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Beyond the Baseline

Why Viktor Troicki was suspended for anti-doping violation

Viktor Troicki Viktor Troicki is appealing his 18-month ban for failing to provide a blood test. (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

The ITF released the independent tribunal's decision in the case of Viktor Troicki, who was banned for 18 months for failing to provide a blood test during the Monte Carlo Masters in April.

The 53rd-ranked Troicki, who plans to appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, says the doping control officer, Dr. Elena Gorodilova, excused him from the test because he was feeling ill and assured him that he would not face an anti-doping sanction from the ITF. Dr. Gorodilova disputed Troicki's account, testifying that she made it clear to Troicki that she had no authority to excuse him from the blood test. The tribunal sided with the ITF, finding that Troicki's primary witnesses lacked credibility and that Troicki himself was prone to exaggeration.

The 25-page decision outlines the evidence presented during a hearing on July 19, when the tribunal heard testimony from the 27-year-old Troicki; his coach Jack Reader; Dr. Gorodilova; Miro Bratoev, the ATP Tour manager who spoke to both Troicki and the doctor before and after the requested test. There were also written statements from a number of witnesses, including Troicki's father and Novak Djokovic.

It was undisputed that Troicki felt or looked ill on the day of the test. However, he did not seek any medical attention from the tournament doctor before or after his first-round loss to Jarkko Nieminen, nor did he go to the hospital to get treated afterward. The tribunal found "clear and convincing evidence" that Troicki has suffered from a phobia of needles since childhood, a condition that he inherited from his father. Surprisingly, Troicki had given a blood sample just five times in his seven-year career. This was the first time he requested to skip one. This was also the first time the doping officer had ever had an athlete refuse to provide a sample in her 15 years in anti-doping. From the tribunal:

Dr. Gorodilova was clear in her evidence to us: her response was that this was not a matter upon which she could advise the player. Whether or not Mr. Troicki’s reason for not giving a sample would be regarded as valid by the ITF was not her decision; the ITF would decide this. It was in this context, she told us, that she suggested that Mr. Troicki write to the ITF explaining his reasons for not giving blood. He had made a decision that he would not provide a sample; he needed to explain to the ITF why that was so.

...

Mr Troicki denies that this was Dr Gorodilova’s response to his question. On the contrary, he was adamant in his evidence to us that Dr. Gorodilova had assured him “100%” on four or even five occasions that if he set out his reasons in a letter to the ITF, all would be well. This was in the context of his having stated to the [doping control officer] that he did not want to suffer any sanctions as a result of not giving blood. Dr. Gorodilova denies that she gave Mr Troicki any such assurance.

To win his case, Troicki needed to prove that the doctor gave him "an unequivocal assurance, without any qualification, that would have led any reasonable person to understand that he did not have to give a test and that he would not face any sanctions for doing so," according to the tribunal. The ITF conceded that this would constitute a "compelling justification" to skip the test. With that in mind, the case turned on what exactly Dr. Gorodilova told Troicki when he asked to skip the blood test and whether, based on what she said, it was reasonable for Troicki to believe he was in the clear.

Considering the evidence cited by the tribunal in the light most favorable to Troicki, it seems he was aware that there was a risk, even if it was a small one, that he could be sanctioned for skipping the test. That's not unequivocal assurance. Troicki knew the doping officer did not have the authority to excuse him from the blood test. If he genuinely thought so, he would not have tried to call the ITF's head of anti-doping, Dr. Stuart Miller, repeatedly on the phone. It is also clear that the ATP Tour manager, Bratoev, expressed concerns about him skipping his test. He told Troicki that once selected for testing he had to submit a sample and when Troicki returned from doping control and told him the doctor excused him, Bratoev expressed his surprise.

The tribunal decided that Troicki, in good faith, heard what he wanted to hear but it wasn't reasonable for him to conclude that he was 100 percent excused from the test. His illness and his fear of needles heightened his level of emotional stress, and given the fact that he already didn't want to give the blood, he interpreted everything the doping officer told him as an unequivocal assurance, even if it was, in fact, not.

Mr Troicki is a confident and determined man, who was very keen to impress upon the Tribunal his conviction that he had not done anything wrong. We are content to accept that by and large he had genuine belief in the accuracy of his account to us of the relevant events. However, that does not mean that this account was in fact accurate. It is very frequently the case that witnesses have persuaded  themselves of the truth of what they purport to recall, despite the fact that the truth in reality lies elsewhere.

With his mind made up that he did not want to give the blood test, his assurances to the ATP Tour manager that the doctor excused him was an exaggeration, according to the tribunal.

That context was that the player was feeling ill and dizzy, he was panicked by the thought of giving blood because of his fear of needles and because of the likely adverse physical consequences for him, were the test to go ahead (in particular because he was already feeling unwell). At the same time, he was also well aware of the relevant AntiDoping Rules and needing to ensure that he did not incur any sanction as a result of not giving the required sample. In that highly stressful situation for him, and with his mental faculties impaired by his physical condition, Mr Troicki heard what he felt he needed to hear from Dr Gorodoliva [sic] and blanked out anything else.

Aside from the testimony provided by Troicki and the doctor, the tribunal gave Bratoev's testimony a lot of weight. He testified that when he notified Troicki that he had been selected for blood testing, Troicki told him he was feeling ill and didn't want to take the blood test. Bratoev told him he still had to provide a sample. When Troicki came back from seeing the doping officer and told him that she said it was fine if he skipped the test, Bratoev was surprised and communicated that to Troicki. After following up with the doctor, the tour manager knew there was a potential problem.

One can speculate as to why Mr Troicki exaggerated the position to Mr Bratoev as he did; Mr Troicki came across to us as someone prone to exaggeration in order to make his point, but it may have been that he expressed himself in a way designed to avoid the possibility of Mr Bratoev telling him to go back to take the test.

The tribunal found Dr. Gorodilova far more credible than anyone testifying for Troicki. Because of that, it gave her the benefit of the doubt that she followed the ITF's procedure as outlined in the handbook on how to handle situations where a player refuses to provide a sample, despite the fact this was her first time handling such an incident. That said, the paper trail also lent weight to her credibility. She emailed her boss that day telling him that Troicki refused to provide a blood sample and that she told Troicki to write a letter explaining his reasons why. In a report she submitted the next day, she elaborated:

“I explained [to Mr Troicki] refusal to undergo the test may lead to sanctions. He said he was not refusing to provide the sample, but he couldn’t as he was feeling exceptionally weak and unwell. He said he’s undergone blood tests in the past and he’s never asked to cancel it. He said that he will give blood in the future, but today it is an exception due to his health.”

Importantly, the tribunal gave no weight to the testimony of Troicki's coach's, Reader. He was the only other person in the room when Troicki met with Dr. Gorodoliva, though he admitted he wasn't there for their entire meeting. The tribunal found that he gave conflicting testimony and was unfamiliar with the anti-doping rules despite being a coach for 15 years.

"We consider that Mr Reader, without having given any proper thought to the matter, was prepared to say whatever he felt would be likely to assist his player in avoiding a sanction for an Anti-Doping Rule Violation."
The decision to ignore Reader's testimony was a definitive blow to Troicki's case, given that Reader was with Troicki and the doping officer when Troicki was writing his letter to the ITF and that Reader said it was the doctor who dictated what Troicki should write.
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