The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object, Spencer Smith and the ITU

"There's no doubt in my mind, Spencer Smith's urine contained nandrolone metabolites when he crossed the finish of last year's Hawaiian Ironman. The only question is, how did it get there? If you agree with the IOC medical code, it could only be there through the use of a banned substance."

So says Mark Sisson, ITU secretary and architect of his organization's anti-drug program. The amount of 19-norandrosterone present in Smith's urine, reportedly calculated by UCLA's drug lab at an estimated 11 nanograms per milliliter, is above, according to most involved in the drug testing milieu, any amount which might naturally occur in one's system. The IOC anti-doping code, which all international federations (such as the International Triathlon Union, or ITU) must follow, says that any presence of nandrolone is a doping violation.

According to the IOC medical commission, there is ample evidence humans do not synthesize nandrolone or its metabolites at all, notwithstanding some views to the contrary. It was the possibility that the body can generate or naturally ingest nandrolone, up to 5 ng/ml, that was significant in the Court of Arbitration for Sport's (CAS) decision to deem World Duathlon Champion Olivier Bernhard's 2.5 ng/ml result of two years ago a potential "false positive." But Sisson questions that premise. "I know of many medical and scientific experts who will say nandrolone cannot be generated naturally by the human body. I'm aware of only one who says it can, and that one seems to have been part of the basis for the CAS' overturning of Bernhard's case."

The alleged amount was high enough that few to whom SlowTwitch spoke--on either side--reasonably considers the possibility that such a quantity was the result of eating steak fed with steroids, or a well-muscled athlete's natural ability to generate nandrolone. But Smith does not even tackle the question of whether UCLA's lab, arguably the best known and most respected IOC testing facility in the world, can accurately measure an amount of nandrolone metabolite found in a urine sample. The question is simply whether the sample tested by UCLA belongs to Smith or to someone else.

"There is no way I am going to take nandrolone," says Smith. "I weigh 180 pounds, and I do not want to run that marathon weighing 185. I've done well in the sport, and I can certainly afford my drug of choice, if I was a cheater. And it wouldn't be nandrolone, or some other stone-aged drug you can test for. It'd be EPO. And no, I didn't take that either."

"Chain of custody" is the term given to the process that starts even before the athlete evacuates in the bottle. From the time the athlete crosses the finish to the time a lab tester has the athlete's sample, there is strict and uniform protocol that protects-- or in some cases might fail to protect-- the athlete. Smith's attorney, Anthony Morton-Hooper, was able to successfully demonstrate at Smith's National Governing Body hearing that the chain of custody was not without serious potential flaws, and the British Triathlon Association accordingly ruled that there was "no case to answer."

The United States Triathlon Association, the responsible party for testing at American races, challenged that finding and appealed to the ITU's three-person arbitration panel. This is USAT's right, since it conducted the test and stands behind its integrity. As opposed to Smith's hearing before the BTA, a 10 hour affair, the ITU panel, none of whom belonged to either the BTA, USAT, or the ITU's executive board, dismissed the charge in a hearing lasting about an hour. In this latter hearing, the panel didn't discuss the chain of custody issue. Although the panel's official report has not yet been released, certain governing body officials indicate that the panel could not find, from the evidence it considered, that Smith was in any violation. Key to that finding appears to be the inadmissibility of the document generated by the testing lab as it contained the warning, "Estimates only, not to be used in litigation." The lack of ability on the ITU's part to prove a specific level of nandrolone metabolites seems to have doomed its chances of prevailing in the hearing. The panel--rightly or wrongly--appears to have believed that admissible evidence of a significant amount of nandrolone was required for the case to have merit. Although certain onlookers consider Smith's victory based on a "technicality," it seems ominous for the ITU that in two hearings the two panels dismissed the Smith charge on different grounds.

Sisson is vehement in his defense of the ITU's anti-doping rules, which he authored with USA Track & Field's executive director Craig Masbach. This includes any chain of custody issues as well as the presence of banned substances. The ITU will therefore support USAT's appeal of the Smith case to the CAS, the ultimate authority in Olympic sport. SlowTwitch will frequently refer to the "upcoming CAS hearing," and though it is true that USAT and ITU have said they would appeal to the CAS, they have yet to do so.

