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Olympians Pilot Virtual Drug Testing Program During Coronavirus Pandemic

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The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is trying out an unprecedented drug testing program for Olympic athletes.

With coronavirus stay-at-home orders preventing the organization from sending unannounced testers to collect samples in-person, officials have now come up with a new possible plan: sending test kits to athletes’ homes and having them test themselves over video conferencing apps like FaceTime or Zoom while USADA personnel watches.

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It’s a process that’s been piloted for the past two weeks by about a dozen volunteer top Olympians so far, The New York Times reported — including swimmers Katie Ledecky and Lilly King; wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden; and runners Noah Lyles, Allyson Felix, Emma Coburn, and Aliphine Tuliamuk. And it’s one that may utilized moving forward, even after the pandemic ends.

Not only does the new virtual program allow for safer conditions for testers, it’s also easier and less intrusive on athletes.

“We’ve been talking about this and laying the foundation for several months,” USADA’s CEO Travis Tygart told the Times. “COVID put that on fast forward and allowed us to roll it out.”

The new procedure, dubbed Project Believe 2020, is built to prevent athletes from trying to cheat, too.

Testing kits are sent to their homes beforehand. When notified it’s testing time by a doping control officer — a call that comes without warning — athletes must immediately log into a video conferencing program and show themselves taking their samples, The Washington Post reported.

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Katie Ledecky
Harry How/Getty

For their blood sample, athletes place a device on their arm that collects four droplets of blood with a quick prick that can be tested dry, the Post reported.

As for their urine sample, athletes must first show USADA personnel the inside of their bathroom, USA Today reports. They then leave the device outside during the collection process, while a doping control officer times them. A temperature monitor on the collection jar ensures the sample is fresh to stop athletes from potentially switching out a contaminated sample for untainted urine.

Final blood and urine samples are sealed and sent back via overnight delivery to a laboratory for analysis, USA Today reported.

The whole process is said to take nearly the same amount of time as a traditional USADA test, the Post reported.

Ledecky, who had her first test on Monday as she social distances from her apartment in Northern California, told USA Today she felt “very comfortable with the whole process.”

“This is the perfect time to test something like this. I think it’s great for the circumstances we’re all in right now,” she said. “I’m willing to be tested any day, any time. It’s part of sport and part of my responsibility as an elite athlete to be drug tested and to compete clean. It’s something I feel very strongly about.”

King admitted to the outlet that she was “a little skeptical of it at first,” but quickly came around after she did her first test.

“They really thought through all the potential loopholes with the testing,” she said.

“There are way too many factors that would go into providing a tainted sample for you to really pull that off during the test unless you were a ridiculously high-level crook,” she said, noting the importance of testing the urine temperature. “When you have a random test, it would be kind of hard to keep a fake sample at a certain temperature for weeks on end before you know that you’re going to have a test.”

Project Believe 2020 is expected to last eight weeks, USA Today reported.

USADA has been the official anti-doping agency for the Olympic, Pan-American and Paralympic sport in the United States since 2001. Unannounced testing of top athletes is standard practice, and not being available for a drug test can be grounds for suspension.

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Wolfgang Kumm/picture alliance via Getty

Meanwhile, last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach announced in a joint statement that the 2020 Olympic Summer Games would be postponed amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The delay is unprecedented, marking only the fourth time in modern Olympic history that the Games have been disrupted.

“In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the WHO today, the IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community,” read a statement from the IOC.

According to the statement, the Olympic flame will remain in Japan during the delay. The Summer Games will also continue to be called “Tokyo 2020,” even as they are moved to 2021.

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the IOC’s statement continued.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.