Paul Newman: Gasquet gets off lightly in a game of kiss and tell
The Last Word: Tennis player's defence gives rise to snorts of derision: athletes are responsible for what goes in their bodies
Sunday 19 July 2009
Richard Gasquet is not the first sportsman to cite the fairer sex when explaining a failed drugs test. It was revealed last week that the 23-year-old tennis player told an independent tribunal that kissing a woman he had met in a nightclub was the most likely reason for the cocaine found in his body.
Daniel Plaza, an Olympic walking champion, was eventually cleared after claiming that having oral sex with his pregnant wife had led to a positive test for nandrolone, while Dennis Mitchell, a sprinter, said he had failed a test for testosterone after drinking beer and making love to his wife several times the previous night.
Other drugs cases have brought equally vivid explanations. Ross Rebagliati, a snowboarder, argued that passive smoking at a party had resulted in his positive test for marijuana, while Lenny Paul, a bobsleigher, blamed his positive test for steroids on eating spaghetti bolognaise containing beef from cows given drugs by farmers. Both men were cleared.
Gasquet was found to have committed a doping offence, though he was freed to compete again, only two and a half months after choosing to stop playing. The International Tennis Federation, fearing a dangerous precedent, sought a mandatory two-year ban and may yet appeal, as may the World Anti-Doping Agency.
You could argue that justice was done. Nobody suggested Gasquet took drugs knowingly. Having withdrawn from a tournament in Miami because of injury, he visited the Set nightclub in the city with a group of people that included a woman named only as "Pamela", whom he had met in a restaurant that evening. According to the tribunal verdict, they "kissed mouth to mouth about seven times while they were at Set, each kiss lasting about five to 10 seconds". Before parting company at 5am, they kissed again after Gasquet waited for Pamela to return from the toilet, "where she had spent longer than expected".
Gasquet's test the next day showed traces of a tiny quantity of cocaine, about the size of a grain of salt, which he ingested around the time he was in the club. His representatives said Pamela admitted she was offered cocaine at the club but denied taking it. She made a short statement to the tribunal but refused to answer questions.
The argument that Gasquet had probably ingested the cocaine through kissing was accepted by the tribunal, although the ITF suggested there were other possibilities, such as handling currency used to sniff cocaine or drinking a contaminated liquid.
Gasquet, the tribunal said, was not without fault. He should have been aware of the strong possibility that drugs would have been in use at the club, drank apple juice from an open-topped jug – which might have been contaminated – and kissed a woman he had never met before "and who, for all he knew, could be a drug-user".
But the tribunal said that Gasquet had successfully established a defence of "no significant fault or negligence". It concluded: "As a healthy, single young man who is not often able to go out and enjoy himself socially in the evenings, it is not unnatural that he should have been attracted to Pamela, to the point of kissing her. He is not the first young man to have done such a thing with a young woman during a social night out."
On that basis the tribunal was entitled to halve Gasquet's potential two-year ban but it went further, on the grounds that the Frenchman was only slightly at fault and failed the test having already decided to withdraw from the tournament. It ruled that while Gasquet's test was officially in competition, this was a technicality as he had made the decision to pull out the day before his first match. Cocaine is not banned out of competition.
Given the circumstances of the case and that Gasquet is evidently not a calculating drugs cheat, the outcome might appear fair, but the ITF are rightly concerned at the possibility of floodgates being opened.
If Gasquet's case had been a precedent, would Martina Hingis have been banned for two years after failing a drugs test for a small quantity of cocaine at Wimbledon in 2007? And what about Jamie Burdekin, a British wheelchair player, who, like Gasquet, failed a test for cocaine after spending a night on the town? Burdekin, who was given a two-year ban, claimed his drink had been spiked.
The Gasquet case undermines the fundamental principle of "strict liability", under which an athlete is responsible if a banned substance is found in their body, however it got there.
The war against drugs inevitably involves sacrifices. Britain's track cyclists are constantly scrutinised – those of us who talked to Chris Hoy after his heroics in Beijing last summer vividly remember him showing the gruesome bruising where his arm had been repeatedly jabbed by the blood-testers – but do not complain because they want their sport to be clean.
Part of those sacrifices involves not putting yourself into situations where you might be compromised. By spending some hours in a nightclub, consuming certain drinks and intimately kissing a woman he had never met before, Gasquet put himself at risk.
Provided the ITF and Wada do not make a successful appeal, he should count himself lucky to have got off lightly, even if the doping offence remains on his record, which means he would risk a life ban if he committed another one.
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