Packets of the powdered dietary supplement called PureSport sit in cardboard boxes poolside when Michael Phelps trains, and a plastic PureSport water bottle is propped next to his lane. Even Phelps’s training mates empty the stuff into their water bottles before workouts.
Phelps readily touts the company’s dietary supplement products and says he does not fear a positive drug test.
PureSport advertises itself as an optimal mix of protein, electrolytes and carbohydrates. But dozens of athletes — most recently world-record holder Jessica Hardy — have been felled over the years by dietary supplements tainted with banned substances not indicated on their labels. Hardy tested positive for clenbuterol just weeks before the Beijing Summer Games and was kicked off the Olympic team; nearly a year had passed before a U.S. arbitration panel declared the result due to a contaminated supplement.
The World Anti-Doping Agency calls the use of dietary supplements by athletes “a concern” and advises “extreme caution” regarding their use. The dietary supplement industry, largely unregulated in the United States, has been the subject of congressional hearings and has proven rife with products containing illegal or unidentified substances. An investigation by The Washington Post found designer steroids in a number of readily available supplements in 2005.
All of which raises the question: Why would Phelps risk taking anything at all?
Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman, who are paid to endorse PureSport, say they believe in the product, trust the people behind it and, on top of that, take extraordinary precautions. Phelps uses the supplement, which was introduced to the market in 2008, because he and Bowman believe he needs additional nutritional intake when in the midst of heavy training.
Other star athletes — swimmers Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, Katie Hoff and gymnast Nastia Liukin, among others — also endorse the product, and many more, including Lance Armstrong and Dara Torres, endorse other dietary supplements.
“Everything sent to me is checked and double-checked to make sure it is clean,” Phelps said. “Supplements, you always take at your own risk. That’s how it’s always been.”
Ultimately, Phelps and Bowman say, they refuse to live in fear of a worst-case scenario.
“I can’t spend every minute of every day being afraid,” Bowman said. “You go with it. We know we’ve done our homework. It’s a leap of faith to some degree.”
The problems within the multi-billion dollar U.S. supplement industry have been well-documented, but not easily solved. In the famous “StarCaps” case in the NFL, six players tested positive after consuming weight-loss drugs contaminated with a prohibited diuretic and were suspended for four games. Swimmer Kicker Vencill missed a chance to compete in the 2004 Summer Games when he took a supplement laced with a steroid. Vencill, who was banned for two years, was awarded more than $500,000 by a jury after suing the company.
“Is it worth the risk to get a questionable bump in performance?” said Gary Wadler, chairman of WADA’s Prohibited List and Methods Sub-Committee. “If I were an athlete, I wouldn’t take that stuff.”
Pitching itself as an antidote to the ills in the supplement industry, PureSport says its products are made at National Science Foundation certified labs to ensure no contamination. They are also randomly tested by a facility in Cambridge, England, for banned substances. Elite athletes, said PureSport President Michael Humphrey, are guaranteed the additional testing by the Cambridge lab.
“There’s nothing else we could do,” Humphrey said. “There’s no other safety guard we could take.”
John Ivy, the Chairman of Health and Kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin, created the PureSport formulas, which are used by 20 to 30 Division I collegiate programs, according to Humphrey.
“John’s a very serious scientist,” said Wadler, the WADA official. “That gives it a second look … He knows about carbohydrates, he knows about fluid balance, he knows about those kinds of things — which is different than [what’s in] some of those weird supplements out there that you can’t even pronounce.”
Hardy, it’s worth noting, was not taking a weird supplement. She decided to take a product, also a powder mixed with water, made by AdvoCare after consulting with two sport officials, one of whom told her the company was considered reputable. AdvoCare also claimed to have its products tested by an outside lab and Hardy met personally with company officials who guaranteed the product’s purity, according to the arbitration ruling that cut her two-year ban in half.
Phelps “endorses supplements still, today,” Hardy told The Post this summer. “If that had happened to him …. It very much could have happened to him.”
Hansen said PureSport understands the stakes of working with an athlete like Phelps.
“If [Phelps] fails a drug test because of something like that, it’s all over for a lot of people,” Hansen said. “For someone like him to trust our product, that speaks for itself.”
Bowman and Phelps said he had previously taken a protein product designed by Ivy called Endurox — only he hated the taste of that one. When asked a couple years ago to try out Ivy’s newest product by the brother of Austin-based swim coach Eddie Reese, Phelps found the taste more to his liking.
Leading up to the Olympic Games, every sample sent to Phelps was given additional testing, Bowman said.
“You couldn’t have taken more precautions than Michael took,” Bowman said. “I use it because you can’t make peanut-butter-and-jelly and give it to him within 20 minutes of practice every day, and eating grapes by the side of the pool won’t cut it, either.
“If you’re trying to swim the program he did in Beijing, you’re not doing that on normal nutrition.”