Nick Butler

I was intrigued by two anti-doping related stories last week.

One involved the results of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) retests of frozen samples from the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and the revelation that only one - as of yet, unknown - positive case has emerged. 

The second concerned comments from World Olympians Association chief executive Mike Miller that the wearing of microchips by athletes should be considered as a means to detect doping. "We’re a nation of dog lovers, we’re prepared to chip our dogs and it doesn’t seem to harm them, so why aren’t we prepared to chip ourselves?" Miller told a conference in London. 

Both comments produced obvious headlines but raised more questions than answers.

Polish cross-country skier Kornelia Marek was the only athlete to be banned during Vancouver 2010 after failing for blood booster erythropoietin (EPO). Russian ice hockey player Svetlana Terentieva also received a reprimand, but not a suspension, after failing an out-of-competition test shortly beforehand for a product banned only in-competition.

The one new case from the retests involved three separate adverse analytical findings, meaning that the athlete in question was analysed three different times, perhaps suggesting a big name who was automatically re-tested as a result of winning medals?

It still seems remarkable that so few cases have emerged at an event which fell two years either side of summer editions in Beijing and London which have so far produced a collective total of 182 positive drugs tests.

There were also far more failures at the two previous winter editions at Salt Lake City 2002 and Turin 2006.

There were 11 cases at Salt Lake City 2002, including three involving medal-winning Russian cross-country skiers, who failed for EPO. This was followed by eight at Turin 2006, including six Austrians skiers caught following a police raid. 

Samples were frozen and re-tested for Turin 2006 only, incidentally, but the results have still not been announced due to unexplained legal complications which, when raised, always seem to make IOC staff jumpy and abruptly change the subject…

Of the 1,710 urine samples from Vancouver 2010 which were "available", 1,195 - or 70 per cent - were analysed following a targeted selection process which included "samples from all medallists and all Russian athletes". There were more than 2,500 athletes competing in the Canadian city, so less than half have had samples re-analysed, but the percentage did mark an increase on previous numbers. 

Surely if they have the resources and budget to retest 70 per cent, then they can raise this to 100 per cent next time.

Polish cross-country skier Kornelia Marek, third left in red, is the only athlete to so far have been banned for doping at Vancouver 2010 but retests have revealed at least one other athlete tested positive ©Getty Images
Polish cross-country skier Kornelia Marek, third left in red, is the only athlete to so far have been banned for doping at Vancouver 2010 but retests have revealed at least one other athlete tested positive ©Getty Images

So why were positive results so few?

The obvious answer here is that fewer winter athletes were taking the anabolic steroids which produced almost all of the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 failures. A new test developed by then Moscow Laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov was able to detect the presence of these substances in the system for far longer - months rather than days - and consequently produced 103 new cases in athletics and 50 in weightlifting.

Winter sports, conversely, are less based around brute strength and explosive power and cases tend to involve the use of endurance-boosting drugs, such as the aforementioned EPO, in sports like biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Huge steps were made in detecting these substances between 2006 and 2010. In skiing, for instance, there were improvements in out-of-competition testing and targeted analysis as well as new urine and blood tests for EPO and related drugs, before the gamechanger of the athlete biological passport (ABP) in time for Vancouver 2010.

It was thus far harder to get away with doping and many athletes were caught before competing at the Games.

On the other hand, there has been far less progress over the last seven years and current tests remain limited. It remains possible that athletes got away with blood doping at Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 and, with the IOC having announced that the analysis has been "concluded" before the eight-year statute of limitations ends in February, they will continue to escape detection. The IOC have also not yet confirmed whether the latest EPO test was used on all the Vancouver 2010 samples.

There is thought to be less use of anabolic steroids in winter sport ©Getty Images
There is thought to be less use of anabolic steroids in winter sport ©Getty Images

The argument that steroids have less use in winter disciplines is also not completely convincing. Power-based drugs would certainly help in a sport like bobsleigh and it is worth remembering that the "Duchess cocktails" allegedly used by Russian athletes at Sochi 2014 contained a combination of the three steroids oxandrolone, methenolone, and trenbolone.

