David Owen

In a week that must have set some sort of record for sports-related doping stories, I must admit that the one which caught my eye was the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s dismissal of a plea by a Scottish Member of Parliament for Alain Baxter’s case to be reopened.

Baxter, you probably recall, won a historic first Olympic skiing medal for Britain – a bronze – at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, only to be stripped of it after testing positive for methamphetamine, a substance banned since 1967.

Fourteen years on, it is, as far as I can tell, pretty much universally accepted that Baxter’s adverse analytical finding was the consequence, as the Scot always maintained, of using a Vicks Vapor inhaler (manufactured, coincidentally, by IOC TOP sponsor Procter & Gamble) that he had bought in the United States six days before his medal race.

Baxter was a loyal Vicks customer, having used its inhalers to combat nasal congestion since he was a child.

He had had one during training in Austria, but fatefully left it behind in his bedroom.

However, the US product had a different formulation from the UK counterpart the skier was used to using: critically, it contained an active ingredient called levmetamfetamine.

It always seemed to me that the case was a landmark of sorts, demonstrating how an anti-doping system which - as is becoming clearer every day - was full of holes when it came to catching inveterate cheats with crafty entourages and clever lawyers, was more than capable of breaking the occasional butterfly on its wheel.

This particular butterfly – a Large Blue if his Salt Lake City hair-do is any guide – was not entirely blameless.

Alain Baxter had been the first Briton to win an Olympic skiing medal when he finished third in the slalom at Salt Lake City 2002 but was subsquently stripped of it following a positive drugs test ©Getty Images
Alain Baxter had been the first Briton to win an Olympic skiing medal when he finished third in the slalom at Salt Lake City 2002 but was subsquently stripped of it following a positive drugs test ©Getty Images

He should have read the label and/or checked with the team doctor that using his new acquisition would not have adverse consequences.

He should probably have stuck with the product that the doctor actually recommended  for combating his stuffy nose in Utah, but which Baxter found unsatisfactory.

It seems to me that the International Ski Federation (FIS) got the balance about right: it banned him for three months.

But, of course, this was a special slalom race and the real sanction for Baxter was losing his Olympic medal.

Going back through the papers after all this time, one of the first things you notice is all the Big IOC Beasts that became involved in one capacity or another.

Denis Oswald, the Swiss IOC member who, among other things, headed the Coordination Commission for the London 2012 Games, chaired the IOC Inquiry Commission which concluded that a prohibited substance was in Baxter’s body as he produced his medal-winning performance and that it was a doping case.

Thomas Bach, now IOC President, chaired the Disciplinary Commission.

As such, it is his signature on the document recommending that Baxter be disqualified and his medal withdrawn.

Sir Craig Reedie, now President of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and then chairman of the British Olympic Association (BOA), attended the March 2002 hearings of both those IOC Commissions in Lausanne.

The almost three-hour Inquiry Commission hearing on March 15 devoted a fair bit of time to the question of whether what was then being referred to as the “L-isomer form of methamphetamine”, the substance in the US version of the Vicks inhaler, was a stimulant.

Said Oswald at one point: “No-one questioned whether the L-form had been in the athlete’s body. They had to consider if the L-form was a prohibited substance, a stimulant. If they decided that it was a stimulant then they would have to consider it to be a doping case.”

I rather enjoyed an interjection by Adam Lewis, Baxter’s lawyer, who speculated that “perhaps if one took 80 inhalers and melted them down in a laboratory it would produce illicit amounts of methamphetamine in massive quantities”.

However, an expert witness, Professor Peter Hemmersbach, a member of the IOC Medical Commission, said that the L-form had “stimulating effects”, while indicating that articles on the subject stated the L-form was “three to four times less active than the D-form”.

The Facts of the Case, drawn up subsequently by the Inquiry Commission, stated that three expert opinions produced by the athlete claiming that the L-form was not a stimulant “seem to be isolated opinions”.

The Commission concluded that a prohibited substance was contained in Baxter’s body when he competed.

Alain Baxter was stripped of his Olympic bronze medal after testing positive for a stimulant he ingested in an over-the-counter Vicks Vapor inhaler he had purchased in the United States ©Getty Images
Alain Baxter was stripped of his Olympic bronze medal after testing positive for a stimulant he ingested in an over-the-counter Vicks Vapor inhaler he had purchased in the United States ©Getty Images

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) panel which heard Baxter’s appeal in London in September 2002 stated that the parties’ experts agreed that, while “if taken in excess” levmetamfetamine can have a stimulant effect on athletic performance, “at the levels found in Mr Baxter’s body it is very unlikely that the levmetamfetamine had any stimulant effect”.

Nevertheless, the “presence alone” of a prohibited substance in Baxter’s body constituted a case of doping.

It therefore upheld the disqualification, while stating that it was “not without sympathy” for Baxter, who appeared to be a “sincere and honest man who did not intend to obtain a competitive advantage in the race”.

It ordered that each side bear its own costs.

So, putting the most favourable possible slant – for Baxter – on the whole saga, you might say that an apparently sincere and honest man, who would make a terrific role model, was deprived of what would have been a historic medal because he inadvertently ingested a banned substance that almost certainly did not enhance his performance.

The substance, moreover, would probably not have come within 3,000 miles of Baxter’s system had the Games been staged in either Sion or Őstersund, two of the cities defeated – comfortably - by their US rival in what may very well be the most controversial host city selection procedure in Olympic history.

A few months before those CAS proceedings, the late Professor Arnold Beckett, a sports doping expert and long-time IOC Medical Commission member who sympathised with Baxter’s plight, faxed Jacques Rogge, who was yet to complete his first year as IOC President.

Arguing that methamphetamine and levmetamfetamine were separate chemical entities, he urged Rogge “on the grounds of fairness and human rights” to authorise an additional test “to establish whether or not the drug found was really methamphetamine”.

He went on: “Your authorisation of this test and actions on the results obtained would help to restore the integrity of IOC and show how it applies ‘dope control’ in an intelligent and sensitive way…

“You would be seen to want to discover the truth.”

The following day, a brief reply, signed by chief of staff Christophe de Kepper, thanked Beckett for his fax, “a copy of which the President has requested be sent to the Chairman of the IOC Medical Commission”.

Having peered into the murky goldfish bowl of sports doping from the outside for a decade and a half now, I think I have some appreciation of why the various cogs in the anti-doping machinery felt obliged to act as they did.

If you undermine “strict liability”, draconian as that principle might appear, you create a whole field of new legal defences that might well ensure that legions of drug cheats - real drug cheats - escaped unpunished.

But, having looked Baxter hard in the eye, at a London bar called Shoeless Joe’s bizarrely enough, I find it very hard to accept that someone of his slightly rough-edged integrity should be collateral damage in anyone’s war, let alone a war waged with such patchy success.