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Doping Or Simple Mistake?...Another Side To The Dope Show
This is how the official press reads:
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A 41-year-old woman who finished fifth in the 30K classic at the 2002 U.S. Cross Country Championships was suspended for three months for failing a drug test.
Kelly Milligan, of Park City, Utah, tested positive for pseudoephedrine Jan. 10 at the championships in Bozeman, Mont., the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said Monday. Pseudoephedrine is commonly found in over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines. Milligan was stripped of her fifth-place finish in the 30K and her 12th-place finish in the women's 5K freestyle pursuit at the championships.
The three-month suspension took effect Jan. 10, the day Milligan tested positive. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, an independent agency funded by the federal government, oversees drug testing of U.S. athletes and conducted the tests involved in the suspension case.
OK, so that is the official version. But contained within this somewhat benign story is a powderkeg of national and international implications literally everyone attached to performance skiing has to sit up and take notice of. Huh? Let us delve deeper shall we?
Milligan's situation, put bluntly, is a classic illustration of what even anti-doping advocates call the darkest side to the dope show. But not the way a lay person might think.
Milligan, by her own admission, took a single dose of Nyquil cold medicine the night before the 5km pursuit race at the U.S. Nationals in January. She did so to relieve cold symptoms and a sinus headache, thus allowing her to sleep before the 5km race. Nyquil, a popular over-the-counter product, is often used (as in this case) to help a cold sufferer sleep. xcskiworld.com has yet to find a single documented case in which this product can significantly aid athletic performance. However, Nyquil does contain 60 mg of psuedophederine, a banned substance on the alphabet soup's long list of banned substances. The net result of this situation? Milligan ended up with a post-5km urine test 7.5 mcg/ml over the legal limit of 25 mcg/ml.
After nearly 2 months, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced the suspension. It is also notable that a USADA spokesman confirmed that the Agency considered this case a "mistake" by the athlete (agreeing with Milligan on that critical point). The the three month penalty versus a multi-year suspension was viewed by the USADA as a way to reflect the more innocent nature of the offense.
Fair enough, an athlete made a mistake, took something they shouldn't have, couple months later finds out they are going to have a few results wiped off the books. What's the big deal?
Well, most glaring of all, is the headline question why national (and international) doping control goes after a fairly benign substance like psuedophederine in the first place when we know true doping (make that D-O-P-I-N-G) is going on throughout XC elite circles relatively unchecked. I'll go ahead and make the challenge right here...someone find me a shred of medical evidence that a single dose of Nyquil the night before a race is going to provide a fraction of the performance benefit of a systematic doping schedule involving EPO, darbepoetin, HGH, transfusions, etc.. Let's make the challenge a little more specific to this case. Find me a single shred of evidence that a single, unintentional use of Nyquil is going to provide exactly 12.5% of the benefits of the real doping products used under medical supervision, over many months, with the expressed purpose of creating a faster skier. 12.5% is significant because it is precisely the percentage of Milligan's suspension time compared to that of Lazutina, Danilova, Muehlegg, Isometsa, Myllyla, et al..
Can't do it? Thought so.
Milligan's case points out where international doping control has become nearly as interested in "catching" athletes using over-the-counter cold products (with no net benefits to performance) as nailing true dopers that move up a couple minutes in the results due to their systematic use of real doping products. It's very much like your local police department locking up a jaywalker while ignoring (or, at best, being unable to catch) drunk drivers.
What's A Light Sentence?
Back to that 12.5% again. The Milligan case also shines a bright spotlight on the issue of penalties with doping. Milligan points out that she came much closer to making the U.S. Olympic Team than she had hoped to coming into the season. At 40 going on 41, married, mother of one, full time veterinarian...she hardly could hope to match up with full time skiers in their teens, 20s and early 30s. Yet with 5th place finishes in the two National classic events...both accomplished while sick...one can easily see a scenario where Milligan might very well have been in a position to make the team. But the questions remain...What if Milligan had actually made the team? Would it still have taken 2 months to decide her case? Can anyone imagine how the worldwide media would have reacted to the various dynamics in this case?
British alpine skier Alain Baxter is feeling the big hurt these days with what appears to be another case of an athlete mistakenly taking a cold medicine and suddenly walking into the vortex of doping control gone mad. An argument can be made that Baxter's case is more muddled...the subnasal inhaler used could, under the right circumstances, provide some performance benefit. But in Baxter's case, the penalty is a killer. If the guy really did make an innocent mistake, he loses an Olympic medal as a result.
