On the spike: The curious case of a contaminated sports supplement

By Shane STARLING contact

- Last updated on GMT

Blame game: Supplements have been fingered once more for a doping infringement but are the facts surrounding the case contaminated?
Blame game: Supplements have been fingered once more for a doping infringement but are the facts surrounding the case contaminated?
‘Don’t take sports supplements, they can’t be trusted’ was the takeaway message from Welsh track stars Rhys Williams and Gareth Warburton after the recent UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) tribunal agreed steroids got into their blood streams via contaminated sports drink powders. But is the sector really to blame?

The athletes blamed manufacturer negligence for the inadvertent contamination, as has the in-question Mountain Fuel brand owner Darren Foote, but whose negligence is really to blame here? Because the facts point not to manufacturer fault, but something much more isolated (and mysterious)…and with that the question must be asked why the sports nutrition industry has not been more vocal in defending its corner? 

The independent UKAD panel handed reduced, back-dated bans of six and four months​ to 31-year-old Warburton and 30-year-old Williams for accidental doping with a Mountain Fuel drink powder tainted with these anabolic steroids: 17β-hydroxyestra-4,9-diene-3-one and 17α-methyl-5 β-androstane-3α,17β-diol.

Try introducing those bad boys into a dinner party conversation about the thin white line between optimal nutrition and performance enhancing drugs. Ermmm, pass the gravy please…

Decision to use Mountain Fuel

Let’s take a second to tap the back-story here…

Williams said he got into Mountain Fuel because, to quote the UKAD report, he became dissatisfied with the Sport Wales nutritionist’s generic approach to supplements; he wanted something specific to his discipline.”

His athletics buddy Jamie Baulch pointed him to Mountain Fuel and its founder Darren Foote.

Warburton’s supplement regime shows he was clearly very interested in what food supplements could bring to his health and performance. He could only be described as a heavy user, as the UKAD report highlights.

Athlete duty of care for nutritional inputs

Under new World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules​ introduced on January 1, if an athlete can demonstrate he has taken the highest duty of care in preventing a controlled substance from entering his body he can be absolved completely.

If Williams and Warburton had insisted on only using supplements from the 250-strong Informed-Sport list, ​and one of them was subsequently found to be contaminated, they almost certainly would have got off.

No Informed-Sport supplement has ever been linked to a doping infraction since its inception in 2008.

They got to know Foote and began taking Mountain Fuel products last year even though the products were not registered with recognised quality assurance scheme, LGC-owned Informed-Sport. High profile folks like Prince Harry (for a hiking expedition to the South Pole) along with other athletes were taking them and there had never been any problems. No AAFs (adverse analytical findings).

No worries.

Foote tells them Cambridge Commodities Ltd (CCL), the third party client that manufactured the Mountain Fuel blends, is registered with Informed-Sport although he may not have made it clear to them that that was a site registration for the CCL facility, and had nothing to do with specific products like the Mountain Fuel Extreme Energy (blackcurrant) drink powder that was found to have caused the AAFs for Williams and Warburton.

Foote explained he did not register individual products with Informed-Sport because the CCL registration was enough, and anyway at €5000+ per product, it was too expensive.

They ask around. Other athletes say no problem, it is safe…

Crossing the line…

This is the crucial moment. Two experienced, supposedly clean athletes looking for a nutritional edge drop their standards and decide to try the drink powders. Williams in January 2014; Warburton in May of the same year. They risk a career of athletic sacrifice and hard work and begin taking Mountain Fuel. A lot of Mountain Fuel.

They take on Foote as a nutritional advisor too - he holds a diploma in sports nutrition after all.

MF-recovery
Mountain Fuel Recovery ingredient list

Yet an analysis of the products shows there is little that is remarkable about them. Typical energy and recovery drink ingredients – vitamins, minerals, proteins and associated amino acid forms, carbs… In the hearing Williams himself described energy drinks as low-risk - “essentially a sugar fix”.

Nothing that special then, certainly not “something specific to his discipline.”

Positive

Initial doping controls revealed no problem although Warburton forgot to mention Mountain Fuel in the accompanying forms that oblige him to list all nutritional supplements he is imbibing. Williams lists it. Warburton told the UKAD independent tribunal he was "rushed, forgot".​ He pays for that ommission with two months added to his ban compared to Williams's.

Then the positive doping controls arrive as the athletes prepared for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games last summer. June 17 for Warburton (out of competition); July 11 for Williams (in competition). Missing the Glasgow Games as a result; the ensuing doubts and suspicion while they waited for the UKAD independent tribunal; Williams was co-captain of the team.

Them sending all their supplements (what else could it be? A steak?) to UKAD for testing and Mountain Fuel Extreme Energy (blackcurrant) coming up positive for nano-traces of the aforementioned anabolic steroids for both. Extreme let down for Foote; extreme relief for the athletes.

The inadvertent source located.

Athletes cleared, supplements attacked

Finally the clearing of their names – of sorts – in recent days. Negligent yes, but not cheaters. Reduced bans delivered.

The athletes are relieved to have been cleared; thank family and friends for support through difficult times; they just want to get back to their training; get on with the latter part of their respective athletic careers.

Williams in a statement: “I carried out all necessary checks within my power before consuming the product, unfortunately in this instance I have been severely let down by a manufacturing company.”

Warburton: “My view is I won’t take any supplements now. If you’re not 100% sure – and there’s no way to be 100% sure – then don’t take them. Me and Rhys are talking about going into schools and clubs and trying to educate people with our experiences.

Dodginess, dodging…

MF-Refuelblack

So because of their failure to meet their responsibilities as elite athletes in safeguarding their bodily inputs, they put all sports and food supplements up on the cross as being potentially dodgy. But where does the dodginess really lie here? Is this really a case of manufacturing malpractice? And if it is not, could the sports nutrition sector be making more of that fact? 

Foote has been accused of ruining athletic careers with his tainted products but is staunchly sticking by Williams and Warburton, proclaiming both their and his own innocence. He has previously and publicly blamed the contamination on the various third party blenders and packers he employs to make his products but admits “we may never really know the source of this.”

He may be right. What we do know is that post-bust, independent LGC testing conducted last October of the offending CCL-made Mountain Fuel Extreme Energy blackcurrant blend (pictured above) revealed it to be contaminant free. Was this data adequately presented and explained to UKAD's independent panel? CCL said they were never contacted.

The firm involved at the packing stage said it is an accredited site and has never been implicated in a contamination case.

Foote says other athletes using the same batch of blackcurrant drink powder have been dope tested and passed. The only Mountain Fuel products to have ever tested positive are the samples sent to UKAD by Williams and Warburton.​ Not a very big sample but one with heavy consequences for sports nutrition.

As it stands, manufacturers are taking the hit when all the available evidence points to an isolated spiking incident - or something else entirely...

Sounds dodgy to me.

Shane Starling is an amateur cyclist in Montpellier, France. He rides with the SudVelo Ne Jetez Plus club which campaigns against littering. No club member has ever returned an AAF.

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