When Ukrainian biathlete Olga Abramova tested positive for meldonium, a metabolic modulator added to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List, she publicly stated that she had been prescribed the drug in November, 2015.
WADA announced in September, two months before that, that the drug would be prohibited starting January 1. Abramova claimed that she had stopped taking the substance before January 1, but that it must have stayed in her body until January 10, when she was tested at a World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany.
A second Ukrainian athlete, Artem Tyshchenko, tested positive in a sample collected at the IBU Cup in Arber, Germany, two weeks later.
Both came before an International Biathlon Union Anti-Doping Hearing Panel on March 30, with the two sides agreeing to defer the case.
At issue is Abramova’s claim: that she had stopped taking the drug, but that it had stayed in her body and she could not have known that this would happen.
“The matter of how long it may take for Meldonium to be excreted from the body was essential, as the results of a pilot study conducted by the expert called by the Panel contradicted the present state of literature on Meldonium,” the IBU stated in a press release. “Therefore, IBU and both athletes, by common agreement, requested, first, to suspend the proceedings until a study which was called a WADA-study will be available and second, that the parties will be given the opportunity to comment on the results of the study. According to the information available at the hearing the results of the study are expected for no later than September 2016.”
This may signal that the Panel will be receptive to athletes’ claims that they unknowingly still had banned substances in their bodies.
According to the WADA, intention to dope or cheat is not required to find an athlete in violation of the WADA Code. This is known as “strict liability”, and has been upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in multiple appeals cases.
“Strict Liability: The rule which provides that under Article 2.1 and Article 2.2, it is not necessary that intent, fault, negligence, or knowing use on the athlete’s part be demonstrated by the anti-doping organization in order to establish an anti-doping rule violation.”
The principle of strict liability holds that flexibility may be used when deciding how long an athlete’s sanction must be, but not whether the athlete is sanctioned in the first place.
On the other hand, the IBU may be interested in how long the drug stays in someone’s system because a longer half-life may mean that its performance-enhancing qualities are long-lasting, which might have different implications for sanctions.
The IBU did not clarify the panel’s interest in the potential findings.
The athletes will remain provisionally suspended until the case is picked up again, presumably in September.
The outcome of the WADA study on meldonium half-life in the body has implication for other biathletes as well, as Russia’s Eduard Latypov and another unnamed athlete also tested positive and their Anti-Doping Hearing Panel hearings are pending.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.