Fair Play: World Equestrian Games
For decades the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has governed major international equestrian events with the objective of keeping the sport fair and drug-free--an initiative the FEI refers to as "Clean Sport." Recently, however, the FEI revamped its system and put its new Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations (EADCMR) into place.
This overhaul occurred in response to riders' concerns that the anti-doping rules needed "greater clarity," according to the FEI. Most of these concerns arose after the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong. FEI investigations after the Games led to anti-doping decisions and penalties that made more than a few international riders and their national federations uneasy in their saddles. So the FEI set up the Commission on Anti-Doping and Medication in November 2008 to investigate how the rules could be improved to make the system fairer for everyone. The EADCMR closely follow the model the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules established for human athletes.
The EADCMR took effect April 5 and will be just months old at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) opening. And although the world's national federations welcome the new regulations in theory, some concerns about fairness and practicality remain.
New Rules: Time for a Change
A key difference between the EADCMR and previous rules is the clear distinction between two categories of drugs: those that dope ("banned substances") and those that medicate ("controlled medications"). Banned substances have no business in any competition stable at any time, state the rules, whereas controlled medications can be used under appropriate circumstances but not in competition (although in some cases, such as with gastric ulcer treatment, controlled medications can be pre-approved by an FEI veterinarian per re-quest).
Along with the new rules comes greater uniformity among the laboratories and their testing procedures. The five FEI laboratories (in Newmarket, England; Paris, France; Ithaca, N.Y., United States; Hong Kong, China; and Sydney, Australia) test equine blood and urine samples from competitions. In response to concerns from FEI competitors that these laboratories applied different screening levels (if a screening level test is positive, it leads to further, more detailed testing to confirm definitively a sample as positive), the FEI initiated more detailed reviews of these analysis centers. Screening levels for common substances were verified to ensure a positive in one laboratory would be a positive in any of them, according to Graeme Cooke, DVM, FEI veterinary director. The original concerns were unfounded, Cooke says, but the new initiatives bring greater transparency and, thus, reassurance.
The EADCMR also include a complete list of prohibited substances, both banned and controlled, published in a database on the new FEI Clean Sport website (www.feicleansport.org). The exhaustive list leaves no room for doubt about what's allowed and what isn't. The rules also include more significant penalties for violations.
"We feel that we can stand behind (these greater penalties), given that we've been very clear about what's prohibited," says Lisa Lazarus, JD, FEI general counsel. "We're making it very transparent and very easy for riders to comply. And if they don't comply, they will be punished severely."
On the whole, officials say, national federations are pleased with the EADCMR and look forward to seeing how these new rules will affect international equestrian sports.
Still Getting Cleaned Up
Despite the positive response to the EADCMR, some national federation leaders still have reservations.
Bo Helander, JD, president of the Swedish National Equestrian Federation, for example, isn't convinced controlled substance thresholds should remain unpublished, which is currently the case. Traces of some controlled medications are allowed in doping analyses, as the horse might still be clearing his system of a treatment prior to the Games (during a period called the "withdrawal time"). The FEI has chosen to remain silent on permitted trace levels.
"We're hearing both sides of the issue from federations on this," Lazarus says. "There are some who are concerned that if you publish levels, then riders work to those levels."
Helander finds this disconcerting. "Keeping things like that secret is just counterproductive," he says. "Our athletes can never feel confident and in control that they can never be caught for anything."
Similarly, Canada isn't convinced worldwide testing labs will be harmonized in time for WEG, especially with regard to withdrawal times. "There's standardization, but there are still differences," Canadian Equestrian Federation president Mike Gallagher says. "It's the FEI's responsibility to ensure that every lab in the world is identical."
National federations can be assured of that, says Cooke. "These labs all follow well-established worldwide standards and quality assurance programs," he says. "In fact, the FEI labs now firmly set the standard for lab harmonization in equine regula-tory testing."
Gallagher also raises concerns about the approach to prohibited substances, which he calls "backwards." Some Canadian team vets suggest it would make more sense to publish a list of what is permitted as opposed to what isn't.
But Cooke notes that would be a colossal task and probably wouldn't work well. "Our prohibited substances list follows the success of WADA," he says.
For Gallagher, this just opens the door to clever cheating. "Pharmaceutical departments can concoct new things every day," he says.
