Features 15 October 2020

UKAD retested just 120 samples in nine years*

UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) has failed to utilise one of the most effective tools in anti-doping as much as other national anti-doping organisations (NADOs), despite the numerous drug scandals that have plagued British and international sport over the past decade. UKAD has yet to retest a single doping sample belonging to a footballer since it began storing samples in 2011, two years after UKAD was founded.

UK Anti-Doping retested just 120 samples – six blood and 114 urine – in the nine years to 21 January 2020, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed. This is far less than other NADOs. The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) has retested over 1,300 samples in the last four years, in a strategy designed to catch cheats who were using prohibited substances or methods that were undetectable in past years. NADA Deutschland retested 200 samples last year. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) retested 213 samples in 2016 alone.

During the nine years, sport has faced some of the biggest doping scandals in history. The time period covered by the FOI includes the US Postal doping scandal and Lance Armstrong’s doping confession; the resulting Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) Report; Russian State doping; extortion of athletes involving the covering up of positive tests; and more.

Closer to home, in 2016 Dr. Mark Bonar claimed to have provided ‘treatment’ to Arsenal, Birmingham City, Chelsea, and Leicester City players, as well as cricketers, boxers and tennis players. The FOI (PDF below) reveals that in nine years, UKAD performed no retests on samples provided by footballers; one retest involving a cricketer; five involving boxers; and one involving a tennis player.

Nicole Sapstead, CEO of UKAD, gave evidence to a Parliamentary inquiry into doping…

UKAD infamously failed to notify the General Medical Council about such an important issue, despite producing a file about Dr. Bonar’s claims. The fact that it has yet to retest the sample of a single footballer doesn’t suggest that it diligently followed up the issue, however it may have utilised other means.

UKAD retested just 39 cyclists in the 2011 to January 2020 period. This is despite evidence it gave to a UK Parliamentary inquiry helping the Culture Media and Sport Committee (as it then was) to conclude that that it ‘believed’ that British Cycling and Team Sky had abused the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) system to improve the performance of key athletes; and despite UKAD conducting its own investigation into a ‘jiffy bag’ delivered to Sir Bradley Wiggins in France.

Dr. Freeman pulled out of giving evidence to a UK Parliamentary inquiry into doping, citing ill health…

Ongoing questions remain regarding the methods used by British Cycling and Team Sky. Last week, it emerged that lawyers James Murdoch and Mike Morgan were so concerned about what Dr. Richard Freeman might say to a March 2017 Parliamentary inquiry, that they questioned him beforehand. Dr. Freeman subsequently pulled out of giving evidence, citing ‘ill health’ (see right). 

It is debatable whether retesting samples taken from cyclists during this period could have shed any light on alleged abuse of the TUE system. However, arguably, any lingering suggestion that British Cycling and Team Sky were using prohibited substances may have been resolved through wider retesting.

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

UKAD retested just 21 samples from track and field athletes between 2011 and 21 January 2020. This is despite the 2011 to 2019 period covering questions regarding suspicious blood values in a huge database which UKAD claimed not to have seen; allegations of erythropoietin (EPO) use at training camps in Kenya (not least UKAD’s disputed and unexplained conclusion that medical documentation relating to UK athletes had been faked); and questions about the methods used by Mo Farah and his coach, Alberto Salazar. These included anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) committed by Salazar, and ongoing questions regarding Farah’s use of L-Carnitine.

All of the above arguably constitutes ‘intelligence’, which the World Anti-Doping Code requires anti-doping organisations to follow up. UKAD has an intelligence team, but it doesn’t comment on investigations unless there is a case to answer. What it hasn’t done is retested as much as other NADOs, but this doesn’t automatically mean it hasn’t followed up on intelligence. Retesting isn’t the only form of intelligence.

Less retests than other NADOs

As mentioned, UKAD has performed far less retests than other NADOs. Last year, Germany’s national anti-doping organisation (NADA Deutschland) retested1 all the samples it had put into storage from 2013-2015 using new analytical methods. Over 200 samples were retested for myoinositol trispyrophosphate (ITPP); transgeneric RNA (siRNA) for the detection of gene doping; selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs); and growth hormone releasing peptides. It now puts over 3,000 samples into long term storage every year.

