This is what I tweeted four times recently before I got a direct message from SAIDS to email them about this. – By Sean Badenhorst
The reason for my tweet question? The high frequency of out-of-competition tests done on South Africa’s top mountain bike racers (and ABSA Cape Epic contenders) since the beginning of the year (and in 2013); and the apparent lack of similar out-of-competition tests done on international racers basing themselves in South Africa to train in our warm weather and compete in some of our big marathons and short stage races in preparation for the 2014 event.
The South African Institute for Drug-free Sport (SAIDS), which goes by the twitter handle @iPlayfair, is doing a pretty good job of keeping mountain bike racing in South Africa on as even a playing field as possible. Having spoken to a few of our top pro racers, they have confirmed that, in addition to testing at major South African events, they’re also regularly surprise tested or out-of-competition tested by SAIDS.
Kevin Evans, a three-time Cape Epic overall podium finisher, said that he’s been out-of-competition tested six times since the start of 2014. Other top South Africans, Darren Lill, Johann Rabie, Neil MacDonald, Charles Keey and Waylon Woolcock all confirmed they’ve had out of competition tests performed this year. And it’s a very good thing. Not many other sports can claim this high level of out-of-competition testing. South Africa’s pro mountain bike racers (and even some of it’s amateur Veteran racers) are all on a whereabouts program that compels them to give SAIDS their current and planned whereabouts at all times.
If SAIDS turns up to test them where they said they’d be and they’re not there, they get a ‘warning’ that lasts for 18 months. Miss a total of three out-of-competition tests (including the first one) and it’s an automatic two-year ban. With a recently launched phone app it’s become easier for the riders to make changes to their whereabouts, but it’s still an administrative task that’s become part of being a professional bicycle racer in South Africa. It’s generally the same for most professional cyclists in most countries.
But in some countries, like Germany, there are two levels of athlete:
“In cycling generally the top level athletes are in the two testing pools, where they have to use the ADAMS (the most used whereabouts program). But there is another testing pool, called General Testing Pool, where athletes can be dope controlled, but do not have to use ADAMS.”
That’s what Sarah Heinichen, Secretary of the Executive Board of the National Anti-doping Agency of Germany told me in an email when I enquired about the out-of-competition, out-of-country testing on Germany marathon mountain bike racers, who apparently slot into the less regimented ‘General Testing Pool’ due to marathon mountain biking not holding a high profile compared to other sports in Germany.
SAIDS does not have the authority to perform out-of-competition tests on non-South African athletes, unless specifically requested to by that athlete’s National Anti-Doping Association (NADA). That’s not to say they don’t get tested when in South Africa. They do get tested at races where SAIDS has full jurisdiction, but few professional athletes are going to risk doping at an actual event where the chances of being tested are very high… It’s during their training that devious professional riders would dope, giving them the boost needed to train harder and longer and recover faster.
The South African in me feels the need to question this. The desire in me to see fair play in world-class sports events compels me to question this. The journalist in me makes it my obligation to question this. Sadly, I’m the only journalist that seems to be asking this question…
So I fired off an email to SAIDS and less than 24 hours later they replied (see below). I also figured that since South Africa’s best mountain bike racers will be doing battle against the rest of the world’s top racers in his event again, Cape Epic founder, Kevin Vermaak, should be questioned too. In its 10 editions, the ABSA Cape Epic has seen just one South African crowned overall winner (the late Burry Stander, in 2011 and 2012), with riders from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Namibia Czech Republic and Denmark making up the rest of the victors’ list.
MY EMAIL TO SAIDS
We ran an interview with you last year after the ABSA Cape Epic that we published in TREAD magazine. You can read it here on both our Facebook page and website:
Doping Battle Intensifies –
Here is a key excerpt from that interview:
Here is a key excerpt from that interview:
We (SAIDS) need permission and authorisation from the mountain bikers’ home countries. In addition to this we also require the whereabouts information of these mountain bikers when they’re training in South Africa. We started discussions with the anti-doping agencies of these countries in March this year in order to give us authority to test these mountain bikers out-of-competition and hope to have this in place pre Cape Epic 2014.
