The narrow questions come first, and broaden with time. What happened, and to whom? How? Finally we ask “Why,” and “What do we do about it?” The last two can be a long time coming.
What we know is that Simon Yates tested positive for Terbutaline following stage 6 of Paris-Nice. We know his Orica – GreenEdge team claims he should have had a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for the drug, which would allow him to use it legally, but his doctor neglected to fill out the form.
We know that Yates will not be provisionally suspended, thanks to a peculiarity of the UCI rulebook that stipulates certain “specified substances” are exempt from automatic provisional suspension. These are “substances which are more likely to have been consumed by a Rider for a purpose other than the enhancement of sport performance,” according to a comment written into the rulebook beneath the rule in question.
“As per the UCI’s Anti-Doping Rules, such substance does not entail the imposition of a provisional suspension,” the UCI said in a statement.
We know that Terbutaline is an andrenergic receptor agonist. WADA permits its use when inhaled (as Yates’s team has claimed his dose was administered), provided an athlete has a valid TUE (which he did not).
The drug is often injected or taken orally, and WADA has banned it at all times in these forms. But when used for asthma it is usually inhaled, used as a reliever inhaler and applied after symptoms manifest.
We know that when injected, Terbutaline also delays preterm labor by up to 48 hours in pregnant women. Logic suggests this use is largely irrelevant in Yates’s case.
Orica claims that on the day Yates was tested, his doctor included the drug on the Doping Control Form, which is filled out before a drug test is administered. “There has been no wrong-doing on Simon Yates’ part,” the team said in a written statement Thursday night.
Orica also claims that Yates has a documented history of asthma. This is impossible to confirm without medical records. However, fellow British rider Owain Doull tweeted on Friday that he has seen Yates struggle with asthma symptoms.
Between what we know and what Orica claims, a picture begins to emerge. It suggests that Yates is, indeed, the victim of administrative oversight.
This is not to say he is innocent.
A fundamental tenet of the TUE system is that the buck stops with the rider. Many teams, including Orica, take on the logistical load of applying for TUEs for their riders, ostensibly to prevent the sort of mishaps Orica claims occurred this week.
We know that the responsibility for anything ingested or inhaled, as in all doping cases, falls ultimately on the rider.
On its face, this doesn’t bode well for Yates. However, precedent may work in his favor. Terbutaline does not appear to be a substance that leads WADA to throw the book at an athlete. Last summer, Norwegian cyclist Vegard Robinson Bugge was handed a short, four-month ban following a Terbutaline positive. The rider claimed, just as Orica has, that he forgot to apply for the TUE after switching from a different medicine.
There are asthma drugs that are not banned by WADA. Ventoline is one, and it was the drug used by Bugge prior to his switching to Terbutaline. Orica did not respond when asked why Yates didn’t take Ventoline.
Bugge’s short ban sits in line with the bans previously handed down for positives for asthma medication. Diego Ulissi was handed a nine-month ban for salbutamol, another inhaled asthma drug, in January 2015. However, that drug is allowed below a certain limit, which Ulissi exceeded. Terbutaline is not allowed at any dose.
There is no reason for Yates to request a test of his B-sample. By Orica’s own admission it, too, will show the presence of Terbutaline. His best defense now is a thorough explanation of the events and circumstances surrounding that day in March. Orica has already indicated that it will send additional documentation to both British Cycling and the UCI.
The answer here is that Yates is unlikely to see the full four-year ban that would be the maximum sentence for a first positive. Like the Norwegian Bugge, the ban will almost certainly be shorter. But he doesn’t want any ban at all. Yates is fighting for a slot for the Rio Olympics, and if he isn’t cleared soon — very soon — that fight will be difficult. British Cycling will name its team prior to the Tour de France, and it is unlikely to send a rider with a potential ban hanging over his head.
Which brings us to the final question. A young, innocent rider may miss an Olympic games due to administrative error. Or a cheater might walk free on a doctor’s note. Neither is acceptable. The TUE has become a suspicion factory, and for good reason. We know cycling has struggled with TUE abuse. It was a core finding of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report, released a year ago. We know cycling’s long-running problem with TUEs contributes to the public skepticism surrounding Yates’s test.
The system is broken. How do we fix it?