Comment: Have Katusha been let off lightly for their failed drugs tests?

Katusha avoided a suspension from the UCI based on the fact that cocaine, taken by Luca Paolini, was a recreational drug, not performance enhancing

Cocaine, also known as benzoylmethylecgonine or coke, is a strong stimulant mostly used as a recreational drug, or so says the first line of the Wikipedia entry for the substance.

The word recreational is the key word that cycling’s governing body, the UCI, picked out when deciding they could not suspend the Katusha team from competition over multiple failed drugs tests.

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The UCI’s Disciplanary Commission judged that Luca Paolini’s use of the drug was recreational and not performance enhancing, thus leaving them unable to suspend the team under rule 7.12.1.

But for many cycling fans, this will be seen as yet another time that a team that fails multiple drugs tests has seemingly gotten away with their indiscretions.

The history

Cast your minds back to the end of the 2012 season, when Katusha were not granted a WorldTour licence for the following season, presumably as a result of having riders involved in the ongoing Padua investigation, as well as Denis Galimzyanov testing positive for EPO.

The reason for the licence withdrawal was never given, but the UCI had the right not to grant one on sporting, financial or ethical grounds, and the team’s performances and bank balances made it pretty clear it wasn’t one of the first two.

But the team appealed to the Court of Arbitration (CAS) for sport, which ruled in favour of the Russians, leaving the UCI a little red faced and forced to make Katusha the unprecedented 19th WorldTour team.

Since then, and under the presidency of Brian Cookson, the UCI seems to be a little more reluctant to make bold decisions against teams. Rather than making big statements by sanctioning a team, it’s been seen to try and remedy the situation.

One of Cookson’s go-to phrases when dealing with such situations is the need to come to a “legally defensible” decision. He knows that any team given a sanction will appeal to CAS, so the UCI’s case needs to be water tight.

Fast-forward to the 2014 offseason and Kazakh team Astana were in serious danger of losing their WorldTour licence over the doping positives of the Iglinskiy brothers as well as several others in its affiliated Continental team.

Indeed, the UCI recommended to its independent licensing committee that Astana should be stripped of their licence, but the committee applied leniency and ordered the team to work with the Institute of Sports Science at the University of Lausanne to remodel their internal structure and processes to ensure it didn’t happen again.

Now, under rules it imposed in January 2015, the UCI again finds itself unable to do anything about the latest Katusha situation.

Is cocaine purely a recreational drug?

As mentioned earlier, the reason why Katusha have not been suspended, for a period of between 15 to 45 days, is because cocaine is classed as a recreational drug, not a performance enhancing one.

But is it fair to say that cocaine is not performance enhancing in some way, shape or form? Granted, its obvious side effects – an intense high followed by an intense depression, lack of sleep and paranoia – won’t exactly have a positive effect on one’s athletic performances.

On the other hand, though, research from the University of Cambridge showed that the drug suppresses the body’s ability to store fat, even though users often have a fat and carbohydrate-heavy diet.

If you’ve read Tyler Hamilton’s exposé of doping in cycling, you’ll know of the struggle cyclists go through to reduce their body fat in order to become better climbers. The less you weigh, the higher your watts per kilo can be.

In a study of cocaine use in sport, ESPN reported that while athletes will notice few performance gains from taking the drug, it is used to distort a user’s perception of reality.

For example, the athlete may perceive an increased performance and feel less fatigued, despite the fact that their performance levels are actually falling.

The UCI’s new problem

Paolini admitted to taking cocaine at a pre-Tour de France training camp after finding himself addicted to sleeping drugs. Whether or not he took the drug during the Tour itself is unknown – it can apparently stay in your system for five days.

It also doesn’t really matter the reason why he was taking it, which by the sound of it wasn’t to improve his performance – Paolini’s a pretty chunky guy, who, aged 38, probably wasn’t as bothered about his watts per kilo as some of the Grand Tour contenders on his team.

More importantly, the UCI has itself themselves by including a blanket caveat in their suspension rules by saying that recreational drug usage is not a grounds to suspend a team.

But where do you draw the line on what is a recreational drug and what is a performance-enhancing one? Cocaine is on the same WADA banned substance list as other stimulants, including various drugs derived from amphetamines, which have a long history in cycling.

Meanwhile athletes are getting popped for taking medications for asthma or the common cold without permission – would these be classed as performance enhancing to satisfy rule 7.12.1?

Katusha will feel relieved that their season is not to be disrupted by a suspension, but again cycling fans are left wondering what a team has to do to be sanctioned for the actions of its rider.