PEDs are incredibly common among BJJ competitors all around the world and that is becoming increasingly obvious as the years go on. Originally it was something of an open secret that a huge number of grapplers were taking PEDs, but there weren’t any organizations willing to put money into testing in order to prove it. Nobody really knows how prevalent PED use was in the 1990s and early 2000s, and anybody who was ever accused would deny it vehemently. There were a lot of rumours flying around and a number of elite competitors who didn’t pass the eye-test, but nobody really knew anything for sure and nobody really seemed to care enough to find out either.
It was somewhat understandable given that a comprehensive PED testing policy is expensive and there were only a tiny number of tournament organizers who would have anywhere near the capital to pull that off. The sport continued to grow at an astronomical rate though and before long, the IBJJF was making millions of dollars a year in revenue. That’s when they decided to make the leap and start actually testing some of their athletes, even if it was only going to be a drop in the ocean compared to the total number competing.
Testing for PEDs in BJJ Arrives
Almost immediately after the IBJJF started to enforce an anti-doping policy, athletes were getting caught left and right. Some of the most popular and successful grapplers in the BJJ world were testing positive for PEDs and serving suspensions at the height of their careers. The legendary Braulio Estima failed in 2014, as did Felipe Pena. They were followed by both Paulo Miyao and Leo Nogueira in 2016 just to name a handful of the biggest names. They were stripped of titles and handed suspensions from IBJJF competition but that didn’t dissuade others. In Pena’s case, it didn’t even dissuade him and he failed another test in 2021.
It seemed like it was working, but was it really enough? The testing for PEDs in IBJJF competition was still incredibly limited and no other BJJ tournament was willing to test at all. There are literally hundreds of top athletes out there who have competed at IBJJF events and never been tested, and hundreds more who simply avoided competing in them altogether. This also coincided with the rise of superfights and invite-only tournaments, where athletes were actually able to win significantly more money than they could ever dream of on the IBJJF circuit.
These two factors combined to create an entire generation of athletes who could make more money competing outside the IBJJF, while also avoiding testing altogether. They could claim to be totally natural and never have to prove it, or in some cases they have even decided to openly admit to taking PEDs because it’s not strictly against the rules of any tournament they’ve entered. It was a perfect storm that created this scenario where the BJJ community at large somehow seems to care about PEDs and creating a clean sport, while also not actually wanting to stamp it out.
The Situation With PEDs in the BJJ World Today
The number of athletes failing tests hasn’t actually decreased at all, with Kaynan Duarte joining the list of notable competitors in 2019. At the 2022 IBJJF no gi World Championship both Roberto ‘Cyborg’ Abreu and Vagner Rocha left the tournament early before they could be tested, with the former failing when tested just a week later and the latter refusing to submit to testing at all. They were handed three-year suspensions from IBJJF competition along with three other competitors who failed testing, marking the biggest bust at a single tournament in BJJ history.
This makes it very clear that athletes aren’t getting the message that the IBJJF supposedly wants to send and who could really blame them either? If suspensions only apply to IBJJF competition then there’s no real consequences to failing other than being stripped of a title, and fans already saw the technique in action so they probably gain more exposure than the small amount of credit they lose. As for other organizations, ADCC hasn’t shown any interest in testing athletes and any smaller tournament with a cash prize probably doesn’t actually have the funds to do so anyway.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Taking PEDs is always a calculated risk in any sport, but the state of testing in BJJ tips the scales of that calculation massively in one direction. Athletes can take PEDs and either comfortably avoid testing while making more money from tournaments, or they can try to get the exposure that major IBJJF wins give and just work a little smarter to avoid testing. There’s no real benefit to not taking PEDs as it stands right now and the only athletes who don’t, are those that do so as a moral or health-based choice. What we have right now, doesn’t work. It simply pays lip-service to the idea that we want a clean sport without actually getting one.
The BJJ community as a whole needs to come together and decide what it wants to do. ADCC is the world’s most prestigious no gi grappling tournament on the planet and introducing testing for every athlete invited to compete would send a massive message to competitors everywhere. For smaller organizations that can’t afford testing, even something as simple as choosing to uphold suspensions that the IBJJF and ADCC hand out would have a huge impact. There would no longer be a way for athletes to avoid testing if they want to win prestigious events, and they wouldn’t be able to compete at all if they don’t pass those tests.
Or we could just go the other way and throw the idea out of the window. There’s nothing inherently wrong with accepting that there’s PED use in the sport and allowing it to continue as it is, it’s all just a moral judgement after all and we generally leave health-choices up to the athletes already. The IBJJF could write their relationship with USADA off as a failed experiment and return to the wild west of the 90s and early 2000s. It’s clear that a fairly large number of competitors and fans would actually prefer this, either publicly or privately.
No matter which route we choose to go down in the coming years, it’s clear that what we have right now doesn’t work. We half-heartedly punish a small number of athletes while a huge number of them get away scot-free, and we need to create an even playing-field. Whether that’s one where everyone is punished severely or nobody is punished at all, that’s a decision that the community should make as a whole.
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