LONDON – Cycling’s governing body was clear: Chris Froome returned an “adverse” finding — failing a drugs test. The five-time Tour de France champion insists it “was not a positive test.”
But the UCI wants to know why a urine sample provided by Froome at the Spanish Vuelta in September showed a concentration of the asthma drug, salbutamol, that was twice the level permitted by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Given cycling’s long struggle to eradicate doping, Froome realizes the challenge he has clearing his name.
“Obviously the sport is coming from a place with a very dark background,” the Team Sky front-man said in an interview aired by British broadcasters on Wednesday. “I have tried to do everything throughout my career to try and show the sport has turned around.
“Certainly in my case now I certainly don’t feel there was any wrongdoing.”
Froome’s use of asthma medication is no secret, and he has also been granted therapeutic use exemptions to treat chest infections that aggravated his condition.
A look at the issues around Froome’s use of salbutamol:
WHAT IS ALLOWED?WADA permits salbutamol to be taken through inhalation only, in limited amounts. Through an inhaler, athletes with asthma can take up to 1,600 micrograms every 24 hours but cannot exceed 800 micrograms within 12 hours. The permitted concentration of salbutamol allowed in a urine sample cannot exceed 1,000 nanograms per milliliter. Classified as a beta-2 agonist and often sold as Ventolin, salbutamol helps to relieve the symptoms of asthma by expanding lung capacity.
According to Swiss physiologist Raphael Faiss, a non-asthmatic who takes the equivalent of 800 micrograms would see their performance improved by around two percent. It can be used in a performance-enhancing capacity to increase endurance, especially if taken intravenously or in tablet form which is banned by WADA.
WHAT CAN AFFECT TEST RESULTS?According to Faiss, intense effort, fatigue and dehydration can affect urine concentrations of salbutamol in doping tests. Everyone excretes and metabolizes salbutamol in different ways.
“Some individuals may have a greater metabolism and excretion rate that may cause the salbutamol concentration to be increased,” said Dr John Dickinson, an expert in respiratory problems in athletes, based in Britain’s University of Kent. “The World Anti-Doping Agency are aware of this and they will ask any athlete with adverse levels to provide evidence to explain why.”
WHAT IS NEXT?Froome’s backup “B’’ sample has confirmed the results of the initial test, according to the UCI, cycling’s governing body. Froome has not been suspended, but now he has to explain why his sample contained excessive amounts of salbutamol when the other 20 samples he provided at the Spanish Vuelta did not.
“There are complex medical and physiological issues which affect the metabolism and excretion of salbutamol,” said Dave Brailsford, team principal at Sky. “We’re committed to establishing the facts and understanding exactly what happened on this occasion.
“I have the utmost confidence that Chris followed the medical guidance in managing his asthma symptoms, staying within the permissible dose for salbutamol. Of course, we will do whatever we can to help address these questions.”
PREVIOUS CASESItalian cyclist Diego Ulissi was banned for nine months in 2015 after a urine sample showed 1900 nanograms per milliliter of salbutamol, almost double the permitted amount. He said he took Ventolin at the 2014 Giro d’Italia because he had bronchospasms.
Norwegian cross-country skier Martin Johnsrud Sundby lost his 2015 overall World Cup and Tour de Ski titles. While the medication is normally applied by a handheld metric dose inhaler, Johnsrud Sundby used a nebulizer and exceeded the allowed maximum dose of salbutamol. An International Ski Federation doping panel ruled that Johnsrud Sundby didn’t breach anti-doping rules. But WADA was successful in appealing in 2016 that a doping infringement had been committed, after showing Johnsrud Sundby had not obtained an exemption to use a higher dose.
Kazakhstan ice hockey player Ilya Solaryov was banned for two years in 2013. Solaryov claimed that he used salbutamol to treat breathing problems, but he was found to be trying to enhance his sports performance.