James Stewart considered retiring amid anti-doping controversy
The Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) announced on Wednesday that it would suspend two-time Monster Energy Supercross Champion James Stewart for 16 months following his failed drug test after the Seattle Supercross on April 12, 2014.
The suspension, retroactive to the date of sample collection, sent shockwaves throughout the motocross industry. With James Stewart being the most globally recognized athlete in the sport (think Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods) and this being the first major suspension surrounding supercross' relatively new anti-doping initiative, it is arguably one of the biggest announcements in 40-plus year history of the sport.
As a result, the 2015 Monster Energy Supercross season will not feature reigning four-time champion Ryan Villopoto nor Stewart, the two most popular riders in the world. Responses to the heavy punishment had the collective sentiment that it was too severe for the crime, in which Stewart failed to complete the proper paperwork to obtain a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for a prescription to Adderall. He has since obtained a TUE for the upcoming season, which as of now he won't be a part of.
Amid the controversy, Stewart admitted in a post to Instagram that he considered retiring but the "love and support" from the industry, sponsors and fans push him to stay on the bike.
"I'm not gonna lie after receiving this devastating news last Friday, I was honestly contemplating retiring," said Stewart on Thursday. "I felt like I couldn't fight anymore. This situation has taken a toll on me. But The support from you the fans this last 24hrs has had me nearly in tears. Reading the comments & seeing all the overwhelming letters, signs, shirts, etc has made me ready to fight & show you the fans & my sponsors what you deserve.
"Thanks to all of you I'm gonna be around for a long time to come. Your support showed me how much you guys appreciate me so with that being said, it's gonna take a lot more than this to run me off. Thank you for literally keeping me on my bike for years to come. The louder you guys are, the more it makes me ready to be back for you."
While there is a consensus that the failure to follow the rules set forth by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the FIM should result in some sort of penalty for Stewart, the 16 month ban and the timing of the announcement has generated the most outrage. So much that even American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) President and CEO Rob Dingman wrote a letter to FIM President Vito Ippolito expressing his utter displeasure in the handling of the matter and the resulting decision that takes out the sport's biggest star mere weeks before the start of the 2015 season.
As an International Olympic Committee (IOC) affiliated agency, WADA is unsurprisingly unforgiving when it comes to failed tests, regardless of substance or intent. With the Olympics serving as the most coveted and prestigious form of athletic competition, this is understandable. However, that same mentality surely presents issues when applied to annual sporting competitions like supercross that possess a fixed season.
A similar case to Stewart's presented itself with Australian road racer Anthony West in 2012 and into 2013, as Racer X's Jason Weigandt pointed out. West tested positive for an illegal stimulant and was then suspended for a month by the FIM. However, the association between the FIM and WADA allows for the anti-doping agency to appeal the FIM's decision if it deems it insufficient. WADA did just that and ultimately requested a 24-month ban through the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). It was then determined by the CAS that the suspension would be altered to 18 months.
Stewart's 16-month ban, which will end on August 11, 2015, is comparable to the penalty levied against West, but in relation to mainstream sports like the NFL and MLB, which utilize its own anti-doping policies, it's exceptionally harsher. Last September Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis experienced the exact same problem as Stewart. He took Adderall but did not have a TUE in place and was subsequently suspended for 25 games. Most recently, Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata also failed a test for using Adderall and is in the midst of his suspension that sidelines him for the rest of the regular season. These punishments emphasize the point of a correlation between the penalty and the fixed season of competition.
With its Olympic background, it's obvious that WADA has a very strict no tolerance policy when it comes to failed tests. While the FIM is ultimately responsible for determining the length of the suspension, its past experience was evident in the penalty given to Stewart. This outcome has surely put every single competitor in Monster Energy Supercross on alert and you can bet that everyone will pay much closer attention to the paperwork required of them as well as the substances they are putting into their body for the entirety of the season. It's obvious that there is a tremendous consequence for any misstep, but unfortunately it came at the expense of the sport's biggest name and due to the many variables associated with the case, the crux of the problem at hand appears to have been lost and overshadowed by the seemingly unfit punishment.
While Stewart will surely appeal, and theoretically can call attention to the punishments given to athletes in other sports for similar infractions, it remains to be seen if he will be on the track at all in 2015. With the strong support of the AMA, who co-sanctions supercross, there actually could be a good chance the suspension is reduced to a more realistic level, but this is also uncharted territory for the sport and there's simply no way to know how it might all unfold.