In the 1997 Tour de France, Italian cyclist Marco Pantani summited the 21 hairpin turns and 13 kilometres of the Alpe d’Huez in a little over 37 minutes, a record that will never be bettered.
Pantani was rocket-fuelled that July afternoon, as were countless others. “The Pirate” won the Tour and the Giro d’Italia in 1998. The next year, though, he was expelled from the Italian grand tour after blood tests pointed at potential blood doping with endurance cyclists’ best friend, erythropoietin (EPO).
There’s a scene in the 2014 documentary Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist that every aspiring athlete should be forced to watch, recounting how professional cyclists using EPO would routinely sleep with blood pressure and pulse monitors affixed, alarms set to blare if their vitals became unstable.
If awakened, they would then furiously ride a stationary bike positioned at the foot of their bed, otherwise their blood, viscous with all those excess red blood cells, might clog their arteries. The riders’ resting heart rates were already so low because they were so physically fit.
If the Australian middle-distance runner Peter Bol did actually use EPO with a view to securing a competitive advantage, with all that’s known about EPO and its potentially deadliness, he is an idiot. If his “I’m innocent” line is just a ruse, that fortress will soon enough be dismantled.
One of the factors why EPO is banned for use by professional athletes is that it is so dangerous. That, and also because when properly adapted, it can propel humans to go much faster for much longer than they otherwise could.
All that’s presently known is that the analysis of a urine sample taken from Bol in October 2022 has glowed orange for the presence of EPO. In a swift retort, Bol says it’s “critically important to convey with the strongest conviction” that he’s innocent and that he’s “not taken this substance as I am accused”.
Bol doubled down by saying: “I have never in my life purchased, researched, possessed, administered, or used synthetic EPO or any other prohibited substance. I voluntarily turned over my laptop, iPad and phone to Sport Integrity Australia to prove this.”
Crisis Management 101 no doubt from Bol and his management. Straightforward enough when a monetisable image is at stake and where the starting point is four years sitting on the sideline and being excluded from the Paris Olympics. But there’s precisely no wriggle room whatsoever that’s left now between Bol’s adverse A-sample and what he claims to be the actuality.
But what happens next? Bol hasn’t been found guilty of anything. Sport Integrity Australia hasn’t even charged him with any sort of doping offence.
Bol should now be, and indeed must be, presumed innocent. It has to be so, because doping-related charges may not ever be laid by SIA unless the WADA-accredited laboratory designated with analysing the B-part of Bol’s same urine sample confirms the results of the A-sample test.
Australian athlete Peter Bol has recorded a positive A-sample to EPO but has denied taking the drug.Credit:Getty
It’s also quite wrong to spear Bol as a cheat based on anything that’s known. Doping represents an omnipresent threat to the integrity of sport. By necessity, doping rules are premised on it being entirely unnecessary to prove an athlete intended to ingest the prohibited substance detected in their system. The method and circumstances of ingestion aren’t relevant either when it comes to the issue of guilt.
Much of Bol’s protestation, therefore, is irrelevant to the core issue, because knowing his actual intent isn’t an integer of guilt. Athletes fall foul of the doping system all the time without having any intention to deceive and exact fraud on athletes who compete with integrity.
A “presence” doping charge relating to a prohibited substance in a bodily sample is prima facie established once it’s decided an athlete’s sample has been extracted in accordance with the applicable, prescriptive and scientific technical rules; where there’s no break in the integrity of the chain of custody that’s identified; and where the scientific analysis is spot-on accurate in identifying a prohibited substance as present.
And it’s on this last issue that much will likely turn, even if the B-sample matches the A-result. WADA’s international standards for sample collection and laboratories run for almost 300 pages. WADA’s technical document, setting out how accredited laboratories must test for EPO specifically, runs for another 33 pages of dense, scientific text.
Based on unconfirmed reports and conjecture and nothing much else, the analysis of Bol’s A-sample apparently produced a “borderline” adverse analytical finding for EPO. WADA’s EPO testing technical requirements are complicated. Those rules permit a lab to analyse an A-sample through a number of different methods. The rules then also say the lab conducting the B-sample analysis shall use the same confirmation method that the lab used in testing the A-sample.
Now this is all quite fuzzy and rather imprecise – none of the testing methods work in a way where the generated result is a binary yes/no for the presence of exogenous EPO.
Very likely, Bol’s legal defence (if matters devolve to that nadir) will focus on the accuracy and reliability of the scientific analyses conducted on his urine sample. If he’s never purchased, researched, possessed, administered or used synthetic EPO, he can hardly pirouette around at some future point and say anything else in mitigation and expect to be taken seriously.
But if Bol is charged with an anti-doping rule violation and if that legal strategy fails, he could be in a world of pain, regardless of whether he did it, based on sports law jurisprudence.
A 2021 appeal decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport concerning the Portuguese professional cyclist André Cardoso stands as authority for an EPO case being proved (with the athlete receiving a four-year ban) where the A and B sample results didn’t match (the B-sample was “doubtful and inconclusive” for EPO), where the cyclist’s blood sample taken at the time of the urine sample was negative for EPO (noting, though, that urine testing is the WADA-certified method), and where other chains of custody were contended on the available evidence.
It’s important we revert to this whole B-sample issue. The CAS decision in the Cardoso case illustrates a reality that even if the B-sample analysis doesn’t support the A-sample analysis, SIA nonetheless could lay a charge of the athlete “using” EPO even if it is precluded from laying a “presence” charge. It’s a different doping charge, with the same penalties. People get too hung up on this B-sample stuff – a “use” charge could be established just on analysis of one of the samples. It can be argued that a negative B-sample is unreliable, if not acutely negative.
Ultimately, Bol’s present difficulties could evaporate into nothingness. Alternatively, his pