Analysis: WADA appears to contradict UCI over Froome case decision

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The World Anti-Doping Agency has apparently moved to distance itself from the UCI’s statement last week that it followed that Agency’s lead in dropping the case against Chris Froome.

Releasing a statement on Wednesday, the agency repeatedly said that the UCI was the body which came to the decision to end the enquiry. This appears to contradict what cycling’s governing body had previously stated.

Since Froome was cleared nine days ago, both WADA and the UCI have come under criticism from those who question how a rider who was over the limit was able to avoid a sanction, despite not carrying out the customary controlled pharmacokinetic study (CPKS) required under WADA’s anti-doping rules.

The bodies have also been criticised for not releasing a reasoned decision, namely a detailed breakdown of the case plus the reasons for the final outcome. Both have defended their position, while Froome has reasserted that he did nothing wrong.

WADA’s latest communication is a bid to further explain its stance, but also appears to shift responsibility for Froome’s clearing onto the UCI.

Passing the hot potato: who made the decision to drop the case?

On July 2 the UCI announced that the Froome investigation was at an end. As part of that statement, it said that it had “considered all the relevant evidence in detail (in consultation with its own experts and experts from WADA).

“On 28 June 2018, WADA informed the UCI that it would accept, based on the specific facts of the case, that Mr Froome’s sample results do not constitute an AAF. In light of WADA’s unparalleled access to information and authorship of the salbutamol regime, the UCI has decided, based on WADA’s position, to close the proceedings against Mr Froome.” [Italics our own]

This was echoed by UCI President David Lappartient in a video interview published the next day on the UCI’s YouTube channel.

“This case has been closed because the UCI received a statement from the World Anti-Doping Agency in which they clearly said that they accepted the explanation transmitted by Mr Christopher Froome…that the case does not constitute an anti-doping rule violation,” he said then.

“An international federation such as the UCI has to follow the World Anti-Doping Agency. They are the experts on this and their experts finally decided that this case was not an anti-doping rule violation. So we had to follow the decision from the WADA.”

UCI President David Lappartient.

However in the statement released on Wednesday, WADA appears to be contradicting that position, passing the responsibility back onto the UCI. The agency thrust ownership for the decision onto cycling’s governing body three times in the opening three paragraphs, and on several other occasions in the statement.

“On 2 July 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced that it would not be appealing the Union Cycliste Internationale’s (UCI’s) decision not to assert an Anti-Doping Rule Violation (ADRV) in the case involving British rider Christopher Froome,” it wrote. [Italics again our own]

“WADA accepted that the analytical result of Mr. Froome’s sample from 7 September 2017 during the Vuelta a España, which identified the prohibited substance salbutamol at a concentration in excess of the decision limit of 1,200 ng/mL, did not constitute an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF). The Agency’s decision not to appeal the ruling of the UCI, which was the results management authority with sole jurisdiction in this case, was taken on the basis of a full and careful review of all explanations and supporting evidence submitted by Mr. Froome in June 2018 (which the UCI shared with WADA), as well as thorough consultation with internal and external experts.

“While WADA remains convinced that the UCI reached the right and fair outcome on this very complex case, the Agency wishes to clarify elements that have been subject to much speculation and misinformation.”

It then went on to talk about salbutamol and the current rules relating to it, which will be documented below.

Later on in the statement, WADA continued to pass ownership for the decision onto the UCI.

It spoke about the CPKS study that was previously used to clear athletes accused of excessive salbutamol use but not carried out in the Froome case. It said that “it was accepted by the UCI, however, that in this case such a study would not have provided reliable evidence as it would be impossible to adequately recreate similar conditions to when Mr. Froome was subjected to the test.”

It said that Froome “was able to show the UCI Tribunal” how it was possible that he took less than the stipulated maximum dose, yet still provided a sample over the decision limit of 1,200 ng of salbutamol per ml of urine, and said that “it was accepted by the UCI” that a CPKS study could not replicate the conditions during the Vuelta.

It also said that “from start to finish, the UCI was solely and exclusively in charge of the procedure and dealt with all procedural aspects of the case. Despite not being party to proceedings, WADA was responsive throughout the UCI’s results management process and provided support where appropriate.”

WADA added that in April it “requested to intervene in the UCI proceedings as a third party so as to meet any challenge to the salbutamol regime but its request was denied by the UCI Tribunal. Despite this denial, and in order to assist the parties, WADA provided a further detailed note on the salbutamol regime on 15 May, addressing the substance of Mr. Froome’s questions.”

As regards the final decision, it said that WADA initially “considered that this case merited going through a CPKS and, if necessary, disciplinary proceedings at both the UCI and Court of Arbitration for Sport level.” However it said that it received detailed explanation from Froome on June 4 and this, plus what was provided to it by the UCI, led it to become clear to WADA that, “in particular, the combination of his within-subject variability for salbutamol excretion, the sudden and significant increase in salbutamol dosage prior to the doping control, and the number of consecutive doping controls meant that the analytical result could not be considered inconsistent with the ingestion of a permissible dose of inhaled salbutamol.

“For the reasons mentioned above, WADA considers that accepting Mr. Froome’s explanations was the appropriate course of action and is the fair outcome,” it added.

That appears to synchronise more clearly with what the UCI said about WADA concluding that the case should end.

However the disparity between what the UCI and Lappartient initially said about who led the decision and the tone of WADA’s statement on Wednesday seems clear.

In the absence of a reasoned decision, it is impossible to know who was indeed the prime mover in dropping the case.

