti-Doping Agency, USADA’s international governing body, to name the country noncompliant with the global sports’ anti-doping code, forcing Russian athletes out of international events. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that WADA’s compliance review committee has recommended that it continue to bar Russia from international competition.

On most days, USADA’s role can be seen as both an educational body, serving to deter athletes from pursing enhancement in the first place, and a policing authority, to punish those who do. The situation in Russia has only muddied the water. It has also given Merrens a larger sense of purpose, to help pull the anti-doping community toward progress.

The Valley News sat down with Merrens in his DHMC office in Lebanon on Tuesday. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Valley News: Let’s start with a little background. What got you into studying athletes? And also, what made you get involved in USADA?

Dr. Edward Merrens: I’ve been involved with just understanding what’s happening with doping in sport for years, and committed to clean athletes. There was an opportunity over the summer when they announced that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency had an open recruitment for board members. I decided to apply.

This is the U.S. anti-doping organization that reports to WADA. So it’s an impressive organization as it relates to not just Olympic-level sports but, also, this is the organization, under Travis Tygart, that took down Lance Armstrong. … The organization plays several roles. ... They do a lot of education about supplements, doping, fair sport, and it’s an incredible organization. So I went through a several-month, rigorous process of interviewing with them. It was a great process of interviewing; they have a board that is pretty impressive. We talked about my interest, and I was really fortunate to be selected.

A lot has happened in the past couple of years. A lot blew apart, as you know, in 2016 with the McLaren report which, if you haven’t read all 151 pages, it’s an impressive treatise on what we now know that has happened with the Russians and doping. But it really goes beyond that, because doping is not just the Russians; it’s in a lot of other sports. I’m really interested in being involved with how we have more of a global understanding of this.

The stakes are really high here. … This is something that involves billions and billions of dollars as it relates to sport in the world, whether you’re talking about FIFA, athletics in track and field or the Olympic Games. Sponsorships and medals and national pride, it all comes down to money. And it drives a lot of this. So institutionalized doping that was carried out by the Russians is all about national pride but also a lot about money.

VN: To step back a little bit, what drew your interest in treating athletes versus treating any other patient? What is the biggest difference between the two?

EM: My specialty has never been sports medicine. I’ve approached this as an internist, someone who is trained to see people with all kinds of illnesses. We have sports medicine physicians. My role, as an internist, is in treating a broad range of ills.

The reality is that athletes don’t fit in terms of the normal curves. Their lung capacity, their ability to uptake oxygen ... we’re here, and they’re off the charts.

I think also I’ve always been interested in human performance and sport. This allowed me to be involved with those athletes. The challenging thing about sport, rather than regular work, is that if you or I have a cold and a runny nose, our throat is a little itchy and we ache all over, we go to work. For these people to go to work, they have to be 100 percent on. If you’re half a percent off, you might as well not even race. … These are incredible people.

We need athletes to remind us and inspire us. … My goal is to make sure that the playing field is level and clean. What we’ve seen, as that has begun to change, U.S. athletes have continued to perform and perform better. (Olympic Biathlon athlete) Lowell Bailey, who I’ve known since he was a junior, won the world championships this past year, in no small measure because the people that might have been cheating were no longer cheating. I’ve seen plenty of races where Lowell was fourth or fifth. If we had better, tighter controls on doping, he would have been on the podium.

There have been a lot of stolen moments. If there’s anything that I can do as an American who’s committed to clean sport, who’s been there when it’s happened, this is what I want to be able to do.

VN: Is that what inspired you to apply to USADA in the first place?

EM: Totally. I was in Sochi, in doping control, while this was happening. I was there when my athlete was filling those containers. Whenever my athletes went to doping control, I accompanied them. They produced the urine. You mark the containers. You’ve seen these containers. The athlete seals it themselves, the athlete puts a sticker over the top and they’re sealed. In a back room, the Russian equivalent of the KGB figured out how to open them, change the urine. Only through recent investigative reporting, they’ve gone back, looked at all those bottles and they’re all scratched. They’ve been manipulated. So that’s where we are. That’s my inspiration.

Through the interview process, I’m not on the board to advocate for biathlon or skiing. That’s the environment I know. I’m actually interested in how we think about fair sport and doping with kids in grade school, in high school and kids moving on to the junior level.

VN: How much of a crisis is doping internationally?

EM: It’s huge. I think it’s happening on many levels.

Doping is a whole range of things. It’s using performance-enhancing agents that allow you to perform — strength, endurance, whatever it is. It may be masking agents. The Russians figured out how to use salt and other things to mask and block the assays. It’s a whole range of things.

I think it’s pervasive. I think that we know it’s happening, and we need better ways of holding people accountable. The issue is that I’m not sure the IOC is willing to do that. … It becomes very political, and it becomes an issue in terms of how the IOC is funded. If, all of a sudden, you have a games but there are no Russians there, maybe all these companies don’t want to pay a whole lot for the ads.

VN: Given the stakes, is USADA’s role as more of a policing agency or as an educational resource for U.S. athletes?

EM: I think there is a huge effort at doing this through education. No one wants to see an athlete thrown into the process of being banned when you could have met that athlete in their teens in a training camp, talked about their sport and talked about how that process works and this is what happens if you’re caught doping. It’s a lot of advocacy. … I think it has to be very good policing, holding the world accountable, but also education. That’s what I’m interested in.

VN: Is there an end game to performance enhancement, or are organizations like USADA always going to be chasing the latest artificial edge?

EM: I think there will come a point where people make the decision that it’s not worth it — body or country — and I’m going to get caught. So I either get out of the game or play the game fair. 

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306. 

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