Private Doping Probes Seen Hurting Tennis as Cilic Feigns Injury

The International Tennis Federation said on June 26 that Marin Cilic was withdrawing from the Wimbledon championship because of a knee injury. In reality, he was beginning an anti-doping suspension.

The ITF, the sport’s ruling body, published a report today that shows how it kept the case of the player then ranked No. 11 in the world private during the grass-court Grand Slam under a policy that aims to protect the reputation of players in case they turn out to be innocent. The ATP, the men’s tour organizer, has concealed “many” doping violations in the past, former Spanish tennis federation president Pedro Munoz said in an interview. The ATP says it has always acted within the rules.

Cilic was handed a nine-month ban by the ITF for testing positive for the stimulant nikethamide, which a panel found he took inadvertently in tablets bought by his mother. The “hushing up” approach risks damaging the credibility and sponsorships of tennis just as it increases efforts to boost drug testing, according to Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports business strategy at the U.K.’s Coventry University.

“It looks like damage limitation on the part of the ITF, that they are trying to protect television contracts and sponsorships,” Chadwick said.

The London-based ITF’s sponsors include BNP Paribas SA, and the ATP, based in Monaco, counts Emirates Airline among its backers. ITF spokesman Nick Imison said its anti-doping rules are drawn up with the men’s and women’s tours, and are constantly under review. Tennis is acting within world anti-doping guidelines that give sports federations “some flexibility in terms of disclosure” when athletes test positive for a banned substance, Ben Nichols, a World Anti-Doping Agency spokesman, said in an e-mail from Montreal.

More Testing

Roger Federer, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, and Wimbledon winner Andy Murray have called for more stringent doping tests following the admission by cyclist Lance Armstrong that he used drugs to cheat throughout his career. In March, tennis authorities agreed to follow cycling and track and field in using so-called biological passports to catch cheats. The passport measures changes in blood profiles and can detect anomalies that might indicate doping.

Cycling and track authorities are usually swifter at announcing anti-doping cases than tennis. In July last year, the international cycling union UCI announced that Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck had tested positive for drugs four days earlier, midway through last year’s Tour de France. In June this year, two-time Olympic 200-meter champion Veronica Campbell-Brown was provisionally suspended, pending an inquiry, for testing positive for a banned diuretic in May.

Unfairly Tarnished?

It’s reasonable for tennis to protect the identity of athletes until after a hearing, provided that takes place soon enough after a positive test, said Zane Shihab, a sports lawyer at Kerman & Co. in London. Otherwise, an athlete could be unfairly tarnished, according to Shihab.

“With something like a drugs test, mud tends to stick whether an athlete is innocent or not,” Shihab said.

Cilic said he took the nikethamide inadvertently from April 22 to April 26 after his supply of glucose ran out and his mother went to a pharmacy in Monte Carlo to buy him more but bought a different product, according to the ruling of a three-member independent tribunal. He tested positive for the drug at the BMW Open in Munich on May 1.

After being informed of the positive test, Cilic cited a knee injury for withdrawing from Wimbledon “to avoid adverse publicity,” the ruling said. The ITF announced his withdrawal through injury in a statement, at the same time it was in contact with his lawyers.

Other Secrets?

Munoz, the former Spanish federation president, said in an interview in Madrid last week that “many times” tennis authorities have kept cases secret.

He said he travelled with a Spanish player, whom he declined to identify, to an ATP hearing in Paris after the athlete tested positive for a drug he took to help heal a shoulder injury in the late 1990s. The men’s tour fined the player the equivalent of about 5,000 euros ($6,700) and never made the test result public, according to Munoz.

Andre Agassi, who won all four Grand Slam singles titles, said in his 2009 autobiography he tested positive for crystal meth in 1997, and duped tennis officials into believing he consumed it in a spiked soda. After reviewing the case, the ATP took no further action against the American.

Following Rules

The ATP said in a statement that its anti-doping program has “always” followed the rules, requiring positive doping tests to be reviewed by an independent panel and, if there is a case to answer, an independent tribunal.

“There has never been a deviation from this process,” the ATP said, without directly responding to a request to explain the case Munoz mentioned.

With tennis coming under more scrutiny than ever from people interested in celebrity and rumor, authorities aren’t helping the sport’s reputation by conducting inquiries in private, Chadwick said.

“They’re trying to keep a lid on it and manage the news but in the social media age it’s very difficult to keep things quiet,” Chadwick said. “It’s a dangerous strategy”

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