Opinion 24th January 2020

‘No comment’ policy is self-defeating

The policy adopted by many anti-doping organisations on not commenting on investigations is self defeating. It fails to protect athletes from suspicion of doping. Just ask Mo Farah.

Despite Farah stating that he is happy for anyone to retest any of his samples, suspicion persists that he has doped at some point in his career. Perhaps with good reason, perhaps not. UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) could clarify the situation. But they will not, because of their policy of not commenting on an anti-doping investigation unless there is a case to answer. So suspicion persists. 

Alberto Salazar…

Almost a week after the story broke, UKAD clarified that it had not refused any request from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to retest Farah’s samples. This was more than it offered in a reposted March 2017 statement, which said that UKAD had worked with the USADA on its investigation into Alberto Salazar, who was Head Coach at the Nike Oregon Project (NOP), and trained Farah. 

A USADA spokesperson would only add that it had worked with UKAD on a joint investigation, and it appreciated its assistance. USADA also has a policy of not commenting on investigations unless there is a case to answer.

At this point, it is worth reiterating that after the four year investigation, USADA found no evidence that Salazar administered prohibited substances to athletes. He was sanctioned for administration of a prohibited method; tampering and/or attempted tampering; and trafficking of testosterone. All sound extremely serious, but USADA found and the American Arbitration Association (AAA) accepted that all the sanctions were due to experiments on staff and family members designed to ensure that NOP athletes didn’t commit anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs).

Yes, his methods were extremely questionable. Yes, he used every trick in the extensive book of anti-doping rules in an attempt to ensure that his athletes won. Yes, evidence indicates that he didn’t treat athletes with the medical care or respect that they deserve. But after a four year investigation apparently involving both sides of the pond, there is no evidence that he crossed the line into doping NOP athletes.

WADA is understood to be assessing if further action needs to be taken regarding athletes trained by Salazar, which is why interest in historic samples given by Farah has spiked. Given that USADA found no evidence that athletes at the NOP used prohibited substances, WADA has yet to decide if such action would involve retesting samples of NOP athletes. 

UKAD has stated that a danger is that such retesting would degrade the samples, compromising their usefulness should future testing methods become available. Yet it is likely that UKAD has many samples taken from Farah, raising questions about its reticence. Again, UKAD could clarify this, but its policies prevent it from so doing.

Kenya

A Kenyan doctor agrees to supply EPO…

This brings us to Kenya. Salazar had zero control over Farah’s time in Kenya. In July 2016, UKAD announced it was sending two staff to the country, after investigative journalists produced medical documentation indicating that a top British athlete had been treated with erythropoietin (EPO). Journalists supplied the names of the athletes concerned to the Kenyan authorities.

In August 2017, UKAD told the Mail On Sunday that it had closed its investigation into whether three British athletes had been supplied with EPO, concluding that the medical files supplied to reporters had been faked. UKAD previously told The Sports Integrity Initiative that it couldn’t elaborate on who had faked the documents and why, due to ongoing criminal investigations.

The reporters involved in the investigation insist that the documents are genuine. It also appears that UKAD investigators never asked them to supply the medical documentation, raising further questions that UKAD cannot answer because of the aforementioned policy and ongoing criminal investigations. When those criminal investigations will be complete is anyone’s guess. 

What we do know is that Michael Rotich, Head Coach of the Kenyan athletics team for the Rio 2016 Olympics, told undercover reporters that two British Doping Control Officers (DCOs) would be able to supply him with details of planned tests. However, it appears that in Kenya, advance notice about anti-doping tests is not uncommon.

In February 2016, ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics, Canadian Marathon runner Reid Coolsaet alleged that IAAF-accredited tests in Kenya were lacking. In a subsequent interview, he said that the DCO in charge of a test had apologised for late notice, after notifying him that he would be tested the following day. The Mail On Sunday reported that it had seen a signed testimony from a world record holder confirming that athletes were tipped off about planned tests in Kenya.

Eldoret, the gateway city to training at high altitude in surrounding villages…

We also know that pharmacists in the Eldoret/Kapsabet region are continuing to supply athletes with EPO, more than seven years after the problem was first identified. Firstly, this raises questions as to whether there is a reason other than high altitude training that so many European athletes visit the area; and, secondly, whether Kenyan authorities are keen to tackle the issue. 

The two issues are connected. Are Kenyan authorities keen to clean up the region to protect the economic boost that visits from European athletes provide; or is EPO availability so important to athlete tourism that to remove it would damage the region’s economy?

Farah

Which brings us to Farah. UKAD’s investigation involved interviews with three athletes who trained at the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) at Iten, Kenya. A number of endurance athletes have trained in this area – including Britain’s Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe ahead of the London 2012 Olympics. In 2016, investigative journalists found packets of EPO and needles in the training camp’s bins. A video (below) also featured a Kenyan pacemaker at the camp, Frederick Lemishen Ngoyon, arranging to buy EPO.

