The International Tennis Federation has announced that former French Open finalist Sara Errani will be banned for two months after testing positive for letrozole. The substance, prohibited under the WADA anti-doping program, was present in “Femara,” a medicine Errani’s mother has been taking daily for five years following surgery for breast cancer. Whilst the case is not as high-profile as Sharapova’s ban for meldonium, nor the punishment as severe, its relation with the wider sports doping narrative is particularly interesting.
The ITF first found the former World #5 guilty of wrongdoings in February when she tested positive for letrozole in an out-of-competition test. By preventing the conversion of androgens such as endogenous testosterone into estrogen, letrozole is believed to help increase body mass. Subsequently charged on 18 April, Errani promptly admitted she had committed an Anti-Doping Rule Violation and asked for a hearing before an Independent Tribunal.
At the hearing on 19 July, Errani’s defence asserted that the substance had been taken unintentionally. The World #98 had been staying with her parents, and her mother routinely stored her drugs on a worktop close to where food was prepared making contamination possible. The Independent Tribunal accepted this probability, ruling that she “accidentally” ingested the drug, and that there could only be a “light degree of fault” resulting in a period of ineligibility of two months beginning on 3 August.
Read the ITF’s report in full here – http://www.itftennis.com/media/267586/267586.pdf
As soon as the ITF made its announcement on Monday, Errani responded with indignation. “I am extremely disappointed,” she said in a public statement, “but – at the same time – at peace with my conscience and aware I haven’t done anything wrong.”
The concentration level for letrozole in the player’s urine sample was 65 ng/mL, equating to less than a single pill of Femara, according to Errani.
The 30-year-old was also quick to point out that “no-one has ever demonstrated [that using Femara has] any beneficial effects in female athletes’ performance” and that, on the contrary, it is “very dangerous.”
Errani’s comments will add an interesting dimension to the debate that is swirling around doping in sport. Justin Gaitlin’s victory in the 100m at the World Athletics Championships has highlighted public animosity towards drugs cheats, with mounting calls for lifetime bans to be put in place. It would seem that Errani’s situation is a case-in-point for why such severe punishment could not become blanket policy in professional sport.
As it stands, Errani’s punishment for a fault “at the lower end of the scale” appears far too severe. The ITF ruled that she is to forfeit all ranking points and prize money achieved between 16 February (the date of sample collection) and 7 June (the date of her next test, which was negative). As well as the 103 points Errani stands to lose during her two month absence from the circuit, the Italian will consequently have 373 points chalked off, meaning she will drop outside of the world’s top 200 for the first time since February 2007.
However, whilst the circumstances behind Errani’s consumption of letrozole seem innocuous, her association with cycling doctor Garcia del Moral raises concerns. In 2012, five years to the day before their ruling on Errani, the ITF announced that they “recognise[d] and respect[ed]” the lifetime ban from sport imposed on del Moral after it was found that the doctor had helped to implement, in the words of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a “team-wide doping program” for Lance Armstrong’s cycling team. Although Errani soon distanced herself from him, conspiracy theories will abound over the coming weeks as not only was del Moral affiliated for six years with the ‘TenisVal’ Tennis Academy where Errani previously trained, he was reported as a member of her team in June 2012 despite the Italian’s brother, Davide, claiming after the French Open that she had seen Dr. del Moral only once for a cardiac exam. While it seems unlikely that any such connection is at all relevant here, the history may make some suspicious.
Whatever the consensus interpretation, as the first high-profile case of doping in tennis since Maria Sharapova’s ban last year, comparisons will be hard to resist. And whilst the media dissects and theorizes, criticizes, and compares, Sara Errani, a player defined by her dynamic movement, will have to, as she put it, “try to stand still” for the first time in her career. Her task to rebuild both her reputation and ranking will begin on October 3rd.
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