12th August 2020

German biathlete was ‘victim’ of Russia’s Sochi 2014 plan

German biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle was a victim of Russia’s manipulation of the doping control process during the Sochi 2014 Olympics, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov has alleged in his book. However, as usual, the truth may be a little more complicated.

Russia didn’t report a single adverse analytical finding (AAF) at Sochi 2014 due to a large scale urine substitution programme orchestrated by Dr. Rodchenkov, former Director of the Moscow (and Sochi 2014) Laboratory. The reason that Russia’s lack of AAFs didn’t ring alarm bells is because Dr. Rodchenkov convinced sport that his Laboratory was doing a good job by reporting AAFs involving athletes from other countries. The first of these involved Sachenbacher-Stehle.

‘Hers was a borderline case’, writes Dr. Rodchenkov. ‘This stimulant [methylhexaneamine] usually occurred in huge concentrations, so it was up to me whether to report her result as an AAF or not. If I had already logged five genuine AAFs, representing anti-doping rule violations, before coming across Evi’s sample, I might not have turned her in. But because of the drought of positives, we needed blood, so I turned her in.’

Rodchenkov explains that despite not having her name at the analysis stage, as is normal in anti-doping analysis, he could tell she wasn’t Russian as he could see which sports supplements and medications she had declared. In addition, he hadn’t received a sample code from Irina Rodionova, Deputy Director of the Centre of Sports Preparation for the National Teams of Russia (CSP), which was his trigger to swap samples for clean urine.

‘I felt bad for Eli’, writes Dr. Rodchenkov. ‘The punishment didn’t really fit the crime’. Sachenbacher-Stehle was disqualified from the Sochi 2014 Olympics by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and was sanctioned with a two year ban from 17 February 2014 by the International Biathlon Union (IBU), despite its Anti-Doping Hearing Panel (ADHP) accepting that the AAF was caused by a Teepowder product, ‘Schisandra’.

The Athlete herein has submitted sufficient evidence to make this Panel comfortable with the conclusion that she was not aware that the product “Schisandra” contained the specified substance methylhexaneamine’, read the IBU ADHP Decision. ‘She testified the label on the product did not indicate that it contained any specified substance and, in particular, methylhexaneamine; and it is not controverted that she disclosed in her doping control forms that she had taken the product “Schisandra”. Thus the Panel is comfortably satisfied that the Athlete did not take the product with the direct intent to enhance sport performance by ingesting the specified substance, methylhexaneamine. However, the Athlete has not given the Panel sufficient information to be comfortably satisfied that she did not take the product with indirect intent to enhance her sport performance.’

Doping in sport is a criminal offence in Germany, and Sachenbacher-Stehle says this helped her discover the source of her AAF. “The federal prosecutor was involved and one hour after it all happened, they went to my home and took everything away”, she said. “They took mobile phones, laptops, iPads, computers, USB sticks, documents, CDs, even our dishwashing liquid. They also took everything from my room in Sochi and they tested everything.

“However, this was lucky for me, because they found out that methylhexanamine was in this tea. They bought additional products from the companies and in most of the teas from this country, methylhexanamine was found. That was good for me because we knew where it came from.”

Sachenbacher-Stehle appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which in February 2015 reduced her ban to six months. ‘The Panel, contrary to the ADHP Decision, finds that the Athlete has produced evidence sufficient to justify the conclusion, to its comfortable satisfaction, that she did not intend to enhance her sport performance by using the Substance’, reads the Decision (PDF below). ‘It is undisputed that the Athlete, while taking the Product, was not aware that it contained a prohibited substance: the ADHP Decision conceded the point, which was not challenged by the Respondent. This simple fact excludes any direct intent of the Athlete to enhance her performance through the Substance contained in the Product.’

Disdain for athletes

Shortly after the conclusion of her case, Sachenbacher-Stehle announced her intention to retire. She said that Dr.Rodchenkov’s revelations came as something of a shock.