Ngoyon was used by European athletes, including Mo Farah. They were filmed training together during 2013, as the BBC footage below reveals. However, the footage was filmed three years before the above documentary, and there is nothing to suggest anything more than a professional relationship between the two.

In July last year, an indictment by French prosecutors against Lamine Diack, former President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and his son, Papa Massata Diack, alleged that British athletes, including a Gold medalist and ‘sports icon’, were involved in blood doping at the London 2012 Olympics (video below). The athlete was not named.

All animals are equal

‘We do not comment on our testing strategy or ongoing investigations, as has been made clear in recent investigations’, reads UKAD’s reposted statement from March 2017. ‘Status is no barrier to thorough testing or potential investigations. UKAD treats all athletes in the same way’.

If only that were true. Earlier this month, UKAD was successful in securing a four year sanction against Commonwealth middleweight boxing champion Liam Cameron, who failed to conclusively prove that an adverse analytical finding (AAF) for a metabolite of cocaine had come from contaminated bank notes he handled in his local area whilst collecting money for a fight – more on this next week.

Yet after Tyson Fury reported an AAF for elevated levels of nandrolone and was additionally charged with refusing a test, UKAD came to a ‘settlement agreement’ with the boxer. ‘In recognition of the respective counter-arguments and the risks inherent [emphasis added] in the dispute resolution process, each side has accepted a compromise of its position’, read a UKAD statement. ‘The proceedings have therefore been resolved on the following basis: the anti-doping rule violations based on the reported presence of elevated levels of nandrolone metabolites are upheld, the refusal charge is withdrawn, Hughie and Tyson Fury each receive a two-year period of ineligibility, and their results from their respective fights in February 2015 are disqualified’.

As more than two years had passed since Fury’s AAF, he was free to return to box immediately. The difference between Cameron and Fury? Money. Fury had the money to launch a robust defence and Cameron didn’t. Could this be the inherent risk that UKAD feared, as outlined in the above statement? A case involving Farah would involve a much bigger risk.

Confidence

Farah appears confident that retests of his samples will not turn up anything untoward. He has every reason to be confident, irrespective of whether he has doped. Those with experience in anti-doping know that such confidence means little. 

WADA’s 2017 Testing Figures Report revealed that 4,596 adverse analytical findings (AAFs – or ‘positive tests’) were recorded, 1.43% of 322,050 samples analysed. However, less than a third (1,459) of these AAFs resulted in an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) being recorded against an athlete, WADA’s 2017 ADRV Report reveals. Taking the two Reports together, just 0.45% of doping tests resulted in an ADRV during 2017.

Testing doesn’t catch doping cheats. Lance Armstrong was tested throughout his career and never reported an AAF, despite admitting having doped in all seven of his Tour de France victories. 

Earlier this month, Farah was pictured training in Kenya with Paralympian Derek Rae (see below). The location? Iten, Kenya.

Silence is deafening

‘As is standard practice, if at the end of the investigation there is no resulting prosecution, UKAD will not publish the details’, reads UKAD’s reposted March 2017 statement. ‘This is because we have a duty to protect the rights of those involved and any information gathered in the investigation may be important to our work at a later date’.

Those are laudable aims, however it could be argued that such a policy has failed to protect Farah’s rights. Legitimate questions have been asked about how UKAD has dealt with the Farah situation. Did UKAD provide Farah’s samples to USADA? We do not know, because both agencies do not comment on investigations unless there is a case to answer.

How did UKAD determine that the medical documentation provided to journalists detailing how British athletes were treated with EPO was fake? Why didn’t UKAD ask the journalists concerned for their documentation? Again, we don’t know, because UKAD doesn’t comment on investigations unless there is a case to answer.

Were British DCOs complicit in supplying advance notice of tests in Kenya? Again, we don’t know, because UKAD doesn’t  comment on investigations unless there is a case to answer.

The silence is deafening. It doesn’t protect Farah or UKAD, as claimed. On the contrary, the silence breeds suspicion that a coordinated cover up is going on. Only Farah knows if he doped or not, and he says he didn’t. Could UKAD go further in answering any of the above questions without implicating a potentially innocent athlete? 

Yes, it arguably could. It could provide more detail on cooperation with USADA. It could provide a little detail on how it determined that medical documentation was faked. It could explain how it dealt with allegations concerning British DCOs – were they dismissed? If ongoing criminal investigations in Kenya preclude it from answering, it could say so.

The action taken by UKAD increases suspicion that it is unwilling to take on high profile cases due to the risk involved. Is that assessment accurate? Readers can hazard a guess as to the answer…

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