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Steve Guerdat wants rule review - “This could happen to anybody at any time”

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Steve Guerdat with Nino des Buissonnets. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
Steve Guerdat calls for a change in the rules - here seen with Nino des Buissonnets. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

Monday 20th of July 2015 is a day Steve Guerdat will find hard to forget, but for all the wrong reasons. This was the day the FEI informed the Swiss Federation about the provisional suspension of their Olympic Champion. That afternoon, Guerdat got a call from his federation - who told their star rider about the situation. A little over 24 hours later it was public: Guerdat as well as his horses Nino des Buissonnets and Nasa were under provisional suspension due to the two horses testing positive for the banned substances codeine and oripavine, and the controlled medication substance morphine.

Already in their first communication to the press, the FEI opened for potential food contamination as the reason behind the positive tests. Rightly enough, three months later Guerdat has been cleared. The positives were caused by poppy seed contamination. Steve had managed to demonstrate no fault or negligence and also established how the banned substances entered the horses’ systems.

"It’s been a tough time,” Guerdat says as we meet him to talk about his case. “I was affected sport-wise of course - I missed out on a lot of good shows with two of my best horses (Nasa and Nino des Buissonnets), I missed out on the European Championships in Aachen and I missed out on the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona and I will probably loose my place in the Top 10 Final in December as I missed out on prize money and ranking points. This is hard of course, but there were consequences far worse. Because in the end this is “just” sport - and as a rider there are always ups and downs which you have to accept for one reason or another.”

One far more harsh consequence is that Guerdat has used his entire fund of savings, build up over the past ten years, to prove his innocence.”This whole case has cost me an unbelievable amount of time and money - I don’t want to go into the numbers. But what I have saved up during my career is gone,” Steve says. 

Guerdat is quick to point out how lucky he was to actually have the resources, support and connections to in the end be able to clear his name though. "Luckily, yes - think about those who would not be able to. Then you would have no chance to prove your innocence, like I did. We have already seen this in other cases as of recently and this should not happen."

Although proven innocent, Steve still has to live with the damage that has been done. "My name and reputation will never be the same as before, even though my innocence is proven and accepted. There will always be people who will take advantage of this and use the story of what happened against me,” he says. 

The most difficult part for Guerdat though, was seeing those close to him suffering. “It affected all those around me as well; my family, my friends, my team and owners. For me it felt like they suffered so hard for something that involved me, I felt so bad for them. Still, they gave me all their support - and this gave me the strength to fight."

Being accused of a breach of the rules, Guerdat - like other athletes - was asked to prove his innocence. A principle so opposite to the presumption of innocence - which is a corner stone in most developed legal systems and modern democracies. 

The FEI rules set it out differently; to be cleared of wrong doing, the criteria for the application of Article 10.4 of the Equine Anti-Doping Rules (EAD Rules) have to be met. That involves; (i) the PR has to establish how the banned substances came to enter the horses’ systems, (ii) the PR has to demonstrate that he bore no fault or negligence and (iii) the circumstances of the case have to be exceptional and, therefore, the otherwise applicable period of ineligibility (i.e. two years) should be eliminated and that no other sanctions (other than the disqualification of the horses results at the event in accordance with Article 9 and Article 10.1.4 and of the EAD Rules) should apply.

“It has been days and nights of work,” Steve says about the process of proving his own innocence. “Driving around Switzerland and France, taking samples, getting samples analysed - we studied everything at home, everything around the food production of the feed we use, everything around the show ground in the region of La Baule. I never really believed that the answer would be found in my food in the end, because I used it for such a long time. So we went on to check all the possibilities. It was a huge amount of tests to take.”

In the end an extensive series of tests carried out on all the ingredients used to produce the food Guerdat feeds his horses, gave the answer and it was possible to determine which ingredient was responsible for the contamination. The results of the tests showed that oats, originating from France, were the source of the poppy seeds - and in such the contamination. Such oats had been added whole to the processed feed and, and through that process, the poppy seeds (hidden in the oat hulls) came to be added to the processed feed eaten by Nasa and Nino des Buissonnets.

Although he has been found innocent, Guerdat is by far finished with this case. Now he wants to work for a change in the rules. "I think the only way from here would be to do something about the regulations. At least that is the only way to remove the fear I now feel. Because I am scared now. And everybody should feel the same, because this could happen to anybody at any time.”

Guerdat is of the opinion that a tolerance level must be introduced to the rules. “Threshold values already exists for humans, and why should it be different for the horses? At least I believe it is easier for an athlete to control his or hers own intake, more than on a horse. And I think it is important that horses can be horses; I want my horses to go in the field, to be free to eat natural hay and food. Then there will always be a risk. So we need thresholds for substances that can be found in the nature without labelling it as doping."

Illustrating the need to discuss this issue, Steve explains; "There were at least nine digits after the zero involved in the results on the tests from my horses. Experts say that it would take at least a thousand times more to have any kind of effect - positive or negative - at all."

When it comes to the actual procedure laid out by the FEI, Guerdat thinks there is a huge room for improvement. "I think it would have been sensible to have a group of experts that look at the facts, before a case - like mine - is made into a huge thing by the FEI. They knew from the start that it was very likely to be food contamination, it was mentioned in the first press release they send out. So, why then make all this like a cinema. Have a group of experts review the case, before making accusations and suspensions,” he says continuing “I understand and agree that we must punish those who are guilty, but not before you have had a chance to explain yourself and put up a defence. For the FEI to go out with press releases before the athlete is even heard about the facts I find unnecessary. So much damage can be caused by this.”

“Doping needs to fought, there is no doubt about it,” Steve says. "That being said; the zero tolerance the FEI operates with when it comes to doping is based on the welfare of the horse, and if we speak about that - the welfare of the horse - there are a lot of other issues to focus on in my opinion. Surfaces at the shows, course design, stable security and amateurs riding at five star shows when they should be on one star level - those are some of them. So - I believe, if we are talking about the welfare of the horse the FEI should have a lot more on their agenda.” 


Text by Jannicke Naustdal - copyright © 2015.

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