Concern over more lenient approach to riders’ recreational drug use *H&H Plus*

  • As an Olympic sports body, the FEI has to comply with increased leniency toward recreational drug use. H&H talks to the experts to find out what the implications of this change could be

    The FEI is reluctantly adopting a more lenient approach to recreational drug use by riders next year, in line with changes in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) stance.

    From January 1, the suspension for social drugs will be reduced from four years to one to three months if use is proven to be “out of competition” and not intended to enhance sports performance.

    Equestrianism has to adopt this because, as an Olympic sports body, the FEI is bound by the WADA code.

    But an FEI spokesman told H&H: “During consultation we formally expressed our concerns on the proposed reduced sanctions. As equestrian is a risk sport, we also need to consider the safety perspective. We expressed the view that, in our opinion, the revised sanction was too low and could minimise the deterrent effect.”

    If the rider attends an approved drugs rehabilitation programme, the ban will be just one month. Currently, the standard tariff is four years – which will continue to apply where the athlete intends to cheat.

    Rider positives for cocaine, amphetamines, a compound of party drug Adderall which is traditionally used to treat ADHD, and other stimulants have become the FEI’s main human anti-doping concern.

    WADA told H&H it received “considerable” stakeholder feedback that social drug use often does not affect performance. Last year, WADA was lobbied to legalise cannabis’s main psychoactive compound THC by 150 sporting figures, including boxer Mike Tyson who owns a cannabusiness.

    “Where an athlete has a drug problem and is not seeking or benefiting from performance enhancement, the priority should be on the athlete’s health rather than imposing a lengthy sporting sanction,” said WADA’s spokesman.

    “Substantial resources are spent arguing in hearings over the appropriate length of sanction, [which would be] better spent on anti-doping investigations which really do affect the level playing field of sport.”

    WADA defines “competition” as a single race, match, game (such as a jumping class or dressage test) or a singular sports contest (such as eventing or an endurance ride). “In-competition” means 12 hours before and through the competition to the end of  sample collection.

    Recently, showjumper Jan-Philipp Weichert argued that the effects of cocaine and amphetamines consumed before 1am at a party during the German  championships had “long gone” before the next day’s class. He accepted a reduced suspension of two years, under current rules, and agreed to undertake rehabilitation.

    H&H asked two eminent equestrian sport psychologists for their reaction.

    One, who asked for anonymity to protect clients, said: “Any form of ‘substance usage’, recreational or performance-enhancing, should be a cause for concern for anyone engaging in a professional capacity with a client. Behavioural changes can occur immediately or for some days, making it difficult to gauge how much attention will be given to the tasks, or if the persona  is genuine or a ‘cover’ for the substance usage.

    “Is the mental state of the client inappropriate, causing undue stress, depression, worry or ‘win at any cost’, which drives recreational drug usage to escape? Is the athlete actually committed to their sport, or are they doing it because someone is telling them to?”

    Charlie Unwin, psychologist and champion modern pentathlete,  sympathised with WADA’s dilemma.

    “If policing recreational drugs ends up causing so WADA so much distraction they cannot deal appropriately with the more sophisticated forms of cheating – significant, with big pharma companies involved – then I understand their decision,” he said.

    “The question then becomes, who polices it? Do individual events or governing bodies need to make this more explicit and promote zero-tolerance? If so it would probably impact behaviour far more effectively on the ground than hiding behind the veil of WADA, who are invisible 99% of the time to 99% of riders.”

    He added: “If riders were prepared to take drugs with the sole goal of enhancing their performance, they wouldn’t take cocaine. The accidental benefit afforded to a rider who has been up late taking it the night before would be dubious at best.”

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