The most renowned figure in global anti-doping, the man who brought down Lance Armstrong, has spoken out against UK Sport’s use of ketones, exposed by The Mail on Sunday this month.
In what will be seen as a major blow to the image of British sport and GB Olympians abroad, Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, says that organisations such as UK Sport, whose funding focuses on medals, need independent oversight to restrain them from pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable.
Tygart has commended The Mail on Sunday’s investigation into the use of ketones by 91 British Olympians during 2012 in a project pioneered by UK Sport, the government agency responsible for funding British Olympic sport with National Lottery money.
British Olympians used ketones in competition even though it was only available for research at the time and UK Sport, who spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on the substance, could not guarantee that it would comply with anti-doping rules.
They asked athletes to sign waivers to absolve UK Sport of any blame if the experiment went wrong, as well as non-disclosure agreements to stop them talking about the secret project.
Tygart led the investigation into Nike Oregon Project, which led to Alberto Salazar, Mo Farah’s former coach, receiving a four-year ban for breaching anti-doping rules.
The USADA’s report into Salazar also revealed many controversial practices, such as the use of thyroid drugs to enhance performance, that weren’t banned by anti-doping rules.
Speaking about the Mail on Sunday’s investigation, Tygart said: ‘Treating athletes as performance guinea pigs is why we pushed so hard for independence in regulation [of sports’ bodies] because the self-interest of these sports organisations is to win. And sometimes they are unfortunately willing to cross the line when it comes to athletes’ health and safety.
‘We certainly saw it with some of the non-prohibited things that were being done with Nike Oregon Project and others.
‘It is why we need really clear rules and also power for athletes to stand up and say: “I need to run this past someone who has my best interest first, not my interest to win first and comply and be healthy second”.
‘We need clear rules and athlete advocates outside of sport who are there for athletes. It’s the power imbalance that puts athletes in these vulnerable positions, where they can’t say no to people in sport who are paid to win.
‘As good as many of these folks are intended, the pressure to get to or cross the ethical or medical line and justify it as acceptable is too common. And it’s the athletes who suffer because of it.’
Tygart’s investigations most famously brought a life ban for seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong and Salazar being banned for four years. Salazar is appealing his ban. He was also part of the investigations that saw American sprinter Marion Jones stripped of her five Olympic medals. Ketones are a synthetic form of a body acid which process energy more efficiently and had been developed for the US military, according to UK Sport documents and the professor behind their development.
UK Sport had checked with the World Anti-Doping Agency if ketones were on the banned list before proceeding with the experiment and were told that they weren’t, but WADA reserved the right to review that position.
As such, UK Sport produced a ‘participant information sheet’ to accompany their research project which read: ‘UK Sport does not guarantee, promise, assure or represent that use of ketone esters is absolutely World Anti-Doping Code compliant and therefore excludes all responsibility for use of the ketone ester.’
UK Sport also told athletes in the document: ‘WADA might exercise … their rights to regulate … [and] collect blood samples or retrospectively test old samples. This may occur if there was pressure of the media if the concept was to leak. However … ketosis is a temporary physiological state and would be difficult to prove or test with any post-event samples.’
More than 40 per cent of athletes ended up with side-effects including vomiting and gastrointestinal upsets, and 28 individuals stopped taking it for this reason. The reputation of British Olympic sport has suffered after the revelations in The Mail On Sunday.
Newspapers around the world followed up the story. ‘Medals at any price?’ was the question posed by the Swiss media group SFH.
In France, L’Equipe said there was ‘concern about the use of ketones in the 2012 Olympics’.
Saarbrucker Zeitung in Germany reported UK Sport being criticised due to a ‘wonder drug’.
On the back of inquiry into physical abuse of British gymnasts, Olympic silver medallist Cath Bishop, former rowing partner of Katherine Grainger, the chair of UK Sport, has called for the UK to change its approach to Olympic sport, citing the damage that focusing only on medals has done.
The MoS story and the ongoing allegations of abuse suffered by British gymnasts are causing sports chiefs to question Team GB’s obsession with medals.
Last week, British Olympic team chief Mark England appeared to cast doubt on UK Sport’s medal-based approach to funding and said: ‘Is it time for that narrative to change to Team GB athletes being role models rather than it just being medal focused? The Olympics stands for something greater than the pursuit of medals, though currently we’re measured in that way.’
UK Sport declined to comment on Tygart’s views but has previously stated they received ethical clearance to proceed with the study from the UK Sport Research Advisory Group and said: ‘UK Sport resolutely refutes any accusation that Olympians were used as “guinea pigs” and finds this allegation misleading and offensive. UK Sport does not fund research projects aimed at giving our national teams a performance advantage at the expense of athlete welfare.’