Features 12th November 2018

Fancy Bears emails add further twist to Schwazer case

Lawyers acting for Alex Schwazer have provided emails stolen by Russian hackers to Bolzano prosecutors as an illustration that International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) officials communicated about getting the Cologne Laboratory to support its case against the Italian race walker. Bolzano prosecutors are currently hearing evidence in an attempt to determine whether a criminal investigation should be launched into Schwazer’s case, after he was sanctioned with an eight year ban for a second doping offence in 2016. Schwazer alleges that he was set up.

It is understood that the emails concerned are those stolen by Fancy Bears, and published in July 2017. As reported at the time, these showed that the IAAF considered filing legal opposition to the transfer of Schwazer’s samples from Germany back to Italy, as the samples had already been opened for analysis. 

Thanks to the US Department of Justice (DoJ), we now know that agents of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) were behind Fancy Bears. We also know that not all of the information released by Fancy Bears was genuine, as the DoJ indictment against seven GRU agents states that ‘in some instances, such information was modified from its original form’.

As such, whether the emails can be relied upon as genuine is subject to debate. Whether there is anything wrong with the IAAF communicating about whether the Cologne Laboratory will support its case is also subject to debate.


An out of competition sample was collected from Schwazer on 1 January 2016, while he was still serving a four year ban after testing positive for erythropoietin (EPO) on 30 July 2012, ahead of the London 2012 Olympics. The sample was taken after Schwazer had agreed to provide blood samples every two weeks under a ‘private blood monitoring system’ based on parameters recognised by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for its own research. It was also taken after Schwazer had told WADA’s Director General at the time, David Howman, that he was available for testing 24 hours a day.

Initial analysis by the Cologne Laboratory did not show any prohibited substances. However as a result of comparison with other samples provided as indicated above, the sample was flagged as ‘abnormal’ on 5 March 2016 under the Steroidal Module of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP). 

The Steroidal Module monitors an athlete’s urine samples over a period of time to form a ‘steroid profile’ that can be used to check for variables that might indicate steroid use. ‘A single test may be sufficient either for targeting purposes or to prompt IRMS confirmation, although generally two or three urine tests are necessary for a longitudinal analysis’, reads WADA guidance on the Steroidal Module.

The Athlete Passport Management Unit (APMU) requested re-analysis of Schwazer’s sample using the Gas Chromatography Combustion Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (GC/C/IRMS) technique. The reanalysis performed by the Cologne Laboratory, on 19 April 2016, found that the ‘abnormal’ sample was consistent with the administration of exogenous androgenic anabolic steroids. The opening of the athlete’s B sample, on 5 July, confirmed the results from the A sample.

New developments

Schwazer’s opened sample was eventually re-transferred from Germany to Italy. Analysis by the Italian Scientific Investigation (RIS) Laboratory in Parma found that the concentration of Schwazer’s DNA in his B Sample was 1,187 picograms per microlitre (pg/μl); compared to 437 pg/μl for his A Sample.

The concentration of DNA in Schwazer’s B sample being almost three times that present in his A sample suggests manipulation, it has been alleged. ‘Storage of fresh urine at 4°C or lower temperatures results in significant degradation of human DNA, resulting in low recovery rates during long-term storage’, reads DNA extraction from long-term stored urine, a paper published by BMC Nephrology. ‘When urine is stored at −20°C, around 75% of the DNA degrades within 28 days, making a quantitative recovery difficult after this period. A temperature of −80°C improves recovery up to 28 days of storage, but increases storage costs.’ 

As both samples had been opened, it is understood that a similar, smaller, amount of DNA might be expected in both samples due to degradation over time. Why such a large discrepancy apparently exists between the A and B samples has not been fully explained.

Fancy Bears post from 5 July 2017…

In an attempt to find out how such a discrepancy might be possible, Giampietro Lago of the RIS commissioned a study involving 100 males giving two urine samples. It is understood that this found a high amount of DNA in some of the samples, but not in others. However, as these samples were fresh, they had not experienced the degradation in the amount of DNA present in the samples that could be expected from Schwazer’s samples, due to storage for over two years before returning to Italy.

…And the later amended post…

It is understood that Lago has been given until 28 June next year to conduct extended analysis on the DNA given by the 100 volunteers. Tests will be carried out to ascertain if the DNA degrades as normal after centrifugation, or repeated freezing and thawing. It is understood that Schwazer may also be required to provide further samples for comparative purposes.

There are also questions about how journalist Nando Sanvito managed to publish an article detailing Fancy Bears’ stolen emails a week before they were published. Research by LaMarcia.com discovered that Fancy Bears later changed the date of publication to match Sanvito’s article (see pictures on right). It has since been reported that the IAAF is keen to investigate Sanvito.


