SII Focus 9th September 2015

UK Parliamentary debate: IAAF needs to act to win back public

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) needs to take action to win back the public, which has lost trust in athletics following allegations that it failed to follow up suspicious blood values. That was the overriding message from a UK Parliament Culture, Media & Sport select committee hearing today (available below), which heard evidence from Dr. Michael Ashenden, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Director General David Howman and Nicole Sapstead (pictured) and David Kenworthy of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD).

That action could include appointing an independent anti-doping body; publishing anonymous blood ‘offscores’ to show that it is tackling doping; better sharing of its data with sporting and anti-doping bodies; implementation of a ‘no start’ rule; quicker responses to crises and more. The CMS Committee also identified a number of areas where the anti-doping system had failed to address the issues raised in the IAAF database, which contained 12,000 blood values involving 5,000 athletes from 2001-2012. Opinion differed on whether an anonymised version of the IAAF data should be published in order to restore public confidence.

Credibility of the IAAF response

In August, the IAAF released a detailed response to the allegations made by ARD and the Sunday Times, calling into question the scientific analysis performed by Dr. Parisotto and Dr. Ashenden for ARD and the Sunday Times. The two scientists issued a response supporting their analysis a day later. At the CMS Committee meeting, both WADA and UKAD supported the scientific credentials of both experts.

“I have no reason to believe he is anything other than credible and professional”, said Sapstead of Dr. Ashenden. Howman went further. “I would recognise Dr. Ashenden as credible”, he said. “He has done a lot of work for WADA. Ashenden and Parisotto developed an analytical test for EPO ahead of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. WADA tend to rely on scientists with vast anti-doping experience. It is clear to me that Dr. Ashenden is one of those.”

This raised the question of why the IAAF had issued such a strong rebuttal of their work. Dr. Ashenden said that the IAAF statement was a typical PR response to crisis management. “The WADA Executive Committee want whistleblowers to come forward”, he said. “I would consider my role to be that of whistleblower. WADA welcome this, yet the IAAF response is extreme. This could discourage other whistleblowers.”

“I have never had any reason to suspect that the IAAF is anything other than transparent”, said Sapstead. “Clearly, with the release of this data, I would have to reserve judgment on that”.

What the data shows

Ashenden indicated that it is “generally accepted” that blood values are indicative of doping when there is a one in 1,000 chance that the values could have come from a clean athlete. He explained that an ‘offscore’ is when an athlete shows lots of red blood cells, but there is no evidence that the increase in red blood cells has been produced by the bone marrow, so “it would appear” that the increase is unnatural.

He said that some of the blood values in the database had a one in 100,000 chance of occurring naturally, and that such values were dangerous. “The blood becomes so thick that the heart struggles to pump it around the body”, he said. “This is not so much a danger during exercise, when the body is warm, but when the athlete is asleep.”

Ashenden points out that he was only asked to look at medalists, as the data set was too large to analyse all the profiles. He said that of the medalists, 20% to 30% of medals appear to have been wrongly awarded.

Ashenden said that the data showed a “prominence” of athletes from Russia, both male and female, “across the board, year after year. There is something happening within the Russian federation that needs addressing.” He said that having conducted no out-of-competition (OOC) tests in Russia from 2007 to 2010, the IAAF suddenly conducted 177 OOC tests in 2011. “Something caused them to do that”, he pointed out.

In terms of the London Marathon, for “some results in some years, the offscores were so extreme that the likelihood of an athlete being clean is so remote that it can be discounted”, he said. “I feel that the race organisers would like to have known so that they could take action”. Ashenden said that there was no evidence that the organisers of the London Marathon knew anything about the suspicious values.

Management of the data

Ashenden repeated his assertions that the IAAF has been negligent by failing to follow up on suspicious blood values – an argument that the IAAF refutes. “The IAAF deliberately set up a blood test designed to establish longitudinal profiles”, he said. “There is this data that they could have acted on. The IAAF themselves have used data from before 2009 to impose sanctions. The IAAF has had the athlete biological passport [ABP] since 2009, yet the database runs to 2012. Years after the ABP was implemented, you still have highly unusual results. The ABP has not locked up everything […] The IAAF position that pre-2009 values cannot be relied upon is not correct.”

