The Liverpool footballer, Mamadou Sakho, was exonerated earlier this year following a flawed doping investigation. His career remains in the balance while WADA, the organisation that so ineptly policed the affair, has yet to be held to account.
A week is a long time in sports, as in politics. On 11 April this year UEFA, European football’s governing body, published an article on its carefully media-managed site entitled, ‘How Liverpool’s Sakho won over the critics’. It was full of gushing praise about how the French international had overcome childhood adversity, found maturity in a foreign environment, and developed a work-ethic that even his fellow professionals found impressive. Sakho’s career was soaring; he was a regular for Liverpool both in the Premier League and the Europa League, and was putting in strong performances for a French national side that was well positioned for a home European Championship.
Twelve days later, Sakho’s name was hitting headlines for entirely different reasons.
‘Sakho facing drugs ban’. ‘Sakho’s failed doping test’. ‘Mamadou Sakho let Liverpool down badly’. It was a field day for headline writers across the country as news emerged that Sakho was under UEFA investigation for an alleged anti-doping rule violation. The subsequent revelation that the drug in question was a so-called fat-burner increased the speculation; how had this finely honed athlete succumbed to taking trivial diet pills at the prime of his career?
The condemnation was unrelenting. Only one online blog, The Gegenpress, questioned the finding at the time, writing that Sakho’s alleged drug use did ‘not make any sense’, considering both his conduct and unblemished record until that point. The piece, later picked up by the Irish Examiner, suggested instead that the mental wellbeing of players needed examining far more than any violation itself. However, with little information to go on apart from news of a UEFA investigation, soon escalating to a worldwide FIFA suspension, the wider coverage might be forgiven for reporting what was known. Very little, as it turned out.
Within three months, UEFA dismissed the case, exonerating Sakho of any anti-doping rule violation. Coverage was subdued, caught up in the maelstrom of the Final of the 2016 European Championship between France and Portugal, that was to take place two days later. Sakho’s dream of representing France in a home final had long since vanished. Instead, the coverage of his innocence was akin to a tabloid retraction, hidden out of sight.
The ‘indelible stain’ of a corruption conviction on a sportsperson’s reputation and further career has been discussed before in these pages. Then, the article focused on the difficulty of returning to professional sport once time had been served and the process of law played out – for someone previously convicted of a crime. A guilty player may accept some stain on their reputation, but for the innocent, like Sakho, the miscarriage of justice endures.
Many observers may expect a player’s swift return to form, even a refreshed revival following time on the sidelines; the reality is often harsher. The personal toll is severe, exacerbated by trying to re-enter a newly settled team environment, readjusted to cater for a player’s absence. Innocent until proven guilty is not a concept Sakho will feel familiar with.
Any athlete that plays sport for a living understands the burden of their profession; unannounced drugs tests and careful nutrition monitoring are the norm. It’s a stressful existence. Just as one walks a little straighter on passing a policeman in the street, professional athletes succumb to the same Freudian phenomenon – no matter how clean an athlete is, they are forever looking over their shoulder.
Sakho had apparently always been reluctant to take any form of medication or supplementation, and had only started taking supplements at the instigation of the professional clubs and staff around him. Sakho, of all people, should have had less to worry about than most.
The positive doping result was a shock. Analysis of Sakho’s A sample revealed the presence of Higenamine, a substance speculated to have fat-burning qualities. UEFA duly notified Sakho of an anti-doping violation, stating that Higenamine was banned at all times under the WADA Prohibited List, as a category S3, Beta-2 Agonist.
The source of Higenamine was quickly found. It was in a nutritional supplement prescribed by Sakho’s personal trainer, who claimed that he had checked rigorously against WADA’s Prohibited List, as well as independently, for any illegal substance and found none. Since the source of the Higenamine was known, Sakho did not contest the result of the test and waived the right to have his B sample analysed (which, of course, contains the same urine as the A sample bottle).
What happened next however was remarkable; Higenamine’s status as a WADA prohibited substance, it quickly transpired, was no certainty.
Higenamine is not expressly mentioned in any WADA literature on prohibited substances; UEFA’s Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body (CEDB), who heard Sakho’s case, explicitly noted this. Although Beta-2 Agonists are prohibited by WADA, it is not clear whether Higenamine falls into this category at all. The defence, at great personal expense to Sakho, commissioned reports from two experts in the field, one of whom was a recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Their submissions ‘cast serious doubt’ upon WADA’s decision to treat Higenamine as a Beta-2 Agonist – as a result the case was dismissed.
