Pro Triathletes React to Starykowicz Ban

It's a slow news week in triathlon leading up to the final event of the year at Challenge Daytona, but there's one athlete on that starting list who definitely won't be competing – because he can't.

Andrew Starykowicz (most famously known for setting the fastest bike split in an IRONMAN event) has been slapped with a two-year suspension from competition after testing positive for vilanterol, a steroid used for treatment of various lung ailments but which is banned in professional sport without the appropriate therapeutic use exemption (TUE).

According to IRONMAN’s press release, Starykowicz received the ban for competing without a TUE despite having been warned he would be in violation of anti-doping regulations.

Starykowicz pulled out of competing in the Ironman World Championship last year due to illness, later diagnosed as viral pneumonitis and mucopurulent bronchitis. His doctor prescribed a course of treatment: methylprednisolone (Medrol) orally for five days, and vilanterol through a Breo inhaler for 28 days.

While he completed his course of treatment, he applied with the US Anti-Doping Agency for TUE’s for both. However, only one was granted for Medrol, and retroactively at that; he had already competed at Ironman 70.3 Waco and Ironman Florida when the Medrol TUE was approved, while his TUE for vilanterol was denied.

Due to his post-race test coming back positive for vilanterol, IRONMAN provisionally suspended Starykowicz from competition beginning December 5, 2019 and ordered vacating his wins and repayment of prize money won. (The ban would have extended until December 2022, but since the World Anti Doping Agency have allowed medicinal use of vilanterol from 2021, IRONMAN has shortened the ban to end on January 1, 2021.)

Starykowicz appealed to USADA and WADA to reconsider granting the vilanterol TUE and also elevated the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Unfortunately, CAS in August supported USADA’s denial of the TUE. As a final effort, he requested third-party arbitration -- which ultimately upheld IRONMAN’s decision and sanctions.

“The Athlete’s false sense of confidence was based on a negligent misreading of one sentence in a WADA document and his failure to read the second sentence and turn the page to see a full description of permitted therapeutic alternatives. His wife reached the same erroneous conclusion with respect to a permitted alternative, Advair, when she failed to scroll down two more lines on her phone to see that Advair was permitted in a therapeutic dose. The failure of this professional athlete to read the relevant materials cannot be excused as insignificant.”

Interestingly enough, as noted by Triathlon Magazine Canada, Starykowicz had been on record at Breakfast with Bob in Kona 2019 saying he considered TUE’s “doping.” He also proposed lifetime bans for doping.

“If you have anemia and you’re training so hard and you’re so overtrained that you need a red blood cell booster to keep training hard, that’s a problem. If you have asthma that is so bad that you have to use a steroid inhaler just to breathe, you shouldn’t be racing. We need to do away with the therapeutic use exemption…”

Starykowicz has 21 days to appeal to CAS for a second time.

Reactions to this news have been mixed, as he argues the TUE system is flawed and had USADA gotten back to him before he competed, he could have swapped medication out.

Beth McKenzie tweeted her sympathy. "The process is incredibly broken and I’m so sorry you had to find it out this way. Ironman wants to show their anti-doping program is ‘working’ by ‘catching’ people who never intended to cheat. It’s so sad for the sport for so many reasons.”

You might recall McKenzie also received a two-year suspension for having banned substance Ostarine in her urine test, which she claimed -- but could not prove -- was caused by contaminated salt tablets. She retired while serving the ban, but has since un-retired and is back competing.

However, much of the sentiment and argument are weighted against Starykowicz. As TJ Tollakson pointed out, “He should not have taken the medication. He definitely should not have raced on the medication. He is very intelligent. This was poor judgment.”

Jan van Berkel offered a legal and ethical perspective, saying, “As a seasoned and, when it comes to fairness in competition, very vocal athlete [Starykowicz] should act with even more sensibility when taking medication. In any case of uncertainty, he should not be racing. Intent doesn't matter in anti-doping. Is he actively trying to dope? Most probably not, but the violation stands as such. Intent only matters when it comes to the penalty. This has been applied correctly by the arbitrator... The substance being taken off the banned list a year after the violation doesn't matter. In the moment of medication consumption, it was banned.”

In professional sport, as in other jobs, one needs to CYA: Cover Your Ass.