23 October 2020

WADA Report uncovers lacuna in anti-doping rules

Under the Code, the ADO initiating sample collection is responsible for its storage for reanalysis…

An Interim Report into doping in weightlifting has discovered a gap in anti-doping rules that allows ‘clean’ doping samples to be destroyed three months after they are taken. Under Article 6.5 of the World Anti-Doping Code, the anti-doping organisation (ADO) in charge of results management is responsible for sample storage for reanalysis. Under the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) International Standard for Testing & Investigations (ISTI), ‘clean’ urine samples must only be retained by the respective Laboratory for three months, unless the ADO requests that they are put into long term storage. 

The ISL permits sample destruction after 3mths unless the Testing Authority requests long term storage…

In its investigations into the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), WADA found that as little long term storage had been requested by the IWF or national weightlifting federations, only 31 of 132 urine samples it wished to investigate were still in existence. The rest had been routinely destroyed by the respective Laboratories.

The WADA Report admits that the problem presents a conundrum. A corrupt sport or federation wouldn’t want its doping samples retained, but Laboratories do not have the financial resources or storage space to store large numbers of samples. 

‘Operation Arrow has demonstrated that the three-month-storage of ‘negative’ samples and the 18-month-storage of DCFs [Doping Control Forms] was insufficient’, it reads (PDF below). ‘Whereas the ISL permits a ‘negative’ sample be stored for up to 10-years, laboratories routinely discard these samples after three months, the minimum period required. While cost and storage space limitations within the laboratory are a reasoned basis behind this practice, Operation Arrow highlights the need for WADA and ADOs to find additional ways to ensure that those ‘negative’ samples worthy of long-term storage can be identified and kept.’

A possible solution would be some kind of global sample storage bank, such as the one implemented by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) – now Sport Integrity Australia. ‘We set up what we called “The Tank” to overcome what we saw as a major gap in anti-doping’, Richard Ings, former CEO of ASADA, recently told The Sports Integrity Initiative. ‘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 only retested 120 samples in nine years…

The fact that unless the ADO requests it, samples can be destroyed after three months also raises questions about how many samples have been retained for reanalysis by other ADOs. Earlier this month, we reported how UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) had only retested 120 samples in nine years. UKAD argues that it began storing samples in 2011, and wants to keep them for as long as possible (up to a ten year limit) in order to allow for the latest scientific methods to be used.

Report’s findings

WADA’s Report found that:

• An unnamed ‘high-ranking’ official of the IWF (not its former President, Tamas Aján) had received payments to promote Russian interests and US$5 million protect Russian athletes;
• Urine substitution, using ‘synthetic urinary devices’ and ‘doppelgängers’;
• An unnamed Romanian weightlifter banned earlier this year for using a ‘doppelgänger’ (this sanction isn’t listed on the IWF internet site);
• Fake information provided to WADA about the supply of prohibited substances, that identified ‘credible evidence of impropriety within the IWF’;
• Organised doping and protection of Romanian weightlifters;
• Use of ‘undetectable’ growth hormones to evade doping control;
• Doping Control Officers (DCOs) who provided advance notice of tests;
• New dealers of substances and new doping substances;
• Allegations of youth doping.

The Report details four WADA lines of investigation – Operation Outreach; Operation Heir; Operation Extra; and Operation Arrow. Operation Outreach discovered the ‘high-ranking’ IWF official who accepted payments to protect Russian interests, and US$5 million between 2012 and 2016 to cover up allegations of doping by Russian weightlifters. There is no indication as to where the payments originated, as the investigation is ongoing. The Russian Weightlifting Federation has yet to comment.

Operation Heir uncovered the Romanian scheme to protect weightlifters, which involved urine substitution; trafficking of prohibited substances; and advance notice of testing. In June last year, WADA discovered that the Romanian national anti-doping agency (ANAD) directed the Bucharest Laboratory to cover up positive doping tests relating to three athletes, one of whom was a weightlifter. 

