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Former Junior World Champion Suspended for Refusing Drug Test

Note: Although Stab tried to contact Vasco Ribeiro to ask for a comment on the matter, the surfer did not want to respond at this time.

It was 9:00 p.m. on April 17, 2022, when Mário Simões, an anti-doping control inspector working on behalf of ISA, rang the bell at the address in Cascais provided by Vasco Ribeiro on the Acknowledgement of Receipt form he had signed earlier to confirm his inclusion in the ISA Registered Testing Pool (RTP) of top-level athletes subject to both In-Competition and Out-of-Competition testing.

Appearing unannounced, Simões introduced himself to the surfer and gave him the reason for his visit, which was in the presence of his mother. According to Simões, “the athlete just says ‘OK,’ turns his back on me and goes home with his mother.” Moments later, the surfer’s mother returned and told the officer that her son had called his coach, who had instructed him not to take the test.

Simões claims that he warned the surfer’s mother about the seriousness of refusing the test and its consequences, although the surfer’s mother denies that the officer ever mentioned what an actual sanction might mean. At 9:11 p.m., Ribeiro returned to the main gate and maintained his refusal because, as Simões stated, “he was on the phone with his coach and the coach instructed him to refuse the test because the athlete had been drinking alcohol the night before.”

A room that Ribeiro won’t see for a while. Photo: Pedro Mestre/WSL

According to Simões, the surfer asked to have the incident classified as an “Unsuccessful Attempt” rather than a “Refusal,” which was flatly rejected by the officer. Simões then asked if he could speak to the surfer’s coach, but this request was also rejected by the surfer. Ribeiro refused to sign the Doping Control Form or provide a written reason for his refusal, retreated home, and ignored the officer’s subsequent attempt to persuade him not to refuse the test and to allow contact with the coach, identified in court documents as Nuno Telmo.

Simões never saw the surfer again, though his mother returned outside and reiterated that her son would not take the test, despite his coach’s advice.

According to official court documents, on May 24, 2022, the International Testing Agency notified the athlete on behalf of the ISA that it was considering filing charges against him for an anti-doping rule violation. Ribeiro was invited to submit written statements, which he did on June 15, 2022.

Ribeiro explained that he was a single parent of two young girls and that he was having difficulties with his girlfriend around April 17, 2022. To comfort him, friends in the surfing community organized a party on April 16, 2022, where he consumed alcohol and was offered and used marijuana and cocaine.

He further explained that when Mário Simões came to test him, he was putting his daughters to bed and was surprised by what he had consumed the night before. Ribeiro said he was stressed, anxious and unable to think clearly. He claimed that he was unaware of the consequences of being included in the ISA Registered Testing Group and that refusing to submit to sampling could constitute an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV). He added that the lack of anti-doping education provided by the Portuguese Surfing Federation influenced his decision-making process.

In his defense appeal, Ribeiro fully admitted to taking banned substances the night before he refused to take the test and was willing to cooperate with any further disciplinary proceedings. He also cited the economic and professional impact that being unable to compete could have on his life as a single parent. He was also willing to work in the days following the request for the test to prove that he had not taken any banned substances other than those at the aforementioned party.

On July 13, 2023, the Anti-Doping Division of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) imposed a three-year suspension on Ribeiro and disqualified him from all results achieved since April 17, 2022, including a second-place finish in the QS3000 competition in Portugal.

At the time, Ribeiro released a statement saying, “Today I was informed that I will be suspended from sports competitions for three years for missing doping tests. It is time to accept the consequences of my actions and publicly say that I was wrong: I missed the tests because I had a drug problem.” He added, “Over the past year, after treatment and professional help, I have risen from a very low point in my personal and sporting life. Over the past year, I have been a better father, son and friend. Throughout the past year, I have trained like never before.”

Ribeiro continued: “To all those who have supported me and continue to support me in these difficult times, a big thank you. I will return stronger, more motivated and even more determined.”

On August 3, 2023, Ribeiro filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). A hearing was held on January 18, 2024, at the CAS headquarters, with the International Testing Agency (ITA) representing the ISA. Following a hearing and review of the written submissions and evidence, on June 17, 2024, CAS maintained its position that the Athlete had committed an anti-doping rule violation by refusing to provide a Sample for Testing, pursuant to Article 2.3 of the ISA Anti-Doping Rules.

Ribeiro’s decision to refuse to take the test proved to be a critical mistake. He was unaware that refusing to take a test is considered a more serious offense than testing positive for substances such as cocaine or marijuana out of competition. The ISA Anti-Doping Code, specifically section 10.2.4.1, states that athletes who can prove their use of prohibited substances occurred out of competition and was unrelated to performance face a three-month period of ineligibility. Ironically, had Ribeiro taken the test and tested positive, he likely would have received a much more lenient penalty.

However, the court took into account Ribeiro’s limited knowledge of the testing process and its implications, ultimately reducing the maximum sentence from four to three years.

Vasco Ribeiro on top of the (junior) world in 2014. Photo: Damien Poullenot/WSL

Strong and powerful, Vasco was considered Portugal’s next great hope with his brand of power surfing. He became the country’s youngest champion at 17 and won a record four titles – both records that still stand today. In 2014, after becoming European champion, Vasco beat Italo Ferreira in a combination to become junior world champion in Ribeira d’Ilhas, near Praia da Poça, the compact Cascais beach where he grew up surfing.

A year later, Ribeiro was defeated by Italo in the semi-finals of the Rip Curl Pro Portugal, earning an impressive 3rd place as a CT wildcard.

The last few years have proven to be a challenge for the 29-year-old. In 2022, he announced a break from surfing to focus on his mental health. Upon his return, Vasco was surfing a Moroccan slab with good friend Ramzi Boukhiam when he fell into a barrel before hitting his face on a rock. “I blacked out and for the first time (in my life) I thought I was going to drown!” he wrote.

Ramzi, Achraf Bakhcha and a local named Ismael rushed to Vasco’s aid and took him to hospital, where he received 50 stitches to his face. On Instagram, Ribeiro wrote: “A big thank you to all my Moroccan family, if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be writing this post.”

Ribeiro joins a small group of surfers who have been suspended from competition, including Raoni Monteiro and Neco Padaratz, who were suspended for doping, and Mark Richardson was retroactively punished and stripped of his gold medal two years after winning the 2011 ISA World Championships for smoking a joint.

Shortly after Andy Irons died, reportedly from a combination of a heart attack and drugs in his system, the ASP announced its own Drug Testing Policy, which benefited from additional funding and resources when the organization was acquired by ZoSea. To date, there are no public records of surfers flagged in these tests.

Given the rarity of such instances, you would assume that most professional surfers are straight edgers, right?