Spurs' Chioma Ubogagu reveals details of acne medication doping ban

Chioma Ubogagu of Spurs

Tottenham Hotspur forward Chioma Ubogagu has revealed the details of a nine-month ban she was issued following an anti-doping violation.

The England international was tested by UK Anti-Doping in October 2021 and her sample contained the banned substance canrenone, which originated from the player’s prescribed acne medication.

The substance is not a performance-enhancer, but is classed as a diuretic, which “can be used to mask other substances.”

Ubogagu, who joined Spurs from Real Madrid in July 2021, will not be eligible to compete again until October 2022.

The 29-year-old has shed light on the “complex” reality of the situation through an open and honest submission to The Players’ Tribune.

“If you’ve read the FA statement, maybe you’ve already made up your own mind about my situation,” she started. “I’m a pretty open-minded person, but I know I probably would have too. It’s just that word ‘doping’. It’s so definitive, right? It’s synonymous with steroids, cheating, trying to get an athletic advantage.

“But that’s not me.”

“Nothing could’ve seemed less performance-related than skin treatment.”

Ubogagu explained that she was totally unaware her acne medication was classed as a banned substance.

Prior to her move to Tottenham, the former Arsenal player had spent several years in the United States, where she competed for NWSL sides Houston Dash and Orlando Pride. During her time in the States, she visited a dermatologist who prescribed her with treatment for her skin condition, which is something she admits she has struggled with since she was a teenager.

Ubogagu explained that she continues to suffer with acne in her adult years and it often becomes problematic during stressful situations or changes in environment.

Ahead of her move back to England last summer, she went to see her old dermatologist from the US, who prescribed her with two forms of treatment: minocycline and spironolactone. 

The forward admitted that, while on reflection, she should’ve known to check her medication, she had no reason to doubt that what she had been prescribed was safe to use. Her dermatologist had full knowledge of her career as a footballer, and she had never had any issues with previous prescriptions.

“Nothing could’ve seemed less performance-related than skin treatment,” she said.

The law is black and white, but the reality is far more complex.

Ubogagu completed her move to Spurs in July, but the medical process was delayed due to Covid-19 protocol. She said her physical examination was done via Zoom from the States, and after that, she collected her prescriptions from the dermatologist.

After moving to London, she ran out of minocycline, which she stated carried no issues when it came to renewing her prescription. She simply informed Craig, the team doctor at Spurs, and she was able to collect a refill. But it was when she ran out of her second medication, spironolactone, that things became complicated.

Craig had flagged the medication to Ubogagu and stressed that it was a banned substance.

“I found out that spironolactone is not performance-enhancing — and to be clear it gave me zero athletic advantage in my sport — but it’s banned because it is a diuretic. Basically, it can be used to mask other substances. I had absolutely no idea,” she said.

“Is this it? Because of acne medication?”

Ubogagu said she felt “totally helpless” after discovering her medication was on the list of banned substances.

Initially, there was hope of the forward being granted a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), and she was also referred to a UK-based dermatologist, who admitted they would have prescribed Ubogagu the same medication based on her case history.

In December, she discovered she had failed the drugs test, but remained unshaken due to her confidence in receiving a TUE. However, players are required to apply for TUEs before taking the substance in question, meaning her appeal was denied.

Stephanie Houghton of England and Chioma Ubogagu of England warm up during the England Women Training Session at St Georges Park on April 02, 2019 in Burton-upon-Trent, England. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Ubogagu was sent a provisional suspension by the FA in January, which threatened a suspension of two to four years — a maximum of 48 months.

“There’s only a certain amount of time you can do this job, and two to four years is such a prime chunk,” Ubogagu said. “At my age — I’m 29 — you start to think, ‘Is this it? Because of acne medication?’

“I felt isolated, so cut off from the thing I’d loved since I was three years old. When that provisional suspension hit, it changed me. I couldn’t watch games on TV anymore. And I’m someone who watches football all the time. But it became this reminder of what I was missing and I just couldn’t face the possibility that this could all really be over.

“A lot of the time when you’re injured or you’ve had a bad result, there’s stuff in your control as an athlete. But these months? In this situation? There was literally nothing I could do. I couldn’t will it to be better. I couldn’t work harder or do another rep or set. I just had to have faith and wait. After I accepted that, I had this kind of peace come over me.”

To be clear, I never gave up on anything, I just stopped allowing the unknown to have such a grip on me.

Ubogagu went through a series of emotions as she tried to deal with what she thought was the end of her career.

In April, the appeal decision finally came through and she was elated to discover that she had received a nine-month ban, backdated to January.

“Had someone told me a year ago that I’d be celebrating a ban of nine months at this stage in my career, I would’ve thought they were crazy … but everything in perspective, right?”

Chioma Ubogagu of Brisbane Roar in action during the round five W-League match between the Newcastle Jets and the Brisbane Roar at McDonald Jones Stadium on November 29, 2018 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

The Spurs ace has her return in sight and is longing for the moment she can return to training with her teammates and play in the Women’s Super League again. And while she is extremely grateful that she is not facing a four-year ban, Ubogagu has used this experience as an opportunity to stress the importance of checking medication for banned substances, no matter how ridiculous it may seem in the moment.

“You might know in your heart that you’re not a cheat, but you may still end up with a ban the same as someone who is. The system is just that severe, so you need to be extra careful.”

Ubogagu will be available to represent Spurs again in October 2022 and will hope to make an impact for her new team after their impressive fifth-place finish last season.

“Nine months is long, but it’s not The End. I’m buzzing that I’ll be back next season and I just wanna make the remaining years I have left count.”

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