The Kolobnev case

Kolobnev police

Flashback to July and Alexander Kolobnev tested positive in the Tour de France. It was the only doping scandal of the 2011 race and the media besieged the Château de Salles, the Katusha team’s overnight accommodation. Some riders and team staff went to police station, adding to the tension.

Except now the verdict has fallen and it’s far less dramatic: a warning and a fine of 1,500 Swiss Francs (US$1,700). We will get further details of the case in two weeks when the Russian authorities publish their verdict in full. But this is the lightest option possible, a small fine and no suspension. This suggests Kolobnev presented satisfactory evidence to prove he accidentally ingested the banned substance. But the case highlights a lot more.

RusADA is the anti-doping agency in Russia and there are questions over the process of the Russian Cycling Federation. There’s a timetable to be respected. On the 20 July the UCI issued a press release confirming the B-test positive and starting the hearing process. The rules state “the proceedings before the hearing panel of the License-Holder’s National Federation must be completed within 1 (one) month“. Now events took place in July, we’re in October now so why the long delay? We all want due process and you shouldn’t rush justice but the rules say “the National Federation shall be penalized by the disciplinary commission, incurring a fine of CHF 5000 for each week’s delay“.

Riders will also be asking questions. Following his positive A-sample Kolobnev left the Tour de France. Initially reports claimed different things but the settled version was that the Russian “suspended himself” from racing. But this wasn’t a neutral decision. Even the UCI seemed to take sides with their press release:

The UCI Anti-Doping Rules do not provide for a provisional suspension given the nature of the substance, which is a specified substance. However the UCI is confident that his team will take the necessary steps to enable the Tour de France to continue in serenity

As I said at the time, you don’t need to be a political genius to spot the first sentence contradicts the second, that Kolobnev was free to continue under the rules yet the UCI was waiting for his team to take the “necessary steps”, to get him away from the race. Now I can understand this but again the rules are the rules and I didn’t like the way the UCI chose to take sides and you can bet this worried many a rider. Rules are meant to stand above the gossip, prejudice and to withstand media storms and now if someone totally innocent is caught mid-race it seems the UCI might be after them. I suppose it depends who the rider is, if they are expendable.

Riders on the Katusha team have also signed an internal charter saying if they test positive they get fired and have to pay a hefty fine. If he has been given a doping sanction, albeit the mildest one, will the team rule be enforced? Certainly Kolobnev’s future career is uncertain, it is unclear if he will ride in 2012.

Initially a simple doping case, the story highlights more than the presence of a banned molecule. We have a rider with a light sanction and we’ll see if the UCI and WADA agree. The Russian authorities took their time – indeed Kolobnev was given an award by President Medvedev – and I wonder if the UCI dared to fine them; especially since the top man in Russian cycling Igor Makarov is now on the UCI’s Management Council. The story also gives riders legitimate concerns, seeing rules tossed aside in order to get Kolobnev out of the Tour de France was good for the Tour de France but undermines the rules.

13 thoughts on “The Kolobnev case”

  1. INRNG – incisive as ever. I just wondered…can you recall a doping case where the UCI hasn’t done something that is at odds with the rules? Whenever something like this crops up, and regardless if the rider is dispensable, it seems there is a delay, an oddity with regard to the sanctions, the mysterious purchase of testing equipment or a curiously rapid return to competition. I’d just like to know if there are any cases in recent years, say post PMcQ’s presidency began, when things have been done properly.

  2. When, oh when, will someone force the UCI to remove the sanctioning function from the federations? This is such an obvious conflict-of-interest that I’m amazed that it’s allowed to continue. Maybe the IOC will need to take the lead here? Spain, Luxembourg, Russia, etc. all are sort of “dope-havens” (kind of like tax-havens) where you can get a license and not worry much about sanctions if nabbed by the dope police. There needs to be an independent body tasked with handing down sanctions. WADA and UCI could eliminate so many CAS cases like the Contador fiasco if all dopers were sanctioned alike by an independent body. Sure, there would still be riders taking their sanction to the CAS but without the wild variations in sanctions (now in Italy you get two years vacation and can never again be on the national team vs Russia where you get a fine and a medal) the cases could be adjudicated much more swiftly, making pro cycling appear to be just a bit more credible. I won’t hold my breath!

  3. Riao – if that’s true, that’s a massive conflict of interest. I can’t believe that. How do you separate the pecuniary interests of an agent, who for financial reasons obviously wants his/her client to remain contracted as an active rider, with the agent’s familial ties to the very top of the governing body of the sport in which your client happens to be a professional?

    Can someone enlighten me, when the UCI uses the phrase “specified substance”, what does that mean? Obviously it is not the same as saying something is a banned substance, because the UCI themselves say they cannot suspend the rider. Is it a masking agent, or have I just failed the first question in DOPING101?

  4. @ffreddie23, there must be normal cases. “Due process applied” isn’t a big headline but thinking about it, several riders have been caught and punished without too much trouble… but when you go through the list, many have not.

