20 November 2019

Schwazer case: Samples from 56 Italians athletes to be analysed

The Italian athletics federation (FIDAL) has supplied a list of 56 athletes who have agreed for their urine samples to be analysed by Bolzano prosecutors in order to ascertain if Alex Schwazer’s sample was manipulated, as the race walker alleges. It is understood that the samples of the 56 endurance athletes, which includes race walkers and long distance runners, will be analysed for the density of DNA present.

Schwazer was sanctioned with an eight year ban for a second doping offence in August 2016 due to reanalysis of a 1 January 2016 sample indicating possible use of exogenous (synthetic) testosterone. This was before he returned from a previous four year ban for use of erythropoietin (EPO), which was due to expire on 8 May 2016. 

Initial analysis of the January 2016 sample by the Cologne Laboratory did not show any prohibited substances. However as a result of comparison with other samples provided under the Steroidal Module of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Athlete Biological Passport (ABP), the sample was flagged as ‘abnormal’ on 5 March 2016 . 

The Steroidal Module monitors an athlete’s urine samples over a period of time to form a ‘steroid profile’ that can be used to check for variables that might indicate steroid use. ‘A single test may be sufficient either for targeting purposes or to prompt IRMS confirmation, although generally two or three urine tests are necessary for a longitudinal analysis’, reads WADA guidance on the Steroidal Module.

The Athlete Passport Management Unit (APMU) requested re-analysis of Schwazer’s sample using the Gas Chromatography Combustion Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (GC/C/IRMS) technique. The reanalysis performed by the Cologne Laboratory, on 19 April 2016, found that the ‘abnormal’ sample was consistent with the administration of exogenous androgenic anabolic steroids. The opening of the athlete’s B sample, on 5 July, confirmed the results from the A sample.

DNA manipulation

Later analysis by the Italian Scientific Investigation (RIS) Laboratory in Parma found that the concentration of Schwazer’s DNA in his B Sample was 1,187 picograms per microlitre (pg/μl); compared to 437 pg/μl for his A Sample. It is understood that Bolzano prosecutors are keen to analyse the DNA of the 56 athletes in order to determine if such discrepancies are possible, considering that the A and B sample are split from the same urine provided at a doping test. 

Schwazer alleges that the above is evidence that he was set up, due to the danger that he might expose systemic doping (see video below). In January last year, Schwazer’s testimony is understood to have helped convict two FIDAL officials of aiding and abetting athlete doping. Schwazer’s then coach, Pierluigi Fiorella and Giuseppe Fischetto, another FIDAL doctor, were sentenced to two years in prison, whilst official Rita Bottiglieri was sentenced to nine months. Schwazer’s existing coach, Sandro Donati, helped uncover State doping in Italy in the 1980s.

The above documentary features a recorded conversation in which race walking judge Nicola Maggio tells Donati to let other athletes win. A separate conversation on 23 May 2016 features Maggio telling Donati “don’t go looking for trouble with the Chinese”, which Donati alleges was an instruction for Schwazer not to compete with two Chinese race walkers trained by Sandro Damilano at the XXX Gran Premio Cantones de la Coruña on 28 May 2016. 

Sandro Damilano is the brother of Maurizio Damilano, the Italian Chairman of the IAAF Race Walking Committee. Schwazer eventually finished a close second to Zhen Wang, who is coached by Sandro Damilano.

There is nothing to suggest that any of those mentioned above set up Schwazer in any way. Schwazer’s theory is that people may have had a motivation to sabotage his samples, and the above is an explanation of why he might consider that to be the case. It has yet to be proven, hence the DNA experiment.

Donati and Schwazer’s lawyer, Gerhard Brandstätter, allege irregularities regarding the chain of custody relating to Schwazer’s sample. They also allege that its anonymity was compromised due to it being marked ‘Racines’, Schwazer’s home town, which has a population of just 4,000. However, WADA’s chain of custody form requires the location in which a sample is taken to be recorded.

They also argue that the amount of testosterone found in Schwazer’s sample indicates micro-doping. Yet to benefit from this method of cheating, you need to continually ingest a prohibited substance in small amounts. As Schwazer had been subject to the Steroidal Module of the ABP, he had reported eight months of negative tests prior to 1 January 2016. 

The logic behind this argument is that if Schwazer had intended to cheat, he would not have ingested a tiny amount of testosterone that would have had a negligible effect on performance whilst subject to the Steroidal Module of the ABP. In hearing his appeal, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) confirmed it considers that Schwazer did not intend to cheat, but argues it was forced to issue an eight year ban as he was unable to prove his positive test was unintentional.

However, the CAS decision has been removed from its internet site. It was there last year, as this analysis of Schwazer’s case confirms. The Sports Integrity Initiative has asked the CAS why the decision (case number 4707) has been removed. Schwazer has reportedly returned to training, hopeful that the case launched by Bolzano prosecutors will result in his ban being lifted before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

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