One of the worst ever drugs-in-sport decisions — and there have been some shockers, such as Andrea Raducan losing a gymnastics Gold medal at the Sydney Olympics for taking a Sudafed tablet — was handed down by the International Tennis Federation late last week.
Italy’s Filippo Volandri was banned for three months for “abuse” of salbutamol, the drug better known as Ventolin, for treating an asthma attack. Ventolin puffers are on the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) banned list, which in itself is bizarre given that they have not ever been shown to enhance sporting performance.
However, there is sensibly an exemption process for asthmatic athletes to apply for which permits them to take salbutamol puffers if a doctor diagnoses asthma. Volandri at the time of this so-called doping incident had registered an exemption for salbutamol use which had been accepted by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) as valid.
The complaint of the ITF was that the recommended dose for Volandri on his exemption form was two puffs and the concentration found in his urine suggested a much higher dose. Volandri admitted that he had taken a much higher dose on the night before his drug test and had a completely reasonably explanation for having done so: he suffered a severe asthma attack in his hotel room and couldn’t breathe properly so continued to take his puffer until the attack subsided.
This is more than just completely reasonable — Volandri would have possibly even died if he had not taken a high dose of Ventolin during such a severe attack. He was in a foreign city without recourse to an Italian speaking doctor and sensibly self-medicated to avoid being unable to breathe.
The tribunal apparently accepted all of this, but still decided to suspend Volandri for three months (and fine him for most of his 2008 prizemoney and ranking points), because the dose he admitted taking was higher than the dose that he was registered to take on his WADA/ITF paperwork. Click to read the ITF’s outrageous press release and entire verdict.
The rationale behind this draconian verdict can be seen, but the question is what the ITF/WADA could reasonably have expected Volandri to do in the circumstances (of a severe asthma attack)? Obviously their expectation is that he should not have self-medicated but instead, in Indian Wells USA at 3am have somehow found an Italian-speaking sports physician who was prepared to not only prescribe a higher salbutamol dose but who was also prepared to fax off a revised form to the ITF medical commission.
Or perhaps take option B, which in the absence of such a doctor was to risk becoming one of the 5000 annual asthma deaths in the USA. At least in this instance he would have died as a cleanskin, rather than as a drug cheat.
Tennis has a chequered history of having let off 16 players in 2004 for positive drug tests for the anabolic steroid nandrolone. Nandrolone is a strongly performance-enhancing anabolic steroid and the rationale for not suspending the players who tested positive seems to have been that “the doping must have been inadvertent as it involved so many players”. So after having turned a blind eye to so many proven anabolic steroid positives, they are now coming down heavy on asthmatic taking their puffers during asthma attacks.
Other than WADA and the ITF, the international sports journalism community should also be ashamed that it has reported this case as a routine doping decision rather than one of the greatest scandals in tennis history. A young man’s life was saved by his sensible use of his own asthma medication but his career has been destroyed by a totalitarian doping agency. In August 2008, I wrote an article entitled “WADA is on the verge of losing the plot“. It has now officially been lost.