Seven years after the shocking doping revelations surrounding Maria Sharapova, tennis is confronted with another explosive doping case: two-time Grand Slam winner Simona Halep was arrested by the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) for two intentional violations of the Anti -Doping rules sentenced to a four-year ban. The Romanian vehemently denies any doping offenses and has appealed the verdict to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
“What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that the way they approach every situation, every player, every athlete is just frightening. There will come a time when we don’t even consume electrolytes world number nine Maria Sakkari told reporters a few days after the Halep news.
The Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios reacted on social media with a clear opposing position. He explained that he subsists on bananas and Coca Cola during five-set battles. He added: “And my record speaks for itself. Players should perhaps just stop using questionable substances.”
Halep reportedly took a nutritional supplement on the advice of a physiotherapist. This product contained roxadustat, a substance used in medicine to treat anemia and can therefore improve endurance and regeneration. The independent panel that investigated the case classified the Romanian’s doping offense as “repeated and sophisticated.”
“We know that contamination often occurs”
The International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) believes Halep acted intentionally. However, since the Romanian claims the opposite, the case opens up an insight into the complex world of the anti-doping fight.
“The problem for me lies in the anti-doping structure, this zero-tolerance policy and strict liability. So if it is found in your sample, you are responsible, no matter how it got there,” explains Dr. April Henning, anti-doping expert, author and assistant professor of sports management at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh told DW.
“Is it possible that it was in a dietary supplement that was contaminated? Yes, of course it is possible. We know that contamination is common.” In the sports world you are quickly judged. “So if it’s unintentional, it doesn’t matter. You’re still portrayed as horrible, morally corrupt, a bad person, a terrible athlete and a cheater,” says Henning. “The matter is much more nuanced.”
The anti-doping agencies provide athletes with a list and have improved the information given to athletes about banned substances, but there is still a lack of clarity. “Have you looked at the list recently? It’s very extensive and there are things that aren’t listed there at all, but that belong to these very broad categories,” criticizes Henning. “And if you’re an athlete and haven’t studied chemistry, that can be very, very difficult to understand.”
Guilty from the start?
Many could now view Halep as a doping offender and a fraudster. Maybe that’s the case, maybe not.
“When you try to defend yourself, you are told that your evidence doesn’t matter if it’s not a WADA accredited laboratory or an unopened container from the same batch, but then what is your defense?” Henning asks. There is therefore a hurdle that prevents others from examining the case. “You can’t take a case to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – so what recourse do athletes who are accused have? Whether she used it intentionally or not doesn’t really matter to me – the process should be a bit fairer. Everyone has a right to Defense.”
Another problem is the limited knowledge about the content of a substance, with the zero tolerance policy also being seen as part of the problem. “I don’t think people really understand how many tests work and what they’re looking for,” says Henning. “The tiny concentrations they can detect may not play a role in the body and, physiologically speaking, make no difference whether you have it or not.”
But the question also arises as to whether they even know what functional concentration is, because many of the things that are banned have not really been thoroughly examined for their effects. “So we don’t know whether it is a contamination, there is simply zero tolerance,” explains Henning.
Research is an essential part of the problem. Henning, who herself has worked for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), expresses her frustration at the lack of prevalence studies – that is, research that aims to estimate the frequency of a health event in the population at or above a given time to determine a short period of time.
“It is delicate to present one sport as clean and another as not clean. WADA has a research budget with which it can contract researchers,” explains Henning. “But they haven’t invested in prevalence studies.”
Changing the anti-doping fight?
Although an immediate change to the system is not possible, measures such as increased data collection, the creation of specific banned lists for different sports instead of a general list for all WADA signatory countries and the setting of thresholds could bring about positive changes, according to Henning. “What is the threshold for roxadustat? Where is the data and information that tells us at what level it becomes either performance enhancing or unsafe?”
This text was adapted from English.