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October 1, 2008 (Updated October 6, 2008) -- The drug test on Courtney King-Dye's Olympic mount, Harmony's Mythilus, which turned up positive for a prohibited substance, was a bolt from the blue--or more likely, from somewhere else.
The U.S. team had been scrupulous in its efforts to make sure the horses that went to Hong Kong for the Games were free of prohibited substances, and members of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) tribunal who heard Courtney's case in September acknowledged that, as well as her "impeccable" record. But their hands were tied. Since no one could come up with an explanation of how the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory Felbinac got into Mythilus' system, FEI rules demanded that the horse be disqualified. Courtney was, in FEI parlance, the Person Responsible.
Courtney's expert testified that Mythilus had only 14 nanograms per milliliter of Felbinac in his system, while it would take 7,500 to 100,000 nanograms to have any palliative effect on a little rat. Yet such arguments were to no avail. There isn't a threshold limit set on this drug to give leeway for the presence of even a trace, perhaps something picked up via environmental contamination. Meanwhile, ever-more-finely calibrated equipment can detect miniscule amounts of prohibited substances. Courtney was in a vise, an inadvertent victim of well-meaning efforts to keep the playing field level.
As part of the tribunal process, the U.S. team lost its fourth-place finish with Courtney's disqualification, although Mythilus was not tested until he finished his performance in the individual finals, days after the horse's appearance in the team finals as the lead-off entry for the U.S. effort. This year, the dressage competition was open only to squads of three riders, rather than the usual four, which meant there was no drop score and thus, no leeway. Disqualification of one rider meant elimination of an entire team. The fact that the drug in question was unfamiliar to Courtney and had others in the U.S. contingent scratching their heads made the whole thing even more puzzling.
Mythilus, Courtney surmised, could have picked up a trace of the drug from someone who had it on their hands before touching him. Felbinac is used in human medicine for arthritis, sprains, strains and similar ailments. But she couldn't prove that or any other theories. Even the best precautions could not prevent the unforeseen.
This demoralizing situation illustrates the need for a change in how similar matters are handled in the future. The FEI tribunal that heard Courtney's case could only let her off with time served on suspension after the Olympics, because the rule states that the punishment for a positive on a drug of this nature is elimination. Period.
The FEI is going to look at its drug rules after adjudication of the five other 2008 Olympic equine drug cases, all involving show jumpers that were positive for capsaicin. Should the rules be changed, and if so, how and why? The subject is something that requires a lot of deliberation.
But as a spokeswoman for the international governing body noted, "The principle of strict liability is at the heart of our rules, which state that 'the Persons Responsible are responsible for any prohibited substance found to be present in their horse's bodily samples. Accordingly, it is not necessary that intent, fault, negligence or knowing use on the Person Responsibles' part be demonstrated in order to establish an anti-doping rule or medication control violation.' This principle is the justification for the sanction as stated in the FEI Tribunal's decision."
In thinking about Courtney's dilemma, remember that this isn't like the headline-grabbing drug cases involving human athletes over the last four years.
"This is an innocent woman who got caught in a trap," said U.S. Equestrian Federation CEO John Long.
His organization decided not to appeal the team disqualification to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the same outfit that switched around the eventing medals after a controversy at the Athens Olympics four years ago.
"We stand behind the belief that the substance found its way into the horse from some kind of contamination," he said, while adding that unfortunately, "there's no way of knowing exactly when and where that happened. We don't dispute the fact that there was Felbinac in Mythilus' system, but it's impossible for us to provide evidence about when and where it happened."