A recent message from the governing body for DanceSport professionals included a reminder that drug testing is now required for WDC competitors at major championship events. What got to me was the simplistic reference that athletes should “check the labels” of the things they ingest. In actual fact, compliance is anything but simple. I believe this whole WADA thing can potentially destroy ballroom dancing. Here’s why.

Here’s the text of the letter:

Letter from Hans Emerich regarding WADA

Sounds easy, right? Just watch what you ingest and ask your doctor. No big deal.

This is, of course, how the general public views drug testing issues. Ask around and you’ll find that most people think that drug testing is a simple issue of looking out for narcotics and steroids, and that compliance must be straight forward.

In actual fact, WADA compliance is so incredibly challenging that many professional athletes need to hire doctors as part of their teams just to ensure that they don’t run afoul of the rules.

The vast majority of banned substances are not actually things that enhance athletic performance, but are products commonly used to mask the use of performance-enhancing chemicals. As cheaters get more and more creative in applying masking techniques, the list of banned substances becomes ever longer year by year. We are now up to hundreds of different banned or limited products. In fact, keep this in mind: WADA will never, ever reduce the number of items on their list. It is a bureaucracy and all bureaucracies, by their very nature, need to keep expanding. Thus, there will be continually more products added to the list every year. Forever.

But that’s not the worst of it.

What’s in a label?

There have already been numerous cases where athletes were suspended because of ingredients not mentioned on a product label. And one of those cases famously involved the DanceSport amateur world champion.

Back in October 2006 following the German Open, Lithuanian Edita Daniute tested positive for the banned substance Sibutramine. It turns out that this was the main ingredient in a weight control product she used as a supplement. What made her case particularly interesting was that Meridia did not mention anywhere on the label that it contained Sibutramine.

Edita appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport on the grounds that the banned substance wasn’t listed on the label and therefore she couldn’t have known that her supplement contained a banned item. Yet, as many other athletes have found, not having the substance listed on the label is not grounds for leniency.

She lost the case and was stripped of her title. Apparently her argument fell on deaf ears partly because WADA found a reference in a medical journal talking about how Meridia didn’t mention Sibutramine on the label.

The takeaway is that you could quickly look it up. In various discussion threads, people applauded this outcome on the grounds that “she must have known” and that it was “reasonable” for her to have avoided this issue with minor effort. What people don’t understand is that this discovery was only found many pages into a Google search. A legal intern, paid to do this on behalf of WADA, spent hours studying search results to eventually discover this reference in an obscure medicinal report! In other words, if a paid intern can find an unmentioned banned substance in an exhaustive online search, you should have known all about it yourself and therefore you are a cheater.

There are actually so many products that don’t list banned ingredients that WADA mentions this repeatedly in their own documentation.

You can find the Athletes Guide to Prohibited Substances here. Their overview alone contains over 4,000 words. Happy bedtime reading!

Here are some basic statements about common medicines, according to WADA:

Pseudoephedrine is an ingredient in many cold and flu medications. WADA advises athletes to discontinue taking the standard daily dose of 240mg or less of pseudoephedrine AT LEAST 24 HOURS prior to the time defined as “in-competition”. Be advised, in some cases, such as slow metabolism or drug interactions, this may not be enough time for the medication to clear the body. USADA recommends avoiding pseudoephedrine-containing cold and flu products for several days in advance of competition. If you need to be on a diuretic for any reason, and you also need to use a medication that has pseudoephedrine in it, you need a Therapeutic Use Exemption for BOTH the diuretic and pseudoephedrine.

And don’t forget, the ingredients might not be on the label. To make sure, you better do a deep Internet search for any obscure scientific document that might mention this fact, or you’re at risk of losing a hard-won title. In fact, even if you didn’t find such a reference, according to WADA’s own tradition, you will still be banned.

Levmetamfetamine (nasal inhaler) and racepinephrine (nebulizer) are prohibited in-competition but are found in some cold and flu products. Read the label of your cold and flu, or allergy product, carefully and check the active ingredients on GlobalDRO.com.

