The Explainer: Are supplements worth the risk?


Dear Explainer,
You’ve written a lot about doping rules, but I am still a little unclear about the term “strict liability,” when it comes to one kind of violation.

The reason I ask is that I am resuming training after a two-year layoff (because of a new baby) and part of my program includes a lot of food supplements and occasional energy drinks. I know that riders in the past have been convicted of doping even when they make the case that their violation was a result of an accident. I am not sure that it’s even possible to avoid the risk of consuming a contaminated supplement, when you consider the places that make these things.

What bothers me is that I risk two years off the bike again – this time because of suspension – through no fault of my own. Is that fair?
– Aimee

Dear Aimee,
I have stirred this hornets’ nest before, so what the heck. My first advice is to avoid using those “food supplements and energy drinks” and speak with a qualified coach, or more precisely, a nutritionist who can guide you through a maze of questions about how you can achieve the same results with actual food.

I think it was two or three years ago when I wrote about “tainted” supplements and the “unregulated” industry that produces them. A representative of that industry did set me straight in pointing out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does hold regulatory authority over the supplement industry, particularly under the provisions of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). The DSHEA authorizes the FDA to take action “against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.”

Food supplement manufacturers are also responsible for compliance with Dietary Supplement Current Good Manufacturing Practices, comply with labeling requirements and report to the FDA any “adverse events” that are associated with use of the product.

What manufacturers do not need to do, however, is register products with the FDA or get FDA approval for those products before bringing them to market.

In other words, it’s a regulatory framework that, in my mind at least, conjures images of barn doors and long-gone horses.

It’s for those reasons that I continue to hold the opinion that taking dietary supplements – especially if you are an athlete subject to the provisions of the World Anti-Doping Code – is a risky proposition.

As you mentioned, there are several cases involving athletes who apparently unknowingly consumed banned substances while under the impression they were merely taking supplements or perfectly legal energy products.

The three that come to mind right away are USADA v. Moninger, USADA v. Neben and the CAS appeal, Oliveira v. USADA.

Now retired, Scott Moninger tested positive for norandrosterone in 2002. Upon learning of the result, Moninger forwarded his opened bottle of “Doctor’s Brand L-Tyrosine,” – an amino acid supplement – to an independent laboratory, which found that 19-norandosterone was present in the bottle. Tests on other, sealed, bottles showed no sign of contamination.

While the panel did not fully accept the argument that the supplement was the cause of the positive test, they did consider that and other evidence – Moninger’s unsullied 21-year cycling career and character testimony from other riders – as mitigating factors and imposed a one-year, as opposed to two-year, suspension.

The following year, Amber Neben tested positive for 19-norandosterone – although at significantly lower levels – and was suspended for six months.

In 2009, Brazilian rider Flavia Oliveira tested positive for Oxilofrine and was suspended for two years. Oliveira appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and was able to show that an energy supplement she used to counter the fatiguing effects of prescription allergy medications was mislabeled and did not mention that it contained the aforementioned banned substance. Nonetheless, she was still suspended for a total of 18 months.

I believe Oliveira has a lawsuit pending against the manufacturer for its failure to list all ingredients on its label.

It’s important to note that all three of these decisions were based on critical language in World Anti-Doping Code:

“It is each athlete’s personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters his/her body. Athletes are responsible for any prohibited substance or its metabolites or markers found to be present in their bodily specimens.”

That is the “strict liability” language of the Code, since it eliminates the “intent” element of the violation. In other words, an anti-doping agency does not need to show that you intended to consume a banned substance, only that it is present in your body.

To varying degrees, the arbitration and appeals panels are allowed to view a lack of intent as a mitigating factor when considering a penalty, but not when determining whether or not a violation occurred.

So, as to your question, Aimee, I would suggest you do your best to avoid supplements and consult with a nutritionist to determine how your dietary needs can be met with actual food. Yes, I recognize that the FDA has authority over the industry, but all three of the cases I mentioned occurred after the agency was granted that authority.

If you test positive, that “adverse event” may (or may not) warrant the attention of the FDA, but that’s after the fact. You, on the other hand, are stuck with a positive test result, possible grounds for a lawsuit and the job of showing an arbitration panel that there are mitigating circumstances worth considering when they suspend you.

Speaking of mitigating circumstances, as I mentioned, the Code allows for an arbitration panel to consider those when handing out a penalty. Conversely, the panel can also consider aggravating factors and hand down an even harsher penalty, like USADA requested in a high profile case this past summer.

Now why do I mention that? Well, because it brings us to the first-ever edition of the The RKP TV Guide!

Yes, ladies and germs’, the story that will not die is still out there. So, for the television event of the … uhhh … moment, check out the anticipated confessional on a special broadcast of Oprah, this coming Thursday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time in the U.S.

Are you going to watch? I would like to say I won’t … but, like a train wreck happening right in front of you, it may be hard to turn your head.

As for the content of this television spectacular, your guess is as good as mine.


This could be interesting. – Photo Art courtesy of Vic Armijo

As one friend and colleague recently posted on her Facebook page, “Please make it stop.”
– Charles

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    1. Author
      Charles Pelkey

      Oh, I understand, Douglas. I apologize, but I just really needed a cheap excuse to share this latest example of Vic’s PhotoShop work. This one was terrific.

  1. bagni

    charles….i will not watch lance on oprah…unless he has sex with her. of course he’ll use the ped viagra i suspect? ::))

  2. DJ

    I predict this will mark the beginning of the Stay-At-Home-Parent-Triathlete-EPO-Era. Tex will explain how simple it all was and how good it makes you feel and the rest will be history.

  3. jorgensen

    No cable, no satellite, fortunately.
    I will easily wait for you guys to advise on what does or does not happen.

    Much more interested in those winter cycling shoes due in the mail, it will make early morning riding much more tolerable.

  4. groundchucky

    As annoying as the Lance thing is, I don’t want it to just go away. Lance deserves whatever is coming his way, but “getting” Lance should not be the end but the beginning of something. If we really want cycling to change this is where it starts…..

  5. SusanJane

    Oh my word! The best spoof on all this yet. Hey, can someone collect the best cartoons, etc. so I can burn them as an offering to the cycling gods?

  6. Pat O'Brien

    I agree Charles. I personally think supplements are snake oil designed to make money not improve health or performance. It amazed me when a cycling site or magazine has an article on doping surrounded by ads for supplements that supposedly immediately improve your performance and accelerate your recovery. Supplements aren’t worth anything.

  7. Peter Dedes

    With respect to the upcoming interviewee on the Oprah the killer whale show, could this person be referred to as HWISNN (he who I shall not name) in all future commentary?

  8. Brian

    I have been nervous about supplements and even sports drinks. I only use Hammer Nutrition for fueling now and avoid any supplements. Much better to try and eat a range of foods instead of relying on a magic pill.

  9. Seano

    Supplements have their place (drink mixes are “supplements”) – trust in the company producing them are paramount. Many feel comfortable with the bigger brands – but there are also some smaller supplement companies run by athletes who care very much about NOT putting anything improper in their formulations.

    Each person is different – I know I need electrolyte support when I ride. I’ve also found recovery supplements are helpful when I specifically don’t want to add additional calories.

    As an aside, despite the WADA code, there have been numerous examples of athletes being excused for mistakenly ingesting something – which brings up another issue: varying degrees of enforced “strict liability”. Most recent example I can remember is Hope Solo being allowed to compete in the last olympics.

  10. Tom Moore

    back in the stone age, Alex Grewal appealed a doping violation because of a “tainted” supplement, he went on to win the Olympic road race that year.

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