Australia has taken a similar approach since 2006/7. According to analysis of its Annual Reports, ASADA retested 1,339 samples between 2015 and 2019. Three of those samples resulted in an adverse analytical finding (AAF), proving that retesting works. However the reanalysis process for 2018/19, which involved the largest number of retests (589), hasn’t been completed so that figure could rise. Even if 2018/19 returns no AAFs, ASADA’s figures show that 0.22% of samples retested returned an AAF. ASADA confirmed that, like UKAD, its figures only include retests performed by ASADA and not those requested by other sporting organisations. 

‘We set up what we called “The Tank” to overcome what we saw as a major gap in anti-doping’, wrote Richard Ings, former CEO of ASADA, in reply to emailed questions. ‘Samples were collected and tested and if negative they were destroyed. It was like destroying evidence. It means that a clever cheat only had to pass one test and they were home free. So we thought why not keep the samples? Why not tell athletes “you don’t have to just beat a test today but you have to beat every advance in testing technology for a decade?” 

‘Every previously undetectable substance had had a test developed within 10 years. So it was an effective deterrence strategy and it will lead to detecting old cases. It works.’

UKAD retesting figures as at 12 October 2020…

The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) doesn’t publish retesting figures, but said that it stores ‘thousands’ of urine and blood samples which are retested as part of a ‘comprehensive’ retesting programme. In 2016, it retested 81 samples given by athletes who competed at the Rio 2016 Olympics for prohibited growth hormone releasing factors; and 71 blood samples given at the London 2012 Olympics using a growth hormone biomarkers test newly approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). 

Also in 2016, it retested 61 urine samples for FG-4592, a substance understood to boost the endogenous production of EPO, following intelligence that athletes may be abusing it. Therefore in one year, USADA retested 213 samples, 93 more than UKAD retested in nine years. 

Since the FOI was submitted in January, UKAD has ramped up its retesting. It has retested an additional 281 samples; more than twice the amount it retested during the previous nine years in just nine months. As of 12 October 2020 and illustrated in the above right picture, it has retested 401 samples. The table below illustrates what retests UKAD performed on samples in the nine years between 2011 and 21 January 2020; and the additional retests it has performed in the nine months since receiving the FOI.

In a statement provided to The Sports Integrity Initiative, UKAD argued that it wanted to keep its samples for as long as possible in order to allow for the latest scientific reanalysis methods to be used. Under the 2009 World Anti-Doping Code, anti-doping action had to be commenced within eight years from when the alleged violation was alleged to have taken place. Under the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code, this was extended to ten years. 

There is some debate around this change, as illustrated by the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) refusal to reanalyse Beijing 2008 samples for clenbuterol in 2017. However, it is widely held to mean that from 2015, anti-doping action has to be taken within ten years of an alleged offence. Therefore for UKAD’s samples, stored since 2011, time runs out in 2021.

It does makes sense to retest samples just before the end of the ten year Statute of Limitations, so that the latest available tests and methods can pick up previously undetectable use of prohibited substances or methods. However,  retesting samples at the last minute could run the risk of overwhelming anti-doping Laboratories. UKAD said that it works closely with the Laboratory at Kings College to coordinate testing, and despite conducting more than twice as much testing during nine months as it had conducted in nine years, it had not been overwhelmed.

A strategy of waiting until just before the Statute of Limitations expires before retesting samples would explain the low numbers of retests to 21 January 2020. However, UKAD insists that it doesn’t operate such a strategy.

Its approach does appear different from that adopted by NADA Deutschland, ASADA and USADA, which retests as new intelligence or detection methods develop. UKAD argues that it operates the same policy and does retest as new intelligence or detection methods emerge. Although it only reanalysed 120 samples over nine years, it argues that intelligence isn’t just retesting based on media reports.

Pat Myhill, UKAD’s Director of Operations.

“When to reanalyse a sample is a decision which involves close analysis of many factors including, specific intelligence reports, recent detection developments, and significant upcoming competitions”, said Pat Myhill, UKAD’s Director of Operations, in a statement provided to The Sports Integrity Initiative. “We want to identify and remove from sport those who break the rules at the earliest opportunity, however, we also want to keep the sample as long as possible to allow for the greatest opportunity for scientific development.

“Intelligence on threats to clean sport come from a variety of sources and can relate to anyone bound by the anti-doping rules. Athletes, coaches, medical staff and other support personnel are responsible for upholding clean sport and can face a ban from sport for breaking anti-doping rules.  

“Comparisons with other anti-doping organisations and their reanalysis rates, does not offer an accurate assessment of a successful programme. UKAD’s reanalysis strategy is evidence-based and guided by the support from the scientific community. UKAD constantly assess its reanalysis programme to best protect clean sport.”

