Mariano Puerta – eight years to life

Argentine Mariano Puerta has been banned for eight years by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for a positive drug test taken after the finals of the 2005 French Open final, which he lost to Rafael Nadal. Puerta tested positive for etilefrine (also know as effortil – an appropriate name for a performance enhancing drug), a cardiac stimulant his wife takes for hypertension.

Puerta took the line of defense that he inadvertently drank from a glass of water that his wife had used to take the stimulant. Etilefrine is available over the counter in Argentina and can be taken by putting drops into water. The independent tribunal didn’t believe Puerta’s explanation because he first said that the B sample would prove him innocent then gave the ‘water glass’ explanation only after the B sample tested positive, the ITF report suggests, because he knew that a positive test could result in a lifetime ban from tennis. Puerta knew by August that etilefrine was the substance in question but he didn’t present the “water glass” explanation until November and when he did, the details of events in June were so clear as to be suspicious.

Puerta was banned for nine months in 2003 for using clenbuterol, an asthma medication. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) uses World Antidoping Agency guidelines, the same as those used in the Olympics. A second doping offense can result in a lifetime ban.

Why did it take so long to render a decision? Puerta was tested in June, the final report was released in December.

The ITF is not accusing Puerta of deliberately taking the stimulant: “We accept the player’s evidence that he did not deliberately dope himself. We accept on the balance of probabilities that the player’s contamination with effortil was inadvertent,” but they rejected a plea of “no fault or negligence” and accepted a plea of “no significant fault or negligence.”

The message is that a player is responsible for banned substances turning up in their body no matter how they got there.

There are two good questions to ask here:

1. Why did it take so long to render a decision? Puerta was tested in June, the final report was released in December. Puerta has three weeks to appeal the decision but if it stands, he will lose the $330,925 he made in tournament play from June through December. Puerta knew he had tested positive, he had the choice to sit out the last six months of the year but why would he do that? It’s an admission of guilt and an act of submission. Puerta played in the Masters Cup tournament in Shanghai, the ATP year-end championship. That should never have happened if he tested positive in the middle of the season.

2. Has the drug testing system become so complex that a player can be penalized with what is essentially a lifetime ban for inadvertently taking a substance whose amount “was too small to have any effect on his performance?” Granted, Puerta may have taken a larger dose and the small amount may have been all that was left at the time of the test but you can’t penalize someone for something you don’t see. In dismissing the ‘water glass’ theory, the report finds it more likely that someone contaminated Puerta without his knowledge so that Puerta could proclaim innocence, a member of his entourage for instance, or Puerta and his wife could have “carelessly shared a glass in their hotel.”

If your career comes down being paranoid about carelessly sharing a glass with your wife, the drug policy needs to be modified.

If Puerta used a stimulant to get through two straight five set matches to make it to the finals of the French Open, he deserves to be punished, in a timely manner. But the report has accepted that he took the drug inadvertently and the tested amount did not affect his performance.

In a U.S. court of law, you have to knowingly take an action to be considered guilty. Surely a livelihood cannot be taken away on a standard lower than that.