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Speed skater suspended for doping pleads innocent; JOC worried ahead of Tokyo 2020

Kei Saito

Men's short track speed skater Kei Saito is claiming innocence after being provisionally suspended from the Pyeongchang Games by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on Feb. 13 after testing positive for the prohibited drug acetazolamide.

The 21-year-old Kanagawa University student departed from the Olympic village on Feb. 12 upon receiving news of the decision. Saito's case is the first alleged case of doping uncovered during the Pyeongchang Winter Games. "I think the only way I could have ingested a prohibited substance is without my knowledge," he stated through the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC).

Having a Japanese athlete become the first to test positive for doping at the Winter Games has fired up anti-doping efforts by related parties in Japan ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. Japan Anti-Doping Agency (JADA) chief executive officer Shin Asakawa worried, "If people come to think that doping happens even in Japan, it will damage our public image."

According to the JOC and other sources, Saito tested negative during a domestic test on Jan. 29. However, during a random examination at the Olympic Village after arriving in South Korea on the evening of Feb. 4, he tested positive for the prohibited diuretic acetazolamide. A backup sample test he underwent on Feb. 9 produced the same result.

The CAS plans to hand down its final decision after the close of the Pyeongchang Olympics. Until then, Saito cannot appear in any Olympic or International Skating Union competition. The JOC plans to adopt the stance that Saito was unaware that he consumed the substance. "We will provide proper verification after the games," said Japanese Olympic Delegation head Yasuo Saito. "We will offer our full cooperation."

There were high expectations for Saito for the games. Japanese short track coach Tsutomu Kawasaki said, "He's been a standout since he was younger, so he has received (anti-doping) education since his junior skating days." However, with a gap in experience and awareness of doping examinations, Saito may have not known about the degree of scrutiny reserved for the world's top athletes.

A JOC representative said, "The suspension is only temporary and it is too early to say if any violations took place." Still, there is no doubt that Saito's case being reported as Pyeongchang's first doping case has inflicted a heavy blow. During anti-doping procedures, for an athlete who has tested positive to appeal their innocence, they are requested to voluntarily present definitive evidence. "If there isn't enough to back up their claims, it is difficult to prove that they are innocent," said a related party.

If an athlete tests positive for prohibited substances, simply claiming that they "don't know what happened" or other such reasons simply don't cut it, and providing hard evidence of exactly what food, beverages and medicines were consumed by the athlete during the period the substance is believed to have entered their system is no easy task either. As Saito tested positive the day he arrived in South Korea, tracing the flow of events is even more difficult. If he is found to have committed a violation, Saito will be suspended for as long as two years, barring him from participating in any events until the ban is lifted.

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