What worries not only me, but every South African mountain biking fan/rider is that there is no change to this a year later.
What is the protocol that needs to be satisfied to enable SAIDS to do out of competition testing on foreign athletes training/living in South Africa?
Many of the European country title contenders for this year’s Cape Epic have been staying in South Africa to train for the past couple of months. Riders from various European countries, including Germany, Switzerland and Czech Republic.
I emailed the anti-doping agencies in Switzerland and Germany but they are not permitted to give out any specific athlete information. As it stands now, these riders could well be living in a doping shelter, while our South African riders are being out-of-competition tested regularly…
As the official anti-doping agency of South Africa, surely you should be aware of this situation and asking, even compelling, those NADAs to perform out-of-comp testing on these athlete while they are here.
I realise there is only so much SAIDS can do, but surely the UCI-status events in South Africa should also be able to put pressure on the UCI to compel the NADAs to perform out-of-comp tests on their riders based in South Africa?
Like other South Africans, I am sick of this potential ‘doping shadow’. I want to support SAIDS where ever possible, but I need to know that you are doing everything possible to make the international level races in South Africa as even as possible…
Editor, TREAD magazine
Thanks for your enquiry and follow-up from last year’s article.
Following on our pledge last year we entered into discussions with our overseas counterparts (Germany, Switzerland) about testing their riders when they train in South Africa in the lead up to Epic. We acknowledge that as an anti-doping agency we truly want to ensure a level playing field and that also means that international riders competing in South Africa should be subject to the same rigours of drug-testing that our domestic riders face.
As a journalist in the cycling industry, you may be aware that there has been considerable changes in the make-up of the podiums at cycle (road and MTB) races over the past two years since we instituted a more vigorous testing campaign in cycling that includes age-groupers as well as elite riders.
Our Swiss counterparts have contracted us to do some testing on their behalf in South Africa, however our German counterparts did not deem it necessary to have these riders tested regularly in the lead up to the Epic.
We have to be sensitive to the profile of cross-country/marathon MTB cycling in South Africa vs the European countries. In South Africa, mountain biking enjoys a very high profile in terms of prize money, TV coverage etc. I would dare say much higher than road cycling. This is not the case in Europe where road cycling dominates and it is the most prestigious discipline in cycling. You are more than welcome to contact the German agency’s CEO, Andrea Gotzman* to garner her opinion on the testing of MTB riders. You may also consider contacting the UCI who has overall jurisdiction on all the elite riders and ask them why the European cyclists are not tested as often as the SA elite riders. The UCI contact is Angeline Turin*.
I think your concern that some international riders can consider training in SA as a “doping shelter” has some merit. The new anti-doping Code, which comes into effect 1 Jan 2015, will give national agencies such as SAIDS, the authority to test athletes from other countries when they compete and train in South Africa. However the financial factor then comes into play.
We will be considering opening up a discussion with race organisers such as Cape Epic, Comrades Marathon, Two Oceans Marathon etc to include the terms for doping control in their conditions of participation for elite athletes. By this I mean, that to be invited to compete in these prestigious international events, potential top 20 finishers must provide their whereabouts when they are in South Africa and be willing to be subjected to “normal” doping controls. We will ask race organisers to consider contributing to such a testing regime as part of risk management strategy to protect their brand from being tainted by doping scandals.
Hope this information is helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you require additional information.
Chief Executive Officer, SAIDS
* Mr Galant gave me their email addresses.
MY Q & A WITH KEVIN VERMAAK, CEO AND FOUNDER OF THE ABSA CAPE EPIC
For how many years has there been anti-doping control at the ABSA Cape Epic?
