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September 3, 2009 -- After a series of widely publicized scandals, from six drug positives at the Olympics to unsavory revelations about the German equestrian team's use of prohibited substances, a sports editor friend of mine emailed to ask, "What's dirtier, baseball or equestrian?"
Although the editor was used to dealing with outrage over the steroid habits of top players in the national pastime, his mind was boggled by news that comparatively refined sports, such as show jumping and dressage, also had a big problem in this area--albeit with horses, rather than humans.
If you were a non-horsey parent selecting a pastime for your child, trying to choose among ballet, soccer and riding lessons, don't you think the bad publicity might influence your decision?
So it was time, long overdue, actually, for the FEI (international equestrian federation) to examine the situation, find a way to stem the tide of disasters and turn around the sport's image. Lord Stevens, the former chief of the London Metropolitan Police, was appointed head of a lean, four-member commission to look into what the Germans were doing at the Games in Hong Kong last year. His mission eventually expanded, with the panel asked to make recommendations that would enhance the sport's integrity. These conclusions are meant to supplement those from another FEI think tank panel, the Commission for Clean Sport, which was focused primarily on medications.
Joining Lord Stevens were U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O'Connor; Ken Lalo, a lawyer long active with FEI judicial matters who is president of Israel's equestrian federation; and John Roche, the FEI's director of show jumping.
The result of the commission's work?
"It's a major paradigm shift in equestrian sport, making it more professional, and protecting the riders, the people who are playing the game within the rules as well as trying to catch the people outside the rules," said David, noting that it also addresses "guarding the welfare of the horse. It's a different way to look at it. I think everybody believes it is needed and needs to happen now."
The commission's report is only a starting point, though. Before any of its suggestions are implemented, much work still has to be done, particularly in the area of defining what drugs are actually performance-enhancing. The matter must be taken up by the FEI's governing body, its bureau, and after that, at the organization's general assembly in Copenhagen this November before projected implementation in January.
Some of the suggestions are ground-breaking, while others may seem fairly obvious, but they represent a big step forward for an organization that too often has been behind the times.
They include better stable security; an "integrity unit" geared to keeping things corruption-free; reviewing anti-doping protocols and professionalizing the sport, which means having more paid personnel. Did you know that unlike our situation in the United States, stewards and judges in Europe do not get money for their work?
Seeking more details, I spoke with David on the phone as he drove to Britain's Land Rover Burghley four-star event. Was all the effort put into the commission's work worth it, I wondered?
"I do think it will have an effect on the problem," said David, noting the
stewarding issue is particularly pertinent, because there are more stewards on the field of play than in the stables at the moment. And professionals will trump unpaid judges and stewards who may be "good people, but in the end, they're just volunteers. The sport is professional from a rider's point of view and an organizer's point of view, and it really should be professional from an official's point of view."
Defining what a performance-enhancing drug is, and at what level it acts in that regard--as well as separating legitimate medication from doping to get an edge in competition--will make it "a much clearer playing field," he contended.
Stakeholders in the sport, David said, "must have the conversation" about the details on the medication situation to determine what and how much can be used.
The Stevens Commission suggested that no changes be made in drug rules for the Olympics any later than 18 months before the Games. This will enable people to familiarize themselves with the restrictions, and perhaps avoid the number of positives that surfaced in Hong Kong.
As David pointed out, however, "a lot of the problems right now have been for inadvertent use of medication during regular times, not during competition, and that's just not right."
Every horse will metabolize substances at his own rate, and it's possible that trace amounts can stay in their systems weeks, or in some cases, months, after drugs were administered. These traces would have no effect on the horse's competitive prowess, but at the moment are grounds for disqualification if they are found in lab tests. The commission called for establishing threshold levels of certain medications, as the USEF does. Below the threshhold, these drugs will be deemed to have no effect in competition, so their presence will not be penalized. But David also warned there are some medications, such as human anti-psychotics, that have no place in treating equines, and will not be tolerated in any amount.
Among those is fluphenazine. Coincidentally, on the day the commision's recommendations came out, the FEI suspended German dressage star Isabell Werth for six months because her Small Tour horse, Whisper, tested positive for that drug. This will run into December (she was given credit for time served, starting in June). She is pregnant and due to deliver in November, so that restriction is less severe than it would be in other circumstances.
The FEI tribunal criticized her veterinarian, who also was involved in the case of Ulla Salzgeber's mount, Rusty, when he was disqualified from the 2003 World Cup Final victory after testing positive for a prohibited substance.
Such cases illustrate why the Stevens group called for many more controls on how medications are handled, from a medication log book for horses traveling internationally to barring grooms from giving injections at shows.
David is open to another recommendation, testing horses even when they are not competing. He noted that out-of-competition approach already applies to top human athletes under World Anti-Doping Agency protocols that mandate them to give urine samples any time at any place. The idea would be to track prohibited substances, rather than legitimate medications, David noted.
Harmonizing the Rules
The commission called for national federations to apply the FEI doping criteria in their jurisdictions.
"The idea is to get people to harmonize their rules all the way across," said David, while noting this would only apply, however, to the FEI disciplines, as opposed to the Morgans or saddlebreds, for instance.
The "straight across the board" mantra also is pertinent to laboratories. Show jumper Rodrigo Pessoa (one of those suspended in the Olympic drug debacle) once contended that it seemed as if labs were in competition with each other to find the smallest amount of prohibited substances. David said they all need to have the same standards, so the luck of the draw won't determine whose sample is positive and whose isn't.
The integrity unit, which David said also is used in tennis, cricket and formula one racing, is a group of two or three people who follow up on information (which can be given anonymously) concerning sporting integrity. The unit also would monitor corruption and conflicts of interest. It could keep an eye on the quality of evidence handling and sample gathering, which has been sloppy on occasion in the past.
David has quite a perspective on the medication issue, having been active in the sport for decades prior to his retirement from high-level competition.
"When I started," he recalled, "almost any drug was allowed." That changed to allowing some drugs, and then no medication.
"I think the realistic part is that there are medication thresholds for classes of drugs. If the sport gets there, I think it's going to be in a good place. I think people are ready for this, because the sport has to be held in high repute."
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