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Op-Ed: Lyoto Machida’s 18 month suspension is unfair and disproportionate

Lyoto Machida received an 18 month suspension for declaring his use of 7-keto-DHEA, and Iain Kidd isn't happy about it.

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Machida vs Dollaway Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Before reading this article, you may want to read my piece explaining exactly what 7-KETO-DHEA is, what it does, and how it’s different from DHEA.

I’m going to break down the facts of Lyoto’s suspension, but first, let’s play a little game. In this game, you decide which offense was worse.

Person #1 took two banned substances, one of which can double the testosterone of a healthy man. He received them in a pill from a teammate, who had purchased them from a site that advertised the sale of banned substances. He never checked the label or even asked where the pill came from before he took it. He never declared he had taken the pill, which he is supposed to do when he gave his test sample.

Person #2 took one banned substance, which may potentially help burn fat. It has no effect on testosterone, or muscle growth etc. He purchased the substance legally, over the counter. He didn’t check the substance was banned before using it. He properly declared the supplement on his report form to USADA when he gave his test sample.

I’m going to assume that, like me, you think person one was the worse offender. He had more banned substances in him, one of the substances in question is a significant performance enhancer, potentially doubling testosterone. He never asked where the pill came from or checked the label. He never even listed the pill on his declaration form where he is supposed to list every supplement and medication he has recently taken.

The second guy took a relatively benign substance which might help you lose weight and body fat more easily. He declared he was taking it on his declaration form, but he screwed up by not checking if it was banned or not before using it.

It seems pretty clear Person #2 should get the lesser punishment, right? Well as you probably know, guy one is Jon Jones and guy two is Lyoto Machida. Jon Jones received a 12-month suspension for his USADA violation - which, I might add, I felt was reasonable given the totality of the circumstances - while Lyoto Machida received an 18-month suspension. I feel this is less reasonable.

You might be thinking that this doesn’t sound right. Like me, you might feel USADA generally does a good job, and it would be bizarre for them to give Machida a larger punishment than Jones unless there’s some other reason for it. You would be right, but the reason has nothing to do with Lyoto Machida.

The tests USADA performed on Lyoto’s sample backed his story up. The results came back showing exactly what you would expect from someone taking 7-keto-DHEA. His story added up perfectly, and there’s apparently no suspicion on USADA’s end that Lyoto was deliberately trying to gain an illegal advantage.

The problem is, USADA uses WADA’s prohibited list of banned drugs and their classifications. This list categorizes drugs in several ways, but there’s a very specific, important pair of classifications that every drug falls into. A drug can either be considered a specified substance, or a non-specified substance. Non-specified substances carry a standard punishment twice as long as specified substances, and the UFC’s anti-doping policy allows for more discretionary leniency with specified substances than with non-specified substances.

You might be thinking that non-specified substances must be more powerful than specified substances. That would make sense, right? A guy taking cold medicine and a guy taking anabolic steroids shouldn’t face the same punishment, surely. Making that distinction makes sense. The problem is, that’s not how WADA categorizes drugs. How effective they are as PEDs, how powerful they are, how dangerous they are to the user or their opponent … none of that matters to WADA.

WADA decides if a substance is specified or non-specified by arbitrarily deciding which substances they feel are more likely to be taken accidentally. That’s it. This is complete nonsense. The WADA code already allows for reduced punishments for athletes who ingest a substance accidentally, this categorization, therefore, serves basically no useful function that I can see.

So, now we have Lyoto Machida facing an 18-month punishment instead of a 6-12 month punishment, purely because of a quirk in how the substance he took is classified. From browsing the list, it seems most substances you might legally get over the counter, such as the banned ingredients in some cold medications, are classed as specified substances and carry a shorter sentence. Yet 7-keto-DHEA, which is also available legally over the counter, isn’t.

Someone at WADA arbitrarily deciding 7-keto-DHEA isn’t a specified substance has probably cost Lyoto Machida a year of his career. He would have been facing, at most, a 12-month suspension if it had been classed as a specified substance, and due to his disclosure would have likely received a reduced suspension, closer to 6 months. Instead, he got 18 months. That extra 12 months is almost 10% of the man’s career.

