SII Focus 3rd August 2015

German documentary raises questions over doping and athlete privacy

A doping documentary, ‘Geheimsache Doping – Im Schattenreich der Leichtathletik’, has raised serious questions about the extent of doping in athletics and whether officials were complicit, but also about how a large amount of private medical data ended up in the public domain. ‘Doping – Top Secret: The Shadowy World of Athletics’, which screened on German broadcaster ARD on Saturday 1 August, contained video evidence which appeared to show Russian and Kenyan athletes doping. It also analysed a database of 12,000 blood tests performed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) on 5,000 athletes from 2001-2012. Analysis of this data by experts concluded that many of the blood values could not be explained naturally and suggested widespread doping within athletics.

IAAF blood data

Analysis of the data obtained by the programme by the Sunday Times showed that for about one in seven athletes, they found values that – for 99% of athletes – could not be explained naturally. This equates to approximately 800 athletes. The analysis found that roughly every third medal won in World Championship and Olympic endurance events between 2001 and 2012 had blood values which at least one expert would regard as suspicious. Every sixth medal was won by an athlete with blood values that experts concluded was ‘highly suspicious’ as having doped at some point in their career. In one event, the entire podium was composed of athletes which the data suggested may have doped at some point in their career. The analysis also concluded that two thirds of the medalists identified in the database as having suspicious blood values remained unchecked – meaning that the IAAF had only begun proceedings against one third of them. One expert identified 150 medals as suspicious.

“From the values in the database, there’s no question in my mind that athletics World Championship and Olympic distance events have been contaminated by blood doping”, said Dr. Michael Ashenden, a blood doping expert interviewed in the documentary. “It would have been near impossible to compete against some of the blood values that I evaluated. Some results were simply grotesque in their extremity. They were quite easily the worst I have ever seen.”

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Ashenden was the driving force behind the development of the Athlete Biological Passport for the Union Cycliste Internationle (UCI), but quit the body in 2012. WADA had recommended that anti-doping organisations (ADOs) such as the IAAF run their biological passports through new Athlete Passport Management Units, and it is understood that Ashenden was concerned that confidentiality clauses within the agreements prevented any criticism of the system.

“If the values in the database are correct, then it reveals that at every world championships and Olympic Games since Sydney 2000, medals have been won in at least one of the distance events by an athlete who at some point in their career had – most probably – engaged in blood doping”, continued Ashenden. “This holds true for both males and females. Often two out of the three medalists had probably engaged in blood doping during their career. In one event, the entire podium was comprised of athletes who – in my opinion – had most probably doped at some point in their career […] Some extreme results in the database were collected in the past few years during the biological passport era, which suggests to me that athletics is in the same diabolical position today that cycling was in 20 years ago”.

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Data breach

The leak of the IAAF data is not new. In December last year, the Daily Telegraph obtained a copy of the data. In March this year, the Sports Integrity Initiative reported on how the IAAF sent a letter to Hajo Seppelt – the journalist behind this weekend’s documentary and a number of other doping investigations – asking him not to reveal the medical data.

It is understood that the IAAF dropped an injunction preventing the Sunday Times from publishing its analysis of the data on Friday 1 August. ‘[The allegations] are largely based on analysis of an IAAF Data Base of private and confidential medical data which has been obtained without consent’, read a 2 August IAAF statement. ‘The IAAF is now preparing a detailed response to both media outlets and will reserve the right to take any follow up action necessary to protect the rights of the IAAF and its athletes.’ It is not yet known why the IAAF dropped its injunction. Questions have been raised about who leaked the data and why.

“The breach of privacy is egregious”, said Richard Ings, former CEO of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA). “If the IAAF can’t secure the medical information of 5,000 athletes, then it should be held accountable”.

“I believed that athlete personal data were protected, especially in doping cases”, said Jean Francois Reymond, CEO of athlete representative organisation EU Athletes. “It’s a really interesting development in the context of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation, where the sports movement is trying to get an exemption.”

For me, one of the biggest issues and one that seems to have been overlooked with this story is that there has been a serious breach of confidentiality”, said Mike Morgan, Founding Partner at Morgan Sports Law LLP. “We have 5,000 athletes, over 12,000 blood tests, all of which should have remained confidential. I don’t doubt that some of those suspected athletes may well have doped. However we don’t know anything about the conditions in which the blood samples were stored, whether the suspected athletes suffered from any medical conditions which could have skewed their blood parameters, whether they were training at high altitude, whether they suffered any blood loss – in other words, we don’t know anywhere near enough information to be able to come to any kind of informed, sensible conclusion. There is a real risk that the list of names will eventually leak, and that’s really unfair on the athletes named on it, many of whom will now be retired and – with the best will in the world – won’t be able to explain why some of their blood values from 14 years ago appear abnormal. Ultimately, it’s got to be the IAAF’s job to protect the identity of the athletes and the confidentiality of this data. When they agree to provide their samples, athletes trust that their personal data is going to remain confidential, particularly if they are never charged with the commission of an anti-doping rule violation. That is an integral part of the anti-doping system.”

“The IAAF didn’t adopt the athlete biological passport (ABP) until 2009, and the significance of that is that the leaked values relate to samples collected between 2001 and 2012”, continued Morgan. “So, for at least eight years of that period of time, there was no ABP. The significance of that is that if a suspicious blood value was reported back then, it would have triggered a further investigation – perhaps targeted testing, for example. Other than that, a single value – on its own – means nothing. And that is a huge part of the problem with any attempt to draw conclusions from the leaked data. Of those 5,000 athletes, we don’t know how many have had multiple blood test results. You can’t do anything with a single blood value. The whole point of the ABP is that it measures each individual athlete’s blood parameters over a period of time to determine what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘abnormal’ for that individual. You can’t call a single blood value ‘highly unusual’. It might be unusual as compared to the next person, but it may not be unusual for that particular individual or given certain circumstances.”

