Demonising Justin Gatlin
13th September 2015
Dear Lord Coe,
I trace my passion for antidoping back to one morning in the athlete’s dining hall at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). I sat alone with an athlete who was jetlagged from his 24 hour flight back from world championships. Working then as an exercise physiologist, I too had been up all night performing hourly checks on athletes sleeping in our simulated altitude facility as part of their preparation for international competition. These odd hours meant that we were alone in the cavernous dining hall, and our fatigue was a window for introspection.
The young man was dejected in the manner unique to athletes when they experience losing. But it ran deeper than that. He was certain in his mind that he had been beaten by dope cheats, even though they had all been subject to urine testing in the lead up to the championships. He also knew I was involved with nascent research into a blood test for EPO. What stung me deeply at the time, but eventually became my touchstone, was his challenge to me: ‘You anti-doping guys don’t care as much about catching cheats as I do about winning.’
So I would pose the same question to you. Does the IAAF pursue its anti-doping mandate with the same single-minded, all-consuming dedication that athletes adopt in their pursuit of winning? Based on what I saw in the leaked database, my view is ‘No’.
Let’s look at the figures. In its 2011 publication (and reiterated in its press release on 4th August), the IAAF estimated that 14% of your elite endurance athletes had blood doped during the 2001-09 era. That’s 700 blood dopers. Since 2011, just 63 Passport cases have been pursued by the IAAF. Publicly available documents list 72 positive cases for EPO (including CERA, admissions) in athletics between 2001 and now. To be ultra-conservative, let’s add around 50% to those totals, and assume 200 sanctions for blood doping have or will be issued against athletes who raced through 2009. Based on the IAAF’s own publication, there are likely to be 500 athletes who cheated, competed, and got away.
It is clear from results in the database that serious problems emerged in Russia around 2005. Yet the IAAF chose not to join other sports, such as cycling, cross country skiing, biathlon and speed skating, who had adopted ‘no start’ rules in an attempt to stem the tide. It is true even those rules can be circumvented, but it is undeniable that they place something of a ceiling on competitor’s blood values. I recognise that hindsight is 20/20, but in my view the IAAF could have done more when the spectre of widespread Russian doping first appeared.
For the record, I applaud the innovative use of DNA techniques that eventually led to sanctions for some competitors in the women’s 1500 metres in Helsinki 10 years ago. There is no question that it reflects determined and vigorous pursuit of those athletes on the part of your anti-doping department.
What I believe it also illustrates is that the IAAF suspected sophisticated, planned cheating by Russian athletes. According to comments attributed by the BBC to honorary life vice-president of IAAF Professor Arne Ljungqvist in August 2008, he thought that the urine tampering episode seemed to be “an example of systematic planned doping.”
How then will history view the performance of the IAAF anti-doping department, if it was aware in August 2008 that systematic doping might have penetrated Russian athletics?
The following year, having painstakingly collected blood samples since 2001 to refine its risk profile of suspect athletes, the IAAF finally had resort to impose sanctions via its freshly- minted, WADA-endorsed Passport. During the first year of operation in 2009, the database reveals that the third-highest OFF score amongst all 785 female samples came from Russian Liliya Shobukhova. And it came two days before she won the 2009 Chicago marathon.
I would like to think that the third highest OFF score for the entire year, collected from an athlete who won a major marathon, and who came from a country which the IAAF suspected had some level of systematic doping, triggered the IAAF’s suspicion.
Indeed, the IAAF could see from its historical data that Shobukhova first presented an abnormal OFF score in June 2005. Her historical results show that her blood values were substantially lower out of season, and had been dramatically lower just a few weeks before the Chicago victory.
I assume that Shobukhova had been the subject of targeted urine testing since 2005, but evidently this strategy had failed to detect a prohibited substance. In the face of what I assume were repeated attempts and failures, the opportunity that presented itself in 2009 to pursue Shobukhova via the Passport must have seemed a godsend. In fact, I cannot conceive of a scenario more ideally suited to the pursuit of a passport-based sanction.
Yet the database indicates Shobukhova was not blood tested again until July 2010. In the months that followed, almost inexplicably, it seems she was not even blood tested when she won her second Chicago marathon in October of that year.
Setting to one side the apparent gap in blood tests, what the database does show are enormous fluctuations in her profile between July 2009 and July 2010. All these samples were collected under WADA guidelines, which dictate clearly how the IAAF’s expert must classify the profile. Unless it is ‘normal’ or a ‘pathology’ (which can both be excluded given that her eventual infraction stretched back to October 2009) then the initial expert must either request target testing or else trigger a full review of the profile by all three expert panelists.
Yet there is no evidence of blood tests in the database until April 2011 when Shobukhova placed second at the London marathon (again with highly abnormal blood values). Thereafter, a follow up test was collected in July 2011, and in fact this provided yet more assurance that her high OFF scores during major marathons were not normal. The last database result alongside her name was collected a couple of months later in October when Shobukhova won the Chicago marathon a third time with her highest ever OFF score…
In a nutshell, two years after Shobukhova first won the Chicago marathon with highly abnormal blood results, she won a third Chicago marathon with even more extreme blood values. The Sunday Times published an extensive expose on Shobukhova, who they reported was the top female marathon runner in the world during this period. My question to you is simple: Do you think the IAAF could have done better?
