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The Issam Asinga Case: Evil Coverup or Did The Fastest High School Sprinter Ever Test Positive For Drugs After Eating Gatorade Gummies?

Six weeks ago, 19-year-old Issam Asinga, the fastest teen sprinter in world history, was handed a four-year ban from the sport of track & field after testing positive for the banned substance GW1516. Asinga’s positive sample came in July 2023, just days before he ran 9.89 seconds to become, at the time, the youngest person in history to break 10 seconds for 100 meters. Asinga, who had been provisionally suspended since August 2023 by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), appealed the decision to the AIU’s disciplinary tribunal, who ruled against him and upheld the four-year suspension on May 27.

Until then, the details of Asinga’s case had been kept secret. Now they are public, and potentially explosive.

Asinga, who maintains his innocence, blamed the positive test on contaminated Gatorade gummies he received at the company’s National Athlete of the Year ceremony in Los Angeles last summer, where he was honored as high school track & field athlete of the year. Asinga has already appealed his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, where it is expected to be heard later this year. He is also mulling whether to launch a civil suit against Gatorade because the gummies in question falsely carried an NSF Certified for Sport label, which signified that the product did not contain any prohibited substances. NSF has made a public statement saying the gummies from Asinga’s lot number were not NSF Certified and the NSF Certified mark was being used without authorization.

“They distributed a supplement that wasn’t NSF Certified for Sport that had a banned substance in it,” said Asinga’s lawyer Paul Greene. “That’s violation of product liability law, negligence, implied warranty, New York state consumer protection law. I mean, it’s bad. He had the possibility of getting endorsement and NIL deals that were going to be in the millions of dollars and he lost all that as a result of this. He also lost out on the chance to compete in the World Championships and the Olympics.”

The AIU, however, was not satisfied that the gummies were the source of Asinga’s positive test, and its disciplinary tribunal agreed.

Incredible 2023 high school season

Asinga’s is one of the highest-profile doping cases in recent years. After running personal bests of 10.44 seconds in the 100m and 20.76 in the 200m as a junior in 2022 at Principia High School in Missouri, Asinga transferred to Montverde Academy in Florida for his senior year, where he improved enormously and produced one of the greatest seasons ever by a high school sprinter.

During the 2023 indoor season, Asinga won national high school titles in the 60m (6.59) and 200m (20.48) at New Balance Nationals, tying the national record in the former event (he ran 6.57 in the semis) and breaking the national record in the latter. Outdoors, Asinga ran a wind-aided 9.83 in the 100m to defeat Noah Lyles, who would go on to win the world title in that event four months later. Asinga, who was born in the US but represents Suriname internationally, then ran 19.97 in the 200m in April (#2 all-time among US high schoolers) and 9.89 in July to win the South American 100m title in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The latter time ranked Asinga in a tie for ninth in the world in 2023. It was also a world U20 record and was the first time a US high school athlete had broken the fabled 10-second barrier.

Now that world U20 record has been stripped as Asinga finds him at the center of controversy. The 43-page decision in his case released by the AIU presents only two possible versions of events.

Option A: An 18-year-old was caught doping barely a month after being added to the international testing pool. Then he or someone in his camp tried to cover up his doping by manipulating evidence and defaming Gatorade, one of the world’s largest sports nutrition companies.

Option B: One of the greatest sprint talents in history was unjustly banned after consuming a tainted supplement given to him by one of the most famous brands in sports.

Neither picture is particularly rosy for the sport of track & field, but one of them must be true. After reviewing the evidence, the AIU and its disciplinary tribunal is clear which version it believes: Option A. As a result, Asinga is banned from competition until 2027 barring a successful appeal to CAS.

Background: Asinga enters the testing pool

Most high school track athletes, even elite ones, are rarely drug-tested. But by the spring of 2023, Asinga was running so fast it was becoming clear he could be a factor at that summer’s World Championships in Budapest. He was added to the World Athletics Testing Pool on June 1.

