Profiles 21 September 2015

Hajo Seppelt, the ‘geheimsache’ doping investigator

This summer, one item dominated the sporting news. A database of 12,000 blood values from tests performed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) on 5,000 athletes from 2001-2012. Analysis of the data obtained by the programme and by the Sunday Times showed that for about one in seven athletes, blood values were recorded that – for 99% of athletes – could not be explained naturally. This equates to approximately 800 athletes.

The release of IAAF blood testing data into the public domain was not a new event. On 8 December 2014, WDR’s Inside Sport had obtained a smaller database of IAAF data from 2006-2009 – independently obtained by the Daily Telegraph – which prompted a concerned response from the IAAF. However, what was different about August’s programme was the sheer scale of potential doping by elite athletes that scientific analysis of the data suggested. The man who obtained the data and worked with scientists in order to put it into context was German investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt.

The title used for his August TV programme featured the German word geheimsache, which has no direct English translation, but means ‘confidential’. This proved apt, as his documentary uncovered a secret world in which doping positives appeared to be much more prevalent than the 1% to 2% of doping test positives typically reported by sport’s anti-doping bodies.

The picture painted by Seppelt was one in which international federations would rather sweep suspicious test results under the carpet rather than pursue them, as to publicly acknowledge a doping problem could damage TV and sponsorship contracts – the financial lifeblood of sport. Analysis of the IAAF data concluded that one third of the medals won in Olympic and World Championship endurance events between 2001 and 2012 were won by an athlete with blood values which at least one expert would regard as suspicious. The analysis also alleged 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.

The Sports Integrity Initiative ran into Seppelt at Tackling Doping in Sport, a March 2015 conference run by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) in partnership with World Sports Law Report. Seppelt produced a letter at the conference, stating that the IAAF believed him to be in possession of a much smaller database than the one used in his August documentary, and threatening to take legal action against him if he revealed any confidential athlete information from it.

The IAAF’s response to the August documentary was severe. It questioned the analysis of the data as ‘unscientific’, despite the fact that two scientists concerned, Dr. Michael Ashenden and Dr. Robin Parisotto, have worked with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and other international federations, and were instrumental in the development of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) and in developing a test for erythropoietin (EPO) ahead of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Both scientists have since issued a detailed response to the IAAF. Evidence also emerged that the IAAF had blocked publication of a 2011 study in which up to 45% of over 2,000 athletes admitted having doped during the past year.

Since then, organisations such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), UK Anti-Doping, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) and others have avoided commenting on the database, using the excuse that they ‘haven’t seen it’. Seppelt could have predicted such a response back in March.

Conflicts of interest

“The biggest problem in doping is more of a theoretical issue”, argues Seppelt. “It is the missing independence anti-doping organisations and sports federations from politics. This always leads to conflicts of interest. Everybody knows that and everybody can see it, but they always claim that there is no conflict of interests. It is clear to everyone that at the moment, this situation doesn’t work, because big, major international federations always have a problem when they are fighting too hard against doping. If the doping then becomes public, on the one hand they will be praised by the public for fighting hard, but on the other hand it requires them to admit that they have a doping problem. If they have a doping problem, then that is bad for sponsorship and television, it isn’t good for sport’s positive image. In my opinion, you need to remove anti-doping entirely from the international federations, so that they have no influence at all. There must be an independent control unit, perhaps led by state-run authorities.”

There is evidence for the conflict of interests that Seppelt refers to. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was set up at the World Conference on Doping in Sport in Lausanne in 1999. The meeting was convened by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which initially funded WADA and still provides half its budget today (the other half comes from government donations). It is perhaps a more ‘separate’ body from the IOC than had been envisaged at that 1999 meeting, but WADA’s continued reliance on the IOC leads to accusations that it is interested in administering doping in sport rather than ending it.

“I think that we should really try to put WADA in a better position”, says Seppelt. “We need to move it from being just a monitoring body to a kind of executive body. We need to take all people involved in sport out, but how can you do that when they finance 50% of WADA’s budget? The only way is to just refuse the involvement of sporting federations in anti-doping.”

“If you look at anti-doping organisations, you will often find people from sport”, highlights Seppelt. “They get contracts from international federations. If you go into WADA, you will find people with a background in international sporting federations. You will also find scientists who have contracts with sporting federations. All of them, in a certain way, are dependent on each other.”

A quick look at the WADA Foundation Board and its Executive Committee reveals that both are populated almost exclusively by executives who were or are involved in sport. Critics argue that this represents a conflict of interest, since the same people trying to protect sport’s reputation are also responsible for investigating and prosecuting sport’s athletes. They point to the fact that anti-doping now involves a lot of organisations and employs a lot of people, whose job depends on doping continuing to exist in sport. The accusation is that sport is prepared to prosecute the vulnerable to show it is fighting doping, but will protect its stars.