We will be able to draw more accurate conclusions once we see the results of the ongoing IOC re-analysis of Sochi 2014 samples.

The other obvious point regarding Vancouver 2010 concerns the countries at the top of the medals table - and those that are not there. Russia secured only three golds, five silvers and seven bronze medals to finish 11th on the medals table in 2010. It was a source of huge embarrassment for the future Olympic hosts as Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and new Russian Olympic Committee head Alexander Zhukov were each put under huge pressure. Figures from then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin downwards demanded improvement…at whatever cost.

Fast forward four years and Russia sat proudly on top of the medals table with 13 golds, 11 silvers and nine bronzes. Belarus, another nation to feature highly in terms of retested positives, also rose into the top 10 at Sochi 2014 after winning five golds compared with one at Vancouver 2010.

Mutko admitted in a television interview last year that the Russian cross-country skiing teamat Vancouver 2010 were "sitting on" doping, which I am told translates as "liberally using" or "full of". We cannot really take this as proof of guilt given how sceptical we are whenever the current Deputy Prime Minister denies any wrongdoing, or when he pontificates about pretty much anything, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Another point raised by several officials is how the structured nature of the winter season makes it harder for athletes to dope. All athletes compete regularly at weekly World Cup events with stringent testing in place from late October until March. They thus have less windows in which to dope undetected. 

This is very different from some summer sports, like weightlifting, where athletes often have often secured qualification marks and then spent time "preparing" at training camps and not competing before excelling on the Olympic stage. I am told that that the International Weightlifting Federation will introduce more compulsory qualification events in the future so as to stop this happening. 

Winter sporting athletes do generally compete over a far more structured World Cup season than in summer sports,like weightlifting, where athletes prepare away from competition in training camps ©Getty Images
Winter sporting athletes do generally compete over a far more structured World Cup season than in summer sports,like weightlifting, where athletes prepare away from competition in training camps ©Getty Images

On this topic, it is worth pointing out that the Russia’s Olympic bobsleigh and skeleton team before Sochi 2014 all skipped the final World Cup of the season in Königssee in January that year in order, they said, to practice on the Sochi track. This seemed a plausible explanation but must now be treated with a degree of suspicion.

This tendency for athletes to "disappear" for long periods to remote training camps away from the prying eyes of drug testers is also why comments from Miller - the former International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) chief executive - on the use of microchips merits further analysis.

Could new technology be used to monitor the location of athletes to assist whereabouts testing, he wondered, or could it help analyse substances in the human body in a more efficient version of the ABP?

Those not already put off by Miller’s reference to treating humans the same way we treat dogs have raised concerns about an athlete’s right to privacy. This is a valid point, and it all sounds distinctly Orwellian and over-intrusive, but I find myself not entirely opposed.

No one is really free to go anywhere undetected in our surveillance-conscious times and athletes have already surrendered much of their privacy by telling drug testers where they are at specific times for random testing.

How much does this intrusion matter unless you have something to hide?

Another important question involves to what extent is whereabouts and the detection of athletes still a problem in anti-doping today. I have heard different views on this from anti-doping experts but was struck by a tweet from lawyer Martin McEvoy during an unrelated discussion last week.

"I'd go so far as to say big issue currently, under the surface, is whereabouts - athletes making themselves impossibly remote..," he posted. "Indeed, that issue is in many ways the intersection of Salazar, Aden, Russia and all the rest. Hiding in plain sight."

World Anti-Doping Agency officials have already floated this idea and concluded that, at the moment, the risks outweigh the benefits. But, if McEvoy is right, then should we not at least develop this technology as much as possible and then put it to athletes before we conclude now that it is a bad idea? Maybe without mentioning dogs in any of the research…

The Vancouver 2010 retest results indicate that testers can get the better of dopers, but history has shown that those on the side of anti-doping are often starting one step behind.

They must, therefore, consider all options to catch-up.