Myhill is correct that comparison with other NADOs is difficult. This is partly because – unlike ASADA and USADA – it didn’t answer some of our questions. We received no answer to questions about the number of samples it stores each year; or about how many samples are destroyed without being retested. Despite being asked on two separate occasions, UKAD didn’t respond to questions about why it hasn’t tested the sample of a single footballer since 2011.

UKAD argues that it cannot discuss samples regarding specific sports or athletes. Unlike ASADA, NADA Deutschland or USADA, it doesn’t publish how many samples it puts into long term storage each year.

The samples belong to us

The FOI request arose after UKAD said that it was not prepared to release Mo Farah’s samples to other Anti-Doping Organisations (ADOs) unless there was ‘credible evidence’ of doping. ‘We want to reassure athletes that our active ongoing reanalysis programme takes many factors into account including keeping samples from the most high-profile sports and the most high-profile athletes, and reanalysing them when new scientific developments take place, or analysis sensitivity improves, or if intelligence such as new information comes to light’, read a January statement.

As well as arguing that transportation and retesting by other ADOs could degrade stored samples, rendering them useless for any future new reanalysis methods, UKAD argued that it has first say on retesting, as it owns the samples. “My view is, any sample collected by UK Anti-Doping is the possession of UK Anti-Doping”, Nicole Sapstead, CEO of UKAD, told The Guardian in January. “If we collected on behalf of the IAAF, it’s the IAAF’s sample. If we collected on behalf of USADA, it’s USADA’s sample.” 

Article 6.5 of the World Anti-Doping Code…

This is accurate – under Article 6.5 of the World Anti-Doping Code, the ADO responsible for results management – in this case UKAD – is responsible for retesting. But this argument doesn’t hold true if you are doing almost no retesting in the first place.

This year wasn’t the first time that UKAD had advanced its argument that it was holding on to samples so that it could perform its own reanalysis. In March 2017, Sapstead argued that UKAD and USADA enjoyed an “excellent” working relationship during initial investigations into athletes training with the Nike Oregon Project (NOP), where Alberto Salazar was head coach. 

‘All British elite athletes who are part of UKAD’s whereabouts testing and/or reanalysis programme will be under the jurisdiction of UKAD even if they are overseas training or competing’, read a statement. ‘Their samples will be tested and potentially reanalysed by UKAD based on intelligence received and improvements in detection methods. Each time a sample is reanalysed or sent to another location, the amount contained within a sample can be reduced or has the potential to degrade which limits the possibility to test again in the future.

‘Decisions as to testing and analysis therefore require careful consideration, and national anti-doping organisations can quite legitimately disagree in this regard […] Status is no barrier to thorough testing or potential investigations. UKAD treats all athletes in the same way.’

However, such arguments largely fall apart if you only retest 120 samples in nine years. In addition, UKAD’s claim that it keeps samples ‘from the most high profile athletes’ and that it ‘treats all athletes in the same way’ is undermined by its resolution of a doping case against Tyson Fury and his cousin, Hughie Fury. A 2017 statement mentions the ‘risks inherent’ in continuing the dispute resolution process. It is understood that UKAD was concerned about any legal action the Furys might take seeking compensation for loss of earnings. UKAD retested the sample of just five boxers in nine years, despite ongoing questions about Tyson Fury.

The Statute of Limitations from the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code…

It would therefore appear that all athletes are not equal, despite UKAD’s claims to the contrary. One might argue that other ‘star’ athletes also fall into that ‘risk inherent’ category. 

Salazar coached Farah from 2010 until 2017, however UKAD only began storing samples in 2011. Therefore, under UKAD’s apparent strategy of last minute testing, any Farah samples UKAD has stored from 2011 can be retested until next year. However, not communicating this fact and strategy to other NADOs effectively can create mistrust.

Margarita Pakhnotskaya, RUSADA’s former Deputy Director General…

“I think that UKAD should not oppose the transfer of samples”, Margarita Pakhnotskaya (Маргарита Пахноцкая), former Deputy Director of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), told State news agency TASS. “According to paragraph 6.5 of the World Anti-Doping Code, further analysis of doping tests can be conducted at any time exclusively at the direction of the anti-doping organisation as directed by WADA. Any non-transparency on either side, and this question is not just about UKAD, creates a wall of distrust in the anti-doping system of the country and, accordingly, the athletes that are part of that system.”

