SII Focus 30th November 2015

Analysis: IAAF refutes ARD & Sunday Times’ interpretation of blood data

On Friday, the International Association of Athletics Associations (IAAF) refuted allegations from ARD and the Sunday Times that a database of over 12,000 blood vales from over 150 athletes, recorded between 2001 and 2012, directly indicates blood doping. In a 38-page statement, reproduced below, the IAAF was heavily critical of the two scientists used by ARD and the Sunday Times to analyse the data, describing the conclusions drawn from their analysis as ‘based on inaccurate and unfounded scientific and legal argument’. The IAAF also produced evidence suggesting that it did act on the suspicious blood values in the database, contrary to claims that it failed to take action.

Leaked or stolen?

A fierce debate has been raging over whether the IAAF database of blood values was leaked or stolen. In its statement on Friday, the IAAF reiterates that the database was ‘obtained without consent’ and provided ‘illicitly’ to Hajo Seppelt, who produced ‘Geheimsache Doping – Im Schattenreich der Leichtathletik’ for ARD in association with the Sunday Times, which screened on 1 August (available below). A police investigation is pending about how the data ended up in Seppelt’s possession.

Seppelt has told the Sports Integrity Initiative that the database was sent to him, as he outlines in the above documentary. It is understood that the police investigation is examining whether the database was illegally obtained by a third party, before being sent to Seppelt.

However, a similar – but smaller – data set had been given to Seppelt back in December 2014, as reported by the Sports Integrity Initiative. The IAAF later denied that it had failed to follow up on suspicious blood values in relation to 150 athletes. It also sent Seppelt a letter (below) in March 2015 warning him not to reveal confidential about athlete blood data.

Testing

The IAAF pointed out that since 2009, it has conducted over 7,400 recombinant EPO (rEPO) urine tests, recording 145 rEPO positives since 2001. It highlighted that as of November 2015, 85 Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) cases have been brought against athletes to date, 69 of which (81%) were from athletics – more than all other sports combined. It also explained that it was testing for EPO before 2009. ‘In the period to the end of 2008, the IAAF collected a total of 7,794 blood samples from 3,711 athletes, and conducted 6,621 urine EPO [erythropoietin] tests in what was one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive blood testing programmes in place at the time’, read its response.

The IAAF also confirmed that it did follow up on some of the suspicious blood values reported in the database. It clarified that blood values for Rashid Ramzi had triggered targeted testing, after the Bahraini athlete took gold in the 1,500m at the 2005 Helsinki World Championships. Ramzi was tested 21 times between then and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, where he eventually tested positive for a new form of EPO called CERA.

The IAAF also suspected the four Russians who topped the winner’s podium at the women’s 1,500m in Helsinki, target testing them 98 times ahead of Beijing 2008. Following DNA analysis of the samples submitted, it discovered that the samples had been produced by ‘other (unidentified) persons’. It charged all four athletes in 2007.

Ashenden & Parisotto

Friday’s IAAF response is critical of Dr. Michael Ashenden and Dr. Robin Parisotto’s analysis of the blood values database. In particular, it pounces on Ashenden’s (pictured) assertion that the blood values in the database constituted ‘compelling evidence that the athlete is blood doping’; and his assertion that a one in 1,000 chance that such blood values had occurred naturally as generally being considered sufficient evidence to conclude that doping has taken place.

The IAAF points to evidence which suggests that a abnormal ‘offscore’ does not directly indicate doping – only that an athlete’s blood values are outside of what you might expect from a healthy, non-doping athlete. An abnormal ‘offscore’ is understood to be where there are a high number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in circulation, but no evidence that the bone marrow is producing these cells.

‘A blood marker outside the acceptable levels cannot establish that an athlete has engaged in blood doping’, reads an excerpt from a paper written by Richard McLaren, an Arbitrator at the Court of Arbitration for Sport and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Independent Commission, which produced a 323-page report (available below) into allegations that the IAAF and Russia had conspired to cover up athlete doping. ‘It is only after experts have reviewed the profile and discounted all other possible explanations for the values of the markers that a likelihood of doping can be determined’.

In pages 18-21 of its statement, the IAAF uses the example of Paula Radcliffe to illustrate how an offscore identified as ’abnormal’ by ARD and the Sunday Times can often be explained due to other factors such as altitude, when and how the sample was taken. It explains that her first ‘abnormal’ offscore can be explained by the sample being taken during a period of competition and following altitude training; a second ‘abnormal’ offscore being taken after finishing the 10,000m; and a third being due to altitude training. The IAAF also pointed out that the first two offscores identified as ‘abnormal’ fell within IAAF thresholds at the time.

Pechstein

The IAAF’s position is essentially simple. Before 2009, there was no ABP. It could therefore not charge any athletes for having irregular blood values, but could only initiate targeted testing. However, the WADA ‘Harmonized Protocols and Guidelines for Athlete Biological Passport’ were brought in on 1 December 2009 and speed skater Claudia Pechstein was sanctioned by the International Skating Union (ISU) before then. Ashenden has used this case as an example to suggest that the IAAF could have – and should have – taken action pre-2009.

Pechstein was banned for two years by the ISU under Article 2.2 of its Anti-Doping Regulations, after samples of her blood taken during the 2009 ISU Speed Skating Championships showed reticulocytes (immature red blood cells) at 3.49%, 3.54% and 3.38%, returning to 1.37% ten days after the event. Although these readings were above the ISU’s permitted 2.4% value, Pechstein had not failed any other anti-doping test and has always said the readings were due to a genetic anomaly and are unreliable. As her positive finding is still subject to challenge and Pechstein maintains that she has never doped, the IAAF argues that this case is not a good illustration of why the IAAF should have sanctioned athletes pre-2009 based on blood data alone, without further testing.

Conclusion

The IAAF statement goes a long way towards explaining the circumstances regarding the athlete blood data; how it followed up on some of the values identified in the database; and why it didn’t sanction athletes based on the blood values alone. However, it doesn’t answer Ashenden and Parisotto’s claims that many of the blood values in the database were so extreme as to be dangerous.

From reading the IAAF response on its own, a casual observer could be forgiven for concluding that both Ashenden and Parisotto had suggested that the blood values in the database were proof of athlete doping. However, both scientists have only ever said that the blood values are indicative of doping. Ashenden today told the Guardian that the suggestion that they had ‘charged’ athletes with doping was “completely wrong”.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe is to face questioning from the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Wednesday 2 December. It will be interesting to see whether the IAAF’s response, which was timed as a prelude to the hearing, will affect how Coe is questioned.

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