Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Nick Backstrom: A More Reasoned Reaction
My entry on Sunday was a quick scribble of knee-jerk reaction and a regurgitation of select facts, combined with bonk-fueled speculation about Nick Backstrom's positive drug test and his subsequent disqualification from the Olympic Gold Medal game in Sochi. I've had a few days to look for some better information, and I am decidedly not writing this entry immediately after a 2.5 hour workout.
To be fair, I still am unclear as to which organizations are pulling what strings in this ordeal. Is it the IOC pressing this matter, or the IIHF? Is WADA even involved? Are the using WADA's banned list? Without knowing these things, I can't do more than unintellligibly shout that this is someone's fault. Still, after looking through all the details I have been able to find, I am still holding to my original general consensus that this isn't any one person or entity screwing up badly, it is more likely a sum of a number of unfortunate happenings all snowballing into a very, very sad result for Nicklas Backstrom.
The first 'shame-on-you' finger you'd throw if you are a Nick Backstrom fan would be pointing straight at the Olympic officials...that is to say, whatever group/s that are in charge of drug testing and subsequent rule enforcement.
I was right there with you in being angry with these folks. At the very least, they have admitted by apology that they took too long to analyse Nick Backstrom's urine sample, and you'd have to assume that they 'get it' about how poorly timed the actual disqualification was. Still, I would contend that if they were truly compassionate to what has happened here, this matter would already be concluded: they would have given Backstrom a 1-game suspension (the Gold Medal game he was pulled from) and awarded him the Silver Medal that his team earned. Per Greg Wyshynski on Twitter, the IIHF Chief Physician says Backstrom is "an innocent victim". This is important.
Shortly after I posted an initial rant on Facebook about this affair, an old coach of mine and devout hockey dad forwarded me an old Sports Illustrated article from 1998 titled 'Hockey's Little Helpers.' I assumed this was going to be something about mighty mites on ice, but after clicking on it, my eyes immediately parsed the word Sudafed a few lines into the article. The piece goes on to describe how NHL players and trainers admit to pseudoephedrine being used deliberately as an ergogenic aid during games. This caused me to have a very big sad.
If you are a cycling reader of mine, then this sort of documentation about the abuse of drugs in sport will be 'cute' compared to reading details of blood doping taking place on team buses in between races. If, however, you are a hockey fan who discovered my blog just the other day and are not used to investigative journalism on doping, I implore you to not go very far down the rabbit hole. It is an extremely toxic subject that can ruin the way you look at players and spoil your enjoyment of the game.
The main takeaway I took forth from the SI article is not that 'some hockey players cheat', but that the IIHF likely knows to look for pseudoephedrine abuse. If Hockey is (or was) saturated with Sudafed abuse, it is understandable that the initial reaction for a positive drug test of the substance would be to impose a sanction, regardless of the indicated quantity of pseudoephedrine found.
Still, the IIHF had its Chief Physician quoted as saying he (Backstrom) is an innocent victim. Surely he can read between the lines and see the difference between a daily dose of Zyrtec-D, and gobbling more than a few sudafed pills right before a game. Yes, rules are rules, and Nick Backstrom has indeed broken the rules by taking enough of his allergy medication to break the allowed threshold for pseudoephedrine. Yet, I still maintain that WADA, as recently as 2010, adjusted the allowed limit of the substance to eliminate punishment of those taking it for reasonable medicinal uses.
The 150 microgram per milliliter limit was an extrapolation of what they found in tests to be the average concentration of the substance you would find in someone taking a standard dose of Sudafed (240 mg). The actual verbage in the WADA document describing their threshold reads:
The threshold level has been established based on the intake of therapeutic doses of
PSE, defined as a maximum daily dose of 240mg
I highlight average because, while there is an allowable limit, everyone's metabolism is different. (Cited is a study showing how multiple people can take the same dose of pseudoephedrine and come out with different urine levels) This means that, despite WADA allowing some leeway for an athlete to take an acceptable amount of the medication, you can take this dose that they attempt to make legal and STILL go over the threshold in a urine test. I maintain that WADA is trying to do the right thing with this threshold allowance, but unfortunately, I think they are setting the cutoff a little bit too short. One other bit that isn't taken into account is the residual buildup of pseudoephedrine that occurs when taking it daily over a period of time. I don't have any studies to cite and back this point, but it is only logical that this drug will show up in your urine for more than 24 hours, and so, when taking it daily for reasonable medicinal purposes, your urine concentrations of pseudoephedrine are going to rise.
