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Scientist behind salbutamol threshold admits 'terrible blunder'

Joe Robinson
5 Jul 2018

Calls for changes into testing for salbutamol to avoid more incidents like recent Froome investigation

The scientist accountable for the salbutamol threshold set by WADA has admitted that the current rules and regulations are flawed and should be reformed to avoid the future risk of riders like Chris Froome (Team Sky) wrongly returning positive tests and fighting to rebuild their reputation.

Professor Ken Fitch, of the University of Western Australia, spoke to The Times on Wednesday following the UCI closing investigations into Froome's adverse analytical finding for salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana.

Fitch spoke of how he submitted a written testimony in support of Froome and how the current threshold-based test was potentially catching innocent athletes.

The current threshold of 1,200 ng/ml of salbutamol in urine concentration was established by Fitch and WADA in the 1990s after work with top level swimmers, one of the flaws Fitch has admitted to.

'I’ll admit I made a terrible blunder,' he stated. 'The sport with the highest prevalence was swimming so that’s who we tested. But what happens after an hour of swimming? A full bladder.

'Cycling for five hours is completely different, you have little but quite concentrated urine.

'From those studies came the threshold, which WADA increased to the 1,200 decision limit, but it was based on a false premise.

'The studies were never performed with the aim of finding the amount of salbutamol in urine after inhaling the allowable quantity.

'As I had a major role in these decisions, I acknowledge my error. I feel quite concerned about cases like Chris Froome.'

Froome returned a urine sample of 1,429ng/ml on Stage 18 of last year's Vuelta, 229ng/ml above the then-accepted threshold.

Fitch also commented that the outcome of the Froome investigation is 'groundbreaking' and will hopefully lead to a rethink into how the correlation between salbutamol inhalation and urine excretion is considered.

WADA on the other hand has commented via head of science Dr Olivier Rabin that it has 'no reason to question the rules [currently in place]' but will assess the findings of Froome's case in its own committee.

One of the cases that parallels were drawn from for Froome was that of Italian Alessandro Pettachi. While riding for Team Millram, the Italian returned a positive test for salbutamol at the 2007 Giro d'Italia and subsequently served a one-year ban. 

Although Professor Fitch is of the belief that this decision was wrong, commenting, 'I was arguing [for that correction] in 2007. Petacchi was innocent and they [Wada] have to accept that the rules need changing'.