To SlowTwitch, the compelling nature of this story does not surround whether Smith is found guilty. In fact, the CAS ruling, anticipated as an important decision for both sides of this case, will not answer one question lurking in the back of the minds of many onlookers. The issue is whether the historic behavior, or misbehavior, of a governing body on one side-- and the goodwill, or lack thereof, built by the athlete and his attorney on the other side-- will bear heavily in the minds of those observing Smith, his attorney Morton-Hooper, the ITU, and USAT as they prepare for the CAS hearing in Lausanne.

For example, there are those who quietly wonder whether the first hearing, won by Smith, was an "el foldo" on behalf of the BTA strictly for financial reasons. The British Athletics Federation has crossed swords with Morton-Hooper before on behalf of two of his clients, both track & field athletes. One federation bankruptcy later, no United Kingdon governing body would look forward to a tangle with a Morton-Hooper client.

In such an atmosphere, one can understand the motivation of the British Triathlon Association, which is not made of money, to "take a pass" on the Smith issue. The theory goes that the BTA was sure its finding would be appealed by an organization with the kind of financial base that could fund a court battle, and that some court down the road would settle the case. The BTA is required to hold a hearing, and the only conclusion it could reach and stay out of Morton-Hooper's line of fire (so goes the theory), was to dismiss the case.

BTA officials commented with a "no comment" when presented this scenario by SlowTwitch. In BTA's defense, its telephone hearing lasted 10 hours, much longer than the subsequent appeal hearing. Also, Morton-Hooper believes the BTA hearing was serious and its finding totally legitimate, and neither the ITU or USAT is ready to accuse the BTA of lying down in front of a formidable legal team. This theory may be put to the test at the upcoming Ironman, when the BTA will have an opportunity to stand up for its athlete's inclusion in a sister federation's sanctioned race, and at Smith's CAS hearing, when it will argue that its panel made the proper decision in dismissing Smith's case. (It is not uncommon for a national federation to stand up for its athletes at international sports court hearings).

Whether the BTA had an interest in treating the Smith case like a financial hot potato, the ITU appeals hearing, all parties agree, was not adjudicated with finances in mind. Although the particular reasons for dismissing the case against Smith have not been laid out in detail, the ITU panel approached the case soberly. But its decision particularly grates on Sisson, who feels he has a more than compelling argument in defense of both the chain of custody and in the test result itself, and is therefore eager to see a full presentation of the case before the CAS.

"This case is of paramount importance." says Sisson, "This is not about Spencer Smith. This is about a positive sample, the science, the procedures, and the legitimacy of the due process behind it. Is the IOC willing to stand by its own anti-doping code? Do IOC scientists really have all the answers? Do NFs (National Federtions) have an obligation to pursue athletes who test positive? Are laypersons equipped to hear technical discussions in doping matters? How much money should an IF (International Federation) have spend on legal fees to hear a case?"

If one parses the above quote it seems a good part of Sisson's frustration is directed toward the IOC's anti-doping rules, which state that nandrolone in ANY amount is considered a positive test, and all international federations must abide by these rules. But if the Smith case ends up like Bernhard's, the CAS may toss it out, thus assuring that this current spate of nandrolone positives (rampant in any and every sport) are going to cost athletes and federations much money and time, with no fruitful outcome.

Public opinion on the matter is irrelevant both to the ITU and to the process. That said, the ITU has not, in either distant or recent memory, done much to garner the support of its own pro athletes, or those on the outside looking in. Indeed, many of the ITU's top ranked athletes, including several former world champions and Smith himself, have had heated run-ins with the ITU over issues of fairness and responsibility to athletes. The question therefore lingers in the back of the minds of some who are watching: Can we trust the ITU to be fair and vigorous in prosecuting drug cases, while protecting the unfairly or overly prosecuted athlete?