For example, drug makers have successfully created various chemically modified forms of the natural hormone erythropoietin (EPO). The drug (darbepoetin) works to improve a horse's endurance by increasing oxygen in the blood. But because these chemical forms look nearly identical to the natural hormone, they're difficult to detect in testing. What's more, some EPO variations, like darbepoetin, don't appear on the prohibited substances list.
"You don't want the winning team to be the one that has the best pharmacist," Gallagher adds.
But the FEI has already prepared for that, according to Lazarus. There's a "catchall phrase," she says, that covers drugs with the "same biological effect or chemical structure" as prohibited substances. "You can't just change one atom and call it some-thing else," she says. "This phrase is meant to keep a step ahead of people who are cheating on those grounds."
Still, this risk is minimal, according to Cooke. "Designer drugs are not happening so far in the equine world," he says. And as far as the performance-enhancing drug darbepoetin is concerned, it would be caught under that clever catchall phrase. EPO is prohibited, and its variants are close enough in composition and effect that users could be prosecuted.
Another concern raised by national federations is a lack of clear communication of new information related to the EADCMR. "I think that while the FEI has done a good job in terms of communicating via their website, it's still a little bit difficult to navigate," says John Long, CEO of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Occasionally new information is "buried" in the site, he adds. The USEF has someone "scour" the FEI site several times a week just to be sure they're always absolutely up-to-date on any new changes.
The methods and procedures FEI employs also could still benefit from improvement, adds Franz Venhaus, retiring CEO and incoming assistant chef de mission of Equestrian Australia (EA), who was previously the anti-doping prosecutor at the national level. "There's a lot of transparency with the FEI, but sometimes it's still a one-way mirror," he says. However, EA's concerns have been presented to the FEI, he adds, and these have been well-received.
The FEI is, in fact, very actively listening to the many issues coming from the national federations, Lazarus says.
It's possible these concerns are too premature, however, according to Soenke Lauterbach, secretary general of the German Equestrian Federation (FN). He prefers a more conservative approach of surveying the new system. "I think it's too early to judge," he says. "Let's give it another year before we really analyze what the strengths and weaknesses are."
WEG: Tough Control, Strong Compliance
Despite the concerns about the newness of the rules, most teams are going into WEG with confidence they will steer clear of any doping violations, even though the FEI will be enforcing the freshly enacted EADCMR with vigor.
"We're going to be doing a significant amount of testing, and everybody knows that," says Lazarus, adding that WEG will have the same level of FEI attention as an Olympic Games. Tested samples will be analyzed quickly, and an FEI tribunal member will be on-site to manage hearings within 24 hours of a positive test. Also, as in the Olympics, test samples can be held in storage for up to eight years, rather than being destroyed after a few months.
For Long, WEG will be the venue for starting anew with proper anti-doping regulations, correcting previous errors, and improving the image of equestrian sports. "Our collective sport cannot afford to make any more mistakes," he says. "So the level of scrutiny at the 2010 WEG will be higher than it's ever been."
Helander says the Swedish teams, like many others, will be questioning whether they've done everything right. "They'll be thinking: 'Have I really done everything that I could do? Is there a risk that something will happen that I don't have control of?' That's the main problem for the athletes," he says.
Some such risks could come from contaminated stalls, according to a recent study by Marie-Agnès Popot, PharmD, PhD, head of research at the Laboratoire des Courses Hippiques in France. Horses whose controlled medications have been discontinued several days prior to WEG could recontaminate themselves through their droppings if their stalls are not properly cleaned. The traces of the drug could be just enough to reach the screening limit for that medication and push a test to a positive, she says.
Germany has similar concerns, according to Lauterbach. "The main point is that everyone is really more sensitive about it," he says. "Part of this may be anxiety: What will happen; how it will be handled." But despite this anxiety, Lauterbach says he appreciates the fact that FEI intervention will increase. "What is being done is to protect all those athletes who want to have sport on equal terms and fair competition, and to protect the welfare of the horse."
A Clean Finish
Unquestionably, drug rule enforcement is going to be heavy, and even imposing, at WEG 2010, to send a clear message of absolute intolerance of any kind of breach, according to Lazarus. But this isn't meant to intimidate. On the contrary, it's meant to reassure. "The truth is, if you're a rider out there who follows the rules, you want someone out there policing," she says. "Then you can be sure that your competitors are doing the same."
A 100% clean WEG? Why not? Go for the gold, FEI.
About the Author
Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals