The war on drugs in sport: Let’s chalk one up for the bad guys

The IOC has confirmed that teams of three will take part in the 2020 Olympics in the three equestrian disciplines. IOC President Thomas Bach is pictured here with the Spanish stallion Sarango. 
IOC President Thomas Bach  … is his organisation just horsing around with Russia over the country’s doping infractions? © FEI

We all like to think that the sporting bodies of the world are waging a relentless war against the use of drugs in sports.

Sports such as cycling and weightlifting have suffered enormous damage through drugs scandals, and that must surely highlight the need for vigilance.

In horse sport, we have the FEI Tribunal, diligently working its way through drug transgressions identified through the world governing body’s drugs testing program.

Drug use in equestrian sport is an especially sensitive issue. Their deliberate use in any sport is cheating, pure and simple. However, at least the athletes are abusing their own bodies.

In horse sport, it is the animals that get the dope and they have no say. The public, I think, considers the drugging of horses to be particularly egregious.

Yet, in this global war against drugs in sport, we have the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had its very own Charlie Brown moment this month with its wishy-washy suspension of Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea over what a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation found was a state-sponsored doping program.

However, the IOC has left a pathway to next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea Games for clean Russian competitors, to be selected on a case-by-case basis, who will compete in neutral uniforms under the somewhat less neutral name, “Olympic Athletes From Russia”. That’s hardly going to keep Vladimir Putin and his cronies awake at night, is it?

And, quite remarkably, the IOC has indicated it may even partially or fully lift its suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee from the start of the closing ceremony, which may see the Russian flag flying at the Games after all.

They’re hardly eye-watering punishments for a nation that not only backed the doping of its athletes but directly targeted the Olympics with its manipulation of the anti-doping laboratory at the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.

The man who headed the WADA investigation into Russia, the American Jack Robertson, was scathing of the IOC’s position on Russian doping in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. He argues that the IOC has failed to hand Russia a punishment that has any serious deterrence value. It’s hard to find fault with that view.

So, are we fighting the good fight in horse sport? I sometimes wonder.

Ironically, my concerns stem not from the more shocking cases of horse doping, involving muscle-building compounds or drugs intended to mask pain and injuries, but the succession of relatively minor cases that have seen riders jumping through hoops to satisfy the FEI and its tribunal that the case isn’t worthy of a public lynching.

OK, that’s certainly an exaggeration. However, the reality is that a number of riders committed what most of us would consider minor indiscretions, and found themselves having to hire lawyers and carry out an investigation to prepare for their day before the FEI Tribunal.

Here are some examples from recent months:

Short of testing every batch of hay fed to competition horses, poppy seed contamination is a risk riders face anywhere in the world where the plant is found.
Short of testing every batch of hay fed to competition horses, poppy seed contamination is a risk riders face anywhere in the world where the plant is found.

It is impossible not to feel sympathy for Saudi Arabian showjumper Ramzy Hamad Al Duhami, whose horse probably failed a drugs test at a Nations Cup event in Poland as a result of inadvertent contamination with a common dewormer.

His mount, Deejay, tested positive for aminorex, which is a metabolic byproduct of the dewormer Levamisole, which is widely available and can sometimes present as a false positive for the prohibited aminorex.

Levamisole is the most widely used dewormer in Poland and it was highly likely it had previously been used at the event venue. Deejay had been housed on his own in the FEI stables at the venue and he was only hand-walked by the groom in the facility where the event was held.

Al Duhami, with the consent of the FEI, went to some lengths to have the A sample retested to prove it came from Levamisole but there was not enough plasma.

The FEI agreed that the most likely cause of the positive test was some sort of contamination from Levamisole.

The case was effectively signed off by the FEI Tribunal after the FEI and Al Duhami reached an agreement, but he still has a three-month ban on his record, and had to pay a fine and a contribution toward legal costs.

His greatest sin in the whole saga may have been, in a darkly ironic twist, choosing to use the FEI stabling for the event. Obviously, there’s little that can be done about the time served under an automatic provisional suspension but, having read the entire decision, I cannot fathom why his conduct warranted a fine and costs.

Similar sympathy should be felt for 18-year-old Italian-registered rider Allegra Ieraci, whose horse was campaigned in Morocco and probably failed a drug test because of poppy-seeds in its feed.

Poppy seeds are thought to be at the root of a feed contamination issue in Britain. ©
Poppy seeds. © Odedr

The combination of three substances found in the urine of the showjumper named Granada was highly suggestive of poppy-seed contamination.

Ieraci received a reprimand from the tribunal, which found that the degree of fault was minimal. No fine or suspension was imposed.

Granada was normally stabled in Basiano, Italy. It transpires it was not possible to stock and transport Italian horse feed for the entire trip. Haylage taken from Italy was used initially. Once it ran out, domestic Moroccan hay provided by the organizers of the various competitions was bought for the horse.

It had not been possible to get samples of the Moroccan-sourced feed for testing.

The problem of poppy-seed contamination has been reported in parts of Italy as well as other regions of Europe and northern Africa where the plant Papaver Somniferum can be found. It seems that, short of buying only feed that has been tested, it’s a risk that riders have to bear.

In a recently resolved case, seven endurance riders, three trainers and nine horses from the United Arab Emirates ended up in the firing line after the well respected Zabeel Feedmill made a mistake in mixing a feed supplement containing five commercially available products that would have been fine.

It transpires that another product was accidentally added to the mix at the mill. It contained caffeine.

Zabeel Feedmill was described as the most renowned feed producer and supplier in the region. For more than 30 years it has been supplying feed, hay and supplements to more than 2000 flat racing horses, 3000 endurance horses and 5000 racing camels, all of whom are subject to extensive forensic tests.

Until this case, it had never been accused in connection with doping violations. It has its own quality control procedures and frequently got its feeds tested.

So, just how careful should we expect riders and stables to be in purchasing their feeds? In this case the individuals fell victim to what would seem to be an extremely rare mistake.

Even the FEI accepted that the circumstances of the cases were exceptional.

I could continue with a list of cases that are, in the overall picture, pretty minor.

The FEI and its disciplinary tribunal are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place with such cases.

The bar for drug infractions is set very high, indeed, with riders having to satisfy the tribunal that they bore little or no fault in each case to stand any chance of leniency. And that can be very hard to prove.

Is there a better way? I’m not sure there is.

But I will continue to feel some sympathy toward the enthusiasts competing at a modest level who simply want to enjoy their horse sport, who may unwittingly find themselves facing disciplinary action in front of a tribunal half a world away.

One thing I do know is this: The International Olympic Committee has done the global anti-doping campaign no favors with its weak handling of the Russian drugs scandal.

Jack Robertson is right. The IOC’s handling of what was industrial-scale doping provides very little deterrence. And that is a travesty when you consider the procession of comparatively minor breaches that find their way in front of the FEI Tribunal.

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