Backstrom victim of testing debacle

SOCHI, Russia -- A couple of hours before the biggest game of his young career, Nicklas Backstrom made his way to the Bolshoy Ice Dome and began warming up for the gold-medal tilt between his Swedish national team and Canada.

But by the time that game had started, Backstrom had been whisked away to a disciplinary hearing with International Olympic Committee officials over a positive test for a banned substance -- an element in an allergy medication that Backstrom has been taking for seven years, according to Swedish Olympic Committee officials -- and told he could not compete for his country.

It is absolutely mind-boggling that it came to this.

Backstrom provided the urine test in question on Wednesday, after the Swedes' quarterfinal win over Slovenia. He alerted doping officials that he was taking the medication. According to Swedish and International Ice Hockey Federation officials, the normal turnaround for such tests is 48 hours, and yet the general manager of the Swedish national team was informed that Backstrom had exceeded the threshold for an element found in the medication only two hours before the gold-medal game.

"We're all upset by this," GM Tommy Boustedt told a packed news conference after the Swedes were mauled 3-0 by Canada in the gold-medal game. "Our opinion is the IOC has destroyed one of the greatest hockey days in Sweden."

He said he was told at 1:30 local time that Backstrom needed to be in a disciplinary meeting half an hour later, at 2 p.m. So Boustedt biked to the Bolshoy Ice Dome to gather Backstrom, and then the two biked back to the hearing. Players who were coming to the rink saw the two heading the other way and had no idea what was going on.

Boustedt insisted another motivation was behind the timing of the announcement of the positive test: The IOC wants to put fear into the hearts of cheaters.

"I think the timing is awful. We should have the results within 48 hours," Boustedt said. "My suspicion is it's political. They waited until the final day of competition to make the biggest impact on you journalists. They need examples to show the whole sport world that [they] don't accept doping.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Sweden's Nicklas Backstrom didn't play in the gold-medal game after failing a doping test.

"This is not doping. This is something else."

"He's an innocent victim of circumstances," added Dr. Mark Aubry, the IIHF's chief medical officer. "There is no doping in this instance."

Well, technically it is doping, though, isn't it? The acceptable level for the substance pseudoephedrine in an athlete's body for in-competition testing is 150 micrograms per milliliter, and officials said Sunday that Backstrom's level was around 190. But there is a precedent for players being allowed a test again if that threshold is breached.

Mathieu Schneider of the National Hockey League Players' Association told ESPN.com on Sunday that four years ago in Vancouver, Slovak defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky had a similar test that exceeded the threshold. He was allowed to resubmit a test, and the levels went down. He was given a warning and allowed to continue in the competition.

Of course, with the long gap between the test and the disciplinary hearing, such a retest was not possible in the Backstrom case. 

As for the IOC's stance on the case, spokesman Mark Adams told reporters, "We will not comment on any potential process until it has concluded."

"There's a big problem with the process here," Schneider said. "We should not be talking about this right now. The test was administered on Wednesday and he's pulled out of the game today, on Sunday. We absolutely have to take a look at this process. We have to do a lot of work to figure out what exactly happened, what went wrong and make sure that this doesn't happen again."

Schneider said pseudoephedrine wasn't put on the banned substance for in-competition use until 2012.

"He was not doping," Schneider said. "He was not trying to cheat. At some point common sense has to prevail, and it clearly didn't in this case.

"There's no question about it. You want to catch the cheaters. You don't want people cheating, particularly in these games in such a short tournament. That clearly wasn't the intent.

"I have no doubt in my mind when all's said and done, everyone's going to agree that he should have been able to play. I don't even want to use the word 'unfortunate.' This should not have happened."

Well, it certainly shouldn't have happened this way, that's for sure. Not sure exactly why Sweden team doctor Bjorn Waldeback wouldn't have prescribed something else for Backstrom's allergies if he knew there was even a slight chance of exceeding the level.

But Waldeback said he had spoken to IIHF doctors before the Olympics and they agreed the one pill a day dose that Backstrom was taking -- and had been taking for a number of years -- would not put him in any danger regarding a positive test.

"I could never imagine that one tablet that he took could have these effects and could cause these levels in him," Waldeback said.

I'm going to speak from the heart. The last two weeks have been some of the best in my life. I was getting ready to play the biggest game of my career and two and a half hours [before] I was pulled aside. That's sad.
Nicklas Backstrom

They were wrong.

And that, on some levels, is inexcusable.

Had the IOC purposely delayed the administration of the disciplinary hearing to make some sort of broader point about the committee's zero tolerance for cheaters, as Boustedt alleged, that is likewise inexcusable. Backstrom doesn't fit the profile of the athletes the IOC is trying to keep out of its competitions.

It's hard to synthesize just how big a deal this was. Backstrom was listed on the initial starting lineup but did not come out for the pregame skate. He was replaced by defenseman Henrik Tallinder.

"Of course I don't like it," coach Par Marts said. "I think it sucks. It's like kindergarten."

Canada was the best team Sunday, the best team in the tournament, and Sweden might be the second-best team.

"But I think we should have the right condition to compete with Canada. We didn't have that today," Marts said. "There are rules they are going to follow and they didn't, and that makes me sad. They have to follow the procedure of the rules, but they didn't.

"If we're going to compete with Canada, we need all the best players here, and then Backstrom, what happened, affected us. Of course, we're only human beings." 

Would the Swedes have beaten a dominant Canadian team with Backstrom in the lineup? It's unlikely. But Backstrom was the center on the team's top line with Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson, and he was a key part of the tournament's most effective power-play unit.

Surely there should have been a better way to handle such an important decision at such a critical time. The Washington Capitals center looked grief-stricken as he appeared at the news conference, a knot of photographers clicking away wildly at the start of the briefing.

"I have nothing to hide," said Backstrom, who said he was also tested by the IOC in January. "It was shocking to me, to be honest with you. I feel like I haven't done anything differently than I have the last seven years.

"I'm going to speak from the heart. The last two weeks have been some of the best in my life. I was getting ready to play the biggest game of my career and two and a half hours [before] I was pulled aside. That's sad."

Sad indeed.

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