Canada’s equestrian team stands to lose millions of dollars in financing if a failed drug test from show jumper Nicole Walker costs her four-member squad its spot at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Canada’s jumping team, past winners of five Olympic medals, qualified for the 2020 Games by finishing fourth at last summer’s Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. The team is expected to lose that invitation if Panam Sports, organizer of the Lima Games, upholds the 26-year-old Walker’s positive test for a banned substance, cocaine. Pan Am rules state that a doping violation by any member of a group such as Canada’s equestrians leads to a disqualification of the results obtained by the entire team.
The governing bodies for equestrian sports released the test result on Tuesday and said they were provisionally suspending Walker from all competitions. Walker is appealing the test results. The leader of Canada’s jumping team in Lima, Mark Laskin, said Walker’s positive test may have come from drinking coca tea, a legal and widely available pick-me-up beverage in Peru. In a news release on Tuesday, Walker said: “I was shocked and devastated to hear about these results. I do not use illicit drugs, ever.”
Walker, 26, is the daughter of Belinda Stronach and her former husband, Don Walker, the chief executive of auto-parts maker Magna International Inc. Stronach runs a global horse-racing business. Walker’s grandfather, Frank Stronach, is a prominent racehorse owner and Magna’s billionaire founder.
Missing out on a trip to the Tokyo Games would eliminate support for the jumping team from government-backed groups that support Olympic contenders, including Own The Podium, the organization that delivers federal government money to athletes, and the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC).
Over the past three years, Own The Podium gave $985,000 to Canada’s equestrian team to help it prepare for Tokyo. Decisions on financing are made annually, and meant to sustain the team over the four-year cycle of the Games.
In the past, Own The Podium varied the amount of money it put into the equestrian program, reflecting its expectations of the team’s potential. The crew that competed in the London Games in 2008 received $4.3-million, while the equestrian team that went to Rio de Janeiro four years later got $1.2-million. Every four years, Own The Podium gives a total of approximately $120-million to all Summer Olympic contenders, and another $25-million to participants in the Winter Games.
“Own the Podium’s Summer technical team, along with our partners, are currently in the midst of our annual reviews with all Summer Olympic and Paralympic sports," spokesperson Chris Dornan said in an e-mail. “During these reviews we will evaluate the sports’ high-performance programs and the status of their athletes with evidence of medal potential for Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024.”
The COC supports riders by giving money to Equestrian Canada, the sport’s national governing body. COC spokesperson Photi Sotiropoulos said on Wednesday that the group will take guidance from Own The Podium on future financing for the jumping team.
“Direct funding to Equestrian Canada is based on performance and potential podium success recommendations we receive from Own The Podium. At this time it is premature to be re-evaluating those funds,” Sotiropoulos said in an e-mail. He said: “We respect Equestrian Canada’s and the athlete’s rights to pursue any steps in defence of this matter and the outcome of any due process, and we will continue to monitor this case as it develops.”
There were three other athletes on the Canadian Pan Am jumping team: Erynn Ballard from Ontario, Alberta-based Lisa Carlsen and Mario Deslauriers from Quebec.
Regulators at the international governing body of equestrian sports (known by its French acronym FEI) in Switzerland and Ottawa-based Equestrian Canada said on Tuesday that Walker turned in a positive result for Benzoylecgonine, a chemical that remains after the body metabolizes cocaine, in a test administered at the Pan Am Games on Aug. 7, after the final of the team-jumping competition.
Equestrian Canada said Tuesday in a news release that it is “firmly committed to clean sport. We also believe in standing behind our athletes, and fully support Nicole during this challenging situation. Equestrian Canada will be working closely with Nicole and her legal team as appropriate next steps are determined.”
Walker has already requested a hearing on her drug test before the Panam Sports Disciplinary Commission and hired Toronto-based lawyer Tim Danson, who previously represented rider Eric Lamaze, a three-time Olympic medalist. Lamaze was unable to participate in the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics after testing positive for cocaine.
“It is too premature to comment on the merits of Nikki’s case at this time,” Danson said in a news release. “What I am confident in saying at this early stage is that Nikki does not use substances prohibited by WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency]. She is incredibly careful and vigilant in this regard.”
Positive drug tests from coca tea are a well-documented issue for athletes. In 2005, the Jockey Club in Britain commissioned a study of the beverage after several jockeys tested positive for cocaine and claimed it was a result of drinking coca tea. The British racing group found a single cup of coca tea can translate into a positive test for cocaine for 24 hours or more. In writing up the Jockey Club’s study, the British Journal of Sport Medicine said: “Although the teabag packaging reports benefits such as increased energy and improved digestion, most people who sample the product report little subjective effect at all.”
In the United States, a number of government employees, including police officers, blamed coca tea consumption during vacations in South America for subsequent positive drug tests at work. Some were fired, while others had the explanation accepted by employers and kept their jobs.