Opinion: Why WADA and the UCI’s handling of the Froome case is damaging to sport

by Shane Stokes


It was the final paragraph that really jarred.

“The UCI understands that there will be significant discussion of this decision, but wishes to reassure all those involved in or interested in cycling that its decision is based on expert opinions, WADA’s advice, and a full assessment of the facts of the case. The UCI hopes that the cycling world can now turn its focus to, and enjoy, the upcoming races on the cycling calendar.”

Nothing to see here. Move on. Forget about the Froome case, and just get back to watching cycling events.

Feels a bit patronizing, right?

Cycling fans, the media and others waited six months for a decision relating to the high levels of Salbutamol in Chris Froome’s Vuelta a España sample. After being warned by the UCI president David Lappartient that such a verdict was increasingly unlikely before the Tour de France, one was unexpectedly handed down five days before the start of the race.

In the context of Lappartient’s earlier statements, it felt like a rushed decision.

The summary: Froome was cleared by both the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI. The two sporting bodies had decided he had no case to answer, despite his sample over the maximum permitted level of Salbutamol, and despite two other high-profile riders in the past, Alessandro Petacchi and Diego Ulissi, both being handed racing bans.

There were countless questions about the case and yet, even after Froome’s clearing, very few answers. The UCI essentially said that it was following WADA’s lead in dropping the matter, explaining that the agency had ‘unparalleled access to information and authorship of the salbutamol regime.’

If WADA felt there wasn’t a case to answer, the UCI said, then we don’t either.

So, please just go back to watching races.

WADA’s contradictions

The dearth of information about why Froome was cleared is deeply frustrating. Given that this story has been huge news for months, and given that he is the defending Tour de France champion aiming for a record-equalling fifth title, why wasn’t the decision explained more fully?

Or to put it another way, why wasn’t transparency given the prominence it deserves?

WADA’s own communique offered a few additional details, but was also far from enlightening.

WADA said that it had engaged in ‘thorough consultation with internal and independent external experts,’ in coming to its conclusion, which was that ‘the sample result was not inconsistent with the ingestion of inhaled Salbutamol within the permitted maximum dose.’

Explaining that conclusion, it mentioned a number of factors specific to this case. These were defined as ‘a significant increase in dose, over a short period prior to the doping control, in connection with a documented illness; as well as, demonstrated within-subject variability in the excretion of Salbutamol.’

WADA also said that it recognised that ‘athletes may exceed the decision limit concentration (of 1200 ng of Salbutamol per ml of urine) without exceeding the maximum inhaled dose.’

However, the press release also included a jarring contradiction. Early on it said that urine levels of Salbutamol in excess of the decision limit of 1200 ng/mL would be “presumed not to be an intended therapeutic use of the substance and will be considered as an AAF [Adverse Analytical Finding] unless the athlete proves, through a controlled pharmacokinetic study (CPKS), that the abnormal result was the consequence of the use of the therapeutic dose (by inhalation) up to the maximum dose indicated above.” [italics our emphasis]

Simply put, a CPKS would require the athlete to try to replicate the circumstances of the test, then to inhale a legal amount of Salbutamol to try to show that an elevated urine level would occur.

That test has been done in the past with athletes who have been deemed to be over the limit for Salbutamol, including Ulissi. His CPKS was unable to replicate his test levels, and he was given a nine month sanction.

However, although WADA specifically mentioned in its communique that the CPKS is the route used to try to prove innocence, it then said that this requirement was dropped for Froome.

“In Mr. Froome’s case, WADA accepts that a CPKS would not have been practicable as it would not have been possible to adequately recreate the unique circumstances that preceded the 7 September doping control (e.g. illness, use of medication, chronic use of Salbutamol at varying doses over the course of weeks of high intensity competition).”

Its final conclusions were:

– the sample result is not inconsistent with an ingestion of Salbutamol within the permitted maximum inhaled dose;

– an adequate CPKS is not practicable; and

– the sample may be considered not to be an AAF.

And that was that.

No details about how Froome was able to prove his innocence without a CPKS.

No details as to why he was different to other athletes sanctioned in the past, including Ulissi and Petacchi.

And no commitment to publishing the full reasoned decision, which would lay out the evidence presented and the specific reasons why Froome was cleared.

Lessons from history

For both WADA and the UCI, not releasing a reasoned decision is doing sport a huge disservice. In 2013 the UCI’s own Cycling Independent Reform Commission report presented some very damaging conclusions about the UCI under presidents Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid.

It found that there was a see-no-evil approach, with the report’s authors stating that “going after the cheaters was perceived as a witch-hunt that would be detrimental to the image of cycling.” It found that the two presidents were far too close to the sport’s big Tour winner, Lance Armstrong, and that the UCI had interfered with the supposedly-independent Vrijman report looking into allegations of EPO use by Armstrong, essentially neutering that report to protect the Texan.

During that era, there was a perception that some riders were simply too big to fall. That if they were important enough, they were deemed innocent enough.

Nobody is saying the UCI of today is the same as the flawed organisation of the past. Nobody is saying Lappartient took the decision in order to protect Froome. But notwithstanding that, the CIRC investigation showed the importance of transparency in sporting organisations. Being open with the public and the media is crucial to build and retain trust; without transparency, there is room for all sorts of doubts.

