Editorial: Sports bodies should come clean on therapeutic drugs

Drysdale said he had no problems with his medical file becoming public and argued the system would benefit from transparency. He is right. Photo / Photosport
Drysdale said he had no problems with his medical file becoming public and argued the system would benefit from transparency. He is right. Photo / Photosport

Due to the crimes of Russian hackers, the little-known term "therapeutic use exemption" has gained currency in New Zealand.

A group which calls itself Fancy Bears published a list of athletes granted TUEs for medical reasons so they could take banned drugs. The surprise for New Zealand sports fans was the appearance on the list of double gold rowing medallist Mahe Drysdale and the Olympic champion sailor Peter Burling.

Both athletes had, as the term implies, legitimate reasons to use a banned substance.

Burling was issued a one-off prescription of remifentanil when he got a wisdom tooth removed, while Drysdale was granted four TUEs, from April 2015 to August of this year, for the drug fluocortolone, used to treat haemorrhoids.

Under rules laid down by Drug Free Sport NZ, doctors who think their patient needs treating with a banned substance must get permission.

Approval is usually for a limited time, and the arrangement is reported to the World Anti-Doping Agency. It was this body whose records were hacked.

Wada has suggested the cyber hackers may have manipulated the stolen data, but it is clear that use of TUEs is widespread. The British double Olympic triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee was on the list, as was the Australian swimmer Emily Seebohm, another dual gold medallist, who suffers from asthma.

The English cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins, who in the past has been outspoken about drug use in sport, was revealed in a separate hack to have had a TUE for the steroid triamcinolone, the same drug that Lance Armstrong tested positive for at the 1999 Tour de France.

Yesterday former All Blacks Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko were named in French media reports as having "abnormalities" detected in urine samples taken on the eve of a game in June. The players' management say the pair had the correct clearance for the use of prescribed medication and had lodged TUEs with authorities. Carter was being treated for a calf injury.

Dave Gerrard, a New Zealander who runs Wada's exemption activities, attacked the hackers for violating doctor-patient relationships, and suggested the Russians were retaliating because Moscow's competitors were banned from the Rio Olympics for doping.

However Canadian lawyer Dr Richard McLaren, who led the inquiry into Russian doping, believes TUEs could be abused.

Drysdale said he had no problems with his medical file becoming public and argued the system would benefit from transparency. He is right. The use of TUEs is designed to ensure those with a genuine medical condition for which there is no effective alternative treatment are not unfairly penalised, while at the same time trying to prevent them gaining an undue advantage over others.

A problem with the current system is the perception that athletes issued with exemptions get relief for their symptoms by taking banned substances. Competitors who do not have TUEs must use their energy without chemical help.

Rightly or wrongly, an athlete granted a TUE could be seen to have an advantage over rivals competing without drugs on board.

Sports bodies insist they have robust systems which prevent the abuse of TUEs but the history of doping suggests cheats will always try and beat whatever measures are put in place to keep sport clean. Drysdale's argument to bring this secret process out in the open would go some distance towards reassuring a public sceptical of the use drugs in sport.

- NZ Herald

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