More remarkably, and less reported, was how damning the CEDB was about WADA’s role in the whole affair. It found ‘inconsistency of testing amongst WADA accredited laboratories’ a code which ‘lacks universal enforcement’, that even ‘WADA accredited laboratories are uncertain of Higenamine’s status’ and that WADA ultimately had not made a ‘firm determination itself’ on the classification of Higenamine, let alone communicated it to its athletes.
Sakho’s defence went further; they claim that of the seven papers WADA cited as evidence that Higenamine is a Beta-2 Agonist, two (which were both authored by one of the experts commissioned by Sakho) did not even examine Higenamine’s potential as a Beta-2 Agonist. One of these papers even indicates that Higenamine is in fact a Beta-1 Agonist which is a category of substance not prohibited by WADA, and not a Beta-2 Agonist.
Even if oral Higenamine could be classified as a Beta-2 Agonist, no evidence exists that it is performance-enhancing. This was confirmed by one of Sakho’s experts, who had conducted one of the only studies to examine the effects on humans of orally-ingested Higenamine. Nothing in WADA’s own policy justifies the inclusion of Higenamine on its Prohibited List. Despite being given the opportunity to defend its decision to treat Higenamine as a Beta-2 Agonist, WADA chose not to make any representations at Sakho’s hearing – perhaps not surprisingly.
With the evidence so heavily in Sakho’s favour, and with the CEDB’s findings now public, it should be questioned why the case wasn’t dismissed earlier, or even that a hearing took place at all.
Perhaps UEFA were just doing their job in trying circumstances. Anti-doping violations are systematically hitting the headlines and the names of sporting heroes such as Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson and Marion Jones are now synonymous with doping. Perhaps UEFA were simply trying to ensure that their own doping controls were robust.
This fails to recognise the impact on the individual charged. Sakho fought to return to playing for Liverpool as soon as possible, and to salvage any possibility of competing for France in the 2016 European Championship. Instead he watched from the stands as his compatriots vied to become champions of Europe. Acquitted just two days earlier, he was absent from what should have been the biggest event of his career.
Sakho missed 7 Liverpool games during his provisional suspension. Whether he might be banned remained uncertain for most of the summer’s transfer window as WADA did not rule out an appeal until the last possible moment. He has not featured for his club since he was notified by UEFA of the failed test.
It is unrealistic in football, as it is in politics, to expect that things wouldn’t have moved on in Sakho’s absence. Unsurprisingly, this has led to frustration for Sakho. An ill-advised early morning social media rant is only the latest story to emerge over his fractured relationship with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who is apparently ‘desperate’ to sell Sakho By contrast, just before Sakho’s case arose, Klopp had described Sakho as ‘spectacular’.
There is no doubt that this case has changed the course of Sakho’s career. A transfer appears inevitable, but the outcome uncertain. Whether Sakho can return to his previous form and status remains unknown. He will almost certainly never play in a major championship in his home country.
One terrifying aspect of Sakho’s case is that an even greater injustice might have befallen him if he had not had the means to instruct one of the World’s foremost anti-doping lawyers, Mike Morgan of Morgan Sports Law, and some of the leading minds in biochemistry. After all, very few athletes have ever successfully challenged WADA’s categorisation of a banned substance; the point being that things might have turned out very differently for Sakho if he had not had the means to stand up to WADA, with doping bans now extending up to four years. Spare a thought, therefore, for those athletes who might find themselves in the same position, minus the resources.
Sakho’s ordeal should not be repeated. The media is complicit, reporting the headlines, not the substance of this affair, and making little of the hearing vindicating Sakho. Such unbalanced accounts are a disservice to clean athletes worldwide.
UEFA and WADA play an important role in sports governance, but they must be scrutinised, and held accountable, if they are to be effective. This does not undermine their role, but helps them become better organisations and, as a corollary, helps protect clean athletes from potential injustices.
Notwithstanding the vindication through the courts, Mamadou Sakho’s case must not be consigned to the annals of history past, for his is a future still at stake.
The full decision can be viewed here.