“There is already a big administration system involved, which people receive money from”, says Seppelt. “So there is an issue which not everyone understands at the moment, which is that even with regular doping controls, you will not find many cheats. There is an interest in remaining within the system, because it helps a lot of people – it feeds a lot of people. This is also a concern.”

At the International Network of Humanistic Doping Research (INHDR) conference at Aarhus University in August, social scientists illustrated how this issue manifests itself. They provided evidence that the anti-doping system is prepared to issue a two-year ban to 12 year-old Igor Walilko, for eating an energy bar, however 2007 research indicated that 90% of blood values at the 1999 Tour de France were identified as suspicious, yet nothing was done.

The IAAF blood data is controversial, because it provides further evidence that the problem of doping in sport is far bigger than suggested by the typical 1% of positive tests reported by anti-doping authorities. The fact that anti-doping authorities claim not to have seen the data – despite it having been in the public domain since August – adds fuel to the argument that sport is administering the doping problem.

Anti-doping organisations defend themselves against accusations that positive tests of 1% do not represent value for money by arguing that testing acts as a deterrent. “You need a deterrent such as testing”, agrees Seppelt, but with a caveat. “However, it doesn’t mean that they will find all the cheats. There are studies which indicate that up to 45% of athletes are doping in athletics. At the same time, the tests conducted by the IAAF show that approximately 1% or less of athletes are doping. So it appears that there is a large dark shadow of people who are doping and are not getting sanctioned. This means, obviously, that doping control doesn’t work as it should work.”

Obviously, the IAAF data and its attempts to suppress the 2011 study fly in the face of the ‘deterrent’ defence. Critics also accuse WADA of manipulating history in order to provide justification for the anti-doping system. At the INHDR conference, it emerged that WADA has resisted claims to change the brief history of doping, which appears on its internet site. In that, it states: ‘The death of Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen during competition at the Olympic Games in Rome 1960 (the autopsy revealed traces of amphetamine) increased the pressure for sports authorities to introduce drug testing’. It has since been proved that heatstroke was the sole cause of Jensen’s death.

Seppelt argues that people are no longer willing to swallow the line that sport is committed to tackling anti-doping, whilst its actions suggest otherwise. “It is a convenient excuse to claim that we have an anti-doping system that is working, and that we are doing our best to catch the cheats”, he said. “However, I tell you that when you see how many tests are conducted against how many samples are actually analysed in a proper manner…I know this from an international federation that some years ago didn’t do any serum blood testing or HGH testing at all. If you don’t have any blood serum, you can’t find any HGH. Finally, the big international federation had to admit that they didn’t do that. They had always claimed in public that they did blood tests. Everyone thought that OK, this federation is very progressive, they have a very modern way of detecting cheating in sport. However, one of the classical drugs, HGH, was not detectable as they did not do one single blood serum sample test. They told me that they had done less than 1% of tests were on blood serum. I said ‘I think it’s zero’. They didn’t disagree.”

“We talk about the billions of Euros held by the international sporting federations, and somewhere between €1 million and €10 million spent on combatting doping”, continued Seppelt. “What is that? If doping represents the cancer of sport, then I don’t understand why they don’t invest more in combatting it.”

The IAAF is currently one of about between six and ten international federations that runs its own anti-doping programme, as revealed by WADA Director General David Howman during a recent UK Parliamentary debate on the IAAF data. WADA’s 2014 Anti-Doping Testing Figures report reveals that with 25,830 samples analysed in 2014, it also has the second largest testing programme in sport (in comparison, cycling analysed 22,471 samples and football 31,242).

When adverse analytical findings from these tests number 1%, yet studies and the IAAF blood data suggest that the true number of athletes doping is far higher, then it is not hard to see why people come to the conclusion that the IAAF model represents a conflict of interest. This is perhaps why the IAAF’s new President, Lord Coe, has promised to establish an independent anti-doping organisation.

The future of anti-doping

However, despite such changes, Seppelt is not optimistic for the future of anti-doping. His biggest fear is that anti-doping authorities have let things slide so far in favour of the dopers that in the future, doping will be undetectable.

“If they have enough support from doctors and scientists, gene doping is a real possibility”, he argues. “Also, as far as I can see at the moment, they still don’t have too much to fear, because the anti-doping system isn’t effective enough. If they take care and pay attention, they can have an easy life continuing to dope without getting detected.”

