Friday, July 26, 2013

Troicki's Case Proves that ITF Anti-Doping Program Needs to Improve

Troicki: Guilty, or Not?
(July 26, 2013)--Viktor Troicki's 18-month ban from tennis, based on a failure to provide a blood sample for a routine anti-doping test, has set the tennis world into a frenzy this week. The ITF has released its findings in a convoluted, slightly biased 25-page document here, while Troicki's comments can be found here.

For those who want to make some sense of the fiasco, good luck. While the case doesn't prove that Troicki is doping, it does prove that the ITF's Anti-Doping Program has to do a better job of training its employees to effectively communicate with the players its system governs.

Now, before I make a few points, let me say that the most egregious error in all of this was made by Viktor Troicki, a tour veteran for many years, and a person who should have been familiarized with all the rules and regulations surrounding the Anti-Doping Program by now. Troicki could have avoided all of this by bucking up and supplying a blood sample, and if he was truly incapable of doing so then he should have been seeking medical attention rather than going back to his hotel to sleep. Extra credit goes to his coach, Jack Reader, who apparently confessed to not having much familiarity with the rules of the program despite being a coach for the last two or three decades.

What Troicki has done has raised suspicion and caused us to wonder: "Maybe he was doping, and maybe this is all a clever scheme concocted to save him the trouble he would have faced had he actually provided the sample?" At this point, after perusing the related documents, as much as I like Troicki, I'm not entirely inclined to believe that he skipped the blood test because of a fear of needles or a persisting illness that he encountered on that day (according to him it was both).

But enough about Troicki for now. Let's instead take a closer look at the ITF's Anti-Doping Program, starting at the top. Apparently during the time when Troicki was hemming and hawing with Dr. Gorodilova (the Doping Control Officer who interacted directly with Troicki on this case), she advised him to place a call to the "big man" also known as ITF employee Dr. Stuart Miller. Troicki, wanting to make "100 percent sure" that he wasn't going to face recrimination for his decision to forgo the blood test, attempted to contact Miller by telephone, only to find no answer.

Stop right there. Already, we see a clear case of a blurry chain of command where the DCO, Dr. Gorodilova, paints herself as someone who really doesn't have all the answers and recommends that a player in a crisis should call Dr. Miller (Executive Director, Science & Technical Department) to find out if skipping the blood test to due his issues (fear of needles and sickness) is kosher.

Strange that Miller wasn't available to take this call, or at the very least that Dr. Gorodilova couldn't have put Troicki in touch with someone who might have talked some sense into him, since it is obviously of pretty urgent nature, but, alas, true.

Next we move down the chain to to Dr. Gorodilova herself, a fifteen-year veteran of the Doping Agency who was on this day in Monte Carlo encountering for the very first time a player that was unwilling to submit to one of the tests. Apparently, Gorodilova needs a bit of practice in this area, because she managed to leave Troicki with the impression that if he wrote a simple letter to Dr. Miller telling the "big man" of his difficulty with needles, etc... that everything "should" (or was it "could?") be fine.

Here is where the crux of the debate lies: Did Gorodilova do enough to inform Troicki that he would basically be up the creek without a paddle if he didn't let them draw his blood? I'm not so sure. Rather than have a set of clear and transparent protocols in place with regard to such a scenario, it sounds like the Dr. tried to reassure Troicki, telling him that maybe writing a letter would help his case. But the very notion of encouraging someone to write a letter in a situation like this indicates that the Dr. was giving Troicki a sense of false hope, rather than giving him the straight smack. How about saying, "Look, Viktor, fun time is over. Lay down and give me your arm or I'm pretty sure they're going to label you a cheat and take away your livelihood for a year and a half," rather than saying "Oh, yes, write a letter, that might help things, sure."

Clearly Troicki was in a state of naivete or denial or some toxic combination of the two, and the last thing in the world he needed was what he got from the DCO: Some sympathy and some really bad advice. Shame on her, and shame on the ITF, for letting Troicki's case get to where it currently is.

In no way am I insinuating that Troicki isn't culpable in this case. He's a grown man and he should have the common sense to know the trouble he was about to get himself into when he gave this "Dog ate my homework"-type of excuse to the ITF.

But he could have used the advice of some well-trained medical professionals along the way. And it would have been nice if Dr. Miller had answered his phone as well. He's got the time to hand out career-destroying suspensions, but he doesn't have the time to pick up the phone for a player in need?

Instead of encountering a clear-cut set of rules and regulations outlining the possible ramifications of Troicki's non-test, the Serb got a litany of not-so-clear and all-to-vague suggestions, ones that ultimately led to his demise.

He might have been doping, and he may have bailed on the blood test even if he had concrete knowledge of the ramifications of doing so. Unfortunately, we'll never know. All we know now is that Troicki will never skip a blood test again--if he ever plays again.

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