Expert on Froome case: ‘This shows the system is unequal’

Expert on Froome case: ‘This shows the system is unequal’ 1
Chris Froome’s Salbutamol case may have far-reaching implications on the world of anti-doping. Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

Ross Tucker, a South African sports scientist and a vocal expert within the anti-doping community, said the decision to close the Froome case reveals inconsistencies about how justice is served in high-profile cases.

“It’s just another huge blow to the credibility of the anti-doping movement,” Tucker said. “If anti-doping is supposed to level the playing field, this shows us the system is unequal.”

What struck Tucker in light of Monday’s decision wasn’t so much the science behind the ruling — everyone is still waiting to see if relevant documents will be released — but how the case could send the wrong message in how the anti-doping system metes out justice.

Froome’s lawyers argued that their client did not break rules and appeared to be ready to challenge not only existing salbutamol rules but also the validity of anti-doping controls.

It appears neither the UCI nor WADA felt they had the evidence to take up that fight, and decided to drop charges just days ahead of the start of the 2018 Tour de France.

Is this an instance of justice being served, or an example of how vulnerable the existing anti-doping system is to a well-funded legal challenge?

Tucker raises concerns the Froome case could be a bellwether for future anti-doping battles set for the courtroom as well-heeled athletes take aim at the tenets of the anti-doping code.

“The burden of proof is getting turned around in this case,” Tucker said. “Instead of an athlete having to prove their innocence, the argument now is that you, the authorities, have to prove to me, the athlete, that the test is credible and robust.”

Here are edited excerpts from a telephone interview Monday:

VeloNews: Thanks for the call, were you surprised at all from the decision?

Ross Tucker: I am not completely surprised. The longer it was drawn out, the more the likely this was going to be the outcome. Simple problems have simple solutions, right? This was clearly not simple. And while it’s natural for people to have emotional responses, I am trying not to do that, but to see the bigger picture and what today’s news means in that broader context.

VN: What is your takeaway on the announcement today to drop the Froome case?

RT: What’s clear today is that when anti-doping is challenged and probed, it turns out to be quite fragile. You can ask, is the testing process robust enough to withstand a well-financed, big-money challenge to it? We’ve seen a few times over the past decade that it hasn’t been. We’ve seen riders get off completely or with a reduced sanction, where another athlete without perhaps the same resources does not. It’s often a matter of how well a challenge can highlight mitigating factors. The longer the process goes on, the more likely they can find those mitigating factors. If you have enough money and good lawyers, those factors are not hard to find.

Chris Froome neared the top of the final climb on stage 20. Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

VN: How does this reflect on the credibility of the anti-doping system?

RT: It’s just another huge blow to the credibility of the anti-doping movement. How can you be two times above the allowed limit and have it set aside like this? The anti-doping process is similar to any other judicial process; there is the ‘police’ that catch you, and the ‘judicial’ system that sentences you. Most people with knowledge would already acknowledge that the quality of testing is not where it needs to be. What we’ve seen even less of is the other side of the process, the judicial process. But when the two are looked at together, it’s almost like a cascade – testing catches a small proportion of dopers, and then the legal processes underpinning the testing successfully sanction only a small proportion of those. And meanwhile, it’s hemorrhaging credibility at every step of the way.

VN: Is there a sense that if an athlete has a lot of money and good lawyers, they receive different treatment?

RT: It’s a bad day for the anti-doping movement because what tiny amount of credibility that existed is now substantially reduced. There’s also the appearance of laws and rules that are applied unequally across different people. This is what this case will make people talk about a lot.  What do you trust? What do you believe? Who is more likely to get away with doping? The wealthy and powerful people. Those who are sophisticated enough to bypass whatever improvements have been made in testing, those who have the resources to do so. It’s still unequal. If anti-doping is supposed to level the playing field, this shows us the system is unequal.

VN: What implications will this decision have on future salbutamol cases?

