It’s been quite an interesting few days for the IAAF I imagine. Track and field has finally joined the ranks of cycling in terms of perceived doping and corruption issues. In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me catch you up on the past few days.
·German TV station drops bombshell of a
·Insiders claim that Russian Doping is about as
systematic as the old East Germany regimes with things like:
enormous bribes to cover up positive tests
State supported doping
Allegations that the vast majority of Russian athletes are on drugs
The treasurer of the IAAF having to take a leave of absence because of his involvement
Current president of IAAF’s son was involved in a deal to help Qatar gain the world championships in 2017 with the help of a 5 million
There is a list of 200+ names of abnormal blood results from 2006-08 that may or may not have been investigated by the IAAF.
On this list of abornmal blood results are Olympic champions, world record holders, athletes who won over 100+ gold medals
at major championships.
Of this list Russia has over 50 names which isn’t surprising, while Kenya has 25, among others.
Several important members/associates of the IAAF have stepped down, taken a leave of absence, or just distanced themselves in some way (or told to..)
For good measure, throw in the smaller controversy at USATF convention where some seemingly back-handed deals went
down, as always it appears.
In other words, shit has hit the fan in track and field.
All of this has occurred right after Seb Coe released his Athletics Manifesto that called for much stricter drug testing governance. I doubt Coe had any idea that a few days later his sport would face it’s biggest challenge perhaps ever. I wonder what Seb is thinking now about potentially signing up to deal with this mess of a sport?
Anyways, what I’d like to focus on is the doping aspect ofthe allegations. While I’m not some insider with secret knowledge, what I do think serves a purpose is looking at some of the ramifications of the recent news and what it actually means.
To Russia with Love:
The Russia news should not surprise those who pay attention to the sport. It’s long assumed that almost every Russian is doping, especially on the women’s side of things.
This is due to the amount of positives in part and the former soviet/state-run dominance that has historically led to state sponsored doping regimes. To see the extent of the problem one has to look no further than Russian coach who Australian Walker Jared Tallent called out last
year, who has had 18 athletes test positive for drugs.
And this is the sport of Race Walking.
Tallent even went as far as calling out PV world record holder and a man running for IAAF president, Sergey Bubka, to do something. To my knowledge…not much was done…
We can look at positive tests from people like SHobokhova or Australian Pole Vault hero Steve Hooker’s wife Katya Kostetskaya (who coincidentally went to HS in the US and college at Texas State University where she was college teammates with one of my best friends Paulo Sosa…) Again, not
much said about that one after the uproar died down.
Having been over in Russia for the 2013 World Champs, it makes one question why Russia is even awarded the opportunity to host such events. I remember running past the mobile labs that they had in RV’s right outside of the World Champs and with a tinge of skepticism asking others if they thought that these were set up by Russia to catch athletes or simply test
their athletes blood or perhaps give athletes drugs before competition…
Perhaps the question wasn’t as far-fetched as we thought at the time.
The larger issue though is corruption. We are facing a state sponsored doping effort. Complete neglect for Anti-Doping practices and we are
back to the 80’s where state anti-doping agencies were set up not to catch
cheaters but instead help them out by “educating” them and making sure they don’t test positive.
Perhaps not to that extent, but way back in the day, the US had similar programs and would “educate” athletes on steroid use. The same can
be said for major programs who would have educational lectures by doctors to explain drug use. Then there’s the always lovely in-house testing of athletes to make sure they are clean…
The point is that such organizational corruption is what sets the sport back and is the major issue in sport. If we lose faith that the drug catchers are actually trying to catch athletes, it’s game over for clean sport.
If the corruption reaches the highest levels of the IAAF, similar to how far it reached in cycling, then it’s even worse. When your treasurer of the IAAF is involved in covering up tests and the President of the IAAF son is involved in bribes, it’s not a bout of confidence that the organization is on the up and up.
But how bad is the state wide doping problem in Russia. In the German Documentary, some athletes claimed it was almost 100% necessary to
reach the highest levels.
While this might seem outlandish, a more reasoned approach can be seen in a 2011 study that looked at blood abnormalities.
In it they assessed blood results from athletics samples from 2001-2008. They then tracked who showed abnormal test results and calculated how many were likely doping from each country. While the country names were kept anonymous, it’s easy to figure out who is who to a degree now. What was Russia’s result?
Using two different methods, they assessed that:
Of the 205 Men’s samples:
Method 1- 48% were abnormal “doped”
Method 2- 78% were abnormal
Of the 445 women samples:
Method 1- 46% were abnormal “doped”
Method 2- 50% were abnormal
(method 1- is a conservative estimate…Method 2 is a method that assumes practices like microdosing occur)
That is a shockingly high number.
