13th July 2020

UK Sport gave ketone esters to London 2012 medal hopefuls

UK Sport tested an experimental drink on 91 athletes in eight sports ahead of the London 2012 Olympics in an attempt to boost medal prospects, a Mail on Sunday investigation has found. UK Sport has admitted that it gave ketone esters to athletes before a developmental drink became commercially available in order to maximise any advantage for UK athletes. However it denied prioritising performance advantage over athlete welfare, despite journalists uncovering waiver forms that absolved UK Sport of any responsibility for physical side effects or failed anti-doping tests.

Journalists discovered that 36 of the 91 athletes (40%) suffered from side effects including vomiting and gastrointestinal upsets, leading 28 to stop taking the DeltaG drink, which contained a synthetic version of ketones. An additional 24 withdrew, as they decided that the substance wasn’t beneficial to their performance. All athletes who took part in the Ketone Ester Project (as UK Sport refers to it) were required to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA). 

Ketones do not feature on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List, despite a number of studies suggesting that they may improve performance. It is understood that when the body runs out of fuel to convert to energy – either due to fasting or extreme exercise – it converts fat stores into ketones as an energy supply. The theory is that use of synthetic ketones provides the body with a duel fuel system.

Journalists found that UK Sport’s Research & Innovation team noticed a July 2007 New Scientist article about DeltaG, then being developed by the US military. Contact with them led to Oxford University, which journalists said accepted £4,000 from UK Sport in 2011 for a trial involving rugby players; £183,600 for a trial later that year on rowers and cyclists; and £42,115 in 2013 for further trials on athletes.

These were separate from UK Sport’s own trials on athletes ahead of London 2012. UK Sport’s statement details a Confidential Disclosure Agreement (CDA) involving UK Sport, Oxford University, UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). ‘At this point in time and based on the confidential information from TAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport] we have reviewed, we have no reason to consider such substances as banned under the 2011 List of Prohibited Substances and Methods’, reads a statement from WADA featuring in UKAD’s reply to UK Sport (PDF below).

Following UKAD’s response, UK Sport’s Research Advisory Group (RAG) approved the Ketone Ester Project in January 2012 (PDF below). This reveals the official name for UK Sport’s research project was ‘The effects of acute supplementation with a ketone ester on training and competition performance in Olympic sports: a repeated measures case study series’.

Since the London 2012 Olympics, the use of synthetic ketones to boost performance has been confirmed. In 2018, Cycling Weekly reported that they were used in professional cycling after trials indicated that they significantly improved performance. 

Using the same playbook

UK Sport’s ‘discovery’ of Ketone Esters and its determination to use them ahead of others to gain a performance advantage bears similarities to experiments conducted on athletes by Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project (NOP). Salazar discovered that UK researchers had found that L-carnitine can facilitate the conversion of fat into energy and the more of the compound that is present in muscle, the more fat is metabolised, saving sugar stores during competition and boosting endurance.

Salazar instructed his athletes to begin using a sports drink containing L-carnitine immediately, but had concerns that this would take too long to be of benefit at the 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials. Salazar inquired about intravenous infusion with insulin – as used in the UK research – but was told that these are prohibited by WADA. Insulin is prohibited under Section S2 of the 2012 Prohibited List, which was in force at the time. 

Salazar inquired about using an intravenous infusion of L-carnitine and after consultation with Dr. Jeff Brown, it was agreed to perform the infusion of Steve Magness, an Assistant Coach, before the method was used on NOP athletes. He administered a one litre (1,000mL) bag containing L-carnitine and dextrose to Magness on 28 November 2011.

In March this year, an Independent Review commissioned by UK Athletics (UKA) found that in July 2015, UKA’s Internal Review team ‘became aware’ that Mo Farah had received L-Carnitine injections. UKA’s former Head of Endurance Barry Fudge and former Performance Director Steve Black knew about the injections in 2014, as uncovered by BBC Panorama. 

The Independent Review doesn’t explain why UKA only ‘became aware’ of the injections in July 2015. BBC Panorama also discovered that Fudge flew to Zurich five days before the 2014 London Marathon to obtain L-Carnitine for Farah on Salazar’s instructions.

Farah denied receiving L-Carnitine injections when initially questioned by USADA…

A year later, in line with Salazar’s incorrect advice to all his NOP athletes, Farah denied having received L-Carnitine injections when questioned by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Immediately after the interview, Farah met Fudge who reminded him about the injections which Farah claimed he had forgotten about.

Like Ketones, L-Carnitine is not prohibited and in 2014, intravenous infusions or injections were only prohibited if they exceeded 50mL over a six hour period. Dr. Rob Chakraverty, who has left his role as doctor to the England football team, said that the infusion fell within permissible limits. In the Combatting Doping in Sport Report published by the Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee of the UK Parliament, Dr. Chakraverty admits the injections were “to help performance”.

It appears as it UK Sport and Alberto Salazar were reading from the same playbook. Both discovered a potential source of performance enhancement that had not been commercially developed. Both tested the substance to see if it improved performance, and both instructed athletes and others involved not to tell anybody about it. Both inquired about whether their methods would be considered prohibited. In UK Sport’s case, its use of CDAs raises questions as to how many other confidential trials of new substances and questionable methods have been passed to WADA.

It is important to reiterate that neither substance is prohibited. But the methods used in order to weaponise a performance advantage are likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth of many athletes. 

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