On a related note, I agree with London marathon chief executive Nick Bitel that the IAAF needs to do more to stop people with abnormal blood values from competing. One option is to revisit a ‘no start’ rule, at least for world championships and major marathons. WADA have advised unequivocally that so-called ‘no start’ rules fall outside their strict anti- doping remit, and consequently it hands complete responsibility over to the federations to implement their own ‘no start’ rules.
May I suggest one avenue that the IAAF might explore? WADA’s ABP software automatically generates a so-called ‘sequence probability’ for individual athletes that seems ideally suited for ‘no start’ rules. Such an approach would require no additional sample collection or financial outlay, as the IAAF are already collecting blood samples from all competitors at the world championships, and evidently many major marathons.
Many objections to these ‘no start’ rules centre around the possibility that innocent athletes might be ruled ineligible. However, I note the comments attributed to you in The Guardian last December, where you spoke of the possibility to suspend the Russian federation if it was concluded they were not “in good standing”. Even if it was assumed that 80% of Russians were blood doping, that would still mean that the 20% of innocent athletes would be precluded from competition if the IAAF invoked that clause. I can assure you that a ‘no start’ rule would never wrongly exclude 20% of athletes.
All that remains is for the IAAF to legislate a ceiling of normality beyond which athletes will be unable to compete. Now that would truly be an example of the IAAF pioneering the way. But there is also much more that the IAAF could do.
Shifting responsibility for antidoping to an independent entity funded but not controlled by the IAAF is a no-brainer. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I am confident that a dedicated organisation like Transparency International would have an existing template, or at least clear guidelines, on how to set up such an entity. I anticipate that would receive universal approval.
Additional reforms could also be introduced. In 2009 Major League Baseball created an independent Department of Investigations tasked with broad authority to take action to protect the integrity of its sport. One need look no further than the outcome of USADA’s investigation into Lance Armstrong to recognise the potential benefit. As the Mitchell Report noted, the ability to investigate vigorously allegations of doping is an essential part of any meaningful drug prevention programme, yet to the best of my knowledge the IAAF does not have this capacity.
Which brings me to another point. I am surprised to read statements which suggest that the IAAF’s position is that pre-2009 blood values in your database have no legal standing whatsoever. The IAAF is aware from the precedents evident in USADA vs. Tim Montgomery CAS 2004/O/645, that doping offences can be proved by a variety of means. In that particular case, USADA submitted alleged abnormal blood test results collected on five occasions between November 2000 and July 2001. It is correct that convictions are more difficult via this route, however, as the CAS panel declared when ruling on Mr Montgomery, that difficulty “must not prevent the sports authorities from prosecuting such offenses…with the utmost earnestness and eagerness, using any available method of investigation.”
Again, it comes back to how single-minded the IAAF chooses to be with respect to the pursuit of drug cheats. Is it reasonable for athletes to ask the IAAF to cut back on glamorous gala presentations and dedicate those savings toward establishment of an investigations department?
Similarly, should the IAAF be so brave as to pursue uncertain legal cases, perhaps against high profile athletes, if the consequences of a loss might threaten its very existence? USADA’s pursuit of Lance Armstrong, in the face of very real threats that the entire organisation might be obliterated by legal and political retribution, demonstrated to the rest of the world where USADA’s priorities lie. So my question to you is: Do you maintain that the IAAF matches USADA’s zeal?
Finally, it would be remiss not to respond to the IAAF’s second press release criticising my role in the Sunday Times story. After we had responded to each and every one of the IAAF’s initial ‘serious reservations’ concerning the analyses we undertook, the single remaining strand of criticism centred on the assertion that we “had no knowledge whatsoever of the actions taken by the IAAF in following these suspicious profiles”. For the sake of completeness, I will address that assertion too.
First, although the Sunday Times cross matched athletes with competition results and any history of sanctions, they shared this information with us after we had submitted our opinions but before we were interviewed for the publications. Consequently, we did know which athletes had been sanctioned by the IAAF. Moreover, relying on the information provided in advance by the IAAF to Sunday Times, we were also familiar with the number of ABP cases (final, under appeal, and pending).
Second, the WADA ABP Operating Guidelines indicate how targeted blood tests on suspicious athletes should be scheduled. Indeed, I participated in the development of those strategies. Consequently, by interrogating the frequency of blood tests following a suspicious blood result, I was able to form an opinion on the robustness of the IAAF’s follow up programme.
So in closing, although you deplore my participation in the revelations by the Sunday Times and ARD/WDR, I maintain that had I walked away from an opportunity to agitate for change then I would have betrayed every voiceless athlete who has been cheated out of podium glory since 2001. And I would have betrayed the litmus test I adopted soon after my breakfast in the AIS dining hall – I would not have been doing my utmost to prevent doping in sport.
Yours faithfully, Michael Ashenden, PhD ENDS
• This open letter was originally published on 12 August.
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