Skiing: The Vicks mistake that cost Baxter his bronze

Nick Harris
Friday 22 March 2002 01:00
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One of the most senior figures on the International Olympic Committee said yesterday that Alain Baxter's explanation of how he unwittingly failed a drug test at last month's Winter Olympics was "not disputed", but that the IOC had no choice under its anti-doping rules other than to strip him of his slalom bronze medal.

Baxter told a press conference in London yesterday that he had bought and used a Vicks nasal inhaler in America that he thought was identical to the one he had been using for years at home.

The US version, however, contains levamfetamine, a strain of the banned substance methamphetamine, while the British version does not. Baxter's urine sample showed traces of levamfetamine. After an appeal to the IOC failed last week, he lost his medal.

"This [Baxter's version of events] is not disputed," Francois Carrard, the director general of the IOC, said. "But the rules are such that the mere presence in the body of a banned substance – unless instilled beyond doubt by some criminal, for example – automatically triggers the decision [to find the athlete guilty]. The rules allow no room for assessing the circumstances.

"The rules are very harsh. We have to admit that. But we have no margin at all for judging how a substance got there. The rules are clear. They are not against one man. They are there for the purposes of the fight against doping. We did not base our decision on the assumption that what he told us was not true."

Mr Carrard said the IOC had sent a copy of its full findings to the International Skiing Federation (FIS), the sport's world governing body, which must now decide what further action, if any, to take. "They have a margin of flexibility that we do not," he said.

The FIS could in theory ban Baxter from competition for up to two years – an interim ban until June is already in place – or could in effect exonerate him and allow him to continue with his career. "They may say, 'We don't want to ruin his career' and take lenient action."

Baxter, shattered by news of the IOC's decision, has good reason to feel his career has already been damaged. There is a chance, however, that he may yet appeal against the IOC's decision to the Court of Arbitration, an independent international body with its headquarters in Switzerland.

If he does this – and the skier said last night he was consulting his lawyers to decide how to proceed – there is a small chance of being found innocent, in which case he would get his medal back. Mr Carrard said the IOC would stand by any decision the court made.

An appeal could become technically convoluted, however. Baxter would need to prove the methamphetamine isomer found in his urine sample was not performance- enhancing. There are two strains, one found in the Vicks he said he took and another, more active substance more commonly associated with the drug "speed".

The problem Baxter faces is that his urine samples were tested by the IOC, which does not differentiate between the two strains of methamphetamine. On such technicalities his reputation hinges and he has yet to decide what to do next.

"It has been a long three weeks," Baxter said. "I have gone from the best couple of days of my life to the worst three weeks. I really wanted it to be over.

"I agree with drug-testing. You should not cheat in sport. But there should be a rule whether it is performance- enhancing or not."

Support for Baxter came from the British Olympic Association, which said it supported him fully and felt he had been the victim of a bad decision, and the British Ski and Snowboard Federation. A BSSF spokeswoman said: "The punishment is far too harsh and doesn't particularly fit the crime if you can call it a crime."

Baxter's grandfather, Chick, described the IOC decision as "a terrible blow" and said his grandson was "heartbroken". He added: "Alain definitely hasn't done anything wilfully or deliberately wrong. When you are a clean-living person it is difficult to live with such a situation."

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