26th January 2021

Preventing athlete rights and samples from again being compromised

• As arguments continue over whether the latest Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) Decision effectively punished Russia for manipulation of the doping control system, the current sports landscape needs to consider whether what happened with athlete samples at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics could happen again. Gabe Baida, Executive Director at sample collection company InnoVero, examines how innovative sample collection solutions can restore athlete trust.

It’s been seven years almost to the day since the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics got underway and almost five since the New York Times ran its front page, above-the-fold headline titled ‘An Insider in Sochi Tells How Russia Beat Doping Tests’, which outlined the abhorrent Russian FSB masterminded, State sponsored doping scandal in all its glory. The many twists and turns that have played out has often left the sporting public confused by the message authorities have sought in punishment to fit the crime. 

However, if we strip away the geopolitics, the noise and the tussle between the various authorities over how to handle a saga as big as Russia, what this sorry episode really boils down to is Russia’s covert, sophisticated and – until their system was exposed by Moscow Laboratory Director turned whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov – successful doping sample bottle tampering and swapping scheme. That’s right: this most infamous of scandals, really boils down to the urine sample swapping scheme, which of course no one thought was possible – largely due to the inherent, but untested, trust placed in the industry standard kit and the general complacency that accompanied it. 

This elaborate bottle tampering, sample swapping, in the weeds aspect of the most talked about crisis in modern sporting history is at the very heart of it all. Seven years removed from this scandal, how has the industry changed? What improvements and safeguards have been put in place? What has anti-doping in sport learnt from the absolute crux of the issue: the sample collection kit that was broken into? Out of crises often comes some good. New independent testing agencies have been established; new legislation enacted; and new innovative sample collection equipment companies founded.

Since this all came to light five years ago, a group of clean sport stakeholders, led by Major League Baseball (MLB) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), set out to restore the fractured athlete trust that had resulted from the entire episode. Why, we asked ourselves, should we ask athletes to trust the anti-doping system if the kit used to collect their urine and blood samples couldn’t provide the protections necessary to them? This trust issue struck at the very heart of the system – foundational elements had to be better, solutions needed to be found. 

After years of stakeholder-driven research, we established our new sample collection equipment company – InnoVero – as our way of being part of the solution to this crisis. Since forming in 2019, our equipment was created to address one issue: securing global athlete trust. The equipment, which we have dubbed the SAFESystem™ for Secure, Athlete-Friendly, Functional and Efficient use, features:

• Unprecedented tamper-evident and anti-counterfeit features
• Proprietary plastic polymer material, stronger and lighter than glass bottle alternatives
• A revolutionary transparent locking mechanism, with visual and audible components
• Universal storage and security for both urine and blood samples
• Gender-specific designs and accessories to ensure easy collection 

Adoption of SAFESystem™ has come from a diverse group of organizations – small National Anti-Doping Agencies (NADOs) to sporting leagues as big as MLB and the MLB Players Association (MLBPA). Regardless of the size of the organization, onboarding has happened because of one central desire: to restore and rebuild trust. With over 25,000 kits produced and security, quality, and usability readily apparent, trust and confidence has already resulted in new innovative testing programs being implemented. For example, USADA, using SAFESystem™, has introduced a new remote ‘Virtual Testing’ initiative as a way to continue to test during the global COVID19 pandemic. 

Athletes demand perfection of the systems that surround them, and who can argue with their desire? They train relentlessly for the right to compete on the biggest stages around the world, expecting universal fairness and a level playing field. Every organisation focused on athlete safety and performance should adhere to the same passion that drives our athletes. For those in sample collection, the decisions should always be about making an inherently invasive process more trustworthy, more functional, more athlete-friendly and most of all, more secure. 

The doping saga of the 2014 Olympics will live forever in the record books, but the lessons learned from Sochi can have a conclusive and positive outcome. The integrity of sample collection equipment must never again be in question or fail the athletes we exist to support. Trust in anti-doping depends on us all striving harder and pushing further to ensure sample collection never again becomes the story. 

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