Drugs in Sport: Hazy line between enhancement and addiction

War on drugs is messed up when an athlete is better off sitting at home with a hooker and a few lines of cocaine, mainlining Season Two of Narcos or reciting nostalgic passages of Robert Sabbag’s Snowblind, than being caught with a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for what may well be a perfectly legitimate medicinal cause.

At least it would appear that way. There is something mildly suspicious about the circumstances surrounding French club rugby champions Racing 92 and the reported positive tests of their three star players Dan Carter, Joe Rokocoko and Juan Imhoff.
Whether their TUE’s for the otherwise banned traces of corticosteroids were in order or not certainly merits further investigation, and yet there’s nothing new here: athletes and players, amateur and professional, have been taking corticosteroids for years, therapeutically or just stupidly, and will continue to do so as long as the rules allow.

There is something a little more mildly worrying about the continuing investigation into Team Sky and its apparently liberal use of TUE’s, which is now focusing on allegations of an unknown medical package being delivered to the team shortly before the start of the 2011 Tour de France.
Part of the worry here is that while Bradley Wiggins is still trying to explain why he received injections of corticosteroid triamcinolone acetonide – with or without a TUE – riders are still free to take the powerful painkiller Tramadol, widely considered to be rampant in the peloton, without any need for a TUE but rather a prescription.

Highly addictive
Even the UCI, the governing body of world cycling and sometimes muted anti-doping campaigners, have been crying out to get Tramadol added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (Wada) banned list: it’s been linked with an increase in crashes in the peloton and is also considered highly addictive, Professor Jack Crane, state pathologist for Northern Ireland, telling ITV News this week that Tramadol causes more deaths in the UK than heroin and cocaine and should be upgraded to a Class A drug.

Wada apparently aren’t yet convinced, although Tramadol is on their list of “monitored” substances. Indeed athletes, players and even coaches for that matter are still free to indulge in all the Class A drugs they want, as long as they’re taken 12 hours before competition, or straight after any post-competition samples are taken.

This must be one of the great anomalies of the Wada code – if not of sport itself. No wonder the three most-searched items on the Wada list of prohibited substances are 1) anabolic steroids, then 2) marijuana, and 3) cocaine – as if most athletes can hardly believe it’s still okay to take marijuana and cocaine as long as they’re out of competition.

Wada claim they’re not in the business of policing Class A drugs, whether they’re considered performance enhancing or not, although this sends out a disturbing message nonetheless. Even the often-maligned NFL’s anti-doping policy is strict on all stimulants and narcotics while Wada actually amended their code so that it exempts trafficking of an in-competition only substance (such as cocaine) as long as the intention is not for enhancing sport performance.

Troubled tale
This isn’t just about the flauntingly troubled tale of reigning world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, who confirmed to Rolling Stone magazine earlier this week that he’s done more than a few lines of cocaine lately, also tweeting a recently photoshopped image of himself sitting behind a Scarface-worthy mountain of the stuff.

“I’ve done lots of cocaine,” he said. “Lots of it. Why shouldn’t I take cocaine? It’s my life isn’t it? I can do what I want. Yeah, I have done cocaine. Plenty of people have done cocaine as well. What the f**k has that got to do with anything? That ain’t a performance enhancing drug . . .
“I’ve been going through depression. I just don’t want to live anymore, if you know what I’m saying. I’ve had total enough of it. They’ve forced me to the breaking edge. Never mind cocaine. I just didn’t care. I don’t want to live anymore. So cocaine is a little minor thing compared to not wanting to live anymore.” As if Fury’s rant wasn’t worrying enough it also comes with him knowing he can’t be legally stripped of his WBA and WBO world titles as he didn’t test positive for cocaine in competition.

Then came the less disturbing yet more bizarre tale of Canada’s world pole vault champion Shawn Barber, who was cleared to compete in the Rio Olympics despite testing positive for cocaine he claimed was “inadvertently ingested” during a sexual encounter with a woman he met via an on-line personals site.
This encounter happened to be the night before the Canadian Olympic trials, which Barber won, only to be tested immediately afterwards, the traces of cocaine therefore considered within that 12-hour window of in-competition. He was looking at a potential four-year ban, only for the Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada to dismiss the case, accepting his claim that by simply kissing the woman, who admitted to having just snorted cocaine, he inadvertently consumed the drug.

There was precedent here: in 2009, French tennis player Richard Gasquet was also cleared of an in-competition test for cocaine after convincing an ITF anti-doping tribunal that he’d ingested the cocaine while kissing a woman in a nightclub the night before.

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