From the moment that Olympic gold medalist and 2015 FEI World Cup champion Steve Guerdat learned that two of his top horses had returned positive tests for FEI banned substances, on July 20th, 2015, he became focused on nothing else but proving his innocence. A verdant supporter of FEI Clean Sport policy and anti-doping practices, the Swiss rider found himself in the unwelcome, and as it would later be revealed unwarranted, position of defending a positive drug test.
The impact on Guerdat’s career was immediate: he was suspended in the middle of the summer season, his top horses Nino des Buissonnets and Nasa were forced to take an unplanned vacation, and Guerdat was unable to compete in the 2015 FEI European Championships. All the while, Guerdat and his team worked day and night to find the source of the banned substances, and prove that no doping had taken place.
On September 28th, Guerdat successfully proved that the positive tests for the banned substances codeine and oripavine, and to the controlled medication morphine, that were found in his horses’ systems were due to outside feed contamination, and all suspensions were dropped. But the effects of such a situation will continue to linger for quite some time. In his first in-depth interview since the case was closed, Guerdat explains how the events of the summer unfolded, how it felt to be faced with such charges, and what he hopes the FEI will take a hard look at before another rider is caught in a similar net.
Q: Describe the impact that the initial FEI positive test had on your program.
A: Everything was going well, we were having a good year, Nino was in super shape, and then this came from nowhere. It was difficult to accept that I could not go to a show with Nino, that I had to miss the Europeans, but those things I’m kind of ready for. I’m an athlete and with horses that’s how it goes. It will happen again that I will not be able to go to the show for a different reason; a horse is injured or is just not good enough or something. When you do this sport you have to be able to live with those ups and downs.
The main thing, the worst part, is really about how it affected me personally, and the amount of people who were hurt by this story. My team chooses to work with me and they are like part of the family, but then it goes further, like those who don’t really have much to do with horses: my mother, my brother, my cousins, my grandmother. They read all the stories in the media, and they couldn’t leave their houses without being asked about it. I don’t think I deserved this, but it’s a way of life I have chosen. But those people, when they are attacked about this without really being able to do anything about it; that was the worst thing.
Q: What are your feelings overall about anti-doping and the spirit of testing for clean sport?
A: We want to fight against doping, we want rules. We need them because we won’t have a good sport anymore if we don’t have testing. I want my horses tested, of course, but we need to not have so many outside things that could happen if the tests are going to be like this.
We can’t control our horses 24 hours a day, we can’t control everything they are licking or touching. I was lucky that we found a sample from months before in the feed itself that proved it was contaminated. But it also could have been the hay or the straw that I bought to the show that was contaminated. The people who bring hay to the show don’t have to do any testing. And when I come to a show overseas and I am not allowed to bring food with me, what am I supposed to do, test the feed before I give it to my horses? It takes about ten days to do a test. And how do I know for sure that the horses that were in these boxes before were not eating something that is banned, and getting it on the wall that my horse then comes and licks? Many people can go in the stable [at competitions] and could basically give something that’s forbidden, to any horse.
“We want to fight against doping, we want rules. We need them because we won’t have a good sport anymore if we don’t have testing. I want my horses tested, but we need to not have so many outside things that could happen if the tests are going to be like this.”
The [banned substance] level we are talking about that they found is nine numbers after the zero. You’ll find a trace of something most of the time at that level.
Q: What could be improved to prevent this situation from occurring again?
A: Knowing all those things, if [the FEI] wants to have such strict rules, then on their side they also need to be so strict from A to Z that everything can be traced.
There are two sides of this: the chemical levels at which substances are tested, the science of those quantities, and also the way you handle the case. I think both sides need to change.
In my case, if you would have had a few people, let’s say a veterinarian, a chemist, an expert in the rules – four or five people around a table to look at substance levels, it would have taken them a few minutes to see that this was not a doping case. And then from that you go on.
Q: And what of the levels of a banned substance that is counted as a positive doping test
A: In my case, [the veterinarian] told me it would take about 1,000 times more than [the level that was found], positive or negative, just to have some kind of an effect in the body of the horse. So how are we even talking about doping? This was not doping.
What’s the point in testing things that we know are not influencing the horse? When there is a case like this we need to improve the way it is handled, to see if it is a case of cheating or if it is just bad luck.
Q: How did you learn about the positive test, and were you satisfied with the way the FEI communicated the result of the test and the suspension? (FEI rules mandate that suspensions are made public before a hearing date is scheduled.)
A: I was not given time to defend myself before it was made public. FEI The FEI informed the Swiss Federation on a Monday, and the Swiss Federation called me on Monday at 3:00 in the afternoon to contact the owner of the horse. Then as soon as myself and the owners knew, they put the FEI announcement out. We were able to delay the publication by FEI a little as the owners needed to first be contacted and informed, but it was 25 hours. I knew about it 25 hours before it was made public.
Within four weeks, we had all the proof in black and white that it was feed contamination, which was lucky, because like I say it could have been that we didn’t find the proof. In my case, I had super people, and everybody worked day and night and we were able to bring the proof. So in my case, I don’t think there was a point to make this public. It was bad for me, and it’s bad for the sport. I would have been able to bring them this proof, and we could have basically ended the story, without ruining my reputation. But because the FEI rules are like this, it was made public before I had the chance to bring them my proof.
Q: As far as the feed itself, can you fault the feed manufacturer?
A: No, you cannot. You find this positive substance in poppy seeds. Can you ask of the manufacturer, from I don’t know how many tons of grain he has to collect in the field, to know that at one point in the season there might be three poppy flowers in the field – can you really put the blame on him? That’s why I say that the rules have to change. I want my horses to be able to eat natural food, to be able to go into the field, to be able to go on grass in the show. But if I want to stick by the rules I cannot do anything like this. We cannot control everything, or we are going to end up feeding our horses chemicals, lock them in the boxes like in a jail, and this I don’t want. I want things to be natural, but there will be some harmless substances in our food sometimes. So the levels that are tested must change. The procedure must change.
“We as riders have to stick to the rules, but the rules made by the FEI need to be improved. I hope that they realize this.”
Q: How do you feel now that the case is resolved?
A: I’m just happy that this is over. It was important to me that the case be over because I wanted to be able to express myself. It was amazing to be that there were many thousands of people who were sending me messages and emails, and letters that they believed me simply because they had faith in me. Until it was over, I didn’t talk to anyone about it, not even my mother or my brother. I had so many people trusting me, and believing me, and even when I had the proof [of innocence] I couldn’t make anything public, because I wanted every step to be right along the way. This was why I wanted to fight it and have it over, so that I can talk in public and explain to everybody what happened.
At the end of the day, the case is black and white. You’ve got contaminated food, the horses were eating that food, they had the same substance in their body. We had an FEI testing vet there with every food sample we took and we tested all of the feed in the barn to be sure. We made everything official and open.
It’s not my job to say the rules should be written like this and applied like that. I can bring ideas, but we also need the FEI to do it. We as riders have to stick to the rules, but the rules made by the FEI need to be improved. I hope that they realize this.