    @Riao: yes, if that’s the case there’s another conflict of interest. What worries me is that the UCI doesn’t have mechanisms and means to deflect allegations of cronyism. Apparently Mr McQuaid walks out of the room if family matters arise… but that most organisations have formal methods to handle these issues.

    Larry T: I agree and surely everyone else does. It’s a long term issue for cycling, or sport as a whole. But too often the verdict varies by nationality, eg see the way Italians were busted for links to Puerto more agressively than others.

    PJ: here’s WADA on the “specified substance” term:

    “A specified substance is a substance which allows, under defined conditions, for a greater reduction of a two-year sanction when an athlete tests positive for that particular substance.

    The purpose is to recognize that it is possible for a substance to enter an athlete’s body inadvertently, and therefore allow a tribunal more flexibility when making a sanctioning decision.

    Specified substances are not necessarily less serious agents for the purpose of doping than other prohibited substances, and nor do they relieve athletes of the strict liability rule that makes them responsible for all substances that enter his or her body.

    However, there is a greater likelihood that these substances could be susceptible to a credible non-doping explanation, as outlined in section 10.4 of the World Anti-Doping Code.

    This greater likelihood is simply not credible for certain substances – such as steroids and human growth hormone – and this is why these are not classified as specified.”

  5. Steroids are not credible in these cases? I thought Paola Pezzo got off on a steroid rap by claiming contaminated chicken from Belgium or a similar bit of nonsense? Pro cycling’s at a crossroads with the Contador contaminated food claims – if the current “biggest fish” in the sport gets away with this excuse for a dope positive, will ANYONE believe pro cycling is trying to clean itself up? More than the economic crisis, this single issue is slowly but surely destroying the sport. Few seem to want to take the long view here, they’re all in it for short-term gain and don’t seem to care at all about the future of the sport. The final straw may be when/if BigTex is finally exposed for the world to see. If it turns out this fellow “won” LeTour seven times in succession without the sporting public having any clue about his cheating, only a foolish (or cycling mad) CEO would continue to associate his/her company with pro cycling. And the ones who cry and moan the loudest about it will be those responsible for the entire mess!

  6. *McQuaids guffaws in his lair*

    It’s high time that riders and teams who contribute big chunk towards anti-doping measures speak out against the autocracy of McQuaid. A strong doping stance will be taken only when they’re adamant in rooting out the evil of doping from the sport. Is there a General Body Meeting (GBM) of UCI where top riders, top journalists and top administrators can voice their opinion?

  7. Good point Ankush! Currently the teams pay a big chunk towards McQuaid’s “avoiding doping scandal program” while they ought to be demanding the funds go towards REAL anti-doping action, whether it brings scandal or not. The UCI’s been running the former program since forever and at this point nobody can say they’ve done a good job – so why not FINALLY get serious about getting rid of doping rather than just managing each new scandal as it appears, after trying to sweep it under the rug has failed?

  8. Time to focus on the future, guys! Pro cycling in 2010 and 2011 has obviously been the ‘cleanest’ in two decades, so let’s cherish that. The biopassport does it job! I personally would also like to see the Big Tex exposed, only to bring him back down to earth and to show cancer patients he is not a God, but let’s leave it at that and move on. Most major cycling races have been thrilling and most enjoyable to watch in the past 2, 3 years!

  9. The sport has pretty much always been fun to watch, doping doesn’t really affect that UNTIL you know the performances were the result of cheating. I would not be so quick to pronounce 2010-11 the cleanest as we don’t know how many other instances may have happened like the alleged one with BigTex in Switzerland. Is progress being made? I believe it’s getting tougher and more expensive to cheat with dope, which may mean there’s less of it going on but the bad-jokes of the Contador (and now it seems Kolobnev) fiasco still make pro cycling look bad. To Big Mikey I’d say the Italians have come from behind to be at the forefront of anti-doping efforts as now ex-dopers can not be on any national team — and it was they who sat Mr. Basso out when it would have been very easy (as in Spain with Valverde) to have done nothing about his Puerto involvement. Currently I think Russia (and I’ll lump in most of the eastern bloc countries) Spain and Luxembourg rank highly on my “dope-haven” list where sanctions are wimpy or investigations of doping half-assed at best.

  10. Larry you’ve hit the spot yet again. I would describe the Russian response as looking a little ‘Iberian’ so far, a little ‘turn of the century Italian’. You’re right, Italy has moved on leaps and bounds in the last few years. Yeah, they were a bit late to the party but they’re catching up fast and in terms of legal actions, are now way ahead of many countries. I think their drug testing regime is perhaps less impressive but you’ve got to laud their progress nonetheless.

    Back to the Kolobnev case. Political interference always makes people suspect, even if the basis for the judgement is in fact sound. Until the supporting judgement is released, we’re left with yet another case which doesn’t quite add up, which raises more questions than it answers.

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