Tour de France winner Chris Froome has denied allegations of doping. However, the claims have caused a stir in the world of cycling and there could yet be a bigger problem on the horizon for the sport.
These were unfamiliar pictures of Chris Froome. He was pedalling hard but seemed almost powerless. His body language was that of someone caught between afflicted and helpless. The competition pulled away from him. On the final climb of the 17th Vuelta stage to the Alto de los Machuros, an incline as steep as 26-percent in places, he fell back, losing more than a minute on Alberto Contador.
The next day, Froome was his old self, even pulling away from his opponents on the 18th stage and regaining ground in the battle for overall victory. There must have been more to what happened in between than a good sleep and some pasta.
It is now clear that between these stages Froome had resorted to a drug that is now the subject of vigorous debate: salbutamol. This is an asthma remedy meant to soothe the bronchial tube and facilitate breathing. Sport scientists disagree on how strong a performance-enhancing effect it may have, and yet the drug has been used for years in endurance disciplines, in part because there is a limit to how much may be used. However, the salbutamol level measured in Froome's doping sample was twice the allowed limit.
The case has caused a stir despite the fact that it is not officially a doping case, because under the rules of world cycling's governing body, the UCI, Froome has the opportunity to defend himself and prove the allegations wrong. However, similar cases in the past have led to suspensions, and Froome could see his Vuelta victory annulled.
"It's a worst case scenario for cycling"
"I understand this comes as a big shock to people," Froome said in an interview with the BBC published late on Wednesday. "I certainly haven't broken any rules here. I haven't taken more than the permissible amount and I am sure at the end of the day the truth will be told."
Tony Martin, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome on the podium after the men's individual time trial at the 2012 London Olympics
Many do not believe him anymore. Fans took to social media to curse the man who has been dominant in the recent history of the Tour. Some spoke of "shock," others said they were "sad," and some wrote of "monumental chaos" at Team Sky. Above all, however, the case casts cycling back in a bad light once again.
"It's the worst case scenario for cycling," German cycling manager Jörg Werner told DW.
"It could not have been worse, he's the winner of the Tour, and he has €20 million ($ 23.6 million) in his bank account, why would he take such a big risk with salbutamol?"
The question is justified. Salbutamol is relatively easy to detect. Team Sky, which, due to its dominance, has been watched with suspicion for a long time, leaves nothing to chance. At the same time, the case of a mysterious delivery to former captain Bradley Wiggins was an indication that Sky wasn't as strict as it claims about its self-promoted policy of zero-tolerance. The available evidence indicates that the Sky maxim of making "marginal gains," in other words gaining an advantage through attention to (performance-enhancing) detail, could also apply to the medical field.
"Teams like Sky take medical exemptions to go to the very limit," said Werner, who manages, among others, German stars Marcel Kittel and Tony Martin.
Has the UCI fiddled with things in the case of Froome?"
The granting of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) have long been controversial. On the one hand, the exemptions allow athletes with chronic conditions, such as asthma, to take the medication that they need. On the other hand, it "opens the door to abuse," said Werner, who is a strong proponent of the abolition of TUEs.
"An independent institution that determines these diseases beyond doubt, would be required," he said.
Martin goes even further in his criticism.
"I am totally angry. In the case of Froome, there is definitely a double standard. Other athletes are immediately suspended after a positive trial," the four-time time-trial world champion wrote on his website.
Vincenzo Nibali, who came second to Froome in the Vuelta and stands to be declared the winner if the Briton is suspended, spoke of "a very sad message."
The French team manager of the FDJ racing team, Marc Madiot, called for a clearer approach to illness during events.
"If you get sick, you just have to give up. Chris Froome should have ended the Vuelta, that would not have been the end of the world," Madiot said.
Martin wrote that due to how long it took for this latest "scandal" to come to light, the impression has been created "that behind the scenes some fiddling has been going on. There has been collusion, and a way has been sought for him to get around this case."
Martin has called on the UCI to approach the case in a strict and transparent manner.
Is the UCI really applying a double standard? Why did it take Froome several weeks to make the news that he is under suspicion public? The UCI had informed Froome of his "abnormal" doping test on September 20. Is the UCI afraid of lawsuits because Sky team lawyers have been challenging the veracity of the test in question for weeks?
The image of the icon takes a hit
These are all questions that beg answers. The official response, provided in a UCI press release, is that the world governing body has followed its own rules, which do not provide for the publication of such findings.
"In my view, the rules are nonsense at this point, no one, understands this," said Werner, who has also trained youth cyclists.
Investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt told German public broadcaster ARD that the case reflected the "the classic conflict of interests in the sport. On the one hand you need to govern the sport; on the other hand, you need to promote it. "
Eight years ago, the investigative journalist uncovered the clenbuterol case involving Contador, which had long been kept under wraps by the UCI. It was only when Seppelt asked the UCI to comment on the matter that it went public with the case.
Although the Froome case is not yet a confirmed case of doping, the damage has already been done. Cycling, which, in comparison to other sports, has recently made much greater efforts to combat doping, now has an icon whose image has been tarnished. The outstanding athlete of this time period went beyond what was permitted. This doesn't fit well with his role and responsibility as a role model.