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Why has Rafael Nadal been accused of doping in France?

The 14-times Roland Garros champion is no stranger to French suspicions of doping but WADA and Spanish experts say foot injections are legal.

Rafa Nadal poses with the trophy after his 14th French Open triumph.
Aurelien MeunierGetty Images

The Spanish Society of Sports Medicine (Semed) has issued a communique in response to allegations of doping that have surfaced in France after Rafa Nadal won a record-extending 14th French Open title at Roland Garros. Nadal suffers from a chronic foot issue calle Müller-Weiss syndrome and required pain-killing injections throughout the tournament in Paris to put his foot to sleep so that he could compete. This has led to accusations from French cyclists Thibaut Pinot and Guillaume Martin, as well as some French media, that the treatment the Spaniard received at the French Open constitutes sports doping.

In a 12-point summary, Semed responded to “comments that are taking place in relation to the treatment received by the tennis player Mr. Rafael Nadal during his participation in the Roland Garros tournament.” Firstly, Semed said that “anesthetic injections are therapeutic procedures of widespread and historical use, both in the field of sports, as well as in the workplace and many others. The indications for such injections are well-defined in medicine and their main objective is to reduce localized pain in an anatomical area.”

Semed also noted that despite the complaints of Pinot and Martin, the latter of whom explained his concerns at length to L’Equipe and said that Nadal’s treatment would not be allowed in cycling: “Anesthetic injections are not prohibited in cycling by the International Cycling Union. Linking the concepts [of pain-killing injections] and doping together is incorrect and possibly intended to cast doubt on the legality of the results of some athletes. An anesthetic injection is not a method of doping except in the case that a prohibited substance is administered in the injection.”

WADA backs Nadal

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)’s director general, Olivier Niggli, weighed in on the debate on Thursday, stating that the injections Nadal received in his foot are permitted by the IOC watchdog.

Such injections “are not on the [WADA] list of prohibited substances, as it considered they do not improve sports performance and are not harmful,” Niggli told Swiss broadcaster RTS.

“Nadal has won 14 titles at Roland Garros, and if he won the previous 13 without the need for injections, it is likely that the fourteenth was not thanks to them,” he added.

Nadal and Les Guignols

This is not the first time Nadal has faced criticism in France based on his success at Roland Garros, where the last French winner of the men’s singles title was Yannick Noah in 1983. In 2012, satirical puppet show Les Guignols ran a skit suggesting Nadal used banned substances, with the strapline “Spanish athletes. They don’t win by chance,” and another in which several Spanish sports stars signed a petition against Alberto Contador’s CAS-imposed two-year doping ban, using syringes instead of pens.

The Les Guignols sketches caused something of a diplomatic incident, with the Spanish Tennis Federation threatening to sue and Spanish ministers demanding apologies. The normally placid Nadal also aimed a dig at his French counterparts, stating: “It’s not against me but against Spain in general. With less, we’ve achieved more than they have, we’re doing something better. It’s not about pills or syringes.”