On 16 June 2022, an Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel (ADDP), headed by Vineet Dhanda, ordered a three-month suspension of athlete M. R. Poovamma for an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) committed in an Indian Grand Prix meet in Patiala on 18 February 2021. The suspension took effect from the decision date.
The National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) took 17 months to wrap up a case that should have been completed in a couple of months at the most.
The substance was Methylhexaneamine (MHA), a stimulant, made famous by a batch of 12 sportspersons in 2010. One of them was that of weightlifter Sanamacha Chanu, an Olympian, who did not prolong the suspense over the verdict. The panel disposed it of quickly, imposing an eight-year suspension on the Manipuri lifter. It was her second offence. The rest of the cases were wound up after an appeal process in a little over four years!
Do MHA cases tend to stretch beyond a reasonable limit in reaching a resolution? The latest instance of Poovamma is yet another example of such cases being dragged on for no specific reason.
Looking at the course that it took through 17 months, the Poovamma case is a classic example of delays allowed to accrue rather than all parties doing their best to speed up and still failing to avoid delays. After the charge was issued on May 3 2021, the first hearing was held only on 10 January 2022, after a gap of eight months!
Poovamma, in the meantime, did little to speed up the proceedings for her sake, it seemed. She sought “direction” from the panel to test a supplement she was taking (probably at an accredited laboratory) on 25 April 2022.
Permission was denied on the ground that she had not mentioned the supplement in question on her doping control form.
Now, here comes the twist. Having denied permission, the panel went ahead and accepted the finding of a private lab in Noida and duly reduced her suspension to three months. NADA has now appealed the decision of the disciplinary panel to the Anti-Doping Appeal Panel (NADAP). This could result in a further delay before a final verdict is made known. After that, if either the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) or the World Athletics (WA) or both are not in agreement with the decision, they can appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), Lausanne.
MHA is a stimulant that comes under “specified substances” that can carry a suspension of up to two years. One has to prove “no significant fault or negligence” to get a reduced sanction. That route would only be accepted if the athlete establishes how the banned substance entered his/her body.
Poovamma submitted that she had consumed an ayurvedic product named Bedtime Latte. According to the company that produces this preparation, its ingredients were Ashwagandha, nutmeg, turmeric and cardamom. Perhaps there is nothing to suspect in any of the ingredients, routine substances that are found in many ayurvedic combinations.
The athlete, a multiple medal winner in the 400m and 4x400m relay in the Asian Games and Asian championships, submitted that she had been tested over 100 times in her career and had an unblemished record. She had consumed Bedtime Latte as an immunity booster and she was unaware that it had to be entered in the doping control form since she did not consider it as a supplement.
The panel wrote in its order: “The Panel is satisfied that the Athlete has established how the substance enter (sic) her body. She has provided an invoice in respect of the purchase of supplements called Bedtime Latte in (sic) January 7, 2021, although she has produced (sic) the test result to Shree Ram Testing Laboratory Pvt Ltd at Noida of the supplements contained (sic) Beta Myrcene in Bedtime Latte which is a metabolite associated with the Geranium plant, often cited as a source of MHA.”
The only connection with MHA of either the supplement or its contents or its metabolite, as claimed by the panel is “Beta Myrcene in Bedtime Latte is a metabolite associated with Geranium Plant, often cited as a source of MHA”. From the above, it is clear the panel is unsure whether MHA is found in geranium. It has been stated that geranium is “often cited as a source of MHA”!
The crux of the matter is after an initial surge in the use of MHA which WADA brought into the Prohibited List in 2010, and claims by manufacturers that it was from a natural substance and it was mainly found in the geranium plant, oils, root extracts etc, several studies had proved that geranium did not contain MHA and the claim was only a marketing gimmick by companies to sell their products as natural or herbal supplements.
In the case of the supplement in Poovamma’s case, there never was any claim that it contained geranium. How the panel, especially its doctor member, arrived at the conclusion that Beta Myrcene is a metabolite “associated with geranium plant”, which in turn was cited as a “source of MHA” is inexplicable.
A study in 2011 stated that geranium oil did not contain MHA and the latter can only arise in products labelled as geranium oil from the addition of synthetic material.
Studies of methylhexaneamine in supplements and geranium oil - PubMed (nih.gov)
Another study in 2012 concluded that no measurable levels of 1,3-Dimethylamylamine (DMAA), a similar substance as MHA, were found in geranium or pelargonium (a similar species as geranium) or essential oils.
DMAA not in geranium, says yet another study (nutraingredients-usa.com)
In a landmark ruling in 2013, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), on an appeal by WADA, set aside a decision of the Indian appeal panel in the Nirupama Devi case involving MHA and imposed a two-year sanction on the Indian judoka. The disciplinary panel had ordered only a “reprimand” of the judoka who argued that beauty aid products she used had contained geranium and that caused the MHA positive. The appeal panel concurred with the ADDP.
The CAS decision also took note of the company’s report to WADA that their products did contain geranium but did not contain MHA.
The CAS panel also disqualified all the results achieved by Nirupama though it should have been done by the Indian panels.
In the case of Poovamma also the ADDP did not disqualify any of her results during the time she waited for the panel to rule in her case. She competed in more than half a dozen meets in 2021 and 2022 after the incident.
The Nirupama case was pending at CAS when an Indian appeal panel reduced the sanction on swimmer Jyotsna Pansare on the geranium argument.
The debate on banned substance continues
Nowadays, there is less debate on geranium and MHA since not many cases come up of MHA and panels are well aware of the geranium background. From a high of 320 MHA cases in 2012, the figure came down to 68 in 2019 (MHA, DMAA etc) as per WADA statistics. How the NADA lawyer and the panel in the latest case missed the whole history of MHA will remain debatable.