04 August, 2015

The biggest doping crisis in Athletics?

What drew my attention to this was a short post on the IAAF website on allegations related to IAAF anti-doping. They were talking about a broadcast on WDR in Germany and an article in the Sunday Times newspaper. I was intrigued and decided to learn more. The WDR broadcast fortunately does exist in english. The Sunday Times article though, lies behind a paywall and, although one can see the front page,

it is not really readable. Fortunately dozens of sites have reported on this and one can piece together all the details of what may turn out to be the biggest doping scandal ever.

So what did happen? Apparently somebody leaked the IAAF database with the results of 12000 plus blood tests by more than 5000 athletes for the period 2001 to 2012. The data were analysed by two anti-doping experts, R. Parisotto (who had invented the test to detect EPO) and M. Ashenden. Their conclusions were shocking. According to them

The blood test of more than 800 athletes  are "highly suggestive of doping or at the very least abnormal".

A third of the medals in endurance events at the Olympics and World Championships over the 11 year period were won by athletes with suspicious tests. 

While Mo Farah and Usain Bolt, who have been the subject of whispering campaigns, emerge as clean with no abnormal results, a top UK athlete is among seven Britons with suspicious blood scores.

In some finals all three medals (and 10 medals at the London, 2012, Olympics, alone) were won by athletes with suspicious blood tests. 

Russia accounted for 415 abnormal tests (80 % of Russia's medal winners having recorded suspicious scores at some point in their careers), followed by Ukraine, Morocco, Spain, Kenya, Turkey and others. 

The experts were particularly vocal about these findings

Parisotto said: "Never have I seen such an alarmingly abnormal set of blood values. Some of the values in these athletes were so extreme that they were downright dangerous and the risks to their health were indisputable. So many athletes appear to have doped with impunity, and it is damning that the IAAF appears to have idly sat by and let this happen."

According to Ashenden it is "a shameful betrayal of the IAAF's primary duty to police their sport and to protect clean athletes" and he went on to add that "the files show that athletics is now in the same diabolical position as cycling during the Lance Armstrong era".

I am intrigued by the "top UK athlete" involved in the "suspicious blood test" affair. Just four british athletes have won a medal at the 2012 Olympics: Farah, Ennis, Rutherford and Ohuruogu. The integrity of Ennis has never ever been questioned and Farah, as we have just seen, is also clean. Ohuruogu has dabbled with doping in the past (although it was just a missed "whereabout") so I do not think she would be playing with fire: a second offence would lead to a life-time ban. Of course, it could be some non-medalist, in which case any speculation is pointless. 

I am a fan of conspiracy theories and the fact that all this was revealed just a few days before the election of the new IAFF president may be meaningful. With Ukraine being the second country behind Russia in suspicious results and S. Bubka being candidate for the IAAF presidency one may wonder. Of course Bubka himself has immediately reacted to the news, saying that "We will not stop the fight. We know that in the 21st century doping is the biggest danger and there will be zero tolerance. If we need to strengthen our rules and regulations we will do it". 

The other person bidding for the IAAF presidency, Lord Sebastian Coe, has also reacted saying that he expects a robust response from the world athletics governing body and pledged the IAAF would treat extremely seriously allegations. Here of course there is something I do not understand. Both Bubka and Coe are IAAF vice-presidents. How come they were not aware of the existence of the blood test database and of its significance?

Of course, as Kelly Sotherton pointed out, "irregular blood tests do not mean doping". Other factors may play an important role: training in altitude, blood transfusion, dehydration, to name but a few. (By the way, it seems that blood transfusions are in vogue among endurance athletes and coupled with EPO micro-doses they eschew detection by the standard anti-doping procedures).

I did like particularly the BBC article who included a photo of Gatlin with the caption "American Justin Gatlin, a two-time drug cheat (emphasis mine), has established himself as the dominant male sprinter this year". I have amply written concerning Gatlin and I wouldn't like to comment further. (Perhaps after Beijing).

So it seems that Athletics, despite the fact that it was one of the first sports to introduce the biological passport, having weathered East Germany's years of state-sponsored doping, Ben Johnson's 1988 disqualification and the Balco, 2002, affair, is still plagued by drug scandals. In any case, London 2012's reputation as the cleanest Games in 50 years is now seriously questioned.

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