The trouble with Ostarine: Jimmy Wallhead’s
16th March 2018
CJ Ujah, a member of the Great Britain 4x100m team that won a Silver Medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, has been provisionally suspended after retuning an adverse analytical finding (AAF – or ‘positive test’) for two prohibited substances. Ujah returned an AAF for Enobosarm (ostarine) and S-23, the International Testing Agency (ITA) announced.
Both are selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs) and are prohibited under section S1.2 of the Prohibited List, which bans ‘other anabolic agents’ including SARMs. This section of the List specifically mentions ‘Enobosarm (ostarine)’ as prohibited, but not S-23. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) doesn’t publish a full List of prohibited SARMs, all of which are prohibited due to the wording of section S1.2 of the List (see right).
As with many other substances, athletes cannot ‘check the List’ to see whether a SARM is prohibited. They must know that a chemical ingredient on a label is considered a SARM, which they must also realise is prohibited under section S1.2 of the List. As most sections of the List contain ‘and other substances with a similar chemical structure or similar biological effect(s)’, athletes cannot be certain that any substance that doesn’t appear on the List is prohibited. Checking the List doesn’t work.
‘Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs) are a class of therapeutic compounds that have similar anabolic properties to anabolic steroids, but with reduced androgenic (producing male characteristics) properties’, reads the US Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) Guidance on SARMS. ‘As an example, the androgen receptor is activated by binding androgens, such as testosterone. Unlike anabolic steroids, which bind to androgen receptors in many tissues all over the body, individual SARMs selectively bind androgen receptors in certain tissues, but not in others. In medical settings, this could be very useful for stimulating specific tissue growth like muscle and bone, while avoiding unwanted side effects in other tissues like the liver or skin.’
UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) doesn’t appear to publish specific guidance on SARMs, but a Guidance Page on ostarine mentions that it is also known by a number of other names, including S-22. This is remarkably similar to S-23. Both SARMs are investigational drugs not yet approved for use in humans, and both were developed by pharmaceutical company GTx Incorporated1.
SARMs regularly turn up in supplements. USADA’s Supplement 411 resource lists over 200 supplements that contain SARMs; 98 that specifically contain ostarine; and nine that specifically contain S-23. In 2017, USADA issued a warning about ostarine in supplements that was updated in 2019. This specified that there are 72 products on USADA’s High Risk List that contain ostarine, including 19 where it isn’t declared on the label.
When an athlete undergoes doping control, the urine sample is split into two bottles (the ‘A sample’ and ‘B sample’). Ujah can accept the positive test resulting from analysis of the A sample, or ask for his B sample to also be analysed.
If he accepts the positive test or his B sample confirms the A sample analysis, then his case will be referred to the Anti-Doping Division of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS ADD), and he will be charged with an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV). The standard sanction will be a four year ban, which he may be able to reduce if he is able to prove that he is not at fault or not at significant fault for his positive test.
Such cases usually involve analysis of food and supplements consumed by an athlete. In 2018, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) athlete Jimmy Wallhead was sanctioned with a nine month ban after USADA helped him prove that supplements he had taken contained ostarine, but didn’t list it on the label.
British weightlifter Sonny Webster wasn’t so lucky. He was sanctioned with a four year ban by UKAD after being unable to prove that supplements he had taken contained ostarine. He spent his life savings attempting to prove his case, and received no help from UKAD.
It also appears likely that alongside Ujah, his 4x100m teammates Zharnel Hughes, Richard Kilty and Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake will lose their Tokyo 2020 Silver Medals. Even if Ujah is found not to be at fault for his ADRV, World Athletics’ rules state that they will lose their medals if it is confirmed (see right). The logic behind this is that even if Ujah wasn’t at fault for his ADRV, he will have gained an unfair advantage over his competitors from the SARMs in his system.
Anti-doping is one of the the few areas of jurisprudence where the accused is presumed guilty unless they can prove that they are innocent. An athlete is guilty of an ADRV unless they can prove that they are innocent. Even in instances where an athlete is judged not to be at fault for their ADRV, they can still be sanctioned with an ADRV and can lose any Medals.
For example, Kristen Shaldybin was sanctioned with an ADRV after USADA accepted that her positive test for hydrochlorothiazide was caused by contaminated water. Article 11.2 of the international swimming federation’s (FINA) Doping Control rules (click here to download) specify: ‘Where any anti-doping rule violation has been committed in relation to an Event by a member of a relay in swimming, or team in open water swimming, or a duet or team in artistic swimming or diving, the relay, duet or team shall be Disqualified from the Event in connection with the anti-doping rule violation, with all resulting Consequences including forfeiture of any medals, points and prizes’.
Therefore, although USADA recognised that Shaldybin was not at fault for consuming contaminated water from the municipal supply, she and any relay teammates would still have lost any Medals won due to the mere existence of her ADRV. As outlined above, World Athletics’ Anti-Doping Rules are the same. That is why it is ‘likely’ that the entire British 4x100m relay team will be stripped of their Silver, irrespective of the findings in Ujah’s case.
If Ujah has deliberately taken prohibited substances in a major competition such as the Olympics, then of course he should be punished. However, this would be an incredibly stupid move on his part. Elite athletes are members of Registered Testing Pools (RTPs) and know they will be regularly tested. It is common knowledge that ‘smart’ dopers would use prohibited substances in the lead up to a competition whilst training in a remote location, stopping use way in advance of competition.
The reality is that Chijindu Ujah has tested positive for substances not approved for human use that regularly turn up in supplements. Yet the media thinks it has found another Lance Armstrong. He hasn’t been suspended for a ‘doping violation’, as reported by The Guardian and The Times. As explained, he has yet to be charged with an ADRV, let alone convicted of one.
The manner in which the ITA issues its media releases regarding provisional suspensions contributes to this presumption of guilt. It has issued statements asserting an ‘apparent ADRV’ against athletes more than once.
Despite the headline, what these statements actually mean is that an athlete has been provisionally suspended after testing positive for a prohibited substance. Sport wants the media to think it has caught a ‘doping cheat’ before they’ve even been charged and before their explanation has been heard.
In such circumstances, it could even be argued that the athlete shouldn’t be named until sanctioned. But then in anti-doping, the athlete is always presumed guilty. Ujah’s case presents the latest iteration of this.
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