Indeed, doubts have been voiced by many since the Froome decision was handed down; those expressing dismay include current and former professionals, sports scientists and others.

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The same need for transparency also applies to WADA. Noble in its goals, essential in its existence, the agency has nevertheless come under pressure in recent years. Its former chief investigator Jack Robertson turned whistleblower due to frustration with WADA’s president over inaction in addressing Russian doping; Robertson lost his job as a result.

In recent weeks, the highly-regarded anti-doping scientist Robin Parisotto voiced his own frustration with sporting organisations such as WADA, the IAAF and others. He told CyclingTips that he considered the governance of sport to be ‘scandalous.’

“The clean athletes are supposed to have confidence in the leaders of sport, and here they were being deluded, being scandalized, being cheated,” Parisotto said. “Not only by the actual athletes who cheated, but by the very people who were overseeing the sport. I mean, you can’t get any worse than that.”

He too was dismayed by this week’s Froome verdict or, rather, the lack of a reasoned decision.

The rider may indeed be innocent. But don’t tell us; show us. Present the evidence. Treat people like adults.

Otherwise, no lessons have been learned from the past.

A team and a tarnished reputation

The Tour de France will begin this Saturday with Froome chasing a huge goal. Should he win the race, he would join Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only five-time champions of the event.

He would also extend his unbeaten Grand Tour streak to four, namely the 2017 Tour and Vuelta España, the 2018 Giro d’Italia and the 2018 Tour.

For any rider that’s a staggering achievement; even more so for a competitor who showed only modest results until age 26. Froome is now 33 years of age, yet is in the most successful period of his career.

He has repeatedly said he is a clean rider, and that may be the case. However his many years on Team Sky haven’t helped his credibility. The team has become known for repeated pledges of transparency interspersed by concerning moments. To name but a few, there was Sergio Henao’s irregular blood values in 2014; the rider was subsequently cleared, yet Sky’s pledge to publish a full scientific report on the matter still remains unfulfilled four years later.

There was the release of power data during the 2015 Tour which was contradicted by that of riders who were slower than Froome.

There was the news that Bradley Wiggins had used the potent corticosteroid triamcinolone prior to his key targets in 2011, 2012 and 2013, plus had an undocumented ‘jiffy bag’ delivery made to him at the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné.

There was the alleged theft of the-then team doctor’s laptop on holiday, which led to the loss of medical records pertaining to that case.

And there was the official conclusion by a British parliamentary committee investigating the team which found that Team Sky was deliberately using otherwise-banned products under the TUE system to gain an unethical performance benefit.

There were also indications from former riders that the team had previously been using grey-area substances such as Tramadol to gain an advantage.

Since the news of Froome’s Adverse Analytical Finding broke, that matter has been viewed in the context of all these other cases. He proclaimed his innocence, yet the fact that he was a rider from a team said to push the absolute limits of grey areas substances and was himself found to be over the threshold of a grey area substance didn’t inspire confidence.

Froome has however now been cleared. He’s expressed relief, insisted on his vindication and said the matter is over. Yet his reputation has undeniably taken a knock.

His boss, Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford, has said time after time that the team has made errors and that it would increase transparency. It’s become a mantra at this point, like a politician’s promise before an election.

If he, and the team, are serious about being open, then they too should be demanding that WADA and the UCI publish the reasoned decision.

Unless that is done, questions will remain.

Known unknowns: some important questions

As things stand, right now there is a clear unease about this week’s news. Froome will head to the Tour as a major favourite, yet many fans of the sport have expressed their concerns. Confidence has been lost, in professional cycling, in riders, in teams and in the administrators who run it and who have the responsibility to ensure that it is clean.

Froome’s competitors have remained silent but it’s likely that at least some of them will have questions about how things have played out. Judging by the reaction on social media and elsewhere, a substantial chunk of the cycling public certainly does.

Amongst those questions are the following:

What evidence did Froome present to negate WADA’s specified requirement for a CPKS test? What does this clearing mean for Petacchi and Ulissi, two riders who didn’t avoid a sanction? Did Team Sky’s lawyers simply have too much money for WADA and UCI’s limited budgets to handle? And, as has been rumoured, was the UCI unhappy with WADA’s decision to clear Froome, but had to toe the same line once the agency made that decision clear?

Looking at the bigger picture, what does this outcome mean for the whole anti-doping system? Does it set a precedent whereby Adverse Analytical Findings for Salbutamol and other such substances are now substantially more difficult to enforce?

And, crucially, what effect will this ruling have on the morale of athletes who have never been involved in anti-doping cases, and who have concerns about there being different rules for some and not others? And what about fans already jaded by years of scandals?

Everyone will have their own opinions about the Froome case. A personal one: the UCI and WADA dropped the ball badly this week by issuing an unexpected ruling in a highly important case and not giving clear details as to how the decision was reached.

There is still time to commit to releasing a reasoned decision. But, with the Tour de France about to start and with the sport front and centre in world media, damage has already been done to cycling’s image.

Avoiding the sharing of information will only further that damage. If the sport and its administrative leaders are serious about transparency, now is the time to act.

To paraphrase a well-known saying, publish or be damned.

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