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The Explainer – These things take time

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Aug. 20, 2009
  • Updated Aug. 17, 2010 at 5:55 PM EDT

By Charles Pelkey

Châtenay-Malabry lab director Jacques de Ceaurriz has a hefty set of rules to follow when conducting a test.

Photo: Agence France Presse – file photo

Dear Explainer,
Why do doping control results take so long as compared to my own tests ordered by my doctor, for which I get results back in less than a week? Time and time again, results are announced many weeks after the control. I would have guessed with anything as high profile as the Giro or the Tour, results could be turned around in 48 hours. Why so long?

I am also curious how cyclists can maintain their innocence even after both “A” and “B” samples show positive. It seems to me that a lab result is a lab result and if it shows dirty how can they argue?

I know you are swamped with doping questions, but not only is it very controversial, it is also confusing.

I always look forward to your column.
Peter McMahon

Hello Peter,
You question is one that has come up quite often this year, particularly in the cases of Danilo Di Luca and Mikel Astarloza.

Di Luca, purportedly second in this year’s Giro d’Italia, first learned that he had tested positive two months after samples were taken on May 20 and 28. Astarloza, meanwhile, only found out after the Tour de France – in which he’d apparently won the 16th stage – that he had failed a pre-Tour out-of-competition test.

The first and easiest explanation is backlog. While cycling is – at least in the world of doping tests – a major sport, WADA-certified labs handle testing for virtually every sport governed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a number that merely qualify as “recognized,” such as Rugby, Orienteering and Korfball … uhhh Korfball? (I have to admit that I had to look it up, an acknowledgement of my own sporting-world myopia, I guess.)

While during May and July, samples from the Giro and the Tour will certainly take priority over Korfball (let’s at least hope so), each test takes time. First, the lab has to comply with specific procedures outlined in WADA’s International Standard for Laboratories (ISL).

Challenging the results
Even the slightest deviation from those procedures has, in the past, served as the basis of an accused athlete’s defense against charges of doping. And that is the answer to your second question: how can a rider, whose A and B samples test positive, challenge those results? They mount a challenge against the testing.

Most notably, Euskaltel’s Iñigo Landaluze successfully challenged his 2005 testosterone positive at the Dauphiné Libéré by pointing out that the testing lab had committed procedural errors. At that point, the legal burden of proof fell to the “prosecution” – which in this case was the UCI – to show that those deviations from procedure were not “prejudicial,” meaning the errors, while having occurred, did not affect the outcome. The UCI did little more than simply state that the Landaluze errors weren’t prejudicial, which the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) found was short of meeting the burden of proof.

Conversely, CAS found that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) did meet its burden when attorneys representing Floyd Landis also presented evidence of deviation from the ISL procedures.

The rule watchers among you might note that the latest version of the World Anti-Doping Code (approved in Madrid in 2007 and in effect since January of this year) now leaves the burden of proof on the accused, who now not only has to show errors occurred, but that they affected the outcome of the test. That abandonment of the shifting burden of proof is a pet peeve of mine, but perhaps a topic for another column.

Landaluze, by the way, managed to again trip the Dope-O-Meter™ at, coincidentally, this year’s edition of the Dauphiné. How much do you want to bet they spend a little extra time making sure all the ducks were in a row when they tested those samples?

One change I would like to see in the rules is a requirement that all A and B samples be tested at different labs. In an ideal world, A and B samples would be separated at the outset, stored in separate facilities and the B sample transported to a different lab upon the return of a positive result from the A sample. Current rules only require that a different technician conduct the follow-up test.

While superficially a separate labs rule might appear to be a major concession to the accused, I also see it as a way of building a more solid case when the samples are shown to be positive. To me, at least, it might slow the testing process slightly, but it sure as heck would speed up the adjudication of cases in which lab procedures are at issue. Don’t forget that the entire hearing process in the Landis case took nearly as long to complete as the time of his suspension. Most of that involved challenges of laboratory procedures.

You can’t test for everything
Aside from the backlog, labs also have to decide just what it is they will test for. Not all samples are subjected to the full spectrum of tests. First off, tests tend to be discipline-specific. Testers, for example, will test for THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) in snow-boarding and downhill mountain bike racing – where being stoned out of your gourd may actually count as “performance-enhancement” – but take a pass in the 100-meter dash.

Even then the labs only test for a limited spectrum of substances. Of the 2056 out-of-competition tests conducted in 2008, for example, only about half were tested for EPO and even fewer were tested for other “blood boosters,” like the Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator (CERA), because of the costs involved.

From what we can discern from UCI statements, Di Luca’s tests from the Giro originally came back negative for EPO. However, the lab is allowed to retain unused amounts of the A sample for later testing. A subsequent analysis of Di Luca’s blood profiles in his “biological passport” prompted the UCI to request further testing for CERA. That’s where the sample rang the bell, so to speak.

The IOC took the same approach when it requested re-testing of samples from last year’s Beijing Olympics and found several athletes – including Davide Rebellin and Stefan Schumacher – positive for CERA. Remember that news only came out this past April.

So, given those delays, what happens when the A sample comes back positive?

The ISL standards require that the B sample analysis occur “as soon as possible and shall take place no later than seven (7) working days starting the first working day following notification of an A Sample Adverse Analytical Finding by the Laboratory.”

The rule also notes, however, that if there are “technical or logistical reasons” for a delay, that won’t invalidate the original test, nor will it preclude the B sample from being used to confirm. Chief among the “logistical” reasons is that the accused athlete has the right to observe the testing of the B sample, or to have a representative do so on his or her behalf. That may cause further delays, but again, it’s not a basis for claiming that the results are invalid.

The rules also outline notification procedures and dictate how news of a positive should be released to the public. Those rules, however, are often difficult to enforce once the accused, his national federation and a growing circle of other interested parties are notified. Indeed, in both the Di Luca and Astarloza cases, news organizations found out about the positives upon completion of the A sample, rather than after the B sample was confirmed.

While you’re right in saying that your own doctor can flip a blood or urine test in just a few days, it’s probably not an apt comparison, given the full spectrum of regulations that apply to the testing of samples from an athletic event. If your doctor gets a weird result, for example, she can ask for a re-test to confirm. The personal, civil rights and career-affecting consequences of a positive test are such that the rule book governing doping tests involves issues that most hospital labs don’t have to address.

Keeping the testers honest
The question of how those labs comply with those rules was raised in an ugly way recently, when admitted doper Bernard Kohl charged that his former manager Stefan Matschiner had successfully bribed staff at WADA-certified labs in central Europe to do some off-the-books testing, so that he could monitor his levels. If that’s the case, we could see a whole new set of scandals erupting in the world of doping, this time with the testers, rather than the tested.

As you might suspect, those allegations have triggered an investigation in Austria. For now, WADA is holding off on its own inquiry until that’s done.

When asked about the Kohl claim, WADA’s spokesman said that “this matter is one of great concern for WADA and we take it very seriously. An investigation is being conducted by Austrian law enforcement authorities. WADA will endeavour to obtain all relevant information on this matter from relevant authorities to ensure that the integrity of the anti-doping system is maintained

“In order to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation, WADA must refrain from commenting further at this stage.”

This will, undoubtedly, take some time to resolve as well.


Email Charles Pelkey


“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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