Wednesday 19 September 2018

Mourning the death of anti-doping

Chris Froome prior to the start of yesterday’s opening stage of the Tour de France. Photo: Getty Images
Chris Froome prior to the start of yesterday’s opening stage of the Tour de France. Photo: Getty Images

Hold the Back Page: Eamonn Sweeney

Anti-doping is dead. It died on Monday when the UCI, cycling's governing body, announced that it was dropping its case against Chris Froome who'd tested positive for a higher than permitted level of the asthma drug salbutamol at last year's Vuelta a Espana.

The announcement was made just five days before the start of the Tour de France. Tour organisers ASO had been trying to prevent Froome from taking part on the grounds that he would damage the image of the race. UCI's abject cave-in put an end to that.

UCI didn't even hold a press conference to explain their dramatic climb down. Instead they issued a press release stating that: "On June 28, 2018 WADA (the World Anti Doping Authority) informed the UCI that it would accept, based on the specific facts of the case, that Mr Froome's sample results do not constitute an AAF (Adverse Analytical Finding). In light of WADA's unparalleled access to information and authorship of the salbutamol regime, the UCI has decided, based on WADA's position, to close the proceedings against Mister Froome."

Neither UCI nor WADA have mentioned precisely why they've decided to grant Froome a free pass on this one when the Italian riders Diego Ulissi and Alessandro Petacchi previously received bans for exceeding the permitted limit of salbutamol by lesser amounts than the British cyclist.

Their capitulation reveals anti-doping as pretty much a busted flush. It's difficult enough to detect doping violations in the first place. Forty per cent of athletes admit to having doped yet only two per cent test positive. Then you have the immensely dodgy territory of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) which allow athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs if they claim they have a medical condition which requires the use of such drugs.

Now you have a situation where the world's leading anti-doping organisation has decided to back down from enforcing its own rules in the face of a legal challenge. The weakness they have revealed in doing so will inevitably lead to many more such challenges in the future.

Media fans of Team Sky are prone to lavishing praise on them for breaking new sporting ground. That's certainly what they've done in this situation. From the moment Froome's test results were revealed Sky simply refused to accept it. Froome continued to race while Sky flooded WADA and UCI with evidence. A 1500-page report! A survey on the effects of salbutamol in dogs! The general impression was of a search for any kind of loophole which might enable Froome's acquittal. In the end WADA wilted under the pressure from Sky and its high-powered legal team.

Yet there probably wasn't any real evidentiary need for all those pages and all that canine research. There is a test, the Controlled Pharmacokinetic Study (CPKS), which has been used in the past to determine whether a cyclist might have tested positive for illegal levels of salbutamol while only taking the permitted dose. Ulissi, for example, took the legal dose and was tested again. Had the results been the same as in his original test he'd have been cleared. They weren't, so he wasn't.

However, in their press release WADA specifically state that they didn't ask Froome to do a CPKS because, "It would not have been possible to adequately recreate the unique circumstances that preceded the September 7 doping control." The fact that you could make this point about any such study indicates WADA's willingness to go along with Team Sky's view that Froome is a special case. Yet one suspects Sky probably carried out a CPKS themselves. They'd have been foolish not to, given the possibility of it proving their man innocent.

Key to Sky's argument is the notion that the salbutamol test might be prone to giving false positive results. Yet if this was the case you'd imagine that the number of athletes testing positive for salbutamol would be higher than the 0.0008 per cent in 2016. There have been only 11 positive tests in the UK in the last decade and all of these were judged to be doping violations.

Froome was actually 67 per cent over the permitted level when he was tested at the Vuelta, which is quite something given that the upper limit is a remarkably, perhaps foolishly, generous one which equates to about 500 per cent of the normal dose taken by an asthma sufferer.

Adding to the unsatisfactory feel of the whole saga is that this is not the first time we have been down this road with Sky. Froome's predecessor as hero of British cycling, Bradley Wiggins, is now a somewhat discredited figure following the question marks raised over his use of TUEs. So much of what we know about Sky - the lack of medical record keeping, the mysterious courier deliveries, the general air of fishiness - makes it hard to regard this story as one of justice finally being done to an unlucky sportsman.

UCI and WADA's decision not to reveal the grounds on which they reprieved Froome can only add to public cynicism about both organisations. Neither was exactly riding high in the esteem charts before this. The UCI's 'see no evil' policy in previous decades undoubtedly contributed to the sport's doping problem while WADA too often comes across as a timid and lumbering quango which acts only when pressurised into doing so by the revelations of journalists and whistleblowers. Just to make things worse the UCI concluded its announcement of surrender to Sky and Froome with a chirpy, "The UCI hopes that the cycling world can now turn its focus to, and enjoy the upcoming races on the cycling calendar."

OK then, will do. We'll just concentrate on watching Chris Froome trying to equal the all-time record of five Tour de France wins held by Jacques Anquetil, Eddie Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. Though it will be hard not to remember that this record was actually broken once before by a gent named Armstrong who was hailed as one of the greatest sportsmen in history.

A few sour-bellied begrudgers cast aspersions over his triumphs but sure you'll always have the likes of them, won't you? Most pundits advised us to sit back and enjoy the wonder of Lance. For the next few weeks we'll be enjoined to worship at the church of Froomie and forget any of those nasty nagging doubts.

The long overdue outing of Armstrong as a cheat seemed at the time like a kind of high watermark for anti-doping. Justice, it seemed, would be done in the end. No-one was too big to fail. It turns out we were all being a bit optimistic.

Chris Froome wasn't the only major sports star who reminded me of Lance Armstrong last week. There was also Serena Williams who, it emerged, wasn't at home when a drug tester called on June 14 and who then rang Steve Simon, the head of the Women's Tennis Association and Travis Tygart of the United States Anti Doping Association to complain about the visit. Williams also complained last week that she'd been tested too often (five times in six months) and suggested she was being singled out .

Seven years ago Williams fled from a tester who'd come to her house, locked herself in a panic room and rang 911 because, apparently, she believed the official was a dangerous intruder. And leaks by the Russian hackers group Fancy Bears revealed that the player had applied for TUEs in 2010, 2014 and 2015. Her latest contretemps with the testers called to mind the scene from Alex Gibney's documentary The Armstrong Lie where Lance complains at length about the indignities involved in having anti-doping officials come to his home.

I'm not suggesting the reasons for Williams's irritation are the same as Armstrong's but it was disappointing to see so many people basically saying, 'Stop testing her so much. She's lovely.' Roger Federer's attitude towards testing seems much healthier. This day last week he said he'd been tested seven times in the last month and declared, "I don't believe that there's ever going to be enough testing."

But perhaps the number of tests doesn't even matter after a week which showed that the world's leading anti-doping organisation could be backed down by a suitably determined and well-funded foe. It feels like an important line has been crossed and that we have entered a new era.

Anti-doping has passed on. It is no more. It has ceased to be. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. It has kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible.

Sunday Indo Sport

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