Intelligent retesting

The International Standard for Testing and Investigations mandates how ADOs should act on intelligence…

Article 5.8 of the World Anti-Doping Code requires ADOs such as UKAD to investigate all intelligence that may indicate an ADRV. Article 11.2.1 of WADA’s International Standard for Testing and Investigations (ISTI) expands on this (see right). 

Article 4.9.3 of the ISTI mandates that ADOs should ‘consult and coordinate with each other, with WADA, and with law enforcement and other relevant authorities, in obtaining, developing and sharing information and intelligence’. UKAD’s apparent disagreement with USADA over the supply of Farah’s samples for retesting appears at odds with this.

Other ADOs retest samples based on intelligence as it develops. For example, USADA retested prior samples given by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) athlete T.J. Dillashaw after he returned an AAF for EPO. They do this because, as highlighted by ASADA’s former CEO Richard Ings earlier, retesting works. It results in new ADRVs, as ASADA’s figures show.

The results of retesting on samples collected at the Olympics…

Retesting is a strategy since adopted by many ADOs, including the IOC. For the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics, far more AAFs2 resulted from reanalysis than from in competition testing, as anti-doping technology caught up with the cheats (see right). 

WADA also acknowledges the success of retesting. Yet it appears that one of the world’s major NADOs isn’t following this trend. 

What is ‘credible intelligence’?

UKAD argues that it only retests samples if there is ‘credible intelligence’ of doping. As highlighted at the start of this article, a plethora of ‘credible intelligence’ has passed its doors in the past nine years. 

All of the examples listed at the start of this article constitute ‘credible intelligence’ that could result in more widespread retesting of samples. Also, as illustrated by the success of the IOC retesting policy, the deterrent effect of knowing that your sample could be retested at any time using new analytical methods is huge. 

It would appear that UKAD isn’t utilising this deterrent effect. Has its apparent non-strategy of last minute testing meant that it has sat on relevant intelligence for a number of years, diluting this important deterrent?

As previously mentioned, Article 11.2.1 of the ISTI specifically mentions media reports as a specific form of intelligence that should be followed up by ADOs. As outlined above, The FOI shows that until very recently, UKAD was largely failing to retest athletes. On occasion, it has also failed to pass information to relevant disciplinary authorities. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that it failed to follow up on major media stories or intelligence.

Robin Parisotto…

‘In comparison to the ASADA and NADA retest numbers the UKAD retest numbers appear absurdly low’, wrote Robin Parisotto, the former Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) scientist who developed the first tests to detect exogenous use of EPO, in an emailed response to questions about the FOI. ‘Whether this is due to policy constraints or budgetary constraints is unknown to me, but it certainly raises serious concerns. As a publicly funded body, I believe that an explanation is warranted to account for the huge discrepancy between UKAD and other NADOs.’

Parisotto said that minimum requirements for sample retesting ought to be written into the World Anti-Doping Code or the International Standards operated by WADA, and suggested that all samples held by ADOs ought to be retested before the end of the ten year Statute of Limitations. ‘A retesting capacity should be absolutely routine in the anti-doping environment’, he argues. ‘I believe this should be written into the WADA Code/Guidelines and should be appropriately funded and supported by all stakeholders including the athletes themselves’.

Last year, it was found that Romania’s NADO instructed the country’s anti-doping Laboratory to cover up AAFs. This year, it was found that the International Weightlifting Federation’s (IWF) failure to follow up on AAFs was linked to financial corruption. As the Russian doping scandal illustrated, a scenario whereby an athlete’s samples are not retested in exchange for cash is not beyond the realms of possibility. 

There is no suggestion that UKAD’s low retesting figures are linked to any form of corruption. However, WADA’s lack of minimum retesting requirements could open the door for such corruption to occur. It is perhaps time to slam it shut.

1. Page 6, NADA Deutschland Annual Report: https://www.nada.de/fileadmin/user_upload/nada/Downloads/Jahresberichte/2019_NADA_Jahresbericht_EN.pdf
2. https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/IOC/Who-We-Are/Commissions/Disciplinary-Commission/Antidoping-factsheet.pdf#_ga=2.47419751.131571706.1602621692-1749745130.1601923105

* Edmund Willison, a journalist and filmmaker focussing on doping, corruption and abuse in sport, put in the Freedom of Information (FOI) request to UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) on 21 January 2020, and assisted with the compiling of this article. UKAD replied to the FOI on 18 May 2020, and sent a statement of response to questions posed by The Sports Integrity Initiative on 14 October 2020.

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