By Ken Stone
On his nutritionist’s advice, Stirley Jones drank commercial protein shakes after track workouts. But only three days after joining a drug-testing pool last October, a urine sample led to a positive result.
Jones, a T13-class visually impaired athlete, says he ingested banned stanozolol from MuscleTech-made NitroTech Whey Protein but wasn’t aware the product was tainted.A three-member American Arbitration Association panel met Jones over eight or nine hours at an April 23 hearing in Santa Monica, and later unanimously said it didn’t consider Jones a cheater.
But in a statement, USADA said the panel “concluded that Jones did not establish by a balance of probability to the satisfaction of the majority of the panel that the ingestion of the stanozolol was unintentional.”
The panel majority said “its hands are tied” and was forced to issue the stiff suspension.
Howard Jacobs of Westlake Village, one of Jones’ lawyers, told Times of San Diego: “The panel’s finding that he was not a cheater and didn’t intentionally violate the anti-doping rules seems pretty inconsistent with a four-year ban. So we’re definitely looking at an appeal.”
Such an appeal, which Jones said would cost tens of thousands of dollars, would go to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport. He’d like the ban cut to two years at most.
Florida native Jones played high school basketball and football but, after squinting and not getting help from bifocals, learned he had Keratoconus, causing him to suffer from 20/400 vision, classified as severe visual impairment, arbitrators said.
“Essentially, his cornea resembled the shape of a football rather than a sphere,” said the panel report.
Further hardships came after he moved to Orange County, where he was a finalist in the state junior college meet in the 100- and 200-meter dashes for Golden West College.
“Mr. Jones was in a serious car accident that caused damage to his spine,” the panel said. “As a result, he took a year off from school; and for a period of time could no longer afford his apartment in Huntington Beach, and was homeless for a period of time. He did not tell his family out of fear of disappointing them.”
Jones joined the national Paralympic team in the fall of 2018 after running 200 meters in 20.58 seconds (into a wind) in 2017 — among the top 50 in the nation.
Jones calls himself distraught over the ban through 2022 — more for the possible damage to his reputation as a coach than for a lost track career.
“They told me that I was not a cheater, yet I’m still receiving a four-year ban,” he said in a phone interview. “So this is very hurtful.”
He said he had asked for a reduced suspension “because this was not something that I was purposefully trying to do, trying to get an advantage against my competitors because it was done in October, essentially when there was no competition going on.”
He added: “I was a struggling athlete and I took a protein drink, but I did not know this protein drink was … going to be tainted.”
Jones gave his out-of-competition urine sample on Oct. 2, 2018, and was handed a provisional suspension 15 days later after a metabolite of stanozolol, 3’‐hydroxystanozolol, was found in his system. It’s a man-made steroid.
In reporting their findings, the arbitration panel of chairman Jeffrey G. Benz, David M. Benck and Barbara A. Reeves said they contacted the protein mix maker, asking for a container with the same lot number Jones used.
The MuscleTech product — distributed by Iovate Health Sciences of Oakville, Ontario — was sent. But it was the wrong lot number. It had no stanozolol.
So USADA asked again, and eventually got six containers with the same lot number as Jones’ product. Same result: no banned substance.
Jones suspects that MuscleTech or Iovate forged the lot number, sending “clean” product to protect its reputation.
“You’re a million-dollar company and don’t want to become blacklisted,” he said. “To me, that’s a red flag. Very tricky. (They were) not upfront about everything.”
Jones asks: Why would they send the wrong one at first?
“Kind of obvious,” he said. “Then all of a sudden (USADA calls) them again and the next thing you know — ‘You’re right. Our mistake. Here’s the right one.'”
On Thursday, the chief operating officer of MuscleTech-owner Iovate said: “MuscleTech categorically denies the athlete’s allegation that it manipulated the samples provided to USADA for testing. In its decision, the arbitral panel also did not accept this allegation by the athlete.”
The COO, Kelly Albert, told Times of San Diego that his company was surprised to hear the product was being accused of containing stanozolol.
“Knowing we do not use such substances in our products and have excellent quality processes in place to prevent any contamination by such substances, we quickly volunteered samples for third-party testing through the United States Anti-Doping Agency from our inventory produced from the same lot as the product consumed by the athlete,” Albert said.
“All testing confirmed that none of our samples contained stanozolol.”
Albert called Iovate a strong advocate of fair competition and “condemns any unauthorised use of WADA and NSF Athletic Banned Substances.”
WADA is the World Anti-Doping Agency, which sets antidoping rules and updates a list of banned substances. NSF is a reference to Michigan-based NSF International, which USADA recommends as a third-party authority on dietary supplements. Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League endorse the program.
NSF — which began in 1944 at the National Sanitation Foundation — keeps a database of companies that get its “Certified for Sport” stamp of approval. Achieving the status isn’t easy, since NSF does facility inspections and annual product tests and audits.
Several Iovate products have NSF certification, but not MuscleTech.
In fact, MuscleTech products have been suspected of being tainted in the past, leading to out-of-court settlements.
In 2005, NFL running back Michael Cloud sued MuscleTech, alleging its NitroTech protein powder led him to test positive for the banned steroid nandrolone.
“According to Cloud’s legal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, an independent laboratory analysis of the NitroTech powder he used revealed the undisclosed ingredients norandrostenedione and androstenediol, steroid precursors that would cause the positive test results,” said Consumer Reports in 2012. “A similar complaint was filed by Olympic bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic.”
Both cases were settled out of court.
Consumer Reports quoted a spokeswoman for Iovate as saying, “At no time have banned substances been confirmed to be found in any Nitro-Tech branded product.”
Another possible incident of tainted MuscleTech product led to the suspension of a masters track athlete, who asked not to be identified.
The athlete told Times of San Diego: “In the details of [Jones’] arbitration, it states the company that produced the contaminated supplement was MuscleTech. This was the same company that produced my supplement, called Clear Muscle.”
Jones, who has coached for five years, said he informed his employer a couple of weeks ago.
“Mainly the hard thing to come back from is that I knew my running career was going to be very short anyway, because I’m at the end,” he said. “But I was developing as a good teacher of kids and a coach of kids. I’ve sent quite a few kids to the next level from my guidance. I felt this is going to hurt my reputation over a tainted protein (drink).”
The 6-foot-4 sprinter says he has until July 5 to make an appeal to the international sports court.
“But that appeal would cost at least $30,000, which I don’t have,” he said in a written statement. “At this point, if a law firm would want to pick up the case as a pro-bono case, it would be a light of hope for my family and I.”[contextly_sidebar id=”jhKa9dQWQTtRsGqHZVk9ii0VtVwcOBVA”]He says the ban ends his dream of competing at a professional level.
“While four years does not seem like a lot of years, for sprinters like myself, it is,” he said via email. “I know there are athletes out there that have been running out there well into their 40s, but they have financial support and means to be only athletes.”
For him and his wife, however, “this means working multiple jobs, and with my vision impairment I am limited. The most tragic part of this story is that I am a coach and because of this, my reputation will be tainted with the families that I have influenced with my coaching.”
Jacobs, an athletes rights lawyer who represented Vista masters track star Greg Pizza in a 2016 doping case, says an appeal is probable.
And even though the three panelists in Jones’ case also are CAS arbitrators, “We would [use] three different arbitrators at CAS and it is a de novo appeal,” relying on evidence already produced in the case. He’d argue for a maximum two-year ban.
“If you read the decision, the panel says they were unanimous that he didn’t …. intentionally cheat,” Jacobs said. “That’s important for people to remember. It’s hard to square that with the sanction.”
Updated at 3:55 p.m. June 20, 2019
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