Friday, 9 February 2018

Did Chris Froome cheat?

Asthma. A subject I'm reasonably familiar with as I have had the condition to varying degrees since I was a child. I can honestly say it's probably the only thing I would change about myself if I could.

Then there is Chris Froome, a subject I know little about, but in common with most armchair enthusiasts, it's not going to stop me having an opinion. I have admired his achievements but I'm not particularly a fan. He's too good, not enough frailty in a cycling sense, and lacks that approachability in his public persona for my taste.

I once saw him come past me at a frankly blistering pace atop the Port de Pailheres, on his way to winning the yellow jersey at Ax Trois Domaines, on a very hot day in  2013. He was so fast that I only caught his name from the typing on his jersey.

Of course, the asthma and Froome are now inextricably linked. I know that Salbutamol is often used as a masking agent for other performance-enhancing drugs, but I also know that if you have asthma it's nearly impossible to get an advantage over people who don't have it by taking more and more of the stuff.

Let me explain what Asthma is like. It's an autoimmune condition, meaning the body's own defences, designed to attack foreign invaders, actually attack the body itself, leading to a constriction of the airways in your lungs, a reduced lung capacity, and difficulty breathing. The allergic response can be triggered by foreign bodies, like dust, cat hair, or (in my case) a virus, like a cold or flu virus. Which is why I get a free flu jab on the NHS every year.

The allergic response is not consistent and can vary in intensity and duration. When I was a kid if I got a cold, I was bed-bound for a fortnight, as I could barely get enough oxygen into my lungs to walk to the end of the room. Every breath was a struggle. On a few occasions I have had to use the services of a nebuliser, a device where a mask is placed over your mouth and nose, and you inhale a gaseous form of salbutamol and steroids for a 10 minute period.

On quite a few occasions I have had to take oral steroids to cope with an attack, and on times too numerous to count I have had to resort to my blue reliever of Ventolin (the proprietary name for salbutamol). I also have an inhaler that pumps a little bit of steroid (50mg per puff) into my lungs. I'm supposed to take it every day, and when I do it does make a bit of difference. But I often forget, and I don't like taking drugs really, they remind me of my weakness.

Generally the fitter I am, the less severe the asthma. But if I put extreme stress on my body, it can trigger exercise-induced asthma. But no matter how fit I am, or how much sleep I have had, or how much weight I've lost, or how good my diet is, my lung capacity will never be as good as an equivalent specimen as me without asthma. Never. No matter what drugs I take.

So has Chris Froome been cheating? Of course it depends on how you define that. If he has been using salbutamol to mask other drug-taking then of course he has. Normally it would be easy, has he broken the rules? But because asthma is so complex, the rules around it are very ambiguous, shades of nuance on top of shades of grey, with multiple options. Which is why it is taking so long.

My gut feel is that he probably took too many puffs because he was gasping for breath. But that is a hypothesis with no evidence. Whatever the reality, we will probably never know and he will probably always protest innocence. But before you condemn him too harshly , try stuffing a few cotton wall balls in your mouth, wrap a towel over your mouth and nose and then cycle up a vey big hill in 30C heat. That's what asthma is like.

1 comment:

  1. Bodies do strange things when pushed to their limits. The issue Froome has is that he needs to prove that he DID NOT exceed the permitted dose. Even if he proves that his body does strange things like having uneven absorption rates of Salbutamol at high physical stress levels, that may not be enough to save his Vuelta result. He'll take some comfort from knowing that should be be banned at some point in the future he won't lose any results he gets in the interim, unlike Contador, who CAS found took a banned rather than a controlled substance. Intriguing isn't it?