Chris Froome goes from persona non grata to all clear in the space of a couple of days, the UCI has announced the salbutamol case from last year’s Vuelta has been closed. The *asterisk of pending resolution is deleted, the Sword of Damocles sheathed and ASO suspend the action they began three weeks ago to block Froome from riding the Tour de France. But all the same things won’t return to the state they were when things were normal.
First that eruption. It was leaked at the beginning and it leaked at the end. It’s taken a long time but previous salbutamol cases took months too. There had been gossip in the last week the verdict was due, then that it would rule in support of Froome and finally this morning La Gazzetta broke the news. Moments later the UCI supplied the official press release. It’s not a good look when the media leads with the story rather than the governing body.
The UCI’s statement doesn’t say much beyond Froome and his entourage presented evidence and the UCI accepts it, having consulted with WADA. WADA joining matters because the agency has taken sports federations to task over the years, including the UCI time and again. But this time they’re supportive of the UCI indeed reading the UCI’s statement it reads like the UCI passed on the case to WADA.
WADA issued a press release which is worth reading as it is more informative. In giving more detail it poses more questions though. Froome’s urine samples exceeded the permitted level for salbutamol and WADA’s statement points out that normally this…
is presumed not to be an intended therapeutic use of the substance and will be considered as an AAF unless the athlete proves, through a controlled pharmacokinetic study (CPKS), that the abnormal result was the consequence of the use of the therapeutic dose (by inhalation) up to the maximum dose indicated above
There are two things to note from this quote from WADA today which is borrowing from its own Code/Prohibited List: first the presumption (“it is presumed”); and second a CPKS is needed to prove otherwise. Only in a later line of the WADA statement Froome is exonerated from the CPKS because it’s impractical to replicate the conditions of a grand tour. So is a CPKS not suitable for stage racing and if so is the rule going to be re-written?
Now back to the presumption because WADA says it…
concluded that the sample result was not inconsistent with the ingestion of inhaled Salbutamol within the permitted maximum dose
In the absence of the required CPKS, WADA is not presuming guilt any more, instead it is finding matters “not inconsistent”. This is a subtle difference perhaps but the semantics matter because we go from the athlete having to prove they’re in the clear to WADA accepting something being “not inconsistent with” which is a different burden of proof to the one WADA’s rule seems to evoke.
What evidence did Froome provide to satisfy WADA? We’ll probably never know the full details. Because this wasn’t a conviction, nor a case heard in front of an appeals panel, there will be no published “reasoned decision”. One aspect to read between the lines from WADA is “specific to the case of Mr. Froome… …demonstrated within-subject variability in the excretion of Salbutamol” which at a guess implies salbutamol levels from the other stages of the Vuelta when Froome was tested were examined: he might have read close to the threshold, the salbutamol levels may have been given stochastic results? But this isn’t being spelled out so we’re left guessing.
Froome, Sky and the UCI may find they’re fielding a lot of questions over the next few days as much as they might like to “move on” and point the media and fans back to today’s statements. This reaction on their part would be a pity, ideally someone would volunteer to sit down and go over everything in detail to the point of boring us all. But this sounds unlikely bordering on fanciful. During the whole process there’s been little to no communication and education about the procedures so why would anyone spend July elucidating?
As well as the specifics of the Froome case there’s the systemic element. Is WADA binning its salbutamol rule? Does it not stand up to sustained legal scrutiny? Or can laying siege to the WADA Code with lawyers bring outcomes that amateurs held to the same rules cannot expect? This blog, like others, has pointed out salbutamol levels can vary so will the likes of Diego Ulissi and Alessandro Petachhi be considering their options based on this precedent? Maybe but it’s up to them to provide evidence and if WADA implies it relied on Froome’s Vuelta numerous urine samples – as race leader he’d be tested every day in the red jersey – the irony might be that neither Ulissi or Petacchi had enough anti-doping controls to establish this.
The UCI’s concluding words from its statement say:
The UCI understands that there will be significant discussion of this decision, but wishes to reassure all those involved in or interested in cycling that its decision is based on expert opinions, WADA’s advice, and a full assessment of the facts of the case. The UCI hopes that the cycling world can now turn its focus to, and enjoy, the upcoming races on the cycling calendar.
This “trust us and move on” from a sports governing body is odd, for starters it is possible to focus on upcoming races and still ask a few questions about this matter. With so many unanswered questions this matter won’t be going away just yet.
Case closed, Chris Froome is clear to to ride the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana result stands. It has taken time but it’s been more than a procedural parenthesis given the results of the last two grand tours have had an asterisk over them. The UCI closed the case but didn’t explain and appears to have passed the baton for the case and the reasoning to WADA which provides only a high level summary while appearing to contradict its own procedural rules on the burden of proof which if so surely requires greater explanation. So it’s more than a matter of “much ado about nothing” to anglicise Tour boss Christian Prudhomme’s “tout ça pour ça” interview on French radio today and more “much ado about something” because sports lawyers will be pouring over this. What on earth the public makes of this remains to be seen, judging by social media – a poor mirror sometimes – people seem to have made up their mind in advance anyway either way which is surely all the more reason for WADA and others to explain their decisions.