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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Tour de Salbutamol – antidoping on the rack

The recent clearance of UK rider, Chris Froome, to ride in this year’s Tour de France adds yet another sorry chapter to this historic race. I was going to say “great” race, but give its history of doping, ‘historic’ is the best I can offer.

Cycling’s international body, the UCI, cleared Froome to ride with having returned positive test for the asthma treatment drug Salbutamol. His reported test contained higher levels of the drug that other riders who were subsequently banned.

A lack of transparency from both the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) leaves us in doubt about how and why that decision to clear Froome was made.

This blog post is not about the Froome case specifically, it’s more about the way we view our sporting heroes and what they are really up to.

Successful challenges by wealthy athletes or support from the wealthy backers of athletes are a threat to the integrity of the anti-doping system. Froome’s lawyers (supported by Froome’s Team Sky) launched a tsunami of evidence on why their man was a good guy. One source reports they included the effects of salbutamol in dogs! In fact, Froome had around 500 times the normal medical dose an asthma sufferer might use.

The legal nuances of Froome’s case, like many before him such as Armstrong, Contador and Wiggins, are lost on the general population. For men and women in the street and from the riders’ countries of origin, these athletes are heroes. “Sir Bradley”, knighted for services to cycling is generally now thought to have, at the very least, crossed an ethical if not legal line by using a corticosteroid that can be used to lose weight but not power. The UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee said about Team Sky, “Drugs were being use by Team Sky, within WADA rules, to enhance the performance of riders, and not just to treat medical needs.”

My sense is that the UK sporting public is now coming to a conclusion that they had thought that doping is ‘what those foreign riders’ but are now having to accept that their own heroes have feet of clay.

The UK select committee made two interesting recommendations. I quote them at length so readers can reflect on where we might have to go to solve the problem.

151.We do not think it would be effective to subject doping athletes to criminal procedures and penalties. Longer bans on competing are likely to be more of a disincentive to them and will avoid placing an extra burden on law enforcement bodies such as the police and courts. However, the supply of drugs or promotion of unnecessary medical procedures is a different matter. The Government should give serious consideration to criminalising the supply of drugs to sportspeople with intent to enhance performance rather than to mitigate ill-health, and in so doing defraud clean athletes they are competing against. This would send a stronger message about the unacceptability and the dangers of doping, not only to the suppliers but also to the athletes.

152.For UK Anti-Doping to be more effective, it not only needs more resources, but greater powers too. It has no powers to demand to see private papers, and financial and medical records, to aid its investigations. A change in the law to criminalise the supply of drugs to sports people could give UKAD the powers to access documents without seeking prior agreement, and the right to seek the support of the law enforcement agencies in their investigations, as appropriate”

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