Asinga was tested on June 11 and returned a negative result. He was tested again out-of-competition on July 18 (in his training base of Clermont, Fla.) and again at the South American championships on July 28. The July 18 sample tested positive for GW1516, a banned substance that modifies how the body metabolizes fat and has been found to cause cancer. Specifically, Asinga’s sample tested positive for low levels of two metabolites of GW1516 — a metabolite is a substance produced when the body breaks down a specific drug. In this case, Asinga’s urine contained the GW1516 sulfone metabolite (at a concentration of 0.2 nanograms per milliliter in both his A sample and B sample) and the GW1516 sulfoxide metabolite (at a concentration of 0.5 ng/mL in his A sample and 0.4 ng/mL in his B sample).

On August 9, Asinga was informed of his positive test and provisionally suspended from competition. Shortly after, in an effort to prove his innocence, he began sending his supplements to be tested for contamination at the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL), a WADA-accredited lab in Salt Lake City. The first supplement Asinga sent, melatonin gummies, tested negative. Asinga then sent a larger set of supplements, including Airborne and Skratch Lab Hydration packets as well as Gatorade Immune Support Gummies and Gatorade Recovery Gummies, two new products he had received at the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year ceremony on July 10.

All of the supplements tested negative for GW1516 except the Gatorade Recovery Gummies. In December, SMRTL informed the AIU that of the five gummies tested, four were positive for GW1516. That much, the parties agree on. From there, the narratives diverge.

Contaminated during manufacturing or as part of a coverup?

Asinga said he began taking the Recovery Gummies shortly after the ceremony on July 10 — initially two per day, then less consistently before traveling to Brazil for the South American championships on July 25. He said he did not take any gummies to Brazil. Asinga declared the gummies as a supplement on the doping control form for his July 18 test and said he had no concerns about the gummies because the container carried the NSF Certified for Sport label.

Greene said the AIU was initially reluctant to share the results of the SMRTL analysis with Asinga because it viewed the test results of products from an opened container as unreliable.  (LetsRun.com reached out to the AIU for comment on June 2 but had not received an answer as of publication).

“Normally, SMRTL’s process and the AIU’s process is if there is a preliminary finding in a supplement, they don’t initially just tell the athlete straight away,” Greene said. “They try to go and find their own sealed version and test that too and then go to confirmation testing.”

But neither SMRTL nor the AIU could find a sealed version from the same lot number as Asinga’s gummies. So, after several weeks, the AIU relented and shared the news that the Gatorade Recovery Gummies had tested positive for GW1516. Asinga said he felt he was on his way to clearing his name.

“I was like okay, boom,” Asinga told LetsRun.com. “When I got that message, I was like, okay, finally we’re going to move forward.”

But the AIU did not agree with Asinga’s assessment and hinted at something far more sinister. In the disciplinary tribunal hearing, which took place over Zoom on April 30, Martial Saugy, former director of the WADA-accredited lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, served as an expert witness for the AIU and noted that the exterior of the gummies contained much higher concentrations of GW1516 than the interior of the gummies.

“I cannot see how these results would be consistent with a contamination during the manufacture of the gummies,” Saugy said. “These results point to an adulteration of the gummies at a later stage.”

Another key point: Asinga had opened both containers of gummies before sending them to SMRTL. And in SMRTL’s analysis, it noted a “large discrepancy” between the concentration levels of GW1516 between the containers. The two gummies tested from the first container each featured a concentration of at least 610 ng of GW1516 per gummy. Meanwhile of the three gummies tested from the second container, the highest concentration of GW1516 was 1.5 ng per gummy, and one of the gummies did not test positive for GW1516 at all.

This fact left open the possibility for manipulation; to be satisfied of his innocence, the AIU demanded to see a positive test from a separate, sealed container of gummies from the same lot number as Asinga’s.

Separate lot numbers bring questions

This is where things get complicated. The lot number printed on Asinga’s gummy containers was 22092117150234. NSF has issued a statement saying this lot number was not NSF Certified and the NSF Certified mark was being used without authorization. As part of the case, the Lausanne lab did test a sealed container of Gatorade Recovery Gummies, which tested negative. But that container was from a different lot number — lot 22092117150213, which was one of the lots that did receive NSF certification.