Other allegations

The documentary also made a number of other serious allegations against athletes and officials falling under the IAAF’s jurisdiction. The first focussed on Russian distance athletes. It featured a recording which it alleged was Russian athlete Tatyana Myazina confessing to taking erythropoietin (EPO). Another recording allegedly featured Russian national team member Kristina Ugarova confessing to changing from taking EPO to steroids.

It also featured further recordings which it alleged were Mariya Savinova, who took gold in the 800m at the London 2012 Olympics, confessing to doping using human growth hormone (HGH). It also released new recordings which it claimed was Savinova’s coach, Vladimir Kazarin, confessing to supplying athletes with performance-enhancing drugs such as oxandrolone and EPO through ‘micro-dosing’ to avoid detection. Kazarin has already said that he will sue documentary-maker Seppelt over allegations in previous documentaries.

Another confession to using steroids is from Anastasia Bazdireva, according to the documentary. Yevgeniya Pecherina, who in December last year claimed that large numbers of Russian athletes were doping, pulled out of taking part in the documentary, claiming that she had been threatened.

However, perhaps the most remarkable statement unveiled in the documentary about Russian athletics originated in this article by Svetlana Zhurova, a former Russian speed skater turned politician, who became vice-Speaker in the fifth state Duma and a member of the supervisory board of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA). ‘On the one hand, RUSADA is responsible for ensuring that athletes from Russia on foreign trips are “clean”’, she writes. ‘And to provide advance warning on when the collection of control tests would take place – always on the evening of departure of any of our team to international competitions. Because, sometimes, the athlete is not ready to work with doctors and operates alone. He could treat himself for some injury – perhaps nose inhalers used out of ignorance. If the test results show the presence of doping, coaches will be able to leave this athlete “on the bench”, or allow him to develop individual treatment that, by the time of the competition, neutralises the effects of the illicit drugs.’

The documentary also provided evidence that Kenyan marathon runner Geoffrey Kipketer Tarno had died after taking EPO without medical supervision. Tarno was from a small mountain village near Eldoret, which has been implicated in previous doping investigations. The documentary showed that EPO is still widely available around Eldoret, and provided video evidence of Kenyan and European athletes injecting it.

Rita Jeptoo, who in February received a two-year ban for using EPO, told the documentary makers that she had never received a blood test whilst in Kenya, and she had been competing professionally since 2006. It also said that Athletics Kenya had not responded to questions about why Viola Chelangat Kimetto had been allowed to take part in an October 2014 Marathon in Zagreb, despite having been banned nine months earlier.

The documentary also alleged that the senior management have been siphoning sponsorship money from Nike out of Athletics Kenya, showing documentary evidence of large cash withdrawals after large sponsorship payments were made.

 

Official responses

In an official statement, WADA said that it was ‘very alarmed’ by the allegations. It was already investigating doping claims made in ARD’s previous December documentary, ‘Geheimsache Doping – Wie Russland seine Sieger machete’, and said that it would report its results by the end of the year. In the light of the new allegations, it appears that this report may be delayed. ‘The Independent Commission is scheduled to deliver its report to WADA’s President by year-end unless he deems it appropriate to extend the mandate’, read the statement.

Athletics Kenya said that the documentary made ‘serious and sweeping allegations of doping’, and also questioned the integrity of its leaders without allowing them an opportunity to respond. ‘The documentary is made largely based on private and confidential data as well as forged documents ostensibly from AK which are now a subject of investigations by the relevant authorities’, read a statement. ‘In fact, it is important to indicate that the author of the documentary has not contacted Athletics Kenya for any clarifications, as claimed on the documentary’. RUSADA has yet to issue a response, however in a statement, the Russian athletics federation (VFLA) said that it was ’seriously concerned’ by the allegations and would be investigating them.

Analysis

The Sunday Times report claims that one of the athletes is a top British athlete, and they reported multiple blood values relating to that athlete. We don’t know what period these values relate to. Following further investigation, the IAAF decided not to prosecute that athlete for an anti-doping rule violation, according to the report. The athlete claimed that the results were because they were training at high altitude. The IAAF accepted this, which means that the athlete had been exonerated.

Also, if an athlete’s blood values are flagged as suspicious and it triggers a further investigation, all that is likely to mean is that the athlete will be subjected to further targeted testing. This could mean that many of the athletes involved in this set of data won’t know that they have been red flagged in the first place.

However, the experts claim that the ‘abnormal’ results should have been followed up. “Someone has been collecting the results, somebody has overseen the results, but someone has decided not to take any action on many of those results”, said Robin Parisotto, an anti-doping expert with the Australian Institute of Sport in the documentary. “So for me, whoever within the IAAF and international federations is responsible for managing those results, they’ve obviously not done a very good job.”

And if further athlete positives result from the leaked IAAF data, this could make the IAAF financially culpable, according to Ashenden. “For the IAAF to have harvested millions of dollars of broadcasting of athletics competitions from around the world, year after year, yet to only devote a relative pittance of those funds towards anti-doping, when they must have seen the terrible truth of what lay beneath the surface is – in my opinion – a shameful betrayal of their primary duty to police their sport and to  protect their clean athletes”, he told the documentary.

It remains to be seen what the next move will be. The IAAF is set to release a more detailed statement in due course, and it will be interesting to see the response from RUSADA on the specific allegations made against its athletes.

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