And once again, don’t forget that the ingredient may not be listed on the label.

Asthma and Inhalers

The recent case of cycling champion Chris Froome has brought another issue to light, that of products which are not banned but where quantities are regulated. Again, the general public has no idea just how complex all of this really is. People use a broad brush and mark anyone as a “cheater” at the very mention of an adverse test result. Here are the facts about Chris Froome’s case, and how they can easily affect many DanceSport competitors:

One of the most common conditions of cyclists and other athletes is something known as “exercise-induced asthma.” The constant oxygen demands of some sports can actually create a condition of asthma when the body is unable to keep up with what the lungs need.

And one of the most common ways to deal with asthma is the use of a product called Salbutamol in the form of an inhaler. When an asthma attack hits, you take a puff of your inhaler.

This Salbutamol inhaler is not in fact any kind of performance-enhancing drug. It merely helps to open the airways a bit so that you can breathe more freely. WADA limits the in-competition concentrations to 1200 nanograms per milliliter in the urine. According to one sports doctor, just four puffs of an inhaler within a reasonable time period can put you well above the WADA limit, especially if you’re dehydrated. And depending on how close to the test you took your last puff, you could find yourself at twice the limit, as Chris did following an exceptionally difficult stage 18 of the Vuelta.

I happen to know a number of DanceSport athletes who struggle with asthma. This very real condition has a direct impact on their life. I’m impressed that they compete at all with that challenge! Under these rules, not only do they need to watch how many puffs they take, they need to practically live without their inhaler when they are close to a competition to avoid the possibility of an “adverse” test result. Indeed, Chris Froome consulted the full-time team doctor repeatedly to regulate his dosage and still exceeded the limit. It’s always possible that something else went on in his case, but it’s also possible that this was just a result of his own physiology and its interaction with the drug, which is the whole point of this article. I suspect it won’t be long before we start hearing about ballroom dancers being suspended because of things like this.

Want to know just how complex it is to comply? Here’s a chart from WADA’s website on just some inhalers, a guide to determine the dosage of albuterol, formoterol, and salmeterol inhaled beta-agonists that may be used in sport without a TUE. However, an athlete should examine his/her inhaler closely to determine the exact dose delivered. Note that some WADA limits are quite reasonable while others are very tight.

Examples of Inhaler Brands and Strengths Recommended Dosing by Manufacturer WADA MAXIMUM doses per 24 hours
Advair Diskus 100/50, 250/50, or 500/50
Each has salmeterol 50mcg per puff
1 puff twice each day
(=100 mcg salmeterol)
Do not take more than Salmeterol 200 mcg in 24 hours
Advair HFA 45/21, 115/21, or 230/21
Each has salmeterol 21 mcg per puff
2 puffs twice each day
(=84 mcg salmeterol)
Do not take more than Salmeterol 200 mcg in 24 hours
Albuterol 108 mcg per puff
(dosing 90 mcg of salbutamol)
ProAir, Proventil, Ventolin or levalbuterol (Xopenex) inhaler      45 mcg per puff
1-2 puffs every 4 to 6 hours as needed for wheezing Do not take more than 8 puffs in 12 hours
Anoro Ellipta PROHIBITED PROHIBITED
Bevespi Aerosphere 4.8/9 2 puffs twice each day
(=9.2 mcg formoterol)
Do not take more than 11 puffs a day
Breo Ellipta PROHIBITED PROHIBITED
Dulera 100/5 or 200/5
Each has formoterol 5 mcg per puff
2 puffs twice each day
(=20 mcg formoterol)
Do not take more than 10 puffs a day
Foradil Aerolizer 12 mcg per puff 1 capsule inhaled every 12 hours
(=24 mcg formoterol)
Do not take more than 4 puffs a day
Serevent Diskus 50 mcg per puff 1 puff twice each day
(=100 mcg salmeterol)
 Do not take more than Salmeterol 200 mcg in 24 hours
Stiolto Respimat PROHIBITED PROHIBITED
Symbicort 80 /4.5 or 160 /4.5
Each has formoterol 4.5 mcg per puff
2 puffs twice each day
(=18 mcg formoterol)
Do not take more than 12 puffs a day
Utibron Neohaler PROHIBITED PROHIBITED

How easy is it to comply?

