June 24, 2024
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Simona Halep during the Australian Open quarter-finals in Melbourne, Aus. on Feb 16, 2021.ALANA HOLMBERG/The New York Times News Service

A Toronto-area nutritional-supplement company is criticizing news reports tying it to a doping scandal that earned tennis star Simona Halep a four-year ban from competition, saying it is being dragged into the spotlight because the former world No. 1 women’s singles player needs a scapegoat.

The Romanian news outlet Gazeta Sporturilor (GSP) said last month that Scarborough-based Quantum Nutrition, which markets a range of dietary supplements and natural foods under the brand name Schinoussa Superfoods, was identified as a potential source of a forbidden performance-enhancing substance that an independent tribunal ruled Halep had ingested before last year’s U.S. Open.

The company’s name had been redacted from the official report, but became known after it was published in an investigative series by GSP.

John Koveos, the founder of Quantum Nutrition, said his company is being made into “the fall guy,” as Halep’s team examines ways to appeal the ruling.

“They needed somebody to blame,” Koveos said during an interview with The Globe and Mail, his first public comments since the story broke.

Halep tested positive in August, 2022, for roxadustat, an anemia medication, which increases the production of red blood cells and, therefore, available oxygen in the body. The drug, which is prescribed for kidney-disease patients who are on dialysis, is administered orally rather than by injection, such as the popular doping substance erythropoietin (EPO), making it conceivable for an athlete to take it without knowing they are doing so.

It has an elimination half-life of 10 to 16 hours – meaning the body flushes it relatively quickly after use – making it difficult to detect.

It is prescribed in China, Japan and South Korea, but has not been approved for use in Canada or the United States.

Halep’s team testified the drug must have come from a contaminated batch of Schinoussa Keto MCT, which she was taking as a collagen supplement. (The product has since changed its formulation and no longer contains marine collagen; it consists wholly of coconut oil powder.) Halep was taking the product under the guidance of Patrick Mouratoglou, the former coach of Serena Williams, who began working with the Romanian player in early 2022.

The Halep story is a hot one in Romania, where the tennis star’s personal and professional dramas are breathlessly chronicled. And it has underscored the secretive and largely unregulated business of sport supplements, which Paul Melia, the former head of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, has warned involves “a little Russian roulette” for athletes.

GSP sent a reporter to Canada to investigate the business practices of Quantum Nutrition, publishing a collection of photographs and videos showing a cluttered office and warehouse space in a bland one-story office park. One photo, apparently taken through a window, shows a pair of dead insects next to some courier packages.

GSP spoke with Kostas Koveos, Quantum’s CEO and the brother of John Koveos, and noted he has an unlikely background for a supplement executive, citing a résumé he posted online indicating aspirations in the acting world and qualifications as an auto mechanic. It described a heated exchange in which he denied the company’s product was tainted, before insisting the reporter leave the premises.

A lawyer for Halep said last month he had filed a US$10-million lawsuit against Quantum Nutrition for damages, but Kostas Koveos told GSP that his company had not received any formal notice of a lawsuit. John Koveos confirmed to The Globe that no suit had been filed; further The Globe was unable to find any such suit in the Ontario court system.

In a follow-up story, GSP said Quantum Nutrition had contracted out the manufacturing of Keto MCT to what is known in the industry as a “co-packer,” which receives raw ingredients from different suppliers, then blends and packages them to order. GSP visited the Vaughan, Ont., location of that co-packer, Custom Food Packaging, but it had closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

John Koveos told The Globe that, though he did not have direct oversight of the blending and packaging of his products, he was “100-per-cent confident” in them. He also dismissed GSP as “a total tabloid,” saying he refused to talk to the outlet because the reporter “already has his conclusion before he did any investigations.”

The GSP reporter, Costin Ştucan, told The Globe he had requested an interview with John Koveos before visiting the company’s offices, but had not received a reply.

John Koveos told The Globe that Quantum Nutrition supplies products to “hundreds of athletes,” including Olympians, CFL and NHL players, and that the company has a “100-per-cent clean record on all our athletes, and they’re regularly tested.” He said Halep “was not the only athlete using that particular product on that particular day” at the U.S. Open, but declined to identify any of the other tennis players.

In a statement on the ruling, the International Tennis Integrity Agency, the sport’s anti-doping organization, which brought the charges against Halep, noted that “the tribunal accepted Halep’s argument that they had taken a contaminated supplement, but determined the volume the player ingested could not have resulted in the concentration of roxadustat found in the positive sample.”

The tribunal report also raised questions about Halep’s adherence to testing standards, noting it had “strong grounds for suspicion” that she had been doping before Wimbledon in the summer of 2022, at which she lost in the semi-finals. But it couldn’t be “comfortably satisfied,” as Halep’s athlete biological passport (ABP) was missing blood samples from April to September of that year. The ABP system is used to detect anomalies that could support a charge of doping.

After returning to Romania, Ştucan said the entire episode raises troubling questions about the sports-supplement industry. “The only thing I can say after my visit to Canada is the supplement industry is clearly lacking regulations,” he said. “The athletes are taking a lot of risks by using supplements produced in a warehouse, using ingredients with uncertain origins.”

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