A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially on Facebook.
How many millions of hours are wasted on social media by the uninformed just throwing something out there to be answered by people who don’t know either? Whatever happened to asking your vet or trainer, looking in a book or, best of all, reading the rules of your chosen horse sport?
We are in the midst of it again with news that jumper Harry Charles – son of British Olympian Peter Charles – must forfeit his two 2018 European young riders gold medals, with GB demoted to team silver.
Charles’ horse Vivaldi du Dom tested positive to the controlled medication lidocaine in France last summer, after the team competition. Vivaldi was sampled again after winning the final two days later and tested negative. But once disqualified from earlier rounds, he was automatically out of contention for the individual too.
Harry exercised his right to accept disqualification, a fixed fine of 1,500 Swiss francs ($1,508) plus costs under a fast-track process called the Administrative Sanction. With this option, set out in the FEI’s Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations (EADCMRs), you just pay up and needn’t explain yourself to a Tribunal or face suspension, not even a short one.
The fast-track is only available if you tick all these boxes: just one substance from the controlled list has been detected; it’s your first offence; it did not occur at a WEG, Olympics or Paralympic Games.
Ten other riders have accepted Administrative Sanctions in the past two months alone. The most common meds tend to be bute, flunixin, caffeine and dexamethasone, though other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and analgesics like lidocaine pop up. These cases usually go unnoticed by the equestrian public unless the disqualification affects something epic, as with the Vivaldi case.
Unfortunately, the only people accepting of the consequences are the Charles family itself! Everywhere else, reaction on social media ricochets between daft and dangerous.
Some think the fine is feeble, why wasn’t he suspended. These are people who haven’t actually read the articles they are commenting on (and boy, does Facebook attract them) and who assume Harry must be right up there with Lance Armstrong. At the other extreme, some believe Harry has been ill-used, because it was someone else’s fault, and an unwitting fault too. His father issued a statement saying the horse was stroked by someone suffering from cancer-related skin disorder who used a lidocaine-containing cream.
Inevitably, there’s a third tier of commenter – people who don’t buy the stroking explanation. There are in fact other similar cases, when men have accidentally passed on the prohibited substance minoxidil, an ingredient of their hair restorer.
But here’s the thing: whether accidental, intentional or bizarre, the how and why has no bearing whatsoever on the punishment. The FEI neither wishes to know or needs to know with these entry level offences. It does not even regard controlled medication offences as “doping,” because these drugs are legitimately given to the sick or injured horse. All the matters is these meds clear the system before the horse competes again. The FEI now flags-up this distinction in its press releases.
National and international governing bodies accept that controlled meds positives can result from carelessness, accident or miscalculating withdrawal times. Of course, no one believes competing on a single controlled med can’t also be deliberate, but latitude is given. Riders who are fined and disqualified under the fast-track are not exactly “getting away with it,” despite what many Facebookers think. The vast majority are usually jolted into ensuring it doesn’t happen again.
Everyone understands the speeding ticket. Maybe it would help to view Admin Sanctions in the same way? In both scenarios you are notified you’ve been caught by a traffic camera/tested positive to a controlled med; you agree you broke the law/clean sport rules, but not so seriously you need to go to court/FEI tribunal and explain yourself; and if you accept a statutory fine etc. you can do it all by paperwork and keep your driving licence/avoid suspension. The offence goes on your record, only to be treated more seriously if there is a “next time.”
The fast-track for minor offences also saves precious FEI Tribunal time, where there is a backlog of more worrying cases: cocktails of multiple controlled substances, and banned substances not meant to come within a 100 miles of a horse at any time. When horses test positive to more serious drugs, there is an automatic presumption of intent. Quite rightly, decision by Tribunal is non-negotiable, no fast-tracking here.
While I sometimes find myself shouting at the screen over the latest flood of Facebook pea-brainery, in fairness clean sport law is not easy. I only know a little more than most (I think!) because I read all FEI Tribunal stuff as part of my journalism obligations.
For a start, it’s the opposite of criminal law, where you are presumed innocent till proven guilty. With doping you are deemed guilty from the off – because the presence of drugs screws up the level playing field for everyone else.
And the only way to be fair to everyone else is to disqualify you – the one completely non-negotiable punishment common to all categories of offence. Even if someone later wrote to the FEI president himself and admitted spiking a rival’s horse feed, it won’t get their win or placing reinstated.
Once you’ve digested this key premise, the rest of the clean sport process should seem more logical.
Because you are deemed guilty, mitigating factors are only really taken into consideration where a suspension in addition to a fine and disqualification is on the table. Frequent explanations include alleged mess-ups by your vet or groom, a misleading label, or contamination by your feed supplier – but these only play a part in maybe getting the suspension reduced. One thing I have noticed from reading every single hearing report over the past 20 years is that the FEI Tribunal respects those who put their hands up quickly and apologise.
Doping can also be a confusing term. It’s entered the lexicon to mean cheating by using drugs for performance-enhancement. In most other sports, drugs cheats aim to be faster, stronger or ultra-alert, and of course, there’s incentive to do this in certain horse sports too. However, equestrianism’s historic connotation of doping derives from slowing the horse down or dulling its reflexes, the “nobbling” of racing favourites to fix a bet.
Horse sport also has a unique consideration – the welfare of a defenceless animal. Our clean sport law also has to factor in drug-use to mask physical injuries and deficiencies; equestrian is the only sport that has to protect an (equine) athlete from its competition partner, as well as protecting clean riders from cheats.
Another confusing area for the onlooker is why even a mild painkiller counts as performance-enhancement. It’s a long accepted truth, tested by legal experts many times, that if a horse would clearly perform below par if a bash or strain went untreated, to restore the horse to its normal state through medication is a deliberate “enhancement.”
All 133 member national federations of the FEI buy into these principles, so there’s really no point in riders spending ages disputing it at Tribunal, or fans firing off a salvo on Facebook – though of course they keep doing so, its human nature. How much better, though, to channel angst and energy into reading the rules and avoid competing, unwittingly or otherwise, on illicit medication yourselves!