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by Shane Stokes
October 5, 2016
Photography by Kristof Ramon
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Despite lobbying by the UCI to the World Anti Doping Agency over the legal status of Tramadol in sport, WADA has confirmed that the powerful painkiller will not be banned for 2017.
Tramadol has been used by some riders for many years, reportedly showing up in anti-doping tests. Riders such as Taylor Phinney have warned about its use, saying that it could be responsible for crashes within the peloton due to its effect on those taking it.
It has serious side effects, including seizures, decreased alertness and drug addiction.
Because of this, UCI president Brian Cookson has said several times in the past that he wanted WADA to move it from the agency’s monitoring programme to the banned list.
Last month the UCI confirmed to CyclingTips that it was pushing hard for WADA to ban it for 2017.
However that has not been successful.
“Tramadol was on the WADA 2016 Monitoring Program and it remains there for the 2017 Monitoring Program,” a WADA spokesman told CyclingTips. “It is being monitored for in-competition use only. WADA developed the Monitoring Program with partners in anti-doping to look at substances which are not prohibited but which we wish to monitor in order to detect patterns of misuse in sport.
“A substance or method may be placed on the Prohibited List if it meets two of the following three criteria: it has the potential to be performance enhancing; can be detrimental to the health of an athlete; and it is contrary to the spirit of sport.”
It is unclear why WADA believes Tramadol doesn’t satisfy these criteria. Blocking the sensation of pain would appear to assist sportspeople who are dealing with effort, while the risk of increased crashing plus addition would seem to tick the box of health problems.
As for the spirit of sport, Phinney and others have pointed out that the use of powerful painkillers appears contrary to the notion of competing in a clean and ethical way.
UCI president Brian Cookson was unavailable for comment but the UCI gave its reaction via its spokesman Louis Chenaille.
“In March 2011 the UCI formally requested that WADA consider adding Tramadol to the List of Prohibited Substances,” he told CyclingTips on Wednesday. “As a consequence of the UCI’s initial request, Tramadol was added to the WADA Monitoring List in 2012.
“In the past two years, the UCI expressly reiterated its request to WADA to include Tramadol on the Prohibited List. Our understanding is that Tramadol was not added at this stage because it is not considered a performance-enhancing substance but rather a potent pain killer considered to restore physical ability.”
The UCI is understandably frustrated by the stalling by WADA. Given that the agency’s list of banned substances and methods must be followed by all sports, it appears to be a one size fits all approach by WADA. But while there may not be the same dangers to others in the case of (say) disorientated athletes in track and field, for example, the possibility of crashes in the peloton underline why cycling has profoundly different risks.
It may also be the case that WADA is reluctant to ban painkillers when high-impact sports such as rugby are an agency signatory.
So, what about the UCI doing its own thing?
Speaking to CyclingTips in November 2015, Cookson said that he wanted to see if the UCI could go above and beyond WADA rules in specific cases.
“This is very frustrating for us, and this is something that I have asked our legal people to look at,” he said then.
“We are pretty clear that this is something that is being abused. It is years now, it goes back before my time, my predecessors asked WADA to look at this. It has been on the watch list for all that time.”
“We could in theory go higher [tougher] than the WADA Code,” he added. “But I am nervous about this because I want to have the strength of WADA behind us. I have said this before in other cases.
“If we try to go above and beyond the WADA Code, then you can bet your life that whoever falls foul of that, their lawyers will say, ‘you know what, this is where we will go after them. We will challenge that.’”
Cookson acknowledged the risk in that.
“We have to be sure that if we were challenged, that we would win,” he said. “I don’t want to set a negative precedent, I want to set positive precedents in that sense. So we need to look at it very carefully and we are going to do that. Ideally, I would like Tramadol to be on the banned list and ideally I would like the cortisol issue to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction as well.
“But at the moment, I want to make sure that WADA is 100 percent behind us.”
Sadly, almost a year on, that is not the case. The situation remains the same and WADA says that the UCI and others must stick to the Code.
“All signatory organizations are required to conduct their programs according to the World Anti-Doping Code and International Standards,” said the spokesman to CyclingTips. “This includes the Prohibited List, which is updated at least annually.”
The UCI has admitted this is the case.
“As signatory of the World Anti-Doping Code, the UCI is bound by WADA rules and guidelines,” said Chenaille on Wednesday.
There may be a real desire in place to rid cycling of substances such as Tramadol but, for the foreseeable future at least, the long wait continues.