Another cycling doping scandal, or good proactive practice?

Nairo Quintana’s Tour De France disqualification for testing positive for the painkiller Tramadol has left a sour taste in a large portion of cycling fan’s mouths. But is this incident as bad as the doom-mongerers say?

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. In the history of the sport, Cycling has always had a bad reputation for doping. It is an image that has been hard to shake off, especially since Lance Armstrong’s doping story came to light. It has led to the UCI and World Anti-Doping Agency to clamp down hard on the sport to keep the sport clean and repair its image.

The effects of a rider or several riders in a team who are caught using performance enhancing drugs that are banned from competition can be quite serious. Riders who earn titles retrospectively following a rider’s disqualification through doping miss the expereience of standing on the top step of the podium. There is no guarantee that they will get the original trophy, and as for the prize money, it is unlikely they can recoup that from the disgraced rider. It turns the victory into a damp squib, as it can be months, or even in some cases, years, before results are corrected or annulled.

Then there are the sport’s sponsors. A company that is linked to a doping rider can harm their own reputation, and is likely to make them reconsider where they spend their money. This in turn can reduce the available funds in the sport which makes it harder to protect and nurture the grassroots sport, and athletes of the future. Such a detrimental knock-on effect is bad for any sport, and could potentially jeapordise its future.

Thankfully, the UCI have done a great job in trying to keep the sport clean. Reports of doping riders are very rare, and all potential leads are followed up. Even in the case of Bahrain Victorious and their hotel raids, if nothing has been found then the probability of doping actually happening within the team are very low. Something would have been made public by now if there was anything to be found. In addition to the full list of substances banned by WADA across all sports, the UCI also implements an additional list of substances that it believes are also a potential problem in cycling specifically.

Tramadol is an opioid-based powerful prescription-only painkiller that is allowed by WADA (on their Monitoring list since 2019) in most other sports, however it is banned in Cycling (implemented at the same time the drug was added to WADA’s Monitoring list). It’s side effects include (but are not limited to) drowsiness, visual impairment, cognitive impairment, and in some cases, loss of consciousness. It is not believed to be performance enhancing however its side effects as listed above are particularly dangerous in cycling in comparison to other sports. A rider whose cognitive and visual abilities are impaired, even if only slightly, could potentially lead to a dangerous incident or a crash in the peloton. Therfore they are likely to be a danger to themselves or others. The UCI should be applauded for taking this precautionary stance in regards to rider safety, especially as some of its other decisions in such matters have left many of us scratching heads.

So what of Quintana? The Colombian has denied taking the substance and intends to take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Whether that results in the DQ being overturned is another question entirely, however the case may not be entirely clear cut. I’m no legal expert nor am I privvy to anything that may be presented in evidence so we will just have to wait for the findings to be announced. This positive was the first adverse finding of any anti-doping test during his career, so Quintana is free to race until the case is finalised. However as a precaution, he has withdrawn from competition until his court case is concluded.

Quintana has suffered from injuries over the last few years and has not performed as well has his talents have suggested. His 6th overall at the Tour was testament to the fact there’s still life in him yet, but if that was down to the fact that he was using Tramadol to ride through the pain from his injuries then the next steps are vital for shaping the image of the sport.

Whilst I sympathise with Quintana, I must agree with the UCI’s stance on principle in the first week of this news breaking. Had he suffered any of the side-effects he could have put his fellow riders in danger. Also, such strong painkillers are not actually going to fix any underlying injuries, they have the potential to make them worse in the long term. From a physical perspective, the best thing to do is to let an injury heal and take time in strength and conditioning the injured site to make it stronger. Unfortunately this takes time and is not a guarantee of results, but in the long term, the likelikood of requiring surgery or struggling with mobility in later life will be reduced. In other sports you can get away with it in regards to immediate safety but its long term effects are an issue of athlete welfare, and therefore I suspect that the UCI’s move will eventually lead to WADA finally banning Tramadol in competition. Under the circumstances, I would like to see some leniency given to Nairo but his disqualification should stand as a warning to other riders that the UCI’s zero tolerance policy towards doping is a great tool in keeping the sport clean.

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