Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics Summer

No horsing around with drugs at Olympics

Horses aren't so easily treated for what ails them at the Olympic Games.

Horses aren't so easily treated for what ails them at the Olympic Games.

A sprinter with sore legs can pop an Aspirin before the final Olympic heat. A paddler nursing a shoulder injury can get permission to take cortisone to ease pain before a race.

However, if a horse with a bruise or leg pain takes a special giant-sized Aspirin made for the animal, it's game over. Disqualification. Elimination from Olympic competition.

"When a horse accidentally bangs his leg with his other leg and gives himself a little bruise, we' ll give him some of these big Aspirins," says Canada's equestrian team leader, Mike Gallagher. "That's not allowed at the Olympics. Any drugs in a horse means immediate disqualification. Basically any drugs you can think of. It's so sensitive."

So sensitive that peppermint candies have triggered positive drug tests. Riders can't give their horses chocolate bars because caffeine or another banned substance will get picked up, Gallagher says. 

"Any foreign substance they pick up pretty much means disqualification. You have to be so, so careful."

That's why it comes as no surprise when horses get busted for drugs.

4 countries suspended

It happened Thursday at the Beijing Games, where horses from Norway, Ireland, Brazil and Germany were all found with capsaicin in their blood. The drug, in the form of a cream rubbed into the skin, is prohibited for its pain-relieving properties.

Norway's Tony Andre Hansen and his horse Camiro, Lantinus from Ireland, ridden by Dennis Lynch, Brazil's Chupa Cup, ridden by Bernardo Alves, and Germany's Coster, ridden by Christian Ahlmann, were all suspended.

CBC Sports analyst Beth Underhill has suspicions that the drug was not given to relieve pain, but was administered because it causes "hypersensitivity" to a horse's legs and would make the animal more cautious on the jumps, and less likely to hit a jump and incur a fault.

"It's a pretty shocking revelation that's happening here," she said following Thursday's news of positive drug tests. "These riders are sophisticated and are very knowledgeable. As I said, the testing has become so sophisticated it's quite possible that they just made a mistake, but I find it shocking that they would take that kind of risk." 

Horses in pain must be removed: Gallagher

The positive test means medals can change hands because riders are disqualified - but that's nothing new at the Olympic Games.

In Athens, two show-jumping gold medals were taken away. Ludger Beerbaum of the German show-jumping team and Ireland's Cian O'Conner were both eliminated from competition.

Performance enhancing or not, the nature of a drug does not matter. The strict testing, Gallagher says, is to ensure the welfare of the horses.

"The idea is these horses can't tell their riders if they' re in pain," he says. "They can't express if they can endure the pain with an Aspirin, or if they need to be pulled out of the competition. That's why if a horse has any kind of injury, he must be removed from the Games. It's as simple as that."

The suspension of the horse and rider immediately gets people thinking of foul play, but Gallagher stresses that' s not always the case. A horse given Aspirin one week before the Games could test positive because it' s not yet out of his system by the time testing happens.

"We'll have a positive drug test, and everybody will go, 'Oh my God, how did this happen?'" Gallagher says. "Nobody was giving this horse drugs, not usually. You find out the horse had a little cut, and the groom decided to put some ointment on that cut and it turns out there's something in that ointment that nobody knew was banned.

"You have to be very, very careful."