“I was in China during 2008, where stem cell treatment was being offered to young athletes”, reveals Seppelt. “This was the beginning. I am pretty sure that in some countries with different cultures and traditions, they are already at work on this. Last year, when I was in Russia, somebody was working on a so-called wonder drug. He showcased it at an international scientific congress and wanted to offer it to delegates. I approached this guy and he wanted to sell it to me for $100,000. From this, you can see that the world of sport is surrounded by many people who have other interests, obviously, than to clean up sport or save sport and the culture around it. Sport has a cultural value and this, which we are talking about, has nothing to do with cultural values.”

Society’s approach to sport – encouraging doping?

Whilst he is a sports fan, Seppelt is not a fan of the way in which professional sport elevates physicality above all other human attributes. He argues that society needs to change its approach to sport, bringing it back into the domain of public ownership, rather than it being under the control of a rich elite.

“I don’t understand how people can speak about the so-called role model of high-performance athletes”, he argues. “I think that the opposite is true. In your life, to focus on just one thing and ignore what is close to you on both the left and the right – and to do this for ten or 15 years – for me, that is kind of crazy. Life means much more than just physical ability. I think that high-performance athletes are not a role model for me – exactly the opposite. We have to think what happens to them – they are often victims of the system. Only a few of them ever get enough money to develop themselves. This is also a concern that should be discussed.”

“Athletes worldwide – in Germany for example – that are not footballers, only receive a small amount of money”, continues Seppelt. “A fencer or a lower level swimmer might only receive €500 to €1,000 per month if you don’t have a sponsor. However you must train twice a day, you never know if you are going to succeed. This is a big risk in your life, and I don’t understand why we think that we need role models like that.”

The role of the media in exposing doping

As well as receiving letters from the IAAF’s lawyers, Seppelt has faced many attempts to discredit his work. Despite WADA and the IAAF having worked with Ashenden and Parisotto, the scientists used by Seppelt, both the IAAF and Coe were critical of the analysis of the IAAF data presented by ARD and the Sunday Times.

Coe referred to Parisotto and Ashenden as “so-called experts” and said that their use of the IAAF database “displayed either breathtaking ignorance or a level of malevolence around a set of readings you can simply cannot extrapolate beyond”. The IAAF referred to the allegations as ‘sensationalist and confusing’, drafting in other experts to criticise their scientific colleagues.

Seppelt argues that a similar problem can exist in the media which exists in anti-doping. There are too many people who are sports fans, who do not want to expose the transgressions of their heroes. “We need independent people and journalists”, he argues. “They need to work seriously and not to be sports fans, which is unfortunately often the case in the media. If they tick these boxes, they can contribute in a large way.”

Independence is necessary in order to effect the selbstreinigend, or self-cleaning process in sport”, argues Seppelt. “You need journalists that are not connected to this world – for example through TV rights contracts, which ARD TV is. However, we are independent enough and I can do my job without any restriction. If anyone were to tell me that I could not operate independently, I would quit my job. If anyone were to tell me not to touch an item because it interferes with TV rights, for example, I would say ‘thank you, goodbye’ and leave. I would also tell that to other media!”

Seppelt’s history in anti-doping

Seppelt’s independence began in 1997, when he was commentating on swimming for German television. “At that time, the East German doping court cases were a major subject”, he explains. “Coaches and doctors had been accused. This was such an interesting subject for me, so I decided to focus on that. Then I produced a documentary with a colleague from Canada which had a worldwide impact, because people were very interested. I published later a book together with a friend of mine.”

“This was the beginning, and I realised more and more that to watch what goes on behind the curtain of sport is much more interesting than covering sport”, continues Seppelt. “In sport it is always the same. Somebody wins and somebody loses, and often not much that is more interesting than that happens. I was more interested to understand why people dope, what is the possible illegal background to this, because there have been a number of rumours for decades about doping in sport. So I decided to make it my area. There was nobody in German television doing this at the time, so it became very easy to get into this position. I was working on a regular basis on doping stories, but at that time, it was not my daily work.”

“In 2007, after the Tour de France scandal, ARD decided to have an investigative unit, called the doping research department, based in Cologne”, he continues. “Because I had been doing that for a long time already, they asked me to come and join this department. Since 2007, I have been working using 90% or 95% of my time every day investigating doping stories.”

A sporting conclusion

Long may this work continue. Sport should be a property of the public, and if those participating and administering it at the elite level are not up to scratch, efforts to remove them from sport should be welcomed and supported. One of Seppelt’s criticisms of sport could be levelled at himself – if doping ceased to exist, he would be out of a job. This isn’t a worry for Seppelt.

“What we need to make sports more attractive is to recognise that some people want to practice sport at a higher level, but we have to save the cultural value of sports”, he says. “We need to get a lot of people off the couch and moving – this, for me, is sport. They can compete against each other if they want. Perhaps this is a very romantic image of sport, but for me, this is a role model to follow.”

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