SAIDS actually approached us during our very first race in 2004 – they did a handful of tests and obviously the winners were tested after the final stage into Spier. For every subsequent event, we have worked very closely with SAIDS and they have had representatives at the race for all eight days ever since 2006. Ever since we’ve been on the UCI calendar it’s been obligatory. And when in 2007 we became a UCI HC event, the UCI started sending a UCI Doping Commissaire to oversee the testing of the UCI men’s elite field. In 2012, this was extended to women’s UCI teams too when our women’s race also became UCI HC.
SAIDS is responsible for non-UCI categories’ testing (i.e. Mixed, Masters and Grand Masters) and they now test extensively in these categories too.
From 2012 we specifically requested from SAIDS expanded testing in these categories, and in fact the two positive in-competition tests at the Epic have been from the amateur ranks where SAIDS was testing.
Are you satisfied with the work being done by SAIDS at the ABSA Cape Epic?
Yes. Due to our request and insistence, I don’t believe there is a sports event in SA that has a higher number of tests undertaken in one week of competition. SAIDS appreciates our stance on doping, i.e. our lifetime ban policy and our willingness to allocate budget to the testing costs, and hence they take the ABSA Cape Epic very seriously.
Are you aware that many of the top contenders from other countries don’t get out-of-competition tested during their ABSA Cape Epic preparation when they’re training in South Africa? Some stay in South Africa and train for weeks.
Yes. But since they’re participating in UCI marathon races (like the MTN series) they should be tested in these races.
Under current legislation there is nothing they (SAIDS) can do. We have discussed this many times and I am aware that they have reached out to the national ADA’s of the countries of the major contenders at the Epic and I believe only Switzerland has acceded to their requests. I know that a number of Swiss riders have been woken up early in the morning for testing in Stellenbosch.
Are you aware that the key performance-enhancing-drug window period for an event like the ABSA Cape Epic isn’t at the event itself, but in the weeks leading up to it?
Yes. But also that if you intend to dope for your upcoming World Cup XCO season, the Epic is a good race in which to dope. Which is why we have asked the UCI to place a great importance on their anti-doping efforts at the Epic itself. And they have indeed done so, by sending out a commissaire every year since 2007.
Further, we have asked SAIDS to increase the ‘In-Competition Window’ so that they can start testing all (any) participants days before the Epic even starts.
From 1 January 2015, SAIDS will have the authority to perform out-of-competition tests on foreign athletes in SA. But for now, it’s not possible unless they are requested to by other National Anti-Doping Associations. SAIDS says that only Swiss Anti-Doping has asked them to do this (and only this year). Do you agree, given the current situation, this could create an ‘uneven playing field’ between the South African title contenders (who are out-of-competition tested regularly) and many of the international title contenders, for the 2014 event?
It’s only uneven if you’re accusing them of doping. And I’m not doing that.
If the question is ‘is it easier for an international athlete to evade out-of-competition testing in South Africa than for local athletes, then my answer is yes. But the same could be said for all the international triathletes, road cyclists, track and field teams that are training in South Africa in our summer and their off-season.
At present our race rules say that if you enter the Epic, then you must avail yourself for testing during the race (which is standard race rules).
We have requested permission to change these race rules to say that if you enter the Epic then you must permit testing up to one month before, which would then give SAIDS the right to test all riders who have entered the Epic in SA from one month before. But given the potential change in WADA ruling, this might be irrelevant next year anyway.
ABSA Cape Epic CEO and Founder
If you’ve read this far, it means you’re genuinely interested in this topic. It will also mean that you will watch this year’s ABSA Cape Epic with an informed perspective with regards to the discrepancy on the build-up anti-doping controls between the top South African racers and the international racers.
I’m not making a general accusation against any of the non-South African racers. I love that they make this event such a high priority and add such prestige to it. I’m merely pointing out, with confirmation from the two most important figures on this topic, Kevin Vermaak and Khalid Galant, that there’s an uneven element to this playing field.
Let’s hope that once the new, less restrictive international anti-doping code kicks in from 1 January 2015, that we’ll be able to enjoy this event – and other international mountain bike events in South Africa – without a hint of skepticism…