RT: People say salbutamol needs to be looked at again. But I’d argue that this case has implications for all the substances on the banned list. Salbutamol is a clearer case than some others because it’s a threshold drug, which makes it much more complex. You can have some, but not too much. It’s not like synthetic testosterone, which should never be there. But the concept remains for other drugs – if the quality of testing, the liability, and the process can all be challenged and reversed for Drug X, why not for Drug Y?

VN: Was anything forthcoming in the statements from the UCI or Team Sky?

RT: The only additional information is in the Sky release, saying that Froome’s values during the race support his case because the excessive measurement falls within his normal day-to-day variation. Without the full documentation, it really isn’t that helpful, it’s hard to know what this even means. Perhaps it means that his other values from the Vuelta were sufficiently high that a legal and normal increase in dosage was enough to produce the 1,429 value without it being untoward? If that data and evidence exists, and if it helps better explain this case, I would expect it to be released. And as for the final line in the UCI statement? Asking us to trust the process because it involved experts and then saying we should enjoy the racing?… as if that is going to happen?! Can they be that tone deaf and out of touch?

Chris Froome won the stage to Cumbre del Sol ahead of all his rivals in convincing fashion. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

VN: This decision to drop the case without a sanction is certainly provoking a lot of reaction …

RT: What was already a polarized sport team and polarized issue has become even more so. In the absence of information people will double down on their preconceived ideas. If they believed Froome before, they will feel vindicated. If they didn’t believe Froome, they will now believe even less.

VN: And what if Froome was telling the truth?

RT: People want to see the process by which the decision is reached. No, that’s not going to change the minds of many, because they have lost all confidence in the process and the people who run the process. But it would at least offer some transparency.

VN: From what we can see, it seems Froome’s lawyers were going after the validity of the testing process; how important is this decision in that context?

RT: The burden of proof is getting turned around in this case. Instead of an athlete having to prove their innocence, the argument now is that you, the authorities, have to prove to me, the athlete, that the test is credible and robust. Can you be confident that the test is not going to throw up a false positive?

Previously, the entire anti-doping system was built on the concept of strict liability, in which the burden of proof after a test result was on the athlete. I have not seen the full decision, but this turns the argument 180 degrees. Despite the tests, the authorities still have to stand behind their science and prove it. I have grave concerns about this type of legal challenge for other drugs that are controlled by anti-doping because frankly, there are not many drugs for which the evidence is strong enough to withstand a really robust, well-aimed challenge.

VN: So this could be seen as a challenge to the entire underpinnings of anti-doping authority?

RT: Very rarely do positive tests get challenged to this extent. There is a fairly vocal community that has argued for some time now, that the anti-doping system is unfit for that reason. A lot of the science behind some of the anti-doping controls is still debatable. It’s not like a DNA analysis in a murder case. There are so many factors that can affect an anti-doping control. That’s long been an ominous concern, and this case brings to light that reality.

The way this plays out most often is when we debate whether a drug has any proven performance enhancing effects?  It’s on the banned list, then people question why? And in that instance, what you would think is one of the basic tenets of anti-doping, there are rarely clear answers.

The same concept is true as regards testing, and not just for the threshold drugs like salbutamol. The risk of false positives and false negatives is not well-known, and concepts like the biological passport are also reliant on ‘thresholds’ or upper and lower limits for how much these complex blood variables change.

In all these instances, there are challenges just waiting to happen, but it’s just that they are rarely made. It takes the right athlete, with the right drug, to challenge WADA, and then they back off really quickly. Look again at that statement where the UCI writes: “In light of WADA’s unparalleled access to information and authorship of the salbutamol regime” – what that means is that WADA, who authored the current salbutamol guidelines, were presented with a ton of information undermining their work, and they backed off.  They said, ‘We can’t defend this.’ Proceedings closed.

VN: So your final thoughts?

RT: That’s a very, very bad look for anti-doping, and my point is that this goes beyond salbutamol because many of the same issues and concepts apply to many drugs on the banned list.

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