After UCI’s Katusha decision, what next for Paolini?

by Shane Stokes


The situation surrounding Luca Paolini’s positive test for cocaine at last year’s Tour de France is undoubtedly a complicated one.

Tuesday’s decision by the UCI’s Disciplinary Commission, to waive a potential suspension of the Katusha team over the positive cases involving Luca Paolini and Eduard Vorganov, prompted a fair amount of questions — and debate.

Some agreed with the decision not to enforce anti-doping regulation 7.12.1, which states that teams can face bans of between 15 and 45 days when two members test positive within a 12 month period.

According to the commission’s findings, Paolini’s positive test for cocaine should not be treated like other substances as it was recreational.

It was, said the commission, something the team had no involvement in, and therefore other riders shouldn’t be held to account.

However others had a completely different reaction, saying that the decision was flawed. They pointed to the stimulatory nature of cocaine, which could boost performance.  Paolini has admitted that he was using cocaine to counterbalance the effects of a sleeping-pill addiction.

A number of people debating the issue on social media went as far as to say that Katusha owner Igor Makarov’s backing of Brian Cookson during the 2013 UCI elections,  and his presence on the UCI’s powerful Management Commission, may have played a factor.

Whatever your position on this — and, according to a CyclingTips Twitter poll, 59 percent of you disagree with the final verdict — it’s worth considering how the Disciplinary Commission’s decision could impact Paolini’s own upcoming sanction, which is currently in the hands of the UCI’s Anti-Doping Tribunal.

Does Tuesday’s ruling mean, that because the UCI viewed Paolini’s positive test as “recreational,” rather than performance-enhancing, that he will get a rap on the knuckles and be back in action soon?

We don’t know, as this case is unprecented. But we’re not convinced the decision of the UCI’s Disciplinary Commission will influence the decision making of the UCI’s Anti-Doping Tribunal. Here’s why.

Different rules, different consequences

Consider Paolini’s situation. He’s a sportsman bound by the WADA Code. He tested positive for cocaine in a test taken on the fourth stage of last year’s Tour de France. The
WADA Code lays out rules and penalties for athletes who are competing in WADA-affiliated sports, with very clear guidelines as to what action should be followed.

Now look at Katusha’s own situation. As a team it isn’t bound by the WADA Code. Instead, it — and other UCI-registered teams — are governed by UCI regulation 7.12.1. This was introduced in January 2015, and echoed an earlier regulation adopted by the MPCC anti-doping organisation.

Under the UCI rule, two positive tests for a prohibited method or prohibited substance can lead to a team sanction.

Specifically, the regulation states that they will be “suspended from participation in any International Event for a period determined by the President of the UCI Disciplinary Commission or a member of the Disciplinary Commission, taking into account all the circumstances of the case. The suspension shall not be less than 15 days and not more than 45 days.”

The first Katusha rider, Paolini, tested positive during last year’s Tour de France, and has since admitted taking the substance in question.

Last week Eduard Vorganov tested positive for the substance Meldonium/Mildronate, bringing the number of cases in one 12-month period to two, and thus triggering the disciplinary commission.

However that regulation also lays out the grounds whereby such a sanction can be dismissed. Here’s the relevant section:

The Decision of the UCI Disciplinary Commission is immediately enforceable and cannot be appealed, neither by the Team nor by individual Team members. The Team suspended may however file a request for a lifting of the suspension before the UCI Disciplinary Commission. The suspension shall be lifted if the Team establishes that a) at least one anti-doping rule violation has no reasonable prospect of being upheld, or b) at least one Rider bears No Fault or Negligence for the anti-doping rule violation asserted, or c) at least one anti-doping rule violation was committed by the Rider with no involvement of any Team member or staff and that the Team applied all due diligence and took all measures that could reasonably be expected in order to avoid the commission of anti-doping rule violations. 

According to the Disciplinary Commission, the Paolini case muddies the waters in terms of an automatic sanction.

Firstly, it believes that Paolini’s use of cocaine, “was not related to an intention to influence sporting performance but was rather taken on a ‘recreational’ basis.”

Secondly, it said that it believed a suspension relating to the use of a social drug could not be reconciled with the aim of the regulation.

“Even if, strictly speaking, such a case falls within the application of the anti-doping rules for the rider concerned, the imposition of negative consequences for the whole team would be inappropriate and disproportionate,” it argued.

Thirdly, the Commission concluded that article 7.12.1 is intended to punish teams who either lack control of their athletes in this area, don’t do enough to fight doping or are involved in what the commission terms ‘even worse scenarios.’

The latter, presumably, refers to systematic doping with a team’s involvement.

Because of all that, the President of the Commission said that he considered it ‘disproportionate’ if the team were to be suspended “on the basis that one of its members [uses] a social drug, the consumption of which is not related to sporting performance.”

Hence the green light for Katusha to continue.

Is the conclusion accurate? That’s a matter of debate, and there will inevitably be arguments for and against. But let’s contrast that with the case of the Androni Sidermec team, which was handed a 30-day suspension last July by the UCI’s Disciplinary Commission.

This case involved two riders, Davide Appollonio and Fabio Taborre, who tested positive for EPO and the developmental blood booster FG-4592, respectively.

While the substances are more serious than those involved in the Katusha case, penalising the Italian squad appears to indicate it has some blame in the matter.

However, is it any more culpable than the Russian team? A Katusha team doctor has acknowledged that he knew that Paolini had a long-running addiction to sleeping tablets. Did team doctors monitor Paolini to make sure he wasn’t taking other substances? Should the team, perhaps, have instructed him to sit out the Tour and other major races until he had this under control?

The debates will continue, at least in the short term.

What does this mean for Paolini?

And so, back to the WADA Code. As noted, the team isn’t bound to it in any way; its riders are, however.

The WADA Code lays out various banned substances and methods, with cocaine falling under category S6, that of stimulants banned in competition. It makes a distinction between these and so-called specified substances, which are often treated less seriously.

According to Paolini, he took cocaine while training for the Tour de France. He said it occurred in mid-June, weeks before his July 7 test, which delivered an adverse analytical finding, i.e. a positive result.

If Paolini sticks to this account, he will have to satisfy the disciplinary commission overseeing his personal case that the residue from that ingestion was still in his system weeks later.

Given that cocaine has a half-life of 30 minutes and commonly leaves the system within a number of days, he may struggle to show this is the case.

Furthermore, he may also face questions as to why the substance didn’t show up in the pre-Tour doping controls carried out on those selected to ride the event.

If it is indeed determined that he ingested the substance during the Tour, Paolini could yet face a lengthy ban.

While CyclingTips has been unable to find recent examples of riders testing positive for cocaine in competition — Tom Boonen’s 2008 and 2009 incidents were out of competition — USADA’s records for all sports show a typical sanction ranging between one to two years.

WADA’s own rules provide for bans of up to four years for serious substances, although Paolini’s insistence that his cocaine use was recreational rather than for performance enhancement could affect this. His legal team will no doubt point to the UCI Disciplinary Committee’s deeming of his use as recreational, rather than performance enhancing.

Still, given the clear WADA declaration that cocaine is a banned substance in competition, plus the timing of his positive test, it is extremely difficult to envision Paolini not incurring a sanction.

His team may be free to ride, but it’s far too soon to draw the same conclusions about the Italian.

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