Lives in the Balance: Why Doping Control Matters

As the Tour de France rolls onto stage 7, few in the general public know of the story of 21-year-old Linas Rumsas, but they need to consider it. Especially on this day, July 13, 2018, the 51st anniversary of cyclist Tommy Simpson’s death.

People ask us all the time why doping control matters. Some argue that it doesn’t and that we should just let folks use what they want. A doping free-for-all. Cynics might say that plenty of dopers have already escaped through the net in sports, at least for a time: Lance Armstrong, Tim Montgomery, Marion Jones, to name a few.

Linas Rumsas

Linas Rumsas was an up-and-coming cyclist whose life was cut short after he abused performance-enhancing drugs. Photo: Team Altopack-Eppela

The story of young Linas, a promising cyclist whose life was cut short after abusing performance-enhancing drugs, reminds us that doping can kill. We would be wise to remember that it has happened before. Linas’ story is one of the saddest we have come across and it powerfully demonstrates why many of us who have chosen to pursue anti-doping continue to do so. This one story illuminates in no uncertain terms the realities of what we all face with the scourge of doping, and yet outside of Italy and frequent readers of Cycling News, few sports fans have probably heard of it.

There have been others who have perished from doping. According to ProCon, which provides a comprehensive historical timeline of doping in sports, the first modern athlete chronicled to have died from doping was the Danish cyclist Knut Jensen at the Summer Olympics in Rome in 1960. Heat was the initial culprit but his autopsy found traces of Ronicol. ProCon describes Ronicol as an amphetamine, but Ronicol would be described more accurately as a vasodilator and can be used as an anti-ischemia drug. Though it is not on the 2018 WADA Prohibited List, it is similar to meldonium in many ways.

Stop to consider that the first drug to have been implicated in the death of an athlete in the Olympics in 1960 is not banned today! Ronicol, otherwise known as nicotinyl alcohol, is not prohibited as confirmed by the Global DRO. Its cousin meldonium wasn’t prohibited by WADA until 2016, when it caused hundreds of athletes to test positive. Some might like to think that doping is behind the peloton, but we fear it may still be in the middle. Just in a form we don’t currently define as doping, like Ronicol.

Fifty one years ago today on July 13, 1967, Tommy Simpson infamously died on the slopes of Mount Ventoux during Stage 13 of the Tour at the age of 29. His death was one of the central moments in anti-doping history. Shortly thereafter that same year the International Olympic Committee (IOC) created the IOC Medical Commission and the first drug testing began at the Olympics in 1968, with narcotics and stimulants making up the initial prohibited list. Steroids were not added until 1975.

There have been other examples of athlete deaths that have been seminal. MLB pitcher Steve Bechler, of the Baltimore Orioles, died during drills in 2003. Ephedrine was indicated as a contributing cause in his premature death, which played a role in the regulation of ephedrine as a dietary supplement ingredient in the United States.

Steroids have played a role in the demise of many young athletes, including Taylor Hooton, Efrain Marrero, and just two days ago, a young 18-year-old Irishman in Limerick. Numerous stories exist of athletes who went too far with blood doping, or performed transfusions the wrong way, leading to dire consequences. Many stories are out there but few are known to the broader sporting public.

Linas Rumsas’ story reminds us that the scourge of doping is still present and that it is just as deadly today as it was in 1967 when amphetamines derailed the promising life and career of Mr. Simpson.

Linas Rumsas is the son of Raimondas Rumsas, who himself was a professional cyclist and took third place in the 2002 Tour de France. After Raimondas’ wife Edita was caught with a van full of drugs on the way home from that Tour, they both received four-month suspended sentences in 2006. Raimondas later tested positive for EPO during the 2003 Giro d’Italia. Sadly, this experience did not seem to deter them from apparently assisting their two children with doping.

Linas rode for the Altopack-Eppela squad in Italy and had already been a national road race champion. But in May 2017, he died at age 21 of a heart attack. It was nearly 50 years to the day after Mr. Simpson had died.

Upon Linas’ death, police searched his family’s home and seized a number of banned substances and medications. In September 2017, his older brother Raimondas Jr. tested positive for the prohibited substance GHRP-6, a peptide that produces natural growth hormone. It seems a cocktail of banned substances and other medications were being used at the family home.

The result of all this has been one family torn apart, again, from doping. Perhaps doping didn’t matter to the Rumsas family either until their son died. But Linas didn’t just die, if the allegations in this case hold true. He died as a result of family support and encouragement to dope.

It gets worse. In the course of the investigation, six people have been arrested in an apparent team-sponsored doping program including the team owner, directeur sportif, pharmacist, and trainer, who stand accused of providing drugs to riders. Seventeen other people are being investigated. Sadly, however, it is too late for Linas.