As mentioned, Schwazer alleges that he was set up (see video below). He alleges that race walking officials did this in order to remove Schwazer from contention, and as revenge for his (and his coach’s) role in exposing systemic doping in Italy. Schwazer’s coach, Sandro Donati, helped uncover State sponsored doping in Italy in the 1980s.

In January this year, two doctors and an official employed by the Italian Athletics Federation (FIDAL) were convicted of aiding and abetting athlete doping, as they knew about Schwazer’s initial EPO doping and did nothing about it. Schwazer’s then coach, Pierluigi Fiorella and Giuseppe Fischetto, another FIDAL doctor, were sentenced to two years in prison, whilst official Rita Bottiglieri was sentenced to nine months. It is understood that Schwazer’s testimony, corroborated by telephone conversations and emails, was key to convicting the three. 

In the documentary above, a recorded conversation features race walking judge Nicola Maggio telling Donati to let other athletes win. A separate conversation on 23 May 2016 features Maggio telling Donati “don’t go looking for trouble with the Chinese”, which Donati alleges was an instruction for Schwazer not to compete with two Chinese race walkers trained by Sandro Damilano at the XXX Gran Premio Cantones de la Coruña on 28 May. Sandro Damilano is the brother of Maurizio Damilano, the Chairman of the IAAF Race Walking Committee. Schwazer eventually finished a close second to Zhen Wang, who is coached by Sandro Damilano.

There is nothing to suggest that any of the above mentioned set up Schwazer in any way. Schwazer’s theory is that people may have had a motivation to sabotage his samples. This has yet to be proven.

Donati and Schwazer’s lawyer, Gerhard Brandstätter, have also alleged that there are irregularities regarding the chain of custody relating to Schwazer’s sample. They also allege that the sample’s anonymity was compromised due to it being marked ‘Racines’, Schwazer’s home town with a population of just 4,000. However, WADA’s chain of custody form requires the location in which a sample is taken to be identified.

They have also argued that the amount of testosterone found in Schwazer’s sample indicates micro-doping, yet to benefit from this method of cheating, you need to continually ingest a prohibited substance in small amounts. As Schwazer had been subject to the Steroidal Module of the ABP, he had reported eight months of negative tests prior to 1 January 2016. 

The logic behind this argument is that if Schwazer had intended to cheat, he would not have ingested a tiny amount of testosterone that would have had a negligible effect on performance whilst subject to the Steroidal Module of the ABP. In hearing his appeal, the CAS has confirmed that it considers that he did not intend to cheat, but was forced to issue an eight year ban as Schwazer was unable to prove that his doping was unintentional.

‘The Panel is reluctant to discuss a possible doping scenario’, reads the CAS award in Schwazer’s case. ‘According thereto the Appellant must demonstrate that the ADRV was not intentional […] The mere fact that the Athlete was embedded in an impressive anti-doping program is – in itself – not sufficient to exclude cheating […] The burden of proof to demonstrate and to rebut the legal presumption of having acted intentionally lies with the Appellant. The Appellant, in the opinion of the Panel, clearly failed to rebut the presumption.

‘It is impossible to conclude whether or not the ingestion of the prohibited substance occurred intentionally or not […] The Athlete in the view of the Panel could not demonstrate by a balance of probability as required by Rule 33.2 IAAF Competition Rules that the prohibited substance unintentionally entered his body. Consequently, the period of ineligibility to be imposed upon the Athlete shall be eight (8) years.’

If Schwazer had intended to dope, there is no doubt that he chose an odd way to go about it, considering the scrutiny he was under. However, under the World Anti-Doping Code, intent to cheat is not necessary to impose a lengthly sanction, and this was Schwazer’s second offence.

As we have previously reported, advances in scientific technology mean that prohibited substances can be detected in ever smaller quantities. If an athlete is found with a small amount of a prohibited substance in their system – the analogy of a sugar cube dissolved in an Olympic size swimming pool has been used before – and it is agreed that the substance had no performance benefit, it is still up to the athlete to prove that they didn’t intend to ingest the substance. 

If they can’t provide this proof, they will be sanctioned with intentional doping and will be subject to a four year ban. And as mentioned before, this was Schwazer’s second offence.

It has long been speculated that athletes or officials may seek to manipulate doping samples for nefarious reasons, but evidence has yet to emerge that this has happened. As Schwazer’s case rumbles on, we are unfortunately still no closer to finding out the truth about what caused his 2016 positive.

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