If you’re a fan of cycling (which I assume, if you’re reading this, you are), you’ll be well aware that this year’s Giro d’Italia has been utterly ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. The Mitchelton-Scott team, as well as Dutch power-house Jumbo-Visma have both withdrawn their entire racing squads from this year’s race, citing social responsibility, with a number of team members and staff testing positive on the first rest day. Several more riders have dropped out since also. The questions on everybody’s lips, for the longest time, were “who will drop out next?” and, at the extreme, “will the race even finish?” Doping violations are the furthest thing from the mind in the cycling community at large at present, but Matteo Spreafico’s suspension is a reminder that they still occur.
We are eight years removed, now, from the doping scandal that rocked the cycling world. I refer, of course, to Lance Armstrong’s admission of his use of EPO as a performance enhancer, the stripping of his Grand Tour victory medals and the subsequent implosion of Team Sky (now the reformed INEOS Grenadiers). The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) described it as “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen” and it lingers long in the memory of fans the world over, only recently taking a backseat to the pandemic.
So, Spreafico popped. The 27-year-old, from the Vini Zabu-KTM team, returned two “Adverse Analytical Findings” (AAFs) for Enobosarm (commonly known as Ostarine) on the 15th and 16th of October. It is part of a class of drugs called “selective androgen receptor modulators.” A lot of jargon there, but the point is that it’s illegal. Spreafico has been provisionally suspended, pending an official hearing from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Spreafico has yet to release an official statement, so it is impossible to say how he has reacted to this news. We are well aware of cycling’s history with doping. So often, not just in cycling, but in sports generally, athletes can pop without ever having meant to do anything illegal. A “tainted supplement” can shave years off a person’s career with no intention of wrongdoing. Of course, athletes take supplements – their livelihood hinges on them being in as good a physical condition as humanly possible, so anything short of an illegal performance enhancer is a welcome bonus, but that does come with risks. I am not implying either that Spreafico used one of these tainted supplements or that he was simply caught cheating, but what is clear is that even an accusation of cheating can significantly damage an athlete’s career. MMA fighter Yoel Romero was suspended for six months and had his name dragged through the mud for years when he tested positive for a PED. He fought the accusation and, years later, his name was cleared when it was determined that what he had been found to have in his system was the result of a tainted supplement. All that hassle and embarrassment because a company didn’t label their pills properly. It remains to be seen whether or not the same is true in Spreafico’s case, but I think it better to reserve judgement and give the man the benefit of the doubt. The headlines will say “Cyclist Tests Positive for Performance-Enhancing Drugs”, and I guarantee that the articles below them won’t give much thought as to how this came about. Let’s wait and see.