Sunday 25 February 2018

The inside story of Mamadou Sakho's botched drugs probe and why WADA may not let it lie

Sakho: Controversial suspension Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Sakho: Controversial suspension Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Ben Rumsby

An acrimonious legal battle between Mamadou Sakho and the World Anti-Doping Agency was looming last night after Wada refused to rule out appealing against Uefa's decision to clear him of taking a banned substance.

Wada was facing being sued by Sakho and Liverpool over the extraordinary chain of events which led to the France defender being judged to have failed a drugs test and forced to miss the Europa League final and European Championship.

Last week, Uefa's control, ethics and disciplinary body absolved Sakho of taking a performance-enhancing substance after a near four-month battle by the player to clear his name.

However, Wada has the right of appeal and, asked whether it planned to exercise that right, a spokesman said: "We are awaiting the reasoned decision as it relates to this one."

The agency may need to overturn the verdict if it is to avoid legal action over its handling of a saga which threatens to shatter confidence in its ability to lead the fight against drugs in sport.

Indeed, a source close to the case said that Wada must take "sole responsibility" for the events which culminated in last week's outcome. "The way in which Wada managed this case is absolutely unacceptable," he added.

It is understood from more than one source that proceedings against Sakho would not even have been opened - and would have been dropped much sooner - but for Wada, which insisted on a case being pursued despite mounting evidence any conviction would be unsafe.

The agency is said to have intervened almost from the very beginning, when Sakho tested positive for a substance called higenamine following the second leg of Liverpool's Europa League tie against Manchester United on March 17.

The compound was included in a fat-burner Sakho had been taking, which had apparently been checked against Wada's prohibited list to ensure it was legal. The director of the Wada-accredited laboratory in Cologne which tested Sakho's doping sample is said to have determined higenamine was not a banned substance. But Wada was said then to have told him that it was a "beta2 agonist" - a prohibited category of compounds - and instructed him to report a failed test.

This back and forth explains the month-long delay between the test taking place and Sakho being informed of the result on April 22.

Liverpool recommended Sakho employ the anti-doping lawyer Mike Morgan, who is said to have helped the player file a successful request to be provisionally suspended for 30 days - something he had to do for any subsequent ban to be back-dated to the date of the failed test.

Morgan is also said to have discovered that the science that could reasonably lead Wada to class higenamine as a beta2 agonist was far from robust.

An application for the case to be dismissed on that basis was filed to Uefa just after the Europa League final and shortly before Sakho's provisional ban was due to expire. Uefa chose not to extend the suspension while it made inquiries about higenamine, which it learnt not all Wada-accredited labs tested for that in Cologne being perhaps one of only two which did.

Its disciplinary body was also told by the lab director he had not considered higenamine a doping substance until instructed to report it as such by Wada.

In the meantime, although France were free to pick Sakho for Euro 2016 because his provisional suspension had expired, they decided not to risk it with a case still open against him.

Only last Thursday did Uefa's disciplinary body finally conclude the evidence for higenamine being a banned substance did not stand up to scrutiny.

With Sakho and Liverpool understood to have not ruled out legal action, it is a failure that could prove to be very costly.

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