The World Anti-Doping Agency was accused of being “lame” and “toothless” on Monday after Chris Froome apparently exposed its salbutamol test as unreliable, opening the door to potential action from athletes found guilty of the offence in the past.
After nine months of investigation, and with just days to go until the start of this year’s Tour de France, Froome was cleared of any wrongdoing when the world governing body, the UCI, dropped its disciplinary case against the British rider on advice from the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Froome, 33, had vehemently denied breaking any rules after he triggered an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF) for the asthma drug salbutamol at last year’s Vuelta a Espana. He is now cleared to compete in this year’s Tour, which begins in the Vendee region on Saturday.
ASO, the Tour organizer, had tried to block Froome from competing, with a hearing due Tuesday. But they conceded Monday that their attempts to do so were “obsolete.”
It was an embarrassing climbdown for the French company, which had argued that Froome’s presence in France might be bad for the “image” of the Tour with his case dragging on. Its former ambassador, Bernard Hinault, had been particularly strident in his condemnation of Froome, who has won the Tour four times. But it is not half as embarrassing as WADA’s climbdown, the implications of which could be far more serious.
Italians Diego Ulissi and Alessandro Petacchi were both banned on the strength of having less salbutamol in their system than Froome had last September. They did not have access to the funding or legal representation available to Froome. They may try to seek damages now that the reliability of the test has been undermined, although Ulissi’s new team, UAE Team Emirates, indicated that their rider simply wished to move on with his career.
Anti-doping experts and commentators queued up to criticize WADA, however, after the UCI’s statement dropped Monday morning, revealing that it had decided to close the case on advice 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,” read the UCI statement. “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.”
WADA released a statement shortly afterwards giving a brief appraisal of what it described as a “complex case” and adding it would not try to appeal the UCI’s decision.
WADA did not go into great detail on how Froome had managed to demonstrate his innocence, beyond saying that his sample result was “not inconsistent with an ingestion of salbutamol within the permitted maximum inhaled dose.” Salbutamol is a specified substance rather than a banned substance, and can be taken up to a threshold of 1,000ng/ml.
It added that athletes would normally be required to demonstrate how they could have exceeded that threshold while sticking to the permitted maximum inhaled dosage by performing a controlled pharmacokinetic study (CPKS). “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,” WADA said.
Robin Parisotto, who previously worked on the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation’s biological passport programme, described himself as “bemused,” given Froome’s urine reportedly contained 2,000 ng/ml.
“I’m quite bemused and it’s hard to comprehend how a salbutamol level that high could not constitute an AAF,” Parisotto told Cycling News.
“There are quite a few issues now that have been opened up. This is a real can of worms. It makes a mockery of WADA’s threshold limits of salbutamol and more so because other athletes have been banned with lesser levels in the urine. So, does WADA’s position on salbutamol need revising and if so why? There are so many questions that have been opened up now. This absolutely harms the credibility of WADA and the UCI. My own personal opinion is that this won’t ever be fixed until I and the public see this report.”
Former rider Michael Rasmussen, who was convicted of doping during his career, described WADA as “lame” and “toothless,” while Sarah Hartley, partner at law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, said that Froome’s clearance without a CPKS raised several concerns.
“It may be unlikely, but athletes could seek to excuse their improper use of asthma medications for performance-enhancing purposes by arguing that they could not recreate the particular conditions under which the positive test was obtained,” she said.
Team Sky and Froome said they were simply looking forward to racing now. Sir Dave Brailsford, team principal, said they had always had “total confidence in Chris and his integrity.
“We knew that he had followed the right medical guidance in managing his asthma at the Vuelta and were sure that he would be exonerated in the end, which he has been. This is why we decided that it was right for Chris to continue racing, in line with UCI rules, while the process was ongoing.”
Froome said he was “grateful and relieved.” “Today’s ruling draws a line,” he added. “It means we can all move on and focus on the Tour de France.”
Where this leaves the key players
The four-time Tour de France champion is “grateful and relieved” to have put a nightmare nine months behind him. This was a big win for the British rider, but he can still expect a torrid time at the Tour, with many skeptics remaining unconvinced.
A great day for them also. But in the absence of full reasoned decision, there are those who feel it was deep pockets and legal arguments which won the day.
An absolutely disastrous result for the World Anti-Doping Agency. It not only brings WADA’s salbutamol test into question, but other tests, too. Remains to be seen whether those who have been found “guilty” in the past sue for damages.
David Lappartient, president of the governing body, wanted Team Sky to pull Froome from competition while the process was ongoing. Although it was an independent process, the UCI inevitably ends up looking weaker.
The Tour organizer’s attempt to block Froome from the Tour accelerated the disciplinary process. ASO will be relieved it has cleared up in time for Saturday, but timing of the announcement makes them look a bit foolish.