Hackers have recently revealed private emails from a variety of VIP sources, including former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, as well as the Democratic National Committee. Now a website called Fancy Bear (thought to be a Russian group retaliating for the ban of Russian track and field athletes from the 2016 Olympic games) has joined in by leaking documents from the World Anti-Doping Agency pertaining to the medical and pharmaceutical records of prominent athletes, including both Williams sisters and Rafael Nadal (tennis), Simone Biles (gymnastics), Mo Farah (track and field), and Bradley Wiggins (cycling).
According to the Wall Street Journal, some athletes “obtained ‘therapeutic-use exemptions’ to take medicine with ingredients on the banned-substances list.” In order to get exemptions, athletes must apply to “an independent panel for a ruling that the drugs are necessary and will level the playing field rather than provide an unfair advantage.” If the exemptions are granted, they are not made public.
Therapeutic exemptions are viewed, understandably, by many as a way for athletes to gain an unfair advantage via performance-enhancing drugs.
The hacked documents demonstrate that formulating drug regulations (pun intended) for athletic competition is not nearly as straightforward as it seems. In the case of the World Anti-Doping Agency, the rule banning performance-enhancing drugs can apparently be circumvented if an athlete can demonstrate a medical need, such as to treat asthma. One Olympic-champion runner was given a health exemption to receive “an intravenous solution of saline, morphine, and vicodin.” Is this a legitimate medical need? Who could argue, scientifically, that the drugs were not performance enhancing?
This story has implications for North American horse racing. While medication reform is certainly necessary and is highly commendable, pertinent practical questions need to be addressed. For instance, would horse trainers and veterinarians be able to circumvent a race-day medication ban by making the case to an independent panel that an animal needs drug xyz for health reasons? (That’s how furosemide started out, as an exception for horses prone to pulmonary bleeding.) Imagine if the exemption was for “saline, morphine, and vicodin.” How would bettors in particular and the public in general view a race winner that had this exemption?
“Okay, it wasn’t performance-enhancing, folks, it was just a little therapeutic medication to treat the colt’s health issues. It didn’t give him an advantage, but rather, leveled the playing field.” Tell that to the bettor whose horse ran second.
The point is: the devil is in the details when it comes to medication reform in horse racing.
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