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Simona Halep and the complex world of anti-doping

September 19, 2023

For former tennis No. 1 Simona Halep, the four-year doping ban came as a shock. But an expert told DW that doping controls in sport lack the proper research and leave athletes with little defense against accusations.

Simon Halep with the Wimbledon trophy
Simona Halep, who beat Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final in 2019, has been charged with doping violationsImage: Reuters/C. Recine

Seven years on from Maria Sharapova's shocking doping revelations, tennis faces another headline case.

Double Grand Slam champion Simona Halep has been banned for four years by the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) for two intentional breaches of anti-doping rules. Halep has denied ever having doped and is appealing the ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

"One thing I can tell you for sure is the way they're handling every situation with any player, any athlete, it's just scary. We're gonna get to a point where we're not even gonna be taking electrolytes," world No. 9, Maria Sakkari, told reporters days after the news while competing at the San Diego Open.

Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios responded in stark contrast on social media, saying he runs "on bananas and Coca-Cola in five set battles. And my record in them speaks for itself," before adding that "maybe players should just stop taking shady sh*t."

Reportedly, Halep took a supplement recommended to her by a physiotherapist, a common process for an elite athlete, to help with nasal problems. That supplement contained Roxadustat, a substance which is used medically to treat anemia and can therefore increase endurance and recovery. The independent panel looking into Halep's case believed the Romanian's doping to be "repetitive and sophisticated."

No nuance to doping controls: expert

The ITIA believe Halep's actions were intentional, but with the Romanian saying otherwise the case opens the door to the complex world of doping controls.

"The issue for me is the anti-doping structure, this zero tolerance policy and strict liability. So if it's in your sample, you are responsible no matter how it got there," Dr. April Henning, an anti-doping expert, author and assistant professor of Sport Management at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, told DW.

"Is it possible that it was in a supplement that was contaminated? Yes, of course it is, we know that contamination happens frequently," she said.

"A lot of this sport rhetoric seems like anyone who tests positive is painted with the same brush. So if it's unintentional, it doesn't matter, you're still horrible, morally corrupt, a bad person, a terrible athlete and you're cheating. And it's much more nuanced than that," she added.

Anti-doping agencies do give athletes a list of banned substances and have improved education for athletes, but a lack of clarity remains.

"Have you looked at the list lately? It's massive and there are things that aren't even listed on there that are included in these very broad categories. And, you know, if you're an athlete and you don't have a degree in chemistry, this can be really, really difficult to understand," said Henning.

Guilty from the start?

Many will now consider Halep a doper, a cheat. Perhaps that is the case, but perhaps not.

"If they try to mount a defense, they're sort of told your evidence doesn't matter if it's not a WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] accredited lab or it's not an unopened container from the same batch, but then what is their defense?" asked Henning.

"There's a barrier to having anybody else look into it. You can't take a case outside of CAS, so what option do athletes who are accused have? Whether or not she intentionally used it, I don't really care — the process should be a bit fairer. Everyone deserves a defense."

Simona Halep strikes a tennis ball
Simona Halep may be facing the end of her careerImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Euler

The lack of knowledge around levels of a substance poses another issue, with the zero-tolerance policy again perceived to be part of the problem.

"I don't think that people really understand how a lot of testing works and what they're looking for," said Henning. "The tiny, tiny concentrations that they can detect might have no functional role in the body and physiologically make no difference whether or not you have it. But then there's also the question of whether they even know what a functional level is? Because loads of the things that are banned haven't really been thoroughly researched for enhancement purposes. So we don't know if it is a case of contamination, it's just zero tolerance."

Research is a major part of the problem. Henning, who has done some work for WADA, is frustrated by the lack of prevalence studies, those designed to estimate the frequency of a health event in the population at a point in time or over a short period of time.

"Painting one sport as clean and another as dirty is tricky because the perfect, honest answer is that there is a lack of prevalence studies," she said, adding that the World Anti-Doping Agency has a research budget that they use to actually contract researchers. "But they have not invested in prevalence studies."

More data, sport-specific lists needed

An imperfect system won't be changed overnight, but collecting more data, creating sport-specific banned substances rather than one generic list, which is the case for all WADA signatories, and introducing threshold levels are changes Henning believes could be beneficial.

"What is the threshold for Roxadustat? Where is the data and information that tells us at what level it either becomes performance-enhancing or unsafe?" she said.

The world of anti-doping has come a long way since amphetamines, but in a more globalized, wealthier sports world the controls to make a sport fairer need to match the times.

Edited by: Matt Pearson