As FasterSkier wrote in June, the Ukranian biathlete Oksana Khvostenko, who anchored her country’s relay team to silver at World Championships this winter, tested positive for the banned substance ephedrine.
Khvostenko’s hearing with the International Biathlon Union (IBU) took place on June 1st, but it took them until last week to issue their verdict on the embattled veteran. With both the A- and B-samples testing positive for greater than ten micrograms per milliliter of ephedrine, they had no choice but to suspend Khvostenko, but given the details of the case, the IBU chose a one-year sanction rather than the standard two-year ban.
The panel has not yet decided whether the ban will change the results of the World Championships relay.
How Does A Skier Accidentally Dope?
According to the minutes of the IBU doping panel, Khvostenko, who at 34 years of age has one World Cup victory, three podiums, and three silver medals from World Championships relays to her name, took a cough syrup containing ephedrine without realizing that she was ingesting a banned substance.
Khvostenko told the panel that she had come down with the flu after the sixth weekend of World Cup competition, in Antholz-Anterselva, Italy. She couldn’t travel to the next period of World Cup races, which were held in the United States, with her team; instead, she contacted her team doctor via skype to get advice about her symptoms. The doctor told her to take three tablespoons of Broncholytin, a household cough syrup, which he had left in the hotel. Thanks to the medication Khvostenko was soon able to train again.
When she left for World Championships in Russia, Khvostenko put the cough syrup in her bag without thinking too much about it. World Championships was supposed to be her last week of racing before retirement; she had been nominated for the mixed relay, the first event of the week, as well as the individual events.
Then she got sick again. Khvostenko was removed from the mixed relay and pulled from all of the individual races. As one of the best shooters in the world and a strong member of the Ukrainian relay team, she was frustrated and chomping at the bit leading up to the relay. In an effort to get healthy before the last day of the Championships – and potentially the last race of her career – she once again turned to Broncholytin.
It worked: while she didn’t give one of the better performances of her career, and actually looked slow and ineffective on the trails, her clean shooting was enough to give the team its third silver medal in eight years.
But when Khvostenko’s doping control sample was collected that March day, things began to go downhill. She was soon confronted with a positive test for ephedrine, a stimulant and decongestant banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Once she checked the drug facts, the Khvostenko admitted to taking the drug, but swore that she wasn’t trying to enhance her performance, and didn’t know that ephedrine was an ingredient in Broncholytin.
All she wanted to do, she told the panel, was compete.
And when they asked her why she hadn’t written on the doping control form that she had taken Broncholytin?
“Euphoria,” Khvostenko answered.
The Anatomy of a Reduced Sentence
While anti-doping rules specify a two-year ban for a positive test, they also provide guidance for when to reduce sentences in such cases.
The IBU decision outlined when a reduced sentence might be appropriate:
“… When a specified substance has been found and the Athlete establishes (1) how the substance entered her body and (2) that the taking of the substance was not intended to enhance performance or mask the use of a performance-enhancing substance…”
In Khvostenko’s case, it was always clear how ephedrine ended up in her system. She explained that she took a tablespoon of the cough syrup roughly four hours before her race, and the concentration found in her sample corroborates this story.
The IBU also chose to believe her claim that she wasn’t trying to enhance her performance, only to make a performance possible. While this might seem naive to those outside the medical or anti-doping communities, it actually makes sense. Despite its ban and its bad rap, ephedrine doesn’t actually make athletes faster.
A series of studies have shown that ephedrine doesn’t have significant performance effects for endurance athletes unless it is paired with caffeine. Ephedrine can help athletes do more in their first set of reps in the weight room, for instance, or produce more power in the first ten seconds of a cycling test, but seems not be a significant help over a twenty-minute effort like Khvostenko’s during the relay.
“According to studies in accessible literature a therapeutical dose of ephedrine alone has little or no ergogenic, performance enhancing effects,” the panel wrote. “A performance enhancing co-administration of e.g. caffeine or other substances is not indicated from the analytical data.”
Khvostenko had a few things going for her when the panel heard her case. She had never tested positive for a banned substance before, and in fact nobody from the Ukrainian federation had an anti-doping violation since the country became independent. Then there was the fact that ephedrine is not banned out-of-competition, so her initial possession of the cough syrup was not illegal. Finally, Khvostenko works on anti-doping issues and promotes competing clean to younger athletes in the Ukraine.
But that, in some ways, was a hangup. The panel noted that she seriously neglected her responsibility to know what was in her medications – something an anti-doping advocate should have known very well.
In the end, the IBU handed her a reduced penalty of one year.
“The [panel] is comfortably satisfied that the Athlete administered Broncholytin as a medication in order to restore her physical health and to be able to compete in the Womens Relay,” it wrote in its findings. “In that situation it is easily understandable that she took the Broncholytin syrup in order to treat the cough, exclusively.
“The Athlete admitted the anti-doping rule violation when she was confronted with the AAF and reliably explained how ephedrine entered her body; she did not provide false excuses nor tried to make other persons responsible; she was ill and administered Broncholytin in a quantity which was medically indicated; administered in such a quantity ephedrine has no performance-enhancing effect; Broncholytin was administered as a medication in order to restore her physical health.”
While Khvostenko and the Ukrainian federation can appeal the decision, they have not indicated that they will do so, and given that Khvostenko retired at the end of the 2011 season just as she had planned to, it seems doubtful that they will.