Why wasn’t he/she banned for life?

We see that comment on social media whenever a rider is suspended for just a couple of years for a heinous doping offence. The recent seven-and-a-half-year ban on an endurance rider ‒ imposed for cumulative offences over 12 months ‒ broke all FEI records. But in the eyes of the equestrian public it’s still nowhere near enough.

But there is no point blaming the FEI. As long as equestrianism is an Olympic sport, it must apply the WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) code.

WADA inevitably has a “one size fits all” policy. The FEI has been allowed to make very small tweaks, since it is the only WADA-aligned sport that caters to non-human athletes. But even if WADA allowed the current sanctions to be doubled, we are light years from seeing a life ban in equestrian.

It’s a delicate balance. In human doping, the concern is to stop cheating, ie having an unfair advantage due to chemical enhancement. But in equestrian, the far greater concern is that our tolerant equine partners have no choice over what we force them to ingest, or to keep going on heavy painkillers. The WADA code is not really geared up to take account of the animal abuse component, making the task of the FEI Tribunal to apply a fair penalty within the framework extra tricky.

WADA sets a tariff of suspensions which all sports must broadly follow. For a first offence in human/rider doping there is a basic suspension of four years, except where the potion is a “specified” substance.

For doping your horse, the suspension depends on the category of meds. The minimum suspension for a first banned substance offence with your horse rather than in yourself is two years. Banned meds should never be given to a horse, period. It’s worth noting that when the FEI asked its national federations if the minimum suspension should be longer, it met resistance.

For a first offence with a controlled substance ‒ prescribed to treat legitimate conditions but meant to clear the horse’s system before it competes ‒ a rider can accept a fast-tracked fine of 1500 Swiss francs and disqualification of results. If he elects for Tribunal, or it is a repeat offence, you are looking at around six months. To go straight from fines to short-term suspension to a life ban would be unheard of.

Another concept not widely understood is that doping law is not like criminal law ‒ it now starts from the presumption that the athlete is guilty. It’s then up to the athlete/rider to prove “no fault or negligence” and get the suspension reduced or, less usual, completed waived. That is how Nicole Walker received just a one-year suspension (credited against time already served) for her cocaine positive at the Pan Ams; she showed that she unwittingly consumed coca tea in her hotel. Conversely, Australian jumper Jamie Kermond last week admitted taking cocaine at a social occasion, making it well nigh impossible to ask for a reduction when his case finally comes before a tribunal.

In many non-equestrian sports, a two or four-year ban almost has the effect of a life ban, because the competitive lifespan of, say, a sprinter or a gymnast is very short. That is a slight weakness of WADA system in equestrian. A rider’s active career can span several decades. Eric Lamaze is a prime example of someone who rebuilt his reputation after a drugs problem when young to become one of the most admired horsemen of all time.

The horse world is, though, less tolerant of riders who come back after seriously doping their horse. The simple reluctance of owners to back a rider stained by these allegations means a “returnee” rarely regains his original profile.

There are many reasons why governing bodies don’t like life bans. Doping is not as clear-cut as the public thinks. A life ban from organised sport can’t stop him owning horses and continuing to use prohibited meds, while less under the radar than if still showing. Removing animals from offenders is down to law enforcement, not sport regulators ‒ and pretty well unheard of.

Another reason the short, sharp shock tends to be preferred is that most athletes will accept a limited time out of the sport, but make it too long and they will contest it at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS.) That costs sporting bodies time and a lot of members’ money.

Proving intentional doping is also notoriously difficult; think of sprinter Justin Gatlin, widely perceived as a drugs cheat even though he has never been categorically proven to take drugs to enhance performance. His first violation was in 2001 for amphetamine He was initially banned for two years (the minimum that applied 20 years ago) but reinstated when it was agreed this was due to Adderall prescribed for ADHD. In 2006, he tested positive for testosterone, but attributed this to sabotage following a disagreement with his therapist, whom he claimed rubbed the potion on his buttocks. Gatlin was initially banned for eight years, reduced to four. No Tribunal has ever found that Gatlin intentionally doped.

The legal difficulty in proving intent was why WADA abandoned the “aggravating circumstances” provision that used to enable its standard two-year ban to be doubled. The burden of proof required was so high this provision was almost never used. Instead, in 2015 WADA introduced a standard four-year ban that could be reduced if an athlete ‒ such as Walker ‒ proved the ingestion was unintentional. If there are legal battles over a difference of one or two years, imagine what would occur were life bans the norm!

Another reason for reluctance is the impact of very long bans on athletes from poor and evolving sport nations.

Athletes like Gatlin who accumulated huge wealth from athletics will suffer reputational damage from a four-year doping ban, but not end up on the streets. But for many developing countries there is a desire to limit an athlete’s time out of the sport where there is no financial means to provide a clean athlete with career-saving advice. For many, the complexities of supplement and food contamination are not yet understood. Some may not be educated in label-reading, especially when meds can be differently branded abroad, or in understanding withdrawal times of controlled meds.

Not every athlete sanctioned intends to cheat, so is it fair to apply a life-changing ban? The most common reason for inadvertent doping is contamination, both accidental and naturally occurring. With advances in testing, miniscule residues are now detected.

Ractopamine is a pig fattener with no known means of enhancing horse performance. When it crops up in an equine positive it’s usually linked to an animal feed supplier who didn’t keep his ingredients apart. We’ve also seen poppy seed contamination (codeine, morphine, oripavine) and, because of the growing use of teff hay, an escalating number of synephrine cases.

In 2019, the last normal year of horse sampling at FEI events before the pandemic, 40% of cases awaiting Tribunal decisions involved naturally-occurring contaminants. Genuine contamination is such a problem in equestrianism the FEI is making increasing use of the negotiated-settlement system to save both sides time and excessive legal costs.

The International Jumping Riders Club has done a lot of work on contamination and reckons it costs a clean rider 50,000 Euros in legal fees just to prepare for Tribunal. Against this background, suspensions and even fines are now almost unheard of in contamination cases.

This means it is now feasible for someone who has deliberately doped to try to hide behind the “contaminated” feed defence. But lawmakers will err towards not over-punishing the innocent, rather than ruining everyone’s career in the hope of scooping up a few serial cheats along the way.

Sometimes testing labs get it wrong, too. It has happened in other WADA-aligned sports. Rugby player Patrick Tuipulotu was exonerated after his “B” sample showed no presence of a prohibited substance. WADA even suspended a lab in Mexico, after fencer Paola Pliego missed Rio 2016 due to a false positive.

It is the rider’s fundamental duty, under sport rules, to ensure no prohibited substance enters his or his horse’s body, but confirming that an offence has been committed and deciding a suitable sanction are quite different things. Should the rider be punished hard, or is the ideal to deter him from doing it again, and aim for his rehabilitation in the sport?

Another argument against life bans is that if athletes wish to appeal, they must use CAS, an Olympic-funded Tribunal, rather than a civil court. CAS tends to rely on very few people contesting a ban of a couple of years. If life bans applied, CAS would collapse under the weight of appeals. It could also reduce athlete cooperation in investigating illicit meds in certain sports.

It absolutely sucks that some riders who abuse horses with meds will get away with it. But the punishment of dope cheats is one thing the horse public cannot change. Equestrians tend to work in a vacuum, not usually understanding the operational constraints foisted upon us by the likes of WADA when we become part of something much bigger. Our presence at Tokyo right now should be a reminder of our rather small status in the wider world of sport ‒ but I am not holding my breath!