Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2012
Issue No. 1079
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fought like an Egyptian

Egypt's taekwondo champion shares her six-month ordeal to lift a two-year drug ban

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Maher with a bevy of honours

Caroline Maher's story starts in May last year, three days prior to a national team tournament held at the Shooting Club, reports Inas Mazhar. To set the stage, starting in December 2010 an out-of-competition doping test was initiated by WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) for Egyptian national teams at the Olympic Cenre in Maadi.

"I was very sick with a severe cold but the team captain called me to take the drug test. I drove to Maadi and took the test with no team coach or doctor present. Being an out of competition period, my family doctor prescribed some medication including Septrine, Panadol Cold & Flu, and Claerenase. During the doping test, I told the WADA representative that I was sick and on some medicine. He told me to write down the names of the medication in the Doping Control Form (DCF), with the sample number 3034025. I did so," said Maher, the world's 11th ranked taekwondo player in 2011 in the bantamweight category, according to the WTF rankings.

Shockingly, five months later, on 16 May 2011, the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) informed the Egyptian Taekwondo Federation (ETF) of an "adverse analytical finding" in Sample Number 431893 belonging to Maher without stating what was in the sample and misspelling her name as well. The ETF informed Maher who immediately suspected the cold medication which she had stated in the DCF.

The ETF replied to the WTF that the player clarified that she was on medical treatment for a common cold and that if the prohibited substances taken by the player does not match the substance found, then the player wishes to have Sample B analysed.

Later, the ETF informed Maher that the substances found were steroids, some anabolic agents and masculine hormones. "I was sure that something was wrong. I checked my form again. The sample number they gave was a wrong sample. It had the number 431893 -- mine was 3034025 and without stating the substances found. I told the ETF. I never received a lab package to support my Sample A and this was never explained to me. I didn't understand the Sample B issue. I requested it be open if the substances found don't apply to cold medications. Later the ETF told me opening Sample B means opening the wrong sample so that's not right. Everything seemed so confusing."

In July, an ETF board member was in Korea, so he handled the case with WTF by emailing the WTF representative responsible for the case who eventually emailed back, with an apology for all the inconvenience they had caused.

According to Maher, the WTF emailed again on 20 July. "Please disregard the letter sent to you some minutes ago", though it was sent two days earlier and not two minutes.

"The letter stated that the results were of my sample but this was simply an administrative mistake caused during the initial communication between the WADA and WTF. This unidentified sample code first appeared in the title of the email sent from WADA to WTF by mistake due to the huge number of emails exchanged on similar issues. How can it be a simple administrative mistake? This is a worldwide agency!" exclaimed Maher who continues, "On 31 July I insisted there was a mistake in the sample. The WTF replied that the case was closed as of 14 June 2011 and no further review of this case will be taken."

Being a tough sportswomen and a fighter, Maher never gave up. Indeed, it only made her more determined to win her case. On 3 August Maher and her parents took over the case from the ETF and claimed all related emails. After receiving all the documents, she was shocked to discover that the World Federation had banned her for two years as of 14 June which Maher described as "unfair." No one from the national federation had informed her of the ban.

The shock struck Maher hard and had it not been for her parents who supported her, would most likely have dropped the case. "Together, we reached the conclusion we would take the case to the WTF. We hired a professional American lawyer with expertise in sports related cases. Then, I had no idea of my rights but the lawyer informed me that I had the right to request copies of the Sample A laboratory documentation package ever since the initial communication with the WTF, which I never took. Also my right to open Sample B wasn't clear and was my right to have a fair hearing which I was denied."

For two months, from September to November, Maher and her family followed the procedures related to the case. "I was surprised that the WTF defence was going to play on a WADA rule which stated that I can't refer the case to the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) after 21 days of being informed of the WTF decision. I was informed on 3 August by the national federation and the world federation that the ETF is supporting them and had the documents that prove they had previously informed me. But of course later on in September they had no evidence to support their claim. Most surprisingly, the Egyptian federation was going to testify with them against me in court.

"The WTF constantly asked for extensions of the court hearing, and made offers that I rejected. Later the court decided that the hearing will be in November.

"Later, the court asked for the lab report and sent it to us, and it was surprising. The WTF knew all about it... they knew they were wrong. My lawyer told me it's the most corrupt case he had ever seen. The report simply said that Sample A & B were so different in characteristics and especially colour and couldn't have belonged to the same person, as both are one urine quantity taken from the same person and split into two bottles, so they have to be identical. Thus they questioned the integrity of the data collection and stated that this sample wasn't correct and that's why they took so much time investigating.

"Tests continued as they showed their concern again while sending the final results to the WTF who despite knowing these facts issued the wrong ruling, unjustly causing me to be suspended for six and a half months, which was totally unfair."

Finally, on 18 November, the CAS ruled in Maher's favour and the WTF lifted the two-year suspension. Maher had won.

"Taekwondo is my passion but this disciplinary charge devastated me and the past six and a half months have been the most heart-wrenching time of my career which has always been full of gold, silver and bronze medals since the late nineties. This experience will be carried with me for the rest of my life.

"I want to thank each and every person who stood by my side throughout this experience. I was devastated at the beginning and I thought a lot of giving up but thank God, I'm extremely thankful now."

Had it not been for Caroline's mother, none of this could have happened. "Special thanks goes to my mother -- the best mother on earth -- my father and my loving family who have been extremely supportive and whom are the most caring family ever. I never could have continued the case without their encouragement and their belief in my innocence. I also want to thank Paul my lawyer, my spiritual father and my close friends who supported me. For all those who made up things and stood against me, thank you because you made me fight back even harder and with much more determination and perseverance.

"They never thought an Egyptian athlete would fight back for her rights because we used to give this impression, but after the revolution Egypt definitely changed a bit. At least people started to fight for their rights and I hope the world will start to acknowledge this as well. I fought like an Egyptian."

"In Caroline's case, it wasn't the Egyptian doctors who took the samples at the Olympic Centre in Maadi. They were Turks and we didn't know that. We were there with them but they probably checked in some other time while we weren't there," Dr Osama Ghoneim, head of Sports Medicine in Egypt, told the Weekly. Ghoneim spoke of the rights of athletes and said that it was the role of the federations to educate their athletes and spread awareness not only of their rights but banned substances as well.

For Maher, justice has prevailed but she warns her fellow athletes that they are ignorant of their fundamental rights. "That's why in most cases, just like mine, they are denied all their rights that can prove their innocence. For example, in my case if we had known my right to see the lab report, the problem would have been resolved in May. I believe that athletes in Egypt are not sufficiently educated on the anti-doping issue, and that's not right. All national team players must be oriented about such rights through WADA officials in Egypt. We must start an educational process in Egypt."

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