Then you look at the So-Ho Trio, the Lahti Six, etc. and you think that those folks...documented as cheating full-on...pay hardly any stiffer penalty. Yeah, it's two years in the penalty box compared to three months but a medal to Baxter is the same as a medal to Muehlegg. Heck, last I checked, Johann and company still had their hardware from before the February bust tucked away in a cabinet back home.
The press release for Milligan is the same as the press release for Lazutina. The scale of the penalty might technically be different, the circumstances are totally different, but the net result to the athlete is much the same. As a ski community we have to ask ourselves if that is what we really want.
Beyond The Elite Circle
The only reason anyone on the planet cares that Kelly Milligan took some Nyquil on January 9th in order to help with head cold sinusitis is that she is a good skier. Considering her situation and age, she's a really good skier. The odds of her getting called in for random control at the U.S. Nationals if she wasn't placing so high in the results are very slim. They'd be slimmer still if she, like 100% of the other 40 years+ female skiers in North America, never attended the U.S. Nationals in the first place.
Fact is, the other 01/02 major events that Milligan placed high in lack any capacity whatsoever for doping control. The entire women's field at the Boulder Mountain Tour (where Milligan finished third) could have slugged shots of every substance on the banned list the night before...and NO ONE would have known. What's more, short of real doping going on, no one would have cared. Same goes for the National Masters (where Milligan dominated). Same goes for every single citizen race around the world.
Now an argument can (perhaps should) be made that the rules are different at the elite level. This is the case, presumably, because that is where most true cheating is taking place. Key word here...presumably. Absolutely no one really knows the extent of blood manipulation and performance enhancement with banned substances at the citizen level. It is likely not a widespread problem due to the logistics involved, but there is little doubt that it is happening. Few readers will ever know for sure if they've competed against a totally clean field. Yet practical limitations mean we will likely never have doping control at the citizen level.
It's when the worlds of citizen and elite racing mix that things get really messy...and really quite unfair in a way.
Austrian Alois Blassnigg was recently nailed for EPO use at the Swedish Vasaloppet. Although not a big surprise considering the on-going storm of investigation and rumor swirling about the entire Austrian program, Blassnigg's situation has some unsettling implications when compared to the Milligan case. Were Blassnigg a top age-group skier finishing in the 100th place range, he would never have been tested. He would have never been caught. Despite the $10,000US the Vasaloppet shelled out for doping control, the guy could have had dope coming out his eyeballs and he would have gotten away clean.
So, on one hand we have a Master skier good enough to finish in the top five at the U.S. Nationals where she "gets nailed for Nyquil". On the other hand, she can race a major citizen race a couple weeks later where everyone on the line can take Nyquil (or whatever else they want) with impunity. On one hand we have a guy busted (rightfully) for EPO because he's in the top 25. But on the other hand, if he's falls below the testing radar on the results then he can cheat as much as he wants.
It is precisely because of a lack of universal doping control that Milligan's suspension will not apply to any non-FIS/USSA events on the North American calendar. Her ASM Series and National Masters results will stand in the records. To do otherwise would be completely unfair to the athlete in question. If we assume that Milligan competed against a clean field at the U.S. Nationals, we cannot assume the same at the other events. This is little solace for an innocent mistake but it is a measure of fairness in an unfair world.
Ugly. Few easy answers. Lots of troubling questions.
There are two things that should come out of all of this...
- The international authorities need to simplify the banned substance criteria to recognize those substances that are actually intended to "dope" the athlete. In our collective mission to end the dope show, we need to stop creating an atmosphere of paranoia for clean athletes any time they walk into a local pharmacy. We know Nyquil isn't the enemy. Why are we wasting precious resources searching for it?
- Until the aforementioned international authorities recognize what they need to do (don't hold your breath) to simplify and streamline the banned substance list, athletes, coaches, and family members are going to have to adopt a stronger sense of personal protection against this dark side to the dope show. Fact is, any athlete competing in any event with doping control could run smack dab into Milligan's situation. In the atmosphere the dope show has wrought, anything and everything that goes into an athlete's body can, and will, be used be against them.