The gummies were not manufactured directly by Gatorade, but rather by a company contracted by Gatorade called Better Nutritionals, who manufactured the gummies for Gatorade at its plant in Gardena, Calif. As part of its case, the AIU called a former Better Nutritionals employee as a witness who testified that, for all intents and purposes, lots 22092117150234 and 22092117150213 were identical. This witness, referred to only as Witness B in the decision, made the following argument:

Witness B said lots 22092117150213 and 22092117150234 were part of the same batch of 20,000 jars’ worth of gummies cooked on the same day. That batch of 20,000 jars was separated into two lots: 7,500 jars (lot 22092117150213) would enter the marketplace immediately without the NSF Certified for Sport logo, of which a few would be sent to NSF for testing. The remaining 12,500 jars (aka lot 22092117150234, which included the gummies Asinga received) would be held back and given the NSF Certified logo predicated on NSF testing on lot 22092117150213.

Before NSF testing had been completed, lot 22092117150213 entered the marketplace without the NSF Certified logo.

By October 4, the 12,500 jars from lot 22092117150234 had been labeled NSF Certified. On October 18, Better Nutritionals received confirmation that lot 22092117150213 had been granted NSF certification, which was confirmed on the NSF website.

As proof that the two lots were part of the same batch, Witness B noted that the first six digits of the lot number, which refer to the cook date, were identical: 220921, or September 21, 2022. Furthermore, Witness B said the seventh digit refers to the specific production line used at the factory. Again, both were the same — 1, referring to the first production line.

Witness B said it would not be feasible to produce two separate batches on the same day, noting that a batch with 20,000 jars’ worth of gummies would take roughly 19 hours to complete with a minimum of eight hours to clean the production line between batches.

Witness B and another witness from Better Nutritionals (Witness A) noted there was no logical source for contamination as GW1516 is not an ingredient of any of the other products manufactured in the Gardena plant.

To simplify: one lot of 7,500 jars (lot 22092117150213) was NSF Certified but did not bear the NSF label. Another lot of 12,500 jars (lot 22092117150234) was not NSF Certified but did bear the NSF label, and that is the lot Asinga’s gummies came from. Better Nutritionals claims the two lots were cooked as one large batch of 20,000 jars, and as a result, the fact that one lot was NSF Certified means that both lots should be considered NSF Certified.

To represent him in his appeal, Asinga hired Greene, the sports lawyer who previously represented Jarrion Lawson, Shelby Houlihan, Peter Bol, and many others in their high-profile doping cases. Greene said he does not buy Witness B’s argument.

“There’s no such thing as two lots of the same,” Greene told LetsRun.com. “They’re not the same. Every lot is separate according to NSF and according to FDA rules.”

After it was informed of Asinga’s positive test by the AIU, the NSF conducted its own investigation and issued the following public notice on June 4:

Gatorade® Immune Support Gummies (citrus; lot number 22091937150233) and Gatorade® Recovery Gummies (cherry; lot number 22092117150234), manufactured by Better Nutritionals LLC, have been found in the public domain bearing the NSF Certified for Sport® Mark without authorization. These specific lot numbers, for these products, have not been tested, evaluated or certified by NSF and are not authorized to use the NSF certification mark or make any claims of NSF certification.

Furthermore, Greene noted that Witness B was terminated for cause by Better Nutritionals in December 2022 — the same month Better Nutritionals filed for bankruptcy.

Asinga asked a representative at Gatorade for a sealed container from lot 22092117150234 — the lot from which Assinga’s gummies came — but was informed that Gatorade Recovery Gummies had been discontinued for “manufacturing reasons” (Witness A said the gummies were discontinued because Better Nutritionals went bankrupt). The AIU and SMRTL also requested sealed containers from the same lot, yet Gatorade/Better Nutritionals only made containers from lot 22092117150213 available. Greene says that makes no sense. If the two lots are identical, Greene argues, why not send one from the same lot number as Asinga’s?

“Somehow they had several sealed versions from the 7,500 lot but nothing from the 12,500 lot,” Greene said. “I find it hard to believe they don’t have anything out there and it was an intentional choice to withhold it. It had to be. Why else wouldn’t they give us one from both? What’s the difference?”

 

If Gatorade has no sealed version, Greene says, they are in violation of FDA regulations, which state that supplement manufacturers must hold reserve samples from each lot they produce.

(07/09/2024) Views: 137 ⚡AMP
by Jonathan Gault
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