Olympic athletes can be subject to stiff punishment and harsh criticism when their prescription medication is classified as a banned substance. Pro snowboarder Chad Otterstrom found himself in the media spotlight after testing positive for methylphenidate (the chemical name for Ritalin), a drug he says is prescribed to him to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It seems this prescription has cost him a shot at the Olympics not just once-in 2002-but a second time, leading up to the upcoming 2006 Winter Games.
Otterstrom tested positive for methylphenidate after his halfpipe win at the 2003 Chevy S-10 U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix in Breckenridge, Colorado. The positive test was Otterstrom’s second violation in three years. Ironically, his first failed test occurred at the same event in 2000.
Because of the second positive test, Otterstrom was notified that he had been banned for life from all U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) and Federation International du Ski (FIS)events. But as of last Wednesday, Otterstrom’s suspension had been reduced to two years. The circumstances of Otterstrom’s particular case are interesting not only because they involve medically supervised use of a stimulant drug, but because the ruling affects all ADD-afflicted athletes who choose to take Ritalin.
The change from a lifetime ban to a two-year suspension comes after an elongated appeals process. “I proved it (was a prescription) the first time, so the second time (I tested positive) I thought I was all good,” Otterstrom says in an exclusive interview with TransWorld SNOWboarding. But, as he quickly found out, things were not “all good” and he was in fact facing a lifetime suspension.
USSA’s Vice President/Member Service and Public Relations Tom Kelly explains that the confusion between Otterstrom’s original lifetime suspension and reduced sentence could stem from changes in the testing process since the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) was created in October of 2000. The independent anti-doping organization handles the testing, education, research, and adjudication for all Olympic sports in the U.S. Prior to its creation, each sport handled its own testing.
Otterstrom’s first positive result came during a USSA-conducted test after the January 2000 Grand Prix in Breckenridge (this year’s positive was a USADA test). At the time of Otterstrom’s first positive, the USSA not only handled the testing, but the adjudication of the results themselves. “When Chad first tested positive in 2000 and came forward immediately with his prescription, we looked at his case and wanted it to be on record, but because of the circumstances we issued a sanction with a zero-day penalty,” says Kelly. Meaning, while the positive drug test would appear on Otterstrom’s athletic record, he would not be suspended from competition.
“(The USSA) gave me no suspension at the time (of the first positive test in 2000) when I proved it was prescription,” says Otterstrom. “But when the year of the Olympics came up, the FIS sent me a letter saying I was suspended for the three months of the qualifiers … it made no sense at all.”
According to Kelly, at the time all USSA actions were reviewed by the FIS, which determined Otterstrom would receive a 90-day suspension from competition. This fell right when the 2002 Olympic qualifiers were taking place-thus preventing Otterstrom from attempting a run at the Gold. “When it looked like the FIS was going to order a stiffer sanction, we really went to the mat with the them on this one. We did get it to cap at 90 days, but we really wanted them to stick with the zero-day suspension that we had levied,” says Kelly.
“As an organization, we really want to protect the athletes rights, but we have to face it that methylphenidate is class A stimulant and a prohibited substance. It doesn’t matter if you have a prescription or not,” he continuees. “It was the determination of the FIS medical committee that there were alternative forms of treatment for the medical conditions that Ritalin is prescribed.”
While the adjudification process for prescription drugs may have had some gray areas from organization to organization in the past, USADA protocol is black and white. The USADA not only provides athletes with wallet-size list of prohibited substances that specifies not only the urine concentration levels that would cause a positive test, but also what drugs are classified as restricted (allowable by prescription). Timelines and outlines of both the notification and appeals process are also available for all participating athletes.
This discrepancy between the testing policies in place in January 2000 and January 2003 may have helped Otterstrom gain some leeway in his appeals process. However, while he was able to overturn his lifetime suspension in exchange for a two-year ban, as the testing policies become streamlined under the USADA, the margin of error will become all but erased. “If you are a snowboarder, there are lots of ways you can practice your craft and we respect that,” says Kelly. “If you are going to participate in the Olympic pipeline-which a lot of athletes are going to do-this is a professional athletic activity. You have to be conscious of the rules and you have to respect them, because if you don’t it’s going to come back to you.”
Over the past several years its been mentioned by some sources that athletes are reminded by the USSA that testing will occur at certain events. Although they’d never admit publicly why, more than a few big-name contestants have been noticeably absent at these particular events. But, for athletes like Otterstrom things aren’t so simple. Attention Deficit Disorder affects an estimated six to eight percent of the general population, according to the national Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). The most commonly prescribed treatment for the condition is a combination of counseling, support, and medications like Ritalin. It seems that athletes who wish to pursue Olympic careers will have to forgo drug treatment if they hope to avoid the struggle that Otterstrom has endured.
“To me, the ban doesn’t mean that much as far as my snowboard career goes-it still sucks though. The bad side of the media came out on this story, and it seemed like they were excited to try to call a snowboarder a crackhead,” he says. “It’s not fun to admit to the whole snowboard industry that I have ADD. It’s nobody’s business but my own.”