Commentary

Diana Taurasi cleared in doping issue

Doubt about testing procedures and labs that do them undermines anti-doping efforts

Originally Published: February 16, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

This is the kind of week the World Anti-Doping Agency dreads. Two high-profile athletes cleared of anti-doping charges, and both cases leave observers with many questions about the process of drug testing, fairness, accountability and standards.

Tuesday, 2010 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador was ruled not at fault for a positive test for clenbuterol. He was cleared by the Spanish cycling federation, which accepted his explanation that the banned substance got into his system from contaminated meat he had eaten.

Then Wednesday, basketball standout Diana Taurasi was cleared of doping allegations and had her provisional ban lifted by the Turkish Basketball Federation. The federation said that a Turkish lab had retracted its report of Taurasi's positive test for the stimulant modafinil after considering her presented defense.

Neither the Turkish federation nor the lab itself -- affiliated with Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey -- acknowledged any failure in the testing procedure. The lab had previously been suspended by WADA for two months in 2009, but regained certification.

It was also announced that the Turkish federation lifted a provisional ban on basketball player Monique Coker, who competed collegiately at Old Dominion from 2000 to '04, after a positive test also for modafinil from the same lab.

That's particularly notable because it suggests there really are still serious issues with this lab, and they're not just related to Taurasi's case.

"WADA has requested all the technical information regarding Diana Taurasi's analysis from the Turkish laboratory for an independent review," WADA spokeswoman Julie Masse told ESPN.com via e-mail. "WADA-accredited laboratories' performance must maintain the highest quality standards set forth in the ISL.

"Whenever a laboratory does not meet those requirements, it is required to take fast corrective actions. In some serious situations, WADA may suspend or revoke the laboratory's accreditation following an appropriate disciplinary process."

That might not be all the lab will face; we'll wait to see if any lawsuits are forthcoming. But as Taurasi's supporters celebrate what most of them believed anyway -- that she hadn't done anything wrong -- all organizations responsible for revealing and punishing the use of banned substances perhaps should do some thinking after the events of this week.

If WADA doesn't opt to contest the Contador or Taurasi decisions, the organization should still fully examine if there's something to be learned from both.

The Contador and Taurasi cases actually aren't much alike except that both are rare examples of athletes being vindicated in doping cases. Among the differences between the two are that cycling has been up to its neck in doping problems for many years, while women's basketball has not.

Also, there appears to be no dispute in the Contador case that the positive test was right; rather, he convinced the Spanish federation that he had inadvertently ingested the very small amount of clenbuterol found in his system.

That defense almost never works, and ESPN.com's Jim Caple wrote this week of how cycling fans are still left with a lot of questions about it. However, the decision by the Spanish federation coincided with a report this week from a German anti-doping lab -- which is accredited by WADA -- that found there is a risk of humans inadvertently consuming clenbuterol through eating beef from nations where the drug is used to bulk up livestock.

Some have argued -- and their position might be strengthened by the German lab's findings -- that modifications need to be made in regard to testing for clenbuterol, which is considered a zero-tolerance substance by WADA. By establishing a higher minimum acceptable threshold, there could be a reasonable distinction made between levels generally expected to be present in true doping cases as opposed to inadvertent consumption through food.

In Taurasi's case, she has steadfastly denied ever ingesting modafinil or any other banned substance either intentionally or inadvertently. Her Turkish club team, Fenerbahce, ended her contract late in 2010 after her A and B samples were confirmed positive, and Taurasi returned to the United States.

This was her first season playing in Turkey, which recently has become a more popular overseas destination for a largely nomadic group of professional women's basketball players.

The issues with the Hacettepe lab, Fenerbahce's decision to terminate Taurasi's deal as she battled the allegations, and the concerns other players have had -- or were fearful of having -- in Turkey might affect the future of teams there.

Taurasi told The Associated Press on Wednesday that she did not anticipate returning to Turkey to play, even though she would be free to do so now. Who could blame her? Why would she want to go back?

Instead, Taurasi will continue training in Phoenix. It has undoubtedly been a trying time for her, but Taurasi has a sustained history of dealing well with adversity. And while it's about the last way she or anyone else would ever have wanted to take a break from competition, perhaps a positive spin -- if there can possibly be one -- on this situation is that she has had some time to rest.

Although, one has to wonder how well she has rested considering her future -- with the Phoenix Mercury, USA Basketball and overseas leagues -- seemed in limbo.

Taurasi's attorney, Howard Jacobs, is a former triathlete who has represented many elite athletes in anti-doping cases, and he has consistently made the point that too much of a draconian stance has developed in regard to athletes who test positive, which undermines their efforts to defend themselves.

However, it's sadly understandable how that has happened. For decades, the battle against performance-enhancing drugs was not fought well, if at all, in international sports.

There were occasional huge names busted, probably none bigger than Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson in the 1988 Olympics. But the existence of "designer" steroids, the sheer volume of medical detective work needed to counter drug use, and periodic scandals -- such as with the 1998 Tour de France when bulk amounts of banned drugs were found in one team's possession -- prompted the formation of WADA in 1999.

WADA wanted to close any and all so-called "loopholes," but critics say in doing so, WADA and its signatory organizations have ended up treating even inadvertent misdemeanors as if they are flagrant felonies.

Jacobs, for instance, handled the case of skeleton racer Zach Lund, who was banned from the 2006 Olympic Winter Games after testing positive for a drug found in an anti-balding substance he'd used. The United States Anti-Doping Agency granted him a reprieve, but WADA fought it and the case went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

CAS agreed that Lund had not used the substance in any way to enhance his athletic performance … yet still agreed with WADA that, regardless, Lund was responsible for complying with WADA's list of banned substances.

Jacobs has had some cases -- like those of Lund and cyclist Tyler Hamilton -- that have no doubt been very frustrating to him because he believed the evidence in both lost out to a zero-tolerance mentality that didn't make room for a common-sense dose of fairness.

Anti-doping activists, though, will counter that the war against performance-enhancing drugs occasionally might have some essentially "innocent" victims because it's so difficult to fight.

However, nothing undermines the necessary work of anti-doping agencies more than when reasonable doubt is raised about testing procedures and the labs that do them. And that's what happened with the Hacettepe lab. The lab appears to have lost credibility, which is supposed to be the lynchpin of this process.

The relatively quick resolution of Taurasi's case stands in comparison with some famous conflicts involving athletes and labs/testing procedures. One such example is the years-long court battle in the 1990s between American track sprinter Butch Reynolds and the International Olympic Committee and track's world governing body, the IAAF.

But for Taurasi, it likely didn't seem "quick" at all. Waiting even one day for vindication of your reputation is a long time. Once positive tests for athletes are revealed, they have no choice but to go through the process of defending themselves in a public forum.

Ultimately, no one disputes the great need for vigilance in trying to curb the use of banned substances in athletics. And unfortunately, no one can reasonably expect that there will never be mistakes. Still, weeks like this one are just another reminder to everyone of how complex an issue it can be for all involved.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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