Those Abnormal blood test results:
Which brings us to the 225+ abnormal blood test results being reported. These results were the result of tracking that seemingly occurred from 2006-2008. The magnitude of these results are outstanding as apparently the level of athletes and number of athletes having abnormal results is staggering. We are talking 3 London Olympic champs, 100+ major championship winners, world record holders, and one of the biggest names
in British athletics.
There are a few important things to understand when looking at these figures.
First, this list appears to be a ranking of abnormality. It’s almost a red flag system designed to ascertain which athletes might have suspicion of using drugs. There are apparently different levels of suspicion that tie to how far outside the norm the blood results are for that athlete.
It’s important to understand the climate off of which these blood results were taken. This was pre-introduction of the Blood Passport system in 2009. So these results were not used to determine drug use by themself. In those days, what they used them for was screening essentially. If someone’s blood results popped up with irregularities, they were presumably targeted for testing. One of the big things that all of the Anti-Doping agencies do is target test. If they suspect someone is using drugs, it makes sense to try to catch them. With the pure difficulty in having someone test positive, given that Lance Armstrong passed hundreds of test for example, it makes sense to try to do as many tests on those who you suspect, hoping they slip up.
The issue with the IAAF is whether these were investigated further. You have the media reporting that no one did anything with this list, while the IAAF saying they investigated them.
It is important to note that in the pre-blood passport days, this was almost an investigational method of assessing use. So one could think of the collecting of this data as a way of investigating and validating the blood passport. So at the time, it could NOT be used to incriminate someone. That’s why it’s hard to tell if this list was “covered up” like the media is suggestion or if it was simply used for targeted testing that caught some of the abnormal users and didn’t catch some of the others.
Studying the Study and what the blood parameters mean:
We can actually gain further insight from the supposed 228 names by looking at the aforementioned study. This study from 2011 seems to have covered some of the same abnormal blood results that the current list contains.
In the research they assessed 7289 samples from 2737 athletes. They were using the biological passport methods to assess whether they were abnormalities.
The way the passport works is that they track blood parameters over time to get a norm base for each athlete and to see deviations from these norms. Each athlete has a threshold above and below these values of which if they go over or under it’s considered almost super-physiological and could only be a result of doping.
The important parameters considered are Hemoglobin, Hematocrit, % reticulocytes, and what is called an OFF-score. The idea is that these values, if artificially impacted by either blood doping or use of drugs like EPO, will vary much more widely than they do in normal people.
Hemoglobin and hematocrit are pretty well known but reticulocytes and OFF-score often need some explaining. The percentage of reticulocytes is the amount of young developing red blood cells there are in the blood. The idea is that the body compensates for artificial increases in Red Blood Cells by self-regulating it’s own production. The body is incredibly good at maintaining some sort of balance, so it makes sense that if you suddenly increase the amount of RBCs in the body, the body will initiate a compensatory reaction. So the Reticulocytes will go through this ebb and flow of relatively large variation depending on the drug use and timing of it.
What this study did was assess the prevalence of doping by comparing the blood values to population norms. In the study, they presented the results of two individuals, one who had normal results and one with abnormal.
What we can clearly see is how the blood parameters work. It’s this fluctuation that matters. In the study the authors mentioned that this athlete saw trends of increases in parameters pre-competition while parameters fell back to normal levels during out of season testing. This of course makes perfect sense.
If we look at the reports in the UK papers, they provide blood parameters for a few athletes.
One being the now busted Shobokhova who had a hemoglobin number as high as 16.9, hematocrit 51%, and OFF-Score of 1.35. To put these in perspective, women generally have lower RBC levels, and a level of 16.9 is astonishingly high. The hematocrit of 51% is over the Cycling limit of 50% where athletes cannot compete if there hematocrit is over that number. The reason is because it’s a supraphysiological level. Very very few people have levels that high, and the ones who do usually have a very rare disorder. Similarly, the OFF-score of 1.35 is again extremely high. All of these things point to obvious drug use.
Similarly, Jeptoo’s reported figure of 16+ for hemoglobin is very high. Her hematocrit of 39% is actually surprising. To have a hemoglobin that high with a hematocrit that low means it’s either a typo/mistake, the data
points come from separate testing dates, or something is extremely off. So not entirely sure on that one.
What we can glean from this research though is that the abnormal blood results reported in the list of 228 are also reported in this data set. Therefore we can get an idea of the characteristics of those 228.
For instance, in the sample 79% of athletes were distance runners, so we can assume that the large amount of abnormal athletes in the sample of 228 were in fact distance runners. Additionally, of these samples, they found a large degree of difference in the number of abornmalities in the blood with endurance athletes having between 15-22% abnormal profiles while non-endurance having between 0-8% abnormal results.
This makes sense given that the number of endurance athletes was much higher, but also because this is looking at increases in RBC production, which although used by other athletes (like sprinter Marion Jones) has a primary effect on endurance.
