Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) for asthma medication has been in focus after the Russian hacking team, Fancy Bears, released medical files of top international athletes. Among those with TUEs for asthma were decorated British cyclists Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Questioning the high number of therapeutic exemptions given by WADA, Fancy Bears said “WADA and IOC’s Medical and Scientific Department are corrupt and deceitful”. There was also a hint that influential nations managed fake TUEs to give their athletes unfair advantage. But getting these medical exemption isn’t always easy. Indian long-jumper Anju Bobby George, a world championship medalist, recalls her experience with regard to TUEs and how being denied one probably cost her an Olympic medal.
I had applied for a TUE for asthma medication after I reached Athens for the 2004 Olympics. I was aware of TUEs but as the perception was that it was a complicated process, I applied for it during the Games because it was easier with the IAAF (international athletics federation) and WADA doctors around. However, my TUE application was rejected because the doctors wanted me to produce papers which showed a seven-year medical history and I did not have records for this period. These days you can click a button and get stored medical records but back in 2004 it was not so simple.
My failure to get a TUE only showed how difficult it was to get one but also highlights the predicament of an athlete who genuinely suffers from an medical condition but has to manage without medication when competing at the highest level.
A little before the competition in the women’s long jump final began at Athens a squall of dust in the practice area resulted in me getting an allergic reaction. The dust allergy reduces the oxygen flow through my body, stiffens her muscles and leads to dizziness. I felt lightheaded when I took a practice jump. In the final, I recorded recorded a career-best of 6.83 metres in the first attempt — my best effort on the day and still the national record — but struggled to cope with the allergy.
My muscles were stiff and I was struggling to continue. In fact, after the first jump I told Bobby (George; husband and coach) that I wanted to quit the competition but he encouraged me to continue as it was the Olympic final. I could not better my first jump but if I was fully well I could have crossed the 7 metre mark and also won a medal. Not getting the TUE cost me a medal.
At Athens, I also had the option of going for an allergy test but didn’t want to take a risk so close to the competition.
Once I returned from Athens, I consulted a doctor at the National Institute of Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore and underwent an allergy test. The diagnosis was that I suffered from borderline asthma. I knew that it would be difficult for me to get a TUE for borderline asthma so went for the next best option which was surgery to remove nasal polyps which were affected by dust and triggering the allergy.
At the Beijing Olympics, four years later, I managed to get a TUE for use of a corticosteroid (anti-inflammatory) injection. When I had reached Beijing, I was experiencing severe pain in my right ankle — the takeoff foot — when I wore competition spikes. I had to deal with the pain since 1998 and had managed it well but ahead of the Olympics it started troubling me to such an extent that I could hardly train. The IAAF/WADA doctors gave me a TUE for a single dose of a corticosteroid injection a few days before my competition. I had to rest my ankle for two days after taking the injection. However, the pain continued and the TUE hardly provided any relief for me.
My experience with TUEs is that it is difficult to obtain because an athlete has to submit detailed medical records of the specified ailment for which medication is allowed. With regard to asthma medication and TUEs, I feel that it only allows an athlete who is not 100 per cent because of breathing difficulties to perform close to his or her potential and does not give a performance-enhancing edge. If you take a puff from an inhaler prescribed for asthma if provides temporary relief and not long-term benefits which can be considered as cheating.
That said, all systems can be manipulated and if athletes or their coaches and their doctors are resorting to TUEs to try and gain an unfair advantage then monitoring agencies need to be extra vigilant. For me, not getting a TUE at the 2004 Athens Olympics cost me an Olympic medal.
As told to Nihal Koshie