Released statistics on salbutamol cases:

Aside from the subject of who made what decisions, WADA’s statement also talked about salbutamol and confirmed the belief – disputed by some commentators on social media – that it can be performance enhancing.

WADA noted that the substance is an “effective therapeutic remedy for asthma with no known performance-enhancing properties” when it is inhaled at a therapeutic dose. However it then said that if it is consumed “in excessive doses or by systematic routes (e.g. oral), it can be a stimulant or an anabolic agent, which is why it is on the Prohibited List with a threshold amount.”

It also said that in considering the scientific literature published about salbutamol over the past 20 years, that it believed that the current threshold is set at the right level. However it also notes that variables exist with salbutamol depending on conditions specific to each case and, because of this, that those athletes who exceed the threshold are given the chance to show how this occurred and to prove that they only used it in a proper therapeutic way.

WADA provided statistics to show why some cases involving salbutamol over the permitted excretion level are concluded without sanction. It said that between 2013 and 2017, there were 41 cases that involved salbutamol as the only substance.

It said that 20 percent of these, eight out of the 41 cases, resulted in the athlete being acquitted. Approximately half, 21 out of 41 cases, saw the athletes being suspended.

It added that the remaining twelve cases included a range of circumstances. These included the athletes having valid TUEs, receiving reprimands from WADA, or being part of a sport that wasn’t a WADA Code signatory.

It also spoke of 57 cases over the same time period which either contained salbutamol alone or the substance in combination of other prohibited substances. This appears to overlap with the other data.

WADA said that eight out of those 57 cases resulted in an acquittal [14%], and that 30 out of 57 resulted in suspensions.

Looking at cycling in particular, it said that of those 57 cases, only four were relating to road cycling. Three of these saw the riders concerned being given suspensions between six and nine months, while one rider was cleared.

“Therefore, while the specific details of the Froome case are unique, the result the UCI arrived at is not unusual,” said the agency. “WADA believes it was the right and fair outcome for a very complex case and that Mr Froome deserved to be treated with the same fairness as any other athlete.”

WADA listed 11 studies on salbutamol excretion which it sponsored. These range in dates between 2008 and 2014, while it said there are also a number of ongoing studies dealing with this topic.

Aside from drawing on previous studies, the agency said that it consults with internal and independent external experts when dealing with complex cases such as the Froome situation. It doesn’t envisage modifying either the threshold or decision limit for salbutamol at this point in time.

Froome rode, and won, the Giro d’Italia this year while under investigation for his salbutamol levels during last year’s Vuelta. The case against him was dropped at the start of July.

Froome case timeline

Contained within the WADA statement was a timeline of how things unfolded in the Froome case.

It said that the rider was informed of the presumptive Adverse Analytical Finding in September of last year. Then, on December 28, it said that the UCI and Froome entered into what it called “an ad-hoc procedural agreement.” WADA added that it was not involved in any fashion in the process leading up to this agreement.

It said that the UCI and Froome agreed that the UCI Anti-Doping Tribunal should decide his evidentiary requests, and that following “substantial submissions” from Froome and the UCI, that the tribunal did so in mid-March of this year.

Separate to that, it said that Froome sent a letter to WADA on January 31, looking for specific information regarding the scientific bases for the salbutamol threshold and decision limit.

WADA said that it gave both Froome and the UCI “background information to, and the rationale for, the decision limit for salbutamol,” on March 5.

The following month, it said that its request to “intervene in the UCI proceedings as a third party so as to meet any challenge to the salbutamol regime,” was denied by the UCI Tribunal. However despite this denial, WADA said that it “provided a further detailed note on the salbutamol regime on 15 May, addressing the substance of Mr. Froome’s questions.”

It then said that it received Froome’s “substantial explanations and evidence” on 4 June. WADA reviewed these with in-house and external experts, liaised with the UCI and then communicated its position statement on 28 June. The UCI then announced its decision to close the case on July 2.

As was the case with the UCI’s statements on the matter, WADA’s communication is short on key details. It talks about his clearing, and yet doesn’t go into details about why exactly he was cleared.

It states that Froome “was able to show the UCI Tribunal how it was possible that he took a permitted dose of salbutamol (1,600 mcg/24 hours, not to exceed 800 mcg/12 hours) while still providing a sample with a concentration of the substance (1,428 ng/ml of urine, when adjusted for specific gravity) that was above the decision limit (1,200 ng/ml).

“In some other cases, athletes have been able to demonstrate an unusually high salbutamol excretion by conducting a controlled pharmacokinetic study (CPKS). It was accepted by the UCI, however, that in this case such a study would not have provided reliable evidence as it would be impossible to adequately recreate similar conditions to when Mr. Froome was subjected to the test, taking into account his physical condition, which included an illness, exacerbated asthmatic symptoms, dose escalation over a short period of time, dehydration and the fact that he was midway through a multi-day road cycling race.”

However, in the absence of a CPKS study, neither WADA nor the UCI have clarified how Froome was able to prove how much salbutamol he was taking during the race. According to the Sunday Times, he has said that he was using his inhaler four times per day when healthy, and up to ten times a day when he became sick towards the end of the Vuelta.

However there is still no explanation as to how this dosage was proven to the two bodies. In the absence of a reasoned decision, many questions still remain.

One more question has now been added to that list: has the UCI and Lappartient’s description of how the case was dropped created any behind-the-scenes tension with WADA?

See the full WADA statement here.

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