Danis Zaripov and the Politics of Doping

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Photo: Associated Press

At 36 years old, Danis Zaripov hopes to become the NHL’s 4th oldest “rookie” ever. This goal is new to the KHL’s 3rd all -time leading scorer who has represented Russia at seven World Championships and one Olympic Games. In July, he received a two year ban from playing in the KHL or internationally after testing positive for pseudoephedrine and a masking agent. The same month, Russia introduced a new plan to restore their reputation after a World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) report declared Russia had a state run doping program at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. This plan involves new testing procedures and disqualification of government grants for athletes who test positive.

Zaripov maintains his innocence and petitioned the NHL for approval to sign with the league. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly ruled Zaripov could play in the NHL because, unlike the WADA list which the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) follows, pseudoephedrine is not a banned substance. As part of any contract, Zaripov agreed to undergo more stringent than normal drug testing to clear up any suspicion about what the masking agents were for. The NHL’s reasoning is he’s sorry for what he did, but what he did wasn’t that bad anyway.

While the NHL has particular motivation for undermining the IIHF after being unable to come to terms about participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics, they have long ignored IIHF rulings. Defenceman Bryan Berard was banned by the IIHF for two seasons in 2006 (the first NHL player to ever test positive for metabolic steroids), but didn’t miss an NHL game because they did not administer the test. The prohibition or condoning of pseudoephedrine (most familiar in Sudafed and other decongestants) is more about the politics and psychology of “performance enhancing drugs” than its actual boost to performance.

For nearly 20 years, Sports Illustrated covered the abuse of Sudafed in NHL locker rooms,

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Photo: Associated Press

calling it “hockey’s little helper”. In it, future Hall of Famers, Jari Kurri and Mark Recchi, speak of its abilities to hype them up while a Detroit Red Wings trainer offers horror stories of “guys not being able to finish the first period because they get the shakes, paranoia, anxiety”; or of dosages that should send players to a hospital.  Former minor pro hockey player Justin Bourne (who retired in 2009) offers a much more mundane depiction of Sudafed being passed around the locker room, believing it was more a placebo than providing an actual boost. This is in line with Trinh, Kim, and Ritsma (2015)’s study which was “unable to make any firm conclusions with respect to the overall effect of pseudoephedrine and its ergogenic [performance enhancing] effect. It is evident that there is a correlation between the dose administered and its ergogenic effects, but it is also evident that the side effects of using above the therapeutic dose outweigh the possible benefits of using pseudoephedrine in sport.”

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Photo: Clyde Caplan/clydeorama.com

The Sports Illustrated article seemingly did little to curb its usage in the NHL. Ľubomír Višňovský received a reprimand for its use at the 2010 Olympics and dramatically, Nicklas Bäckström was forced to sit out the 2014 Olympic Gold Medal game for testing positive for the pseudoephedrine decongestant Zyrtec-D. The continued usage is almost never discussed, with Bourne’s attitude “it seems like a laugh to me that [Backstrom’s suspension] has become such a big deal” being typical.

Zaripov’s case illustrates how the definition of performance enhancing drugs is murky. The NHL’s regulations emphasizes drugs with significant performance enhancing abilities and/or long term deleterious health effects. WADA regulations can ban a substance if they feel it violates the spirit of sport and has any (not just significant) potential to increase enhance performance. This is, like everything IOC related, severely inconsistent at best. For example, WADA is currently studying if caffeine is being used “with the intent of enhancing performance”. Spoiler: It is.

Determining which substances enhance performance within the spirit of sport and which are outside of it is a hopeless endeavor leading only to severe inconsistencies. The “spirit of sport” also seemingly includes all manner of painkillers. Drugs to get you back to your pre-drug state and play through pain and injury = within the spirit. More curiously, WADA doesn’t see many “natural” substances marketed as performance enhancers, like creatine, as violating the spirit either. WADA has even waffled on pseudoephedrine’s banned status, removing it as a banned substance in 2004 before re-instating it in 2010. Current testing often detects minor stimulants while failing to catch more major doping. WADA director general, David Howman, suggests it would cost $100 million for intensive testing, against a current budget of only $26.5 million. The International Olympic Committee, which funds WADA, evidently only cares about athletes health and the spirit of the sport if it doesn’t cost too much.

Wanting to prevent athletes from causing themselves long term health problems for short term glory is a noble goal. It is also not one either the IOC or NHL lives up to. If athletes are supposed to compete at their best, substances that have few long term effects should be viewed along the same line as training techniques, medical technology, and equipment. Catching the odd athlete for a minor stimulant creates the appearance of care. Yet an athlete can develop an painkiller addiction and still meet WADA guidelines. The NHL tests for steroids, but continues to deny any connection between concussions and long term brain damage (much less attempt to reduce their frequency). The real concern should be directed not towards players like Zaripov, who think they’re getting a buzz from cold medication, but towards a culture where athletes are encouraged to sacrifice their long term health to win now (and if such pressure disappeared, players probably wouldn’t be popping random decongestants anyway).

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