Sex, lies and handlebar tape: how to avoid a doping ban

Most excuses from cyclists who recently tested positive have turned out to be untrue

British rider Chris Froome wasn’t so quick to deny a report  which claimed Team Sky were considering a legal defence to explain his positive test for salbutamol was the result of some sort of kidney failure. Photograph: Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA

British rider Chris Froome wasn’t so quick to deny a report which claimed Team Sky were considering a legal defence to explain his positive test for salbutamol was the result of some sort of kidney failure. Photograph: Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA

 

Strangely enough Chris Froome hasn’t yet blocked me on Twitter so I was free to follow his feeds during the week. There, on top of some pretty video footage of him training flat out in South Africa, Froome described as “completely untrue” a report that Team Sky were looking to negotiate a reduced ban following his positive test for salbutamol during last year’s Vuelta a España.

Fake news, or alternative facts – depending on how you interpret these things.

The report appeared in that old stable of Italian newspapers Corriere Della Sera, which claimed Froome was ready to admit negligence in the case, and that his wife Michelle had hired a mediator to negotiate a reduced ban with the Union Cycliste Internationale.

Completely untrue, depending on who exactly you believe.

Froome wasn’t so quick to deny a report last month in the French newspaper L’Equipe which claimed Team Sky were considering a legal defence to explain his positive test for salbutamol was the result of some sort of kidney failure. 

According to L’Equipe, Sky’s lawyers will argue that Froome’s kidney’s malfunctioned during stage 18 of the Vuelta, back on September 7th, retaining all the salbutamol he’d inhaled as part of his asthma medication, then releasing it all in one go – thus explaining why his urine contained twice the allowed amount. That by the way is set at 1,000 ng/ml; Froome, give or take a bit for generalisation, had 2000 ng/ml in his urine after stage 18. On the stage before, and the stage after, his levels were grand. 

Now you don’t need an Ivy League degree in biology to understand that kidneys don’t normally malfunction like that – especially not a professional cyclist riding for the self-proclaimed cleanest and best medicated team in the peloton. 

Kidney excuse

This malfunctioning kidney excuse is entirely fitting with the vast majority of positives tests in cycling in recent years – including the “vanishing twin” (Tyler Hamilton), the “pigeon pie” (Adri van der Poel), the “poppy seed muffin” (Alexi Grewal), the “too much whiskey” (Floyd Landis) and the “EPO-stained handlebar tape” (okay, I made up that one). 

One consistency in these excuses is they all turned out to be both fake news and alternative facts. Froome may well come up with some elaborate theory as to why his kidneys malfunctioned on that particular stage, possibly even overriding the most likely reason of all: that he took an oral dose of salbutamol, banned under the Wada code. 

What is certain is that neither Sky’s lawyers (paid by the hour remember) nor Froome himself are in any rush to conclude this case. Because salbutamol is a specified substance, permitted under certain threshold levels and also with a Therapeutic Use Exemption, it doesn’t result in any provisional suspension, but is all pending on the outcome of the case. 

Compare this, by the way, to Irish amateur boxer Michael O’Reilly – still in suspended limbo over a year and a half after his positive doping test at the Rio Olympics. At this rate, that might well drag on to Tokyo 2020. 

Froome has reportedly agreed a €1.4 million appearance fee to ride the Giro d’Italia in May, before looking to win his fifth Tour de France in six years. It’s actually in his best interest to drag on this case as long as possible, so that even if he is eventually suspended, it will have minimum impact of his earnings. All of which adds to the already sad and dispiriting message: what’s a positive doping test these days when you can easily talk or else lie your way out of it? 

The latter has to be the case for the 28 Russian Winter Olympians who this week had their life bans overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas). Originally found guilty of doping offences at Sochi 2014, on the back of that shocking testimony of Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping lab, and reinforced by pages of documents and other whistleblowers, this should have been black and white, given the entire Russian federation were also originally banned from Pyeongchang, where the 2018 Winter Olympics get under way next Friday. 

Dismissed

They didn’t even bother with an excuse – simply claimed there wasn’t sufficient evidence to ban them individually. Someone is obviously not telling the truth, and therein lies part of the problem. 

Worse still when it comes to the excuses, sex typically works as well as any lies. Just last week, US sprinter Gil Roberts, who won 4x400m relay gold in Rio, had his potential four-year ban dismissed by Cas after he claimed his positive test for the banned masking agent probenecid was the result of kissing his girlfriend, who at the time was taking sinus medication. 

Testifying at Roberts’s arbitration hearing was Dr Pascal Kintz, a professor at the University of Strasbourg, who also figured into the first precedent-setting kissing case: in 2009, French tennis player Richard Gasquet was also cleared of a positive test for cocaine after convincing an ITF anti-doping tribunal he’d ingested it while kissing a woman in a Miami nightclub the night before. 

Setting the trend here was US sprinter Dennis Mitchell, who back in 1998 tested positive for testosterone, his defence being he drank five bottles of beer and had sex with his wife at least four times. That excuse was accepted by US Track and Field, though the IAAF banned him for two years. 

It’s clearly still worth a go: Canada’s 2015 World pole vault champion Shawn Barber was also cleared to compete in Rio despite testing positive for cocaine at the Canadian trials, claiming it was “inadvertently ingested” during a sexual encounter with a woman he met via an online personals site. Barber by the way has since come out as gay.

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