By Tony Attwood
On 15 July 2016 Untold covered the case of proceedings against Mamadou Sakho of Liverpool by Uefa following his being found to have taken a banned substance. The proceedings were stopped and the case dismissed after Uefa stated that the drug should not have been on the banned list.
Now in reporting this story I had some difficulty because I (obviously) had no direct line of information from Uefa and could only put together such information as could be gleaned from the few news services that thought it was reporting.
But what worried me throughout was that the case seemed to be full of holes. How could Uefa actually say that a substance should not have been on the banned list? That is the job of the world anti-doping agency WADA. Uefa is supremely unqualified in such a matter.
Sakho then threatened to take the World Anti-Doping Agency to court. But as far as I know, he didn’t. WADA had the right to appeal against Uefa – but they didn’t. Which was also odd.
What I wanted to know how Uefa could simply say WADA was wrong, given that WADA is the authority to which everyone turns in order to stop the wholesale use of drugs, as seemingly has happened in Russia, that would be a very serious turn of events.
There was a lot of briefing in secret going on to the effect that the problem is very much WADA’s, and that WADA had been warned that the banning of the substance was wrong. However the people saying this remained secret, which is always a suspicious sign, when there is no obvious reason why they should be secret. And there was no evidence, not even from the protagonists – Uefa.
Liverpool then took up the case and hired a lawyer specialising in the field to see whether higenamine, the compound at the heart of the dispute, was one that could be classified as a beta2, which would make it illegal. But we never heard the answer. That was suspicious too.
Uefa then said it would not extend the suspension while further investigation was ongoing. There were mutterings that some WADA laboratories check for higenamine, not all of them do. That was presented as a shock horror story pointing at WADA’s gross incompetence.
Then Uefa’s disciplinary body announced that the evidence for higenamine being a banned substance was not valid, which suggested Uefa was a higher authority on drugs matters than WADA and that Uefa was clearing up WADA’s mess. That sounded very dubious.
And by now blame was being spread thick and fast around WADA with talk in the press of another “meldonium fiasco”. But in reality all that happened was that WADA announced that it was planning to add meldonium to its banned list but then many sports men and women claimed that although they stopped taking the drug when the banning was announced, traces were still showing up in their samples. WADA took note and issued new guidance. The press reported that WADA was “thrown into chaos” and the media and state organisations in Russia, seized upon it as a way of trying to discredit WADA and get their teams back into the Olympics.
But in reality WADA’s new guidance acknowledged that trace elements of meldonium can remain in the body “for a few months” if someone has been taking the drug for a prolonged period. Nothing else.
Uefa of course can never make a mistake – that is in its rule book, so it is now trying to blame WADA once again. But the simple fact is that Uefa, has (or should have) a list of banned substances, and ought to be able to look down a list and see if a drug is banned or not. All of the fuss that happened, it seems, came about as Uefa tried to dig itself out of the hole it had got into by not checking, while not admitting it had not bothered to look at the WADA list. Liverpool it seems were complicit since they were just as guilty of not checking the WADA list.
Uefa’s statement that, “The onus is clearly on WADA to communicate to its laboratories what is and what is not on the prohibited list,” is nonsense, since WADA’s labs do far more than test for banned substances. They test for substances that might be banned, and substances that are under enquiry where it is not at all clear what impact specific drugs might have on an individual. Such data gathered helps keep up with drug cheats, as well as inform medical authorities.
According to press reports, Liverpool were also unhappy their player took any substance without informing the club’s medical staff, not least because Sakho had previous in terms of breaches of club discipline. That of course is a fair point.