Ashenden pointed out that it appears that the IAAF knew that the blood values could be regarded as suspicious back in 2001, yet it chose not to act. He used the example of the International Ski Federation (FIS), which in 2010 sanctioned the Russian ski federation. “That sort of action is open to the other federations, including the IAAF”, he said. “In my opinion, we are way past the point where this would be warranted”.

Sapstead pointed out that the IAAF’s position as protector of athletes and as its doping police represented a “conflict of interest”. Howman said that only between six and ten international federations run their own doping programme, and there is no reason why the IAAF shouldn’t run an independent anti-doping body, as proposed by Lord Coe in his manifesto to be elected as IAAF President. “None of the stakeholders in sport benefit from revealing the dirty underbelly”, said Ashenden. He said that WADA’s own working group had concluded that there was “no appetite” within sport to address this issue, as neither the athlete or the sport benefits from uncovering doping.

Ashenden argued that it was not fair to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) to compare the IAAF’s response. He said that in 1997/8, the UCI knew it had a problem with erythropoietin (EPO), so introduced a no-start rule. “They did something”, he said, arguing that the IAAF knew it had a problem in 2001, by 2005 it knew it had a “horrific” problem, and by 2009, it knew something had to be done to “put the lid” on the programme – the ABP.

He said that he was “struck” by the lack of testing of Kenyan athletes, arguing that at the 2006 World Junior Championships, Kenyans took 14/15 golds, yet no blood tests were performed on them, and in 2010 at the same event, only a “handful” of tests were performed. “I accept that it is more difficult to get access to some countries”, he said. “But if that is the case, wouldn’t you make sure that you tested at major championships?”

Other failings

Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the debate was how few within the anti-doping system had seen the IAAF database. Both WADA and UKAD declined to comment on the database, as they claimed not to have seen it. The IAAF database originally emerged in December 2014 in a Daily Telegraph article, but has since been serialised by the Sunday Times and ARD in its ‘Geheimsache Doping’ programmes.

Howman said that the WADA Independent Commission investigating the allegations around the database now has a copy of it, however UKAD faced questions as to why it had not pursued the data. “I know that other NADOs went to the IAAF and asked whether the data includes their athletes”, said UKAD CEO Nicole Sapstead. “We took the decision to wait for the WADA independent commission”.

Howman conceded that there are a “number of countries and sports where we know they need help with compliance”. Asked whether he had concerns over Russia ahead of the Sunday Times/ARD investigation, he answered: “We have helped Russia for a number of years […] There have been a number of occasions where we have discussed with the IAAF whether action should be taken. The IAAF has always responded. The issue is how quickly.”

Further action

The issue of a 2011 study (see below) commissioned by WADA which asked athletes if they had doped in the previous year came up during the debate. On 16 August, the IAAF said that it had issues with the research, which used the ‘randomised response’ method in order to ascertain the prevalence of doping amongst 2,163 elite athletes. It argued that it had not ‘blocked’ the publication of the data, but had not agreed to its publication due to the research team’s failure to respond to the issues it had raised. The CMS committee yesterday decided to publish the study, as reported by the Sports Integrity Initiative yesterday.

The University of Tübingen study interviewed athletes from the Daegu IAAF World Championships and the Doha Pan-Arab Games, both held in 2011. It found that as many as 45% of athletes may have doped during the previous 12 months.

The debate also drew an angry response from Paula Radcliffe, who was effectively outed as one of the UK athletes under suspicion during the debate. Although no athletes were named, the speakers referred to a British London Marathon winner, which places her firmly under suspicion as the only British winner during the 2001-2012 period that the IAAF blood data refers to. You can read her full response here. At time of press, the IAAF had yet to issue a response.

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