Take a second to let that sink in. If Lyoto had taken clomiphene, which could double his testosterone levels, he would be facing a 12-month suspension at most. Instead, he took 7-keto-DHEA—which even the most positive studies show to be at best a mild fat burner—and faced a 24-month suspension. That’s ridiculous. It’s illogical.

Due to WADA’s ridiculous and apparently arbitrary classification of drugs, taking a substance that is arguably of comparable efficacy to something like caffeine or creatine gets you twice the punishment of someone who takes a substance which is potentially as powerful as some anabolic steroids. That’s so painfully stupid that typing it gave me a headache.

I’ve seen arguments that 7-keto-DHEA can be used to mask DHEA use and that’s why Lyoto deserves the ban. Firstly, 7-keto-DHEA can’t make you pass a test you would otherwise fail, as I explain here. Secondly, WADA themselves accept that the current evidence shows the DHEA has no performance enhancing effect on male athletes! That’s DHEA, the more powerful substance! Lyoto failed for taking 7-keto-DHEA, the metabolite that does basically nothing!

Here’s how messed up the entire WADA process is. They ban a substance (DHEA) without having evidence that it enhances athletic performance in healthy men. Then they spend over a decade examining the evidence and apparently accept the conclusion that there’s no evidence showing DHEA enhances performance in healthy, athletic men.

Despite this, WADA decides in 2012 to keep DHEA banned, and also to ban its metabolites, including 7-keto-DHEA. If there’s no evidence that DHEA enhances performance, then by the transitive property, there’s no evidence 7-keto-DHEA enhances performance, either. As 7-keto-DHEA is a metabolite of DHEA, if it enhanced performance, DHEA would also enhance performance.

The worst part is, both DHEA and 7-keto-DHEA are classed as non-specified substances, which carries the harsher penalty. Even though WADA has no evidence that either substance actually enhances athletic performance. Even though there’s plenty of evidence that 7-keto-DHEA is in over the counter supplements and could easily be classed as a specified substance as a result. It’s ridiculous.

This is depressingly common as well. Remember the meldonium scandal? WADA banned meldonium without bothering to get any evidence that it can actually enhance performance. They also forgot to check how long it stays in someone’s system, which means they had no idea if the people they were testing took meldonium before or after it was banned. For an organization which lists scientific research as one of its key activities, WADA is dreadful at applying the scientific method, or any scientific rigor. Or common sense. Or logic.

So, where does that leave Lyoto? After all, the UFC’s anti-doping policy is directly with USADA, not WADA. Maybe USADA can look at the situation logically and reduce the punishment based on the sheer lack of evidence that 7-keto-DHEA is a banned substance? Maybe USADA can change the classification of 7-keto-DHEA to a specified substance to match other over the counter supplement ingredients? Probably not.

I believe USADA’s hands may be tied on this due to their position as signatories of the WADA code. From my reading of the UFC/USADA anti-doping program, they could have potentially given Lyoto a suspension as low as 6 months by using their discretion per section 10.5.2 of the UFC anti-doping policy, but the prospect of a reduction under that clause is dependent on an athlete’s degree of fault in taking the substance, and Lyoto’s own carelessness was the cause of this failure, so it’s hard to justify giving him a break on those grounds.

The grounds he should be given a break on are that he took a substance that’s not even proven to be a PED, and he properly declared that he was taking it. That should qualify him for a 6-12 month suspension, rather than 18-24 months in my opinion. Unfortunately, based on my reading of the anti-doping code, it doesn’t seem that USADA has the discretion to reduce his suspension on those grounds.

What isn’t entirely clear is whether or not USADA could have given themselves the ability to use their discretion on those grounds in the UFC anti-doping policy. The UFC anti-doping policy follows the WADA code very closely, but not exactly. For example, the standard punishment for taking a specified substance in the WADA code is two years, and a non-specified substance is four years. The UFC/USADA anti-doping policy is one and two years, respectively. That suggests there is some leeway for USADA to modify the code when it comes to the UFC/USADA relationship, but how far that extends isn’t clear. I’ve reached out to ask, but the wheels turn slowly.

I’m hopeful that USADA does have the ability to deviate from the WADA code where it makes sense, and that they take advantage of that ability to make the code fairer. After all, one of USADA’s core values is “demonstrating honesty and fairness in every action that we take.” Athletes receiving harsher punishments for lesser offenses doesn’t seem very fair to me.