It does not seem to bolster support in the ITU's evenhandedness that Smith was not offered a wild card entry into the 1999 World Championships. Lesser athletes than Smith competed in the Worlds--in all, 22 in the race were ranked below him. Yet Smith, three-time former World Champion and arguably the most celebrated ITU men's racer in the world, who had already won his BTA case and who was only six places out of an automatic bid based on points, was not invited to Worlds. The ITU's answer is that it offers those slots to Third World, or poorly represented, countries, thus fielding a broader spectrum of athletes. Historically, though, it seems that the use of a wild card system is to ensure representation of the best possible athletes. And, to the ITU's credit, its entire system of qualification is geared against inclusion of lesser athletes, starting the best possible racers in a field kept intentionally small. Using the wild card in the system defended by the ITU could open a federation to charges of currying favor. In other words, yes, the ITU could very well be magnanimous and right-thinking in its use of wild card grants. But it seems to have missed an opportunity to show that it bears no personal ill will to Smith.

Likewise the Ironman in Hawaii, the site where the ITU and USAT contend Smith tested positive last year and the focus of Smith's '99 season, has as of this writing denied him an entry. The Ironman is a USAT-sanctioned race, and it is considered proper for governing bodies to strongly encourage (at a minimum) event promoters to allow the inclusion of any athlete who meets qualifying criteria. The USAT, the ITU's partner in the upcoming CAS appeal, certainly should, it seems, be pressuring the Ironman to include Smith in the field since Smith has yet to lose a round in any hearings thus far. But USAT has not, according to its Director of Communications Mike McCarley, intervened on Smith's behalf.

According to Smith (and his attorney Morton-Hooper), Lew Friedland, president of the Ironman-owning World Triathlon Corporation, personally assured Smith and Morton-Hooper in separate phone conversations that Smith would be allowed to race Ironman if he got through the ITU appeals panel without a ban imposed. Yet, according to Smith, Friedland changed his position and has denied him an entry.

Such decisions seem to be driving Sisson, who believes in the integrity of the process whether it goes for or against the ITU, crazy. "I can see no basis whereby Ironman or any other race should not allow Smith to start. As of now he has not been banned, and until and unless the CAS finds against him, there is no reason why he should not be able to race in any sanctioned event in which he has qualified."

Further to the point, the ITU officially intervened on behalf of Olivier Bernhard this past March after race officials decided not to accept Bernhard's entry. And the ITU made its request without Bernhard having won any rounds in any court. The ITU strongly urged the Ironman to include Bernhard in the race, at which point the Ironman reversed its decision. Whether the ITU and/or USAT will act similarly on Smith's behalf will be very telling.

Sisson would like to see a quick resolution for the good of the sport. He does not believe that "victory" necessarily means a guilty verdict for Smith. He just believes that some organization, somewhere, actually needs to hear the case, instead of dismissing it. "Personally, I like Spencer Smith, and I would not take any pleasure in seeing him suspended... If there's any remote chance this is a case of innocence, I would rather it go in his favor." But if so, not because his case was dismissed--but because a court heard all the evidence, found fault with the process, collection, chain of custody, the adhesive they use on the lids, something. And come back with some recommendations.

"I was sitting in my flat, bawling like a baby," said Smith, upon hearing of his so-called positive test. "I did not do anything wrong." This of course is the refrain heard 'round the world by athletes who test positive. Yet Smith has his defenders; two wins in two tries at hearings; and a mountain of emails lending support. Explicitly or implicitly, the ITU has always dismissed the need for grassroots support Smith enjoys in many quarters. Meanwhile, Smith has been one of the world's favorite triathletes, the West End rough-hewn Brit who last year lost his beloved father-- a man sorely missed by Spencer and the rest of the sport-- and who has become triathlon's hero of the working man.

Sisson rightfully sees such popular opinions as irrelevant to the issues and outcome of this case. But even discounting the huge public support for an athlete like Smith and past PR missteps by the ITU, it will take a magician to weave through Morton-Hooper's legal maneuverings, the IOC's impossibly conceived drug policies, divergent interests of national federations and event directors, and the interests, not always obviously well-considered, of other ITU inner-circle officials.