The Problem With Clearing Chris Froome
Two weeks ago, five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault called on riders to strike over Chris Froome’s presence in the race this year. “If the international authorities don’t sanction him, it’s up to the other cyclists to shoulder the responsibility,” Hinault said.
Well, just in the nick of time, the authorities have made their decision. The UCI, pro cycling’s governing body, announced on Monday that it closed its case against Froome, which had been ongoing since the Team Sky star failed an anti-doping test during last fall’s Vuelta a España. Both the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), according to a press release, “would accept, based on the specific facts of the case, that Mr. Froome’s sample results do not constitute an adverse analytical finding.”
The statement ends on a hopeful note, saying that cycling fans can now turn their focus to the race. No need for a protest, right?
Actually, it’s the perfect time for one. What’s remarkable about the Froome case, as well as the UCI’s decision and WADA’s compliance, is how completely it reinforces the notion that there are two sets of anti-doping rules: one for rich superstars, and one for everyone else.
Salbutamol, the active ingredient in many asthma inhalers, is allowed in Olympic sports – up to a certain amount. Froome tested for nearly double that limit during the Vuelta. Under WADA rules, an athlete who returns such a result must prove that he didn’t actually take more than the legal amount of the drug in question. In a controlled study, the athlete essentially recreates the doses and timing he used on the day of the test, hoping the sample results show a similar value as on the test day.
Froome didn’t perform the required study. Authorities said he didn’t need to. “In Mr. Froome’s case,” WADA explains in its press release, “WADA accepts that a [controlled test] would not have been practicable as it would not have been possible to adequately recreate the unique circumstances that preceded the 7 September doping control.”
If you have enough money, you can win your case through sheer force. If you don’t, you’ll be banned.
So athletes are required to do one particular study to prove their innocence, except in cases where they’re not. Instead, the UCI cited other evidence Froome presented to establish that his positive test was both inadvertent and not due to an overuse of salbutamol. The UCI will not disclose or discuss what that evidence is.
It’s hard to imagine any other pro cyclist getting this kind of free pass. In fact, we don’t have to imagine it. During the 2014 Giro d’Italia, racer Diego Ulissi returned a salbutamol test that was remarkably similar to Froome’s. He was battling a respiratory infection, as Froome claimed he was during the Vuelta. Ulissi used a salbutamol inhaler and, as a two-time stage winner, had been tested at least twice prior to Stage 11. (As overall leader from Stage 3 on, Froome was tested 19 times at the Vuelta). Ulissi’s third test showed almost the same amount (1,900ng/mL) as Froome’s Vuelta test (2,000ng/mL).
Although he was in nearly the exact same circumstances as Froome, Ulissi was forced to do the study. Quelle surprise: It didn’t replicate his test-day results, and Ulissi was handed a nine-month ban.
The only difference appears to be that his name is Diego Ulissi, not Chris Froome. Ulissi is not pack fodder. He has 30 pro wins in his career over nine seasons and counting, including six Giro stages. But he’s not Froome, a multimillionaire and four-time Tour de France winner on the wealthiest team in the sport, and arguably the most recognizable active name in cycling.
If you’re a pro rider, this disparity has to trouble you. There’s a defined scientific protocol for athletes to clear their names, and that protocol has not, to our knowledge, ever been waived for anyone. But it was waived for Froome, in lieu of other evidence that the UCI accepted but won’t detail.
Froome reportedly submitted some 1,500 pages of evidence to the UCI in support of his case. He was prepared to fight and appeal if he lost. That would have been an expensive proposition for the UCI and WADA, neither of which are funded for multi-million legal fights. Faced with that prospect, it’s possible they simply backed down.
So here’s the uncomfortable point where we’ve arrived: Either the salbutamol test as a whole has scientific problems and needs to be rethought, or the test is generally solid unless a wealthy, powerful athlete threatens to impoverish the anti-doping authorities with legal fees.
I really don’t know which is the case. The salbutamol test has been criticised in the past, but positive tests have proven rare in the last decade (three for cycling, seven for track and field, zero for swimming), which doesn’t immediately suggest the threshold is too low. The Froome test appears to be a singular exception.
And that’s what’s most troubling, because it points to the second conclusion: that there are different standards for different athletes, and if you have enough money, you can win your case through sheer force. If you don’t, you’ll be banned.
That alone is worth a protest. If Froome truly believes his case was based on a bogus test, he should be the one to lead it.