Mike Rowbottom: Frozen but not forgotten – the samples that came back to bite

Friday, 08 March 2013
mikepoloneckI once sat next to Nadzeya Ostapchuk – one of six athletes whose stored samples have shown up positive eight years after being taken at the 2005 World Athletics Championships – when we were on a bus heading for the stadium at...I forget where. Could have been Doha. Could have been Brussels. Could have been any of the IAAF Samsung Diamond League venues where, in the space of the last three years, this chunky shot putter from Belarus has enjoyed mighty successes.

As you might expect, she was pretty solid - but I reckoned, if things turned ugly, I could probably have handled her. Then again, she might have tied me into a knot and stored me in the luggage rack. Reporting on the women's shot put over the last few years has invariably involved writing about two athletes: Ostapchuk - impassive, compact, startlingly swift in the circle - and the Kiwi thrower Valerie Adams - demonstrative, emotional, built on a far larger scale.

Ostapchuk was unbeatable in 2010, when she won the inaugural Diamond League shot put title, but the following year Adams, perhaps regaining her equilibrium after a painful divorce, was the dominant force as the Belarus athlete suffered with an injured knee. Last year it seemed as if Ostapchuk was taking her turn for the plaudits, but soon after earning the Olympic title in London she was banned after tests carried out a few days before the final and the day after returned findings of an illegal metabolic agent, metenolone.

ostapchukNadzeya Ostapchuk was stripped of the shot put title she won at the London 2012 Games and now stands to lose her 2005 world title

And now it transpires that Ostapchuk's only world gold - she has silver medals from the championships of 2003, 2007 and 2011 - also looks like being annulled. It is bad news – and good news. The usual mixture when a doping infraction has been uncovered...

In the wake of Ben Johnson's landmark positive testing and disqualification from the position as Olympic 100 metres champion at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the then IOC President Juan-Antonio Samaranch looked on the bright side. "This is not a disaster," he opined. "For it shows the IOC is very serious, and that we are winning the battle for a clean Games. The gap between our aims and those who are cheating is narrowing."

benjBen Johnson set the template for doping shocks in athletics when he was stripped of his 1988 Olympic 100m title

A quarter of a century on, as the latest chemical miscreants are named within the sport - Ostapchuk figured along with three fellow Belarus athletes and in company with two other Russians who made the Helskinki podium in long jump silver medallist Tatyana Kotova and hammer winner Olga Kuzenkova - athletics is making the same calculations.

The feeling in IAAF circles before the six retrospective positives were announced was that this was a "positive" positive result.

"You will see that most striking thing will be: how few athletes and how obvious those athletes as well," said Nick Davies, the IAAF deputy general secretary. "In other words, sport is far less dirty than some would like to think."

Davies confirmed that "hundreds" of re-tests had been carried out on urine samples provided at the championships which had been frozen and stored. The operation was deliberately undertaken just within the eight-year statute of limitations for drug violations laid down by the World Anti-Doping Code.

"Retesting is something we always said we would do, right from the beginning," Davies sad. "We have an eight-year time when we can test and obviously you wait as long as you can. People ask, 'Why are you doing it now? It makes no sense'. Actually, it makes perfect sense because the longer you wait, the more sophisticated the testing will be."

The long game is the only game to play as far as authorities seriously seeking to combat doping are concerned. In this case, the IAAF have been able to come back to original samples with technology that has moved on significantly. But this tactic is now being supplemented by a more profound gauge.

kotovaTatyana Kotova has been suspended by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency following evidence of an adverse test following her silver medal long jump win in Helsinki 2005



Shortly before the 2011 World Athletics Championships in Daegu, the IAAF announced its intention to take blood samples from every competing athlete as part of an ongoing programme to develop individual Athlete Biological Passports. Before the Championships were over, a blood testing team operating at the Athletes' Village had amassed a total of 1,848 pre-competition blood samples from participating athletes.

The Athlete Biological Passports allows anti-doping experts to register and chart physiological markers over the passage of time, allowing comparison and further scrutiny if required. Scientists will be looking for evidence of banned blood boosters such as Erythropoietin (EPO) and illegal blood transfusions for endurance athletes, while for those involved in power sports the focus will be on steroids and growth hormones.

In cycling, this process has been used to determine which competitors should be target-tested. An IAAF spokesman added: "The data collected will therefore constitute a unique database of reference ranges for various biomarkers in elite male and female athletes."

On September 18, 2011, the World Anti-Doping Agency – established in 1999 under IOC auspices to co-ordinate a worldwide programme for doping-free sport -  announced that the volume of blood-tests in the run-up to the London 2012 Games would be more than doubled. As my insidethegames colleague David Owen reported at the time: "Meeting at the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, the WADA Executive Committee accepted a recommendation that all anti-doping organisations ensure that not less than 10 per cent of samples collected are blood specimens. Only four per cent of all doping control samples collected in 2010 were for blood, mostly for passport programmes.

"WADA said this had been a 'key concern', since 'an anti-doping organisation ought to collect blood as it cannot purport to have an effective programme in place if there is a loophole in its testing programme leaving for possible abuse of substances and methods that cannot be detected in urine analysis such as human growth hormone and blood transfusions'. It said the new 10 per cent directive would have a 'significant deterrence benefit, regardless of the particular risks associated with the anti-doping organisations' sports.'"

samaranchJuan-Antonio Samaranch, IOC President at the time of Ben Johnson's doping ban, insisted 'this is not a disaster'

The latest step forward in the detection of cheating athletes has come in a week which started with more good news on the doping front, namely the decision by the International Tennis Federation to introduce its own biological passport method following months of lobbying for more stringent measures from players as exalted as Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

The ITF, along with the Association for Tennis Professionals (ATP), Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and grand slam tournaments has now given unanimous approval to the system which the disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong claimed deterred him from doping further after it was introduced in cycling.

"Bio passports are certainly the present and future of anti-doping," Davies said, adding: "It gives a massive boost to credibility especially if the passports can be started from junior age-groups – as soon as athletes first make it on the scene." Unhappily, but necessarily, that is the next frontier for this passport to cross.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. To follow him on Twitter click here.
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