I'm concluding this 'sciency' part of my analysis by saying that hockey blog and forum commentors insinuating that 'maybe Nicky does dope...is that how he can stick handle so well?' No...just...no. Read into that SI article posted above; a veteran player believes a lot of the angry and hyped-up, dirty play could be a result of players taking stimulants before games. Nick Backstrom is one of the coolest, most calm players you will see in the NHL. I'm not going to say that I know how pseudoephedrine effects different people, but he doesn't look like he has been taking a bunch of uppers before games for the past 7 years.
Moving on, I'd like to clarify some of my conspiracy theories I jotted down the other day having to do with Team Sweden.
As an athlete eligible for USADA and WADA testing, I would be expected to file a TUE if I took Zyrtec-D every day (for you cycling heads, I hate the -D formulations of antihistamines and rely on regular Zyrtec and Benadryl for my own issues) . Nick Backstrom says the Swedish team knew about his Zyrtec-D, and he made certain that the doctors knew. Perhaps they could have filed a TUE with the organizers? The form is right here!
Secondly (and I am far too lazy to research this), what if the team doctors live in a country where Zyrtec is not offered in the variant that contains pseudoephedrine?
Here in the U.S. you can buy brand name decongestants that have taken pseudoephedrine out of the formula and replaced it with phenylephrine. This is the difference between the sudafed you can pick up off the shelf, and the sudafed that you have to show your I.D. for.
I see two instances where the team doctors could have reasonably 'dropped the ball' here:
- Misunderstanding Nick's Zyrtec-D for a formulation that does not have pseudoephedrine
- Not being aware that the 240mg 'allowance' set by WADA is not rigidly reliable, (as we've explored above)
Prospective blame aside, these teams have a lot to do in a very limited time to prepare for international tournaments.
Let's move on to how Nick Backstrom is, well...moving on from this. Yesterday, Monumental Network posted a press conference with Nick held at the Kettler Iceplex. The Capitals' local sports reporters immediately asked questions about his Olympic experience and its tragic end. By his answers, it sounded like Nick's head was in the right place: not focusing on what has already happened, not dwelling on the toxic and murky nature of doping sanctions, and looking ahead to his NHL teammates and the remaining regular season campaign.
Reading into this press conference, I compare it to past interviews of pro cyclists who would later be revealed to be dopers, denying accusations and proclaiming that they are 'clean'. To be honest, there is no comparison to be made. Nick is forthcoming in his answers and the most frustrated we see him is when he says 'next question.' Look at Lance Armstrong's "I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles" speech, or Floyd Landis' explanation of Jack Daniel's roofing his testosterone levels. Then there is the often repeated, stern assertions of being a clean athlete. Nick simply stated that he's taken the drug before in international play, and it has never been a problem.
As Team Sweden said: this is NOT a case of doping. Given the circumstances, the limited level of pseudoephedrine found to be above the legal threshold, and the rocky stance the NHL has in allowing its players to compete at international tournaments, I sincerely hope that Nick gets his medal. The Sochi games hooked a lot of new hockey fans over the past two weeks, and I'm sure that the familiarity of so many NHL names was no small part of that.
Yes, he broke the rules. Yes, the IIHF have good reason to be proactive against this drug in particular. Yes, Team Sweden should have filed a TUE. Yes, an officer of the IIHF knows this is not a case of stimulant doping. So far, this is a calamity of errors. Let's cross our fingers that the IIHF and IOC put an end to this negative cycle and do the right thing: levy no further sanction against Nicklas.
I leave you with a photograph of me, beginning a bicycle commute to downtown D.C. wearing my Nicklas Backstrom jersey over top of my backpack. I hope this all brings out the Mean Lars for the last half of the NHL season.