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The confusing case of Tom Danielson

It’s been nearly 100 days since Tom Danielson left the Tour of Utah after announcing on Twitter that he had tested positive for synthetic testosterone. Since then, there has been no update on his standing in the sport.

Not even Danielson’s team manager, Jonathan Vaughters, seems to know what’s going on.

“The amount of official information that I have is very small,” Vaughters said. “I was never officially informed by USADA that he tested positive. I haven’t been informed by the UCI, either. I have no idea where the B sample is or isn’t. Not a clue. I don’t know if Tom is taking the case to arbitration. From an official standpoint, the only thing I know is that on August 3, Tom Danielson tweeted that he had tested positive for synthetic testosterone. When I called [USADA general counsel] Bill Bock, he confirmed that there had been an adverse A.”

Generally, B sample analysis occurs within two weeks after an athlete has been notified of an adverse A sample. And on November 6, United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) spokesperson Annie Skinner confirmed that Danielson’s B sample had been tested and that it had confirmed the results of the A test.

So why don’t we know where things stand?

When a B sample confirms the findings of the A sample, the next step is for the evidence to be presented to USADA’s anti-doping review board, which determines if the organization should charge the athlete with a violation. The athlete has the opportunity to provide information in his or her defense before the board makes its recommendation.

There’s no set timeline for all of that, according to Skinner, who said “the length of the process is dependent on the individual circumstances in each case.”

Danielson’s decision to announce the A results on Twitter, rather than wait for an announcement through official channels, make his an unusual one, as does his statement that the finding had been for synthetic testosterone. That is a very specific result that USADA is not willing to claim, even now. Skinner would say only that, since Danielson had already spoken publicly about the case, she could confirm that he had returned an adverse finding for “an anabolic agent,” a broad term that is much more open to interpretation than “synthetic testosterone.”

The UCI’s list of license holders currently serving provisional suspensions was last updated on October 30, and though USADA confirmed that Danielson signed a provisional suspension agreement in August, his name wasn’t on the list.

Danielson said he can’t help clear up the confusion.

“I will give the whole story when I have the whole story,” he said. “For now, these are the facts: I did not take any anabolic agent or doping substance. I am not interested in anything but the truth. I’m not interested in PR, or a defense, or anything but the facts.”

What We Know

There are plenty of other facts, of course. The ones in Danielson’s favor include the fact that he has not missed an out-of-competition test or had a whereabouts violation in over seven years.

There’s also the fact that Danielson’s A sample was flagged for a 4.1:1 ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone. When synthetic testosterone is introduced into the body, testosterone becomes elevated while epitestosterone does not, skewing the ratio. A T-E ratio of 4:1 or higher is considered abnormal and triggers a more advanced carbon isotope ratio test (CIR), which, in this instance, detected a banned substance.

But Dr. Don Catlin, inventor of the CIR and an early pioneer of drug testing in sport, has said that USADA’s testing protocol doesn’t distinguish between synthetic testosterone, which is a clear performance enhancer, and DHEA, a testosterone precursor found in many supplements that Catlin says has little to no benefit. DHEA is a banned substance regardless. But if that’s what Danielson tested positive for, it could open the door to a tainted-supplement defense.

Still, Danielson served a six-month ban from September 1, 2012, to March 1, 2013, after admitting to blood doping while with the Discovery Channel team. So it’s hard to imagine an arbitration panel showing any leniency for a second offense, even if — as one wild rumor has it — the FBI is investigating the possibility that Danielson was sabotaged by someone who slipped DHEA into his food or drink. (Deborah Sherman, Public Affairs Specialist at the FBI’s Denver Field Office, said the FBI does not confirm active or inactive investigations, with the exception of a visible active crime scene or operational activity.)

Though it sounds far-fetched, sabotage wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 1993, after Russian hurdler Ludmila Narozjilenko tested positive for steroids, she claimed her ex-husband spiked her medicine. The International Amateur Athletic Federation overturned her four-year ban after her ex admitted to the tampering.

Something that won’t help Danielson’s case, certainly not in the court of public opinion, is his admission that Levi Leipheimer has been coaching him since April. Leipheimer, of course, admitted in 2012 to having doped throughout his career. And he said he realizes how their working arrangement might look to outside observers.

“It’s understandable that people would doubt him,” Leipheimer said. “I’m sure there will be people who will question me coaching him. When we were teammates on Discovery Channel, he often asked me for advice. And more recently, he wanted me to coach him. It’s something I enjoy doing. I feel confident I know what I’m doing, and I wanted to help him to succeed. But there’s no way I would tell him, or anyone, to take drugs. Not after what we’ve been through.”

Danielson struck a similar tone. “I hate doping,” he said. “I got fucked up from it, left it, and would never go near it again. It makes me sick that people call me a cheater. I’ve had people tell me I should kill myself, that I am a cheater, a doper, a criminal — you name it. I’ve been spit on on rides. I had my car keyed … But I am out there, still training hard, still waving at people. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I’m not going to change who I am.”

Ultimately, it may not matter exactly which substance was in Danielson’s system, nor the amount, nor how it got there. Even if he were able to prove it was a tainted supplement or something more nefarious, every athlete is responsible for everything they put into their body. And with a second offense, he would have a hard time getting the benefit of the doubt.

Already, Danielson is without a team for 2016. “The last time I spoke with Tom was when I informed him, directly, that we wouldn’t be renewing his contract,” Vaughters said. “That was about three weeks ago.” Vaughters says he informed Danielson’s agent back in July — before the positive A sample — that he wouldn’t be pursuing a contract for 2016.

So one thing, at least, seems clear: At 37 years old, with a second offense against him and no contract for 2016, Danielson will likely never again race at the sport’s highest level, if at all.