Months after he nearly lost the chance to compete at his first Olympics due to testing positive for cocaine after a one-night sexual encounter, Shawn Barber is speaking about his ordeal, calling it a “learning experience.”
“It’s something that you have to learn to live with and learn to love and I’m sure I can definitely take quite a bit away from this situation,” said Canada’s top pole vaulter during a conference call held just hours after the news broke Thursday. “I’m happy for every experience life gives me and I think it’s always a growing experience.”
Barber tested positive for trace amounts of the illegal drug, which is considered a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Code, a few weeks before he was scheduled to compete in the Olympics in Rio. According to a ruling released Thursday by the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, the drug entered Barber’s system from kissing a woman he met online ahead of the Canadian Olympic trials in July.
On Aug. 11, just two days before the pole vault was scheduled to begin in Rio, he was cleared to compete after the court ruled he unknowingly ingested the cocaine and “bears no fault or negligence in committing a violation,” the SDRCC report stated.
The 22-year-old Barber, 2015 world champion in pole vault, risked a four-year ban from competition -- which is what the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport had requested -- which would have covered a significant portion of his prime athletic years. However, he received no suspension and forfeited only his 2016 national title and Canadian championship record.
“I’m very happy with the process that we went through. It was quite an ordeal going into the Olympics, but everything worked out the way that I think that it was supposed to,” he told reporters listening on the call.
“This has been a learning experience for Shawn, he is a young athlete learning how to compete on the field of play, and prepare away from it,” a statement from Athletics Canada read.
According to the SDRCC report, on July 8, the day before he competed in — and won — the Canadian Olympic trials in Edmonton, Barber posted an ad on the website Craigslist, using a pseudonym, looking for a “professional person” to have a sexual encounter with as a way to “relieve stress.” He noted in his posting he was looking for someone who was “drug-free and disease-free.”
He arranged to meet with a woman, named only "W" in the report, at a nearby hotel. The woman admitted to doing cocaine that night, including when she was in the bathroom of their hotel room. She also testified that Barber “could not have known that she had ingested the cocaine.”
"I didn’t know that kissing a girl could transfer coke. I didn’t know I could test positive after that," he said.
Barber reiterated during the conference call that he believed he exercised the "utmost caution" during the hookup and stated in the report that he believed because the woman was a mother of two, she would be “more cautious, reserved.”
While he told reporters he didn't regret arranging the online encounter, he said that now he realizes the risks he took by meeting a partner via the Internet and will learn from it moving forward.
"Online dating, online encounters and stuff, those are kind of the future and people that were around trying to date 15 years ago, they didn’t maybe have the same luxury. But this is 2016. I think this is kind of the way places are going for us," he said.
"There is more caution that I have to take now cause I realize that I put myself at risk by kissing a girl," he continued. "Unless you’re in a committed relationship, or you’ve known that girl for a long time, you don’t know that kissing her could possibly transfer some sort of substance into your body.”
Barber’s case is unusual, but the SDRCC ruling noted an earlier precedent with tennis player Richard Gasquet. The Frenchman also tested positive for cocaine and received a ban by the International Tennis Federation. But it was later ruled he inadvertently ingested the drug after he kissed a woman at a nightclub, and he was reinstated. Barber’s legal representative reiterated the point on the conference call.
“It was totally inadvertent ingestion,” said Barber’s lawyer, Paul Greene. “Shawn has never knowingly, ever thought even about taking a prohibited substance so it wasn’t even on his mind at the Olympics because it was a complete freak episode. I mean, this has happened once in history: the Gasquet case and now this is Gasquet 2, where you have inadvertent ingestion of cocaine that is passed to an athlete by way of kissing, which is exactly what happened.”
Barber said receiving the positive test was a “complete shock” and when he learned of it, he immediately retraced his steps the previous few weeks. He reviewed medications he’d been taking for an injured left knee but “it wasn’t until I heard about this Gasquet case that I thought there could be more of a possibility somewhere else,” he said.
Barber was a gold-medal contender in Rio, but failed to execute in the pole vault final and finished 10th. He said his substandard result wasn't due to the positive test or the ruling.
“I’m not here to make excuses one way or another, I’m here to explain my side I suppose. You know, whether I did better or whether I did worse; there’s no changing results and I’m not going to take the position that I would have done better without this issue.”
Going forward, Barber plans to continue to compete in pole vault for Canada.
“I think moving forward is just the same plan as always. I have dreams of doing good things in this sport and hopefully jumping very high and I want to keep making efforts towards that.”