Chris Froome is set to resume racing at the upcoming Ruta Del Sol race in Spain. So far, so normal as it’s common for stage race specialists to start their season here, Froome himself did so in 2015 (pictured) and you might remember his battle with Alberto Contador. This isn’t a normal situation with Froome’s ongoing anti-doping case following the excessive quantity of salbutamol from last year’s Vuelta. There are lots of questions, here are a few answers…
Why isn’t he suspended? Because his sample was positive for salbutamol which is a “specified substance” under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules. This is a sub-classification in therules and so while we might be used to the UCI suspending riders as soon as their A-sample comes back positive it’s different with a specified substance.
Why is it different? The UCI says specified substances are “a substance that WADA considers more likely to have been consumed for a purpose other than performance enhancement”. In general these specified substances are often allowed up to a specified limit or via a specified treatment. Athletes are allowed to use salbutamol by inhaler and up to a specified limit. It’s different to, say, EPO where if an athlete is positive there can be no excuse, they’re out.
Why is it taking so long? First all anti-doping cases take a long time to resolve. Diego Ulissi is a good precedent given he too was almost twice the permitted limit of salbutamol, and for reasons he could not adequately explain. His positive test in the Giro in May 2014 saw him sanctioned in January 2015. Why so long? Anti-doping tribunals don’t happen every day, it’s not like there’s a court sitting with cases filing past the judges every hour. It takes time to find dates that suit all parties, to review and then reconvene and so on. Copy-pasting the 35 week timetable would mean Froome’s verdict falls in early May.
But it’s not so transposable, going by French newspaper L’Equipe (€) Froome has hired a big legal defence team and Team Sky has committed to limitless funding so in speculation this could take longer as they ask for more time to build their case and explore every angle and clause. The journalist who helped break the story tweeted today that “five months on Sky have not supplied an explanation for the excess salbutamol“:
Au moment où Sky décide d'aligner Froome pendant la durée de sa procédure pour dopage, il est utile de rappeler que si le dossier est toujours ouvert, c'est de la responsabilité du clan Froome : en 5 mois, Sky n'a toujours pas fourni d'explication au taux de salbutamol trop élevé
— Clément Guillou (@JeuneGuillou) February 5, 2018
Should it be hurried up? There’s headline after headline quoting people saying this needs to be cleared up quickly (who would call for prevarication and delay?). However this cannot be rushed. A sports ruling is just that whether it adjudicates on a millionaire cyclist or a penniless pentathlete and it doesn’t happen in isolation from civil law and basic rules of justice. Neither side should be rushed or pressured because if this happens then one side can appeal in a civil court, the verdict risks being overturned and we end up with a bigger mess. Festina lente.
Can it be hurried up? If one side is delaying then yes, the other side can call this out as part of the hearing. WADA can intervene if it thinks the UCI is being sleepy here. But for now the timing is reasonable, if this was a race schedule then it might might be on a slow speed but still within the prescribed times set by past cases. However if Froome’s defence case drags on and it becomes his strategy to play for time then there will come a point where the UCI will have to decide that it has given Froome a generous period of time to make his case but he still cannot explain the elevated salbutamol levels therefore a sanction must be applied. There’s little guidance here and the UCI has to be generous in order to avoid an appeal that the case was rushed.
Why don’t they expedite it? Don’t confuse hearings at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which can be expedited to review UCI or other WADA rulings. CAS hearings can be expedited and hold ad hoc hearings. The UCI has provisions for this but they won’t want to rush this.
The UCI President says Froome should be suspended and the rules allow for Froome to be suspended so why isn’t Froome suspended? Because of two reasons, first Froome was not provisionally suspended when this case was first raised then there’s been nothing material since to suspend him and he hasn’t agreed or volunteered to be suspended. Second because anti-doping within the UCI is notionally independent and thankfully gone are the days when the President can suspend someone just because they want to.
The UCI? It is cycling’s governing body but comprises several departments, here the case is handled by two departments, the CADF and the LADS. They’ve done a very handy press release which explains plenty.
Why didn’t Sky suspend him? It’s not a team’s right to suspend athletes but they can seek this. Perhaps they were happy with the internal procedure before this matter became public and a provisional suspension would have meant making this case public which they didn’t want on the hope that it would all be resolved in private.
Should he self-suspend? Yes says Jeremy Whittle over at cyclingnews.com but it’s uncommon for people to stop work ahead of a trial on a voluntary basis. If Froome did I’m not sure it would help anti-doping much and would just get headlines of “retreat” as an implicit admission of guilt either on Froome’s side or wider for Team Sky. The time to suspend was September but Sky missed the window and they aren’t in the MPCC group of teams either.
What’s Froome’s defence? Froome was quick to deny a story in Corriere delle Serra that he could just admit negligence and cop a short ban. This would have been the “Acceptance of Consequences” route which, among others, has been used by Simon Yates – another Brit in trouble over asthma medicine – when he got a four month ban for Terbutaline and backdated because of Yates’s admission. Froome hasn’t denied L’Equipe’s report that he’s going to fight the case in the UCI’s tribunal which is more of an all-or-nothing bid and where he’ll need to convincingly prove – not just suggest – that his abnormally high salbutamol test can be explained. He has brought in a high profile sports lawyer with a mixed record, “saving” some athletes from long bans but also seeing others, like Alberto Contador, get served with predictable due process. Ultimately if Froome cannot explain the unusually high quantity of salbutamol he will get an anti-doping sanction and serve a ban.
What does Froome risk? The maximum ban is two years, again a specified substance attracts a shorter ban compared to the now standard four year tariff.
What races could he lose? Every result after the date of the positive test now has an asterisk against it to signal “pending resolution” meaning the bronze medal in Bergen is at stake, as will be any results obtained in 2018.
- Note: this post previously stated some results could be kept but that looks unlikely now under rule 10.8 of the WADA Code, copied by the UCI and the text above has been amended.
Could the Giro exclude him? The Giro, like the Tour and other races does have a clause in its rulebook (Article 2A in case you want to google Giro regolamento) that allows the race to exclude riders who might damage the interests of the race. But this is a bantamweight rule both in theory and practice. In practice because the Tour de France has tried to block riders like Tom Boonen in the wake of his cocaine problems only for the CAS to rule he’s eligible to race so these rules don’t work. In theory because if a rider is eligible to race the Ruta Del Sol or the Tour of Whatever then the Giro has almost no grounds to exclude them. Even less if the same race has reached an agreement with the rider, their management company or team to invite them and pay them appearance money to attend the race.
When would a ban start? Normally on the day the verdict is reached. So copy-paste Ulissi and we’d get a nine month ban awarded this May meaning he’d be pulled out of the Giro and would have to sit out the Tour and Vuelta too. The start date can be backdated to the date of the Vuelta only if it can be proved that Froome’s case was delayed by the UCI, the idea being that if a governing body dithers then the athlete should not have to pay for this. But going by the reports we read, the delays appear to be coming from the Froome camp so this backdating looks unlikely.
Is this a mess? Yes and 1,000 words later this post has only covered the most frequently asked questions and all in a brief manner rather than cover more questions, nor explore each of the issues raised in more details to examine the finer details.