Unfortunately, the recent decision to allow Chris Froome to ride again with no sanctions after testing positive for elevated levels of salbutamol has called into question the validity and utility of the anti-doping system, again, at least in some people’s eyes. WADA has tried to explain the reasoning now, including clarifying the levels (1,428 ng/ml of urine, when adjusted for specific gravity, which is above the decision limit of 1,200 ng/ml). The reasons may not satisfy everyone, or anyone, but Froome’s case is certainly not a reason to give up on anti-doping.

Linas’ story personifies why giving up on anti-doping is simply not an option and should remind us all that doping is a significant matter. In fact, it is all the more reason to recognize that the failures of the anti-doping system are largely due to a lack of resources and money. For that to change, more people will need to truly understand what is at stake when athletes dope and to demonstrate the will to do more to combat the problem.

– Oliver Catlin

2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games Review

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Don Catlin, M.D., at Vancouver 2010 Opening Ceremony – Photo by Oliver Catlin

We watched with the rest of the world as the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games unfolded. In the face of tense politics, doping scandals, and other controversy, the Olympic ideals still shined through, sometimes in unexpected ways. Having been fortunate to attend six amazing Winter Olympic Games (Don got to go to seven, I think), we figured why not provide some perspective on these. Here is our 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games Review.

Most Amazing Victory – Ester Ledecka. Who knew someone could win a gold medal in snowboarding and skiing! Some people don’t think that the two sports are compatible, some don’t even want both sports on the same mountain. This woman just went out and ripped it up, twice, however many planks were strapped to her feet. Well done, Ester.

Clean Athlete Awards – Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall. In an Olympics marred by the Russian doping scandal, we always appreciate it when you can literally see that athletes are clean. Not that we advocate that a visual determination replace anti-doping testing, but some people you can just tell are not doping. We thoroughly enjoyed watching these ladies win clean, and with amazing smiles! We also appreciate the other courageous cross-country skiers who signed the letter in 2016 demanding a stronger stance on doping, including notably the four Russian women who signed. Thanks to all of you for working to defend your sport from the scourge of doping.

Classiest Athlete – Yevgenia Medvedeva. OK, we admit we watched the ladies figure skating final and it was pretty amazing. The talent and class displayed by all the young ladies is unbelievable. However, one shined above the rest. Despite missing the gold medal by a heartbreaking 1.31 points that even experts could not decipher, this woman took disappointment with amazing class for an 18-year old. She genuinely embraced her younger upstart Alina Zagitova and accepted her silver medal with a smile. She could be overheard saying she “did everything she could.” That statement represents what Olympic athletes are all about. We don’t know much about this Russian athlete otherwise, but in PyeongChang this little Anna Karenina showed enormous class.

Most Notable Olympic Farewell – Lindsey Vonn. Although you leave the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games with a bronze medal, which most people could only hope for, you will always be the golden girl of American skiing. You took yourself to the pinnacle of your sport and beyond, and you brought your country with you. Along the way you’ve inspired generations of Olympians for years to come. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a woman like you one more time in Beijing four years from now, but if not thank you for all the amazing Olympic moments.

Strangest Doping Incident – Doping in Curling, really? We thought people drank beer during curling, but doping? Of course it would be an Olympic Athlete from Russia with meldonium as the offending substance, such perfect irony.

Ugliest Controversy – The ugliest controversy in these Olympics goes to the argument between Dick Pound and others in the IOC over whether or not to allow the Russian delegation to be permitted to fly the state colors during the closing ceremonies. It took long enough to finally get some kind of ban enacted and the corresponding statement made that state-sponsored doping is unacceptable, and it was going to be overturned during the Games? Way to go Dick Pound for sticking up for clean sport, as always! Or should we thank the second Olympic Athlete from Russia for doping and closing the door on that argument.

Most Inspiring Olympic Athlete – One athlete that epitomized the ideals of the Olympic movement and displayed them proudly in every fiber of his being by bringing athletes from all nations together sadly was not present in PyeongChang, but he was there is spirit. And his spirit we know will continue to inspire generations of Olympians for years to come. The Olympic Family lost Steven Holcomb, a beloved member of the bobsled community, in May 2017. But in the true spirit of the Olympic movement he went down the track many times in PyeongChang in the form of tribute bracelets on the wrists of many of his sliding colleagues, his parents cheering with tears in their eyes in the stands. Despite not being present, this man, and his spirit, made for the most inspiring Olympic athlete of this Games. We wish we could have known him and been inspired by his spirit.

Most Amazing Olympic Moment – It was hard to miss the unity demonstrated at the Opening Ceremonies with South Korea and North Korea marching together as one. This was a powerful symbol of the peaceful celebration of sport that the Olympics represent. We appreciate that this unity was achieved during the Games, and I think we all hope the peace was more than just for show and lasts.

The Olympics are truly an amazing gathering of athletes from all different countries, politics, races, sizes, sexes, orientations, faiths, and more. For all these moments and more, the Olympic Games remain one of the most amazing spectacles of human interaction and accomplishment in this world. They deserve to be truly appreciated, celebrated, and protected. We can’t wait for the years to pass to see what amazing feats and memorable moments Tokyo, Beijing, Paris, and Los Angeles will produce.