Its Report recommended the removal of Dr. Graziela Elena Vâjială, President of ANAD from its foundation in 2005 until January 2019, when she was replaced by Pavel-Christian Balaj after retiring from office ‘on request’, as ANAD puts it. Government archives reveal that Dr. Vâjială’s ‘request’ to resign was accepted on 17 January 2019, the same day that Balaj was appointed as her replacement, and the same day on which Dr. Vâjială was given a new role at the National Authority for Initial Vocational Training (ANFPISDR). 

Dr. Vâjială’s CV features an ANAD email address…

On the ANFPISDR internet site, her CV features an ANAD email address. There is – of course – no suggestion that she is involved in any of this, and it is possible that her CV could be out of date. Dr. Vâjială denies any role in corrupting the anti-doping system. But her appointment to a governmental recruitment and training role on the same day that she ‘resigned’ after being accused of corruption could be significant to an investigation by Romanian law enforcement, which WADA’s Interim Report reveals is ongoing.

Operation Extra identified over 30 athletes suspected of doping; over 15 coaches suspected of assisting in doping; and over ten officials suspected of ‘knowingly facilitating’ doping. It also identified dealers in prohibited substances; new doping substances and methodologies; urine substitution techniques; examples of bribes in exchange for doping protection; and allegations of youth doping. It resulted in eight lines of inquiry producing 27 intelligence disclosures, which have been shared with the relevant ADOs.

It also identified a ‘culture of silence’ amongst weightlifters, due to a failure in any sort of confidence that the sport was protecting their interests. Some ‘were simply too afraid of he potential consequences to come forward’, the Report outlines.

Operation Arrow identified 130 weightlifters involving 132 samples suspected of urine substitution. Only 31 samples from 30 weightlifters in 23 Laboratories were still in existence, as weightlifting ADOs had not requested their retention. Two of these weightlifters were excluded, as they are subject to an investigation based on the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) retrieved from the Moscow Laboratory. WADA said that this separate investigation has identified 14 weightlifters (24 samples) suspected of urine substitution. Therefore, in total, WADA said its new method has discovered 53 samples from 39 weightlifters suspected of urine substitution.

Urine substitution has been confirmed through DNA analysis for 11 samples involving ten weightlifters from five countries, said WADA. It also said it was ‘very likely’ to have occurred in 15 samples from eight weightlifters from five countries, but these samples had been routinely destroyed. The remaining 27 samples were shown not to have been substituted. 

Cheats look for lacunas

Cheaters never prosper, so they saying goes. But determined cheats look to exploit gaps in rules and regulations to their advantage. The extent of doping in weightlifting, the apparent complicity of its officials as well as the methods used, is shocking. However, it would appear that a gap in sport’s rules allowed it to happen. If you don’t want doping to be discovered in your sport, don’t request retention of the sample, and ensure that all athletes are clean for competitions organised by other ADOs.

Dr. Rodchnkov’s book…

This was part of the method that WADA investigators discovered Russia had employed, and detailed in former Moscow Laboratory Director Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov’s book. Except – for some bizarre reason – Russia appears to have kept a number of samples stored at the Moscow Laboratory for much longer than the minimum three month requirement.

It would be unfair to require WADA’s accredited Laboratories to store sport’s samples. In 2018, WADA’s Testing Figures Report reveals that they analysed 344,177 samples for sport. Many Laboratories – such as Ghent University’s DoCoLab – receive no government funding and rely on revenue from services they provide to sport. For many, it is a vocation rather than a job. Sample storage is expensive and requires space – both things that Laboratories often lack.

There is currently no specific requirement within the Code that requires ADOs to retain a percentage of samples for a specified period of time for later reanalysis. Article 5.8 of the Code requires ADOs to investigate all ‘intelligence’ that may indicate an ADRV, and retesting of samples falls within this. As we reported, this leads to widely differing reanalysis policies – even amongst National Anti-Doping Organisations. 

Setting a mimimum percentage for the number of samples taken by an ADO that must be put into storage, as well as a minimum length of storage time, seems sensible. It won’t necessarily result in less doping and will be expensive, which is perhaps why sport has been reluctant to do it. But future reanalysis of those samples could ensure that less cheats prosper.

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