(Update, November 6: The Court of Arbitration for Sport has reduced Troicki’s suspension to 12 months. My analysis and reaction to their decision is here.)
The International Tennis Federation announced Thursday that Viktor Troicki has been suspended from the sport for 18 months after failing to submit to an anti-doping blood test three months ago in Monte Carlo. Having been selected for blood and urine testing after his first-round loss there to Jarkko Nieminen, Troicki provided a urine sample but declined the blood test, saying he didn’t feel well. Troicki claimed that the on-site doping control officer told him his refusal to provide blood on these grounds was “acceptable”, but the ITF tribunal found that she had told him she “could not advise him as to whether his reason for not providing a blood sample was… valid”. At a press conference today in Umag, Croatia, where he lost to Tommy Robredo earlier, Troicki reportedly denied that he had ever taken a prohibited substance, and said he would appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
(For an update on the ITF tribunal’s full decision released Friday, see below.)
The standard penalty for a player’s first anti-doping violation is a two-year suspension, but the ITF found that the circumstances and “the stress that Mr. Troicki was under at the time” entitled him to a shortened suspension.
Article 2.3 of the rules for the ITF’s Anti-Doping Program states that a player commits an anti-doping violation by:
Refusing or failing without compelling justification to submit to Sample collection after notification of Testing as authorised in applicable anti-doping rules, or otherwise evading Sample collection.
Article 1.12 also specifies that “It is the sole responsibility of each Player… to acquaint him/herself… with all of the requirements of the Programme [and] to know what constitutes an Anti-Doping Rule Violation under this Programme”.
Of course, a key question in this case is what constitutes “compelling justification”, and it’s unfortunate that neither the rulebook nor the ITF’s on-site representative had more specific guidance to offer Troicki on this question.
However, drug testing simply cannot work if players are allowed to pick and choose when they will give samples. Doping agents vary widely in the speed with which they are eliminated from the body, with some potentially becoming undetectable within hours after use. One of the remarkable revelations in the U.S Anti-Doping Agency’s report on the doping program in Lance Armstrong’s cycling team was the extent to which the riders avoided being caught by physically evading drug testers or delaying tests while they masked or diluted their blood. As I pointed out a few months ago in my comprehensive post on doping, some doping techniques are detectable only through blood testing, so Troicki’s willingness to provide a urine sample hardly exonerates him. There is also no objective evidence that Troicki was ill—he had just finished a match that lasted only 63 minutes, played three matches the following week in Bucharest, and his only retirement this year was in February, two months before Monte Carlo.
It’s important to keep in mind that at this point (Thursday), we know nothing about what happened in the testing room in Monte Carlo beyond what the ITF says in its brief press release and what Troicki says in his own defense. Presumably the ITF allowed Troicki to continue playing for the last three months because its tribunal needed time to investigate the circumstances and deliberate over the question of whether Troicki’s refusal was justified. No doubt the ITF interviewed its on-site doping control officer; we don’t know if there were other witnesses. Based on past cases where athletes’ categorical denials and elaborate claims of mitigating circumstances later proved to be false, we should hesitate to take Troicki’s story at face value.
Friday Update: ITF Releases Tribunal’s Full Decision
Today the tribunal appointed by the ITF to consider the case released its complete decision, laying out its reasoning and the evidence presented by both the ITF and by Troicki and his legal team. There were other witnesses besides Troicki and the doping control officer, Dr. Elena Gorodilova. Their testimony contains quite a few interesting details.
Favoring Troicki’s case, the tribunal found that
There was clear and convincing evidence that Mr Troicki has suffered since childhood from a phobia of needles (a condition that he had inherited from his father). In consequence, the giving of blood is something that he faces with trepidation and that induces feelings of panic.
Troicki’s coach, Jack Reader, told the tribunal that Troicki had said he was “not feeling well” and felt “flat” after warming up to play Nieminen. Dr. Gorodilova testified that Troicki looked tired and weak during their conversation about his decision to avoid giving the blood sample.
However, several other details discredit Troicki’s story to a significant degree. As he was being escorted by a tournament chaperone to the testing room (before his conversation with Dr. Gorodilova), Troicki stopped to see Miro Bratoev, the ATP Tour manager. Called as a witness by Troicki, Bratoev testified that he told Troicki that once he was selected for testing, he had to provide the sample.
While Troicki did return to submit a blood sample the following day as he said in yesterday’s press conference, he did so only after Bratoev tracked him down, told him it looked like he was likely to be in trouble with the ITF, and told him to go and see Dr. Gorodilova again. By this point, Dr. Gorodilova had checked with the tournament medical staff to find out if Troicki had sought treatment for any illness, and learned that he did not. (Of course, the fact that this later blood test was apparently negative tells us nothing about whether Troicki might have tested positive the previous day, since many doping agents would have become undetectable by the following day.)
In an email to her supervisor written the same day Troicki refused to give the blood sample, Dr. Gorodilova wrote that “We said that he must have the blood test. He said that he feels very bad today and could not provide the blood sample, we advised him to contact dr S Miller.” (Dr. Stuart Miller, the manager in charge of the ITF Anti-Doping Program.) In a report she sent the supervisor the following morning, she said that she “explained [to Mr Troicki] refusal to undergo the test may lead to sanctions.” In contrast, Troicki told the tribunal that, in its words, “Dr Gorodilova had assured him ‘100%’ on four or even five occasions that if he set out his reasons in a letter to the ITF, all would be well.” However, none of the witnesses were able to corroborate his claim that Dr. Gorodilova gave him any such clear assurance—even his coach, who seems to have been in the room at the time. Furthermore, in a statement he wrote to the ITF four days after refusing to give the sample, Troicki told a much milder version of the story, saying Dr Gorodilova had told him “it should be all right” if he wrote the letter, and that he had tried to contact Dr. Miller because he “wanted to be 100% sure”.
The tribunal found that Dr. Gorodilova’s precisely worded testimony was more credible than Troicki’s and more consistent with the facts established through the testimony of other witnesses. It ruled that Troicki should be disqualified from Monte Carlo, and should be suspended from the sport for 18 months starting July 15, presumably meaning he will also forfeit the points and prize money he otherwise earned in Umag this week.
Some fans and pundits have objected that all of Troicki’s results since Monte Carlo should be disqualified. This would indeed be the standard penalty in a less complicated case of an anti-doping violation. The tribunal acknowledged that the ITF’s Anti-Doping Program “is designed to encourage players voluntarily to abstain from competing pending the decision on their case,” and that the rule requiring disqualification of results from that period should be read in that context. However, the tribunal accepted Troicki’s contention that he chose to continue playing based on a genuine belief that he had done nothing wrong, and decided not to penalize him for that decision. In all likelihood, even if the tribunal had decided to disqualify Troicki’s results since April, it would also have back-dated his 18-month suspension to April. Either way, he loses 18 months of his career—it’s really only a question of whether he forfeits the matches he played this summer, or the matches he might have played in the autumn of 2014.