“I can’t describe my feelings”, she said. “It was a shock for me to know that the Russian State would do this. I have a totally different perception of sport from them. I compete because it’s fun and I like to do it, not because I want to be first. Of course it’s nice to finish first, but when I win I want to win fairly.”

“It’s hard when for you, doping is unacceptable. When you then have a positive doping test, you can’t describe the feeling. You know that you are clean and support clean sport, but nobody believes you. 

“I have a great family and friends, and over the years I learned to live with this. Now it’s part of my life. I think that when you enter this situation, it is hard to get out.”

Germany’s fourth place finish in the biathlon mixed relay was annulled due to Sachenbacher-Stehle’s anti-doping rule violation. The team that leapfrogged them into fourth position, Russia, was later disqualified due to retests. Olga Vilukhina was sanctioned by the IOC’s Oswald Commission on 27 November 2017, and Olga Zaitseva was sanctioned for doping on 1 December 2017. The other two team members, Anton Shipulin and Evgeniy Garanichev, are under investigation for doping. Shipulin is a serving member of Russia’s State Duma.

Dr. Rodchenkov contention that it was up to him whether to report Sachenbacher-Stehle’s AAF is questionable. Methylhexanamine is considered as a ‘specified substance’ under the 2014 Prohibited List and is prohibited in competition, where Sachenbacher-Stehle was tested. Under Section 4 of the 2013 Minimum Required Performance Levels for Detection and Identification of Non-Threshold Substances, which was in force until September 2014, the reporting limit for methylhexanamine was 50ng/mL. Sachenbacher-Stehle’s sample contained a concentration of methylhexanamine more than twice above that limit, so there is no question that it did constitute an AAF.

Article 5.2.6.10 of The 2012 International Standard for Laboratories (ISL) requires laboratories accredited by WADA to report all test results to the testing authority and WADA. It requires laboratories to record AAFs (but not the amounts detected) for all non-threshold substances, and methylexanamine isn’t a ‘threshold substance’ as defined on WADA’s Technical Document on Decision Limits for the Confirmatory Quantification of Threshold Substances.

It would therefore appear that there is no question that Sachenbacher-Stehle’s AAF constituted an ADRV and that she should have been sanctioned, despite Dr. Rodchenkov’s claims. Not reporting the AAF would have been a big risk. WADA-accredited Laboratories are subject to checks and if it had been a control sample, the Sochi 2014 Laboratory could have been suspended for reporting a false negative, jeopardising Russia’s entire Sochi 2014 doping operation.

The only question was the length of her sanction, and that was settled by her CAS appeal. She says that without the support of her teammates and other athletes around the world, the situation could have taken over her life.

“They believed in me, fortunately. Many athletes contacted me in different ways and told me that I should stay strong. That gave me a lot of strength. Support from athletes and others was very important. This is one reason why I can draw a close to this, and it didn’t destroy my life.”

An unjustified allegation of doping casts an indelible stain on an athlete’s career. Sachenbacher-Stehle drank powdered tea, and the prohibited substance detected in her sample was not listed on the label. She didn’t intend to cheat.

Anti-doping’s principle of strict liability doesn’t apply here, as Sachenbacher-Stehle isn’t liable. She couldn’t have done anything differently to avoid her situation.

Under anti-doping rules, her AAF for a stimulant is considered an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV). There is a chance  that her performance may have benefitted from the stimulant’s effect on her physiology. As such, she was rightly sanctioned, but she should never have been given a two year ban.

It took over a year to reduce her two year ban to six months, a decision important to her on principle alone, as she retired following the verdict. She didn’t appeal to CAS so she could compete again.

Dr. Rodchenkov should have reported this as an AAF and did so, as required by anti-doping rules. Painting this, years later, as the sacrifice of ‘Evi’, a ‘clean’ athlete (whom he didn’t know) in order to facilitate Russia’s Sochi 2014 doping operation, only serves to underline his disdain for athletes.

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