Secondly, the rigor of the collection methods and analysis was questioned and addressed by the IAAF, given that this was pre-blood passport standardization. In the study, they actually cover this concluding that handling did not seem to impact the samples:
“The fact that some subgroups [e.g., athletes from country D (Fig. 1)] produced an empirical CDF (ECDF) very close to the CDFs used as a reference confirms that the standardization was rigorous enough for drawing sound conclusions….. All these considerations suggest that the validity of the period prevalence estimates M1 and M2 are not affected by a lack of standardization in blood data acquisition”
Which brings me to the leaked list of names. The study found that:
“As a result, it has been possible to point out that the prevalence of blood doping is highly dependent on the athlete’s country of origin, with significantly different estimates between countries”
What this means is that certain countries, either due to lax testing, state
supported doping or a myriad of other issues, have bigger drug issues. If we tie this into the blood abnormalitiy list numbers it’s easy to see which ones these could be. Leading the way are Russia with 53 and Kenya with 25. There are numerous other countries in the double digits that also need to be looked at, some which have traditionally had a more “clean” image.
Undoubtedly, there are clean athletes on this list. Why? Because this was pre-biological passport data. It’s a retrospective look, using the methods we do now to get a snapshot on what doping looked like before the introduction of the test.
Occasionally, you can have a snapshot or 1 value test that might appear
abnormal. The biological passport is looking for trends over time to understand if an athlete is doping or not. So if you are on this list, it doesn’t
necessarily mean you are dirty. The amount of tests that you have outside the norm matters a lot in these tests. If it’s a one-off sample, it would be hard to fully condemn someone unless there results were off the charts. If it’s a series of a few samples, then the likelihood of the abnormal tests being drug related skyrockets.
What it does suggest is the staggering amount of suspicious samples is
alarmingly high. While not everyone may be dirty, to have 228 athletes with
abnormalities suggests a major problem.
Ultimately, my guess is that the names will come out. And perhaps that will be unfair to several athletes, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably what the sport needs. A complete blow up is probably the only way to clean house, get rid of the corruption that seemingly follows doping and sport.
What might be a better way to do it, though it would never happen, would be to have independent anti-doping analysts go through the list and produce a list of athletes, along with their blood passport, that have values that would fail todays blood passport standards. If the numbers are based on the research, then it’s obvious that there are certain athletes, like the example listed above, who had more then enough data points to fail today’s
blood passport standards.
Athletics is at a tipping point. It can either go the way of cycling, corruption and ultimately non-interest, or it can be an example and hope to clean its image up.
I’ve always said that the only way to limit drug use is not to cut off the main source of the use. While athletes obviously have a largeresponsibility, it’s the surrounding entourage that matters. Similar to catching a recreational drug user, that only takes care of one person. If he stops, so what. You still have dealers and traffickers who will simply findanother person.
The same goes with drug use in sport. Unless you make very strict and stringent penalties for coaches, doctors, agents, and support personnel who are likely implicit in the doping, it will never stop. Doping rarely occurs in isolation. If we have learned nothing from history, the ones who don’t get caught for the most part have a systematic approach with doctors, agents, and support around them. Look no further than cycling, BALCO, East-Germans, Chinese, and so on.
Secondly, we need to use the data of countries showing blatantly obvious neglect of anti-doping. These tests were had in 2008, a research study which presumably took a while to publish, as most do, was put out in 2011. It is now almost 2015, and little country specific targeting has changed. It has only been within the last 6 months, after another spectacular doping program by the German TV team, has there been a push for a lab and tougher standards in Kenya.
Why would you not make this a priority if 4+ years ago you knew that Kenya had 25 athletes who had abnormal blood results? Similarly, although there have been a variety of Russian positives, if almost HALF of the Russians had abnormal blood parameters, why wasn’t there a push for an investigation into why so many of them were presumably doping?
Half is quite a large amount…. You would think there would be an investigation into doping control to see why this was occurring. You don’t have hundreds of athletes with abnormal results as a coincidence…
There should be consequences for countries. Point blank, Russia should be banned from any World Championship or Olympic competition until there is a massive overhaul.
Lastly, one of the reasons you saw so many athletes have abnormal values is because during that time period, athletes weren’t prepared for the biological passport. It wasn’t part of the testing arsenal, therefore they did not have to concern themselves with making sure they complied.
What I would love to see is a longer period of prosecution for athletes. Instead of the 8 year statute of limitations, athletes blood parameters should be kept indefinitely. The samples themselves perhaps, not, but parameters like these should be kept for a long time. You never know when
statistical analysis measures will improve. Just by keeping the data we’d be
able to retrospectively look back and have an idea of doping rates.
Although it’s a violation of privacy and I understand that, I would love to see athlete blood passport profiles made public. Yes, it would bring a lot of scrutiny, but it would go a long way to convincing the public that what they are seeing is legitimate.
Overall, this might the best and worst thing that happened to track and field. It could go either way and we are at the precipices of making that decision on which way we go.