Even though Sheahan had initially claimed that his positive test was due to an “administrative cock-up,” a tribunal set up by European Rugby Cup (clearly thought otherwise when it handed down the two-year suspension. Sheahan said he had failed to fill in a doping form correctly, forgetting to tick the box that registered him as an asthmatic. Medical treatments for asthma, such as Ventolin inhalers, contain the drug Salbutamol.
However, the case soon moved from one that turned on an error in a form, to one which focused on the levels of Salbutamol in Sheahan’s urine sample. Following ERC’s decision to ban the player, it emerged that the level of Salbutamol was 1,644 nanograms per mililiter.
According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, a level of Salbutamol in excess of 1,000 nanograms is regarded as a “positive test for anabolic steroids.” In other words, the athlete in question, despite suffering from asthma, is regarded to have used Salbutamol as a performance-enhancing drug and not just for a medical condition.
There is no doubt that Sheahan used his Ventolin inhaler on the day of the Toulouse game, but his representatives have condemned the ERC decision, saying that the verdict was “confusing, inconsistent and patently flawed.” The player’s lawyers are insisting that some evidence was effectively ignored, with the key element the fact that the ERC tribunal accepted that Sheahan had taken Salbutamol by way of an inhaler.
It has been widely believed among anti-doping agencies such as WADA that athletes have taken Salbutamol in tablet form or by injection to enhance their performances, rather than by means of an inhaler to alleviate a medical condition. However, in Sheahan’s case a sample of his urine from the Toulouse test was sent to a laboratory in Barcelona, Spain, where it was revealed that the Salbutamol had been inhaled and not taken in tablet form or injected.
This fact, according to Sheahan’s representatives, proved the player’s innocence because when the substance is inhaled the levels are not relevant.
But the ERC tribunal said the sample that was sent to Barcelona had been “compromised” — presumably damaged in transit from France — and therefore the result could not be regarded as evidence. Sheahan’s team responded that they were astounded that this evidence was not taken into question.
The player’s defense is that he was dehydrated following the Toulouse game, and in distress, and used his Ventolin inhaler. The ERC has clearly concluded that because Sheahan’s levels were so high, he cheated to gain an advantage.
The appeal could be heard within the week.