England’s The Sunday Times reports that they have seen a document prepared by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) detailing use of the legal amino acid L-carnitine in “sometimes potentially unlawful” ways by British Olympian Mo Farah and six American members of the Nike Oregon Project—under the direction of coach Alberto Salazar—to boost testosterone and thereby enhance their performance.
In their report, USADA found “substantial and compelling evidence” that Salazar and a Houston-based endocrinologist named Jeffrey Brown “conspired to collude together” to administer large, “egregiously risky” infusions of L-carnitine to Farah and other NOP athletes, without medical need, strictly to boost performance.
USADA did not show this report to The Sunday Times. The report, and other NOP documents, were obtained by Fancy Bears—a hacking group allegedly connected to Russian military intelligence who previously hacked the World Anti-Doping Agency in an effort to prove Russia is being unfairly singled out for doping—and leaked to The Sunday Times.
And while USADA has been conducting an investigation into Salazar’s alleged abuse of prescription drugs and therapeutic use exemptions, an investigation spurred by a 2015 exposé by ProPublica, the report Fancy Bears acquired was a 269-page opus compiled in March 2016 in response to a subpoena from the Texas Medical Licensing Board. Apparently, the Texas Medical Licensing Board is concerned about Dr. Jeffrey Brown, who has been accused of providing thyroid and asthma medication for athletes—particularly NOP members—with questionable medical justification, for years.
Here are part of USADA’s findings revealed by The Sunday Times:
USADA has concluded that in so doing [prescribing unnecessary drugs], Dr. Brown engaged in serial violations of professional, medical and ethical obligations to his patients, putting them at increased risk of injury to their health and wellbeing and in jeopardy of losing their athletic eligibility.
Minutes after The Sunday Times’s story was published, USADA flack Ryan Madden tweeted an official statement:
USADA has some explaining to do. Combating doping is their mission, yet they seem reluctant to do so. Though USADA was handed information about Salazar’s alleged abuse of prescriptions meds and TUEs by ex-NOP coach Steve Magness in 2012, they didn’t start a formal investigation until Pro Publica published their exposé three years later. And though this leaked report shows USADA provided detailed evidence of risky and “sometimes potentially unlawful” behavior that “almost certainly” broke anti-doping rules to the medical licensing board a year ago, they are apparently still investigating, and had no plans to publicly release this information.
L-carnitine is produced naturally by the body, though its production may be reduced by intense training, and may be prescribed as a supplement for heart and muscle disorders. It doesn’t boost the amount of testosterone in the body, but provides more androgen receptors, so the testosterone that is already in the body is more readily used. It isn’t a banned substance, but infusions of more than 50 ml within a six-hour period are prohibited by WADA, presumably because it enhances performance.
USADA’s report includes a Dec. 2011 email from then-NOP coach Steve Magness to Salazar, writing that a treadmill test after an experimental L-carnitine infusion in excess of the 50ml limit had shown an “almost unbelievable” improvement in Magness’s performance. USADA wrote that “Salazar’s excitement . . . went through the roof.”
It also included an email Salazar subsequently wrote to Lance Armstrong—before he was caught doping—that read, “Lance call me asap! We have tested it and it’s amazing.” The Armstrong-launched website Livestrong includes a primer on use and dosages of L-carnitine to boost testosterone. Though the USADA information characterized Salazar’s use of IV drips of L-carnitine on Farah and six other NOP athletes as risky, it’s unclear what those risks are.
Mo Farah, who has won four Olympic gold medals, told The Sunday Times that two years ago he tried an energy drink containing L-carnitine, but saw no benefit from it and discontinued use. Farah did not mention L-carnitine infusions, but the USADA report indicated he had one just before his marathon debut in 2014. It was given by doctors with UK Athletics, under advisement by Salazar. Since the amount and timing of L-carnitine is the defining factor, it’s odd that the USADA report says the amount of Farah’s infusion is not known.
In the article, Farah and the unnamed six American athletes are treated as victims, persuaded to take IV drips of L-carnitine, unaware of the risks and illegality, even though they are professional athletes who typically know the rules intimately and are keenly aware of every drop they put in their bodies.
After The Sunday Times report was published, Farah released a statement on Facebook asserting that he is a clean athlete and claiming that it is “entirely unfair to make assertions when it is clear from [The Sunday Times’s] own statements that I have done nothing wrong.”
For his part, Salazar released a statement asserting that all L-carnitine use was “done so within WADA guidelines,” and that he wrote to USADA and received guidance beforehand to ensure it was done within the rules. He also said “the leaking of information and the litigation of false allegations in the press, is disturbing, desperate and a denial of due process.”
In a comment to the medical licensing board, USADA said their investigation into L-carnitine abuse had been obstructed because Salazar and some of the athletes involved “largely refused to permit USADA to review their medical records,” which showcases one of the many problems with anti-doping efforts.
USADA was able to provide damning evidence to the medical licensing board investigating Dr. Brown, but is absolutely powerless to obtain medical records. They can ask for them, politely, but can’t do anything if refused. That being said, it had enough information to conclude that Dr. Brown had compromised his patients, and that Salazar, Farah, and the other athletes had “very likely” broken anti-doping rules.
The million dollar question, then, is whether they are going to do anything about it.