As I already mentioned, the general public thinks it must be pretty easy to live within the rules. Think again.

On its own website, WADA summarizes the things you need to avoid. They make it sound pretty straight forward. They say to stay away from:

  • Aromatase inhibitors
  • Selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) and other substances that block estrogen effects (anti-estrogens)
  • Agents modifying myostatin function(s)
  • Metabolic modulators, including insulin and insulin-mimetics

Sounds simple, right? But when you start to get into the details you begin to see just how challenging it becomes for any normal person to live with certainty within the complexity of WADA guidelines. Here’s an example of statements directly from the WADA guide, which encompasses hundreds of incredibly detailed rules:

  • WADA has clarified that drospirenone, pamabram, carbonic anhydrase inhibitors used as eye drops (dorzolamide and brinzolamide), and the local administration of Felypressin for dental anesthesia are permitted. Notice the reference to dental anesthesia? Yes, you read that correctly. What it doesn’t say is whether you need an exemption ahead of time, or if there are other dental anesthetics that may not be allowed. Better be very careful about going to the dentist if you are a DanceSport competitor!
  • The use of any amount of a threshold substance (i.e., albuterol, formoterol, cathine, ephedrine, methylephedrine and pseudoephedrine) at the same time as a diuretic or other masking agent requires a TUE for the threshold substance AND the diuretic/masking agent. This means two TUEs are needed. Notice the reference to “i.e.” which means these are only some examples. There are dozens of others.
  • Some dietary supplements that claim to be “natural” water pills may contain prescription diuretics not listed on the label. The use of any dietary supplement is at the athlete’s own risk. Notice the reference to banned substances not being on the label. As was already discussed, even reading the label doesn’t guarantee you won’t run afoul of the rules.

Are the rules necessary?

Now, I understand the need to keep steroids and other performance-enhancing substances out of sports. It is a problem in many sports and there is a need to control the cheating that happens. But by getting into bed with WADA, the world of ballroom dancing places a massive burden on competitors, and I fail to see just what we gain out of it.

DanceSport competition is not like other sports. Huge muscles aren’t a benefit. Indeed, they are probably a negative when it comes to world-class performance, even in Latin. Lung capacity is an issue, but I don’t know of any competitors who are so bent on increasing their lung capacity that they will do things like replacing their blood with stored samples to gain an edge over the competition. It just doesn’t make sense.

The WDSF, in their desperate desire to be accepted by the IOC, had to adopt WADA rules since that’s a requirement to even be considered as an Olympic sport. As I see it, the WDC caved into accepting WADA testing because they don’t want to be left out in the unlikely event that Dancesport is approved as an Olympic Sport. During the IOC’s last round of contenders for new sports, Dancesport was the first one eliminated from consideration, so I can’t see how this is going to happen anytime soon. At this time these ballroom dance drug tests only affect a few top championship professional and amateur events, but we all know that these things are a slippery slope. It may not be long before it extends to other events and even Pro/Am competitions.

Do Pro/Am competitors really want this burden, even at the highest levels? I doubt it.

The end result could well be many people just not bothering with ballroom dancing competition because they don’t want the additional burden of trying to comply with these onerous rules. And that can’t possibly be a benefit to this activity we love so much.

What are your thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you. Use the comment area below to chime in.

Author George Pytlik

Before turning pro, George achieved impressive results as an amateur competitor, holding the 35+ Latin championship in BC, Canada for 7 consecutive years with his wife Wendy. The couple twice achieved a top-3 Canadian ranking in senior Latin as well as a 3rd place Canadian ranking in senior 1 Ten Dance. Today, George and Wendy teach with a vision of growing a strong dance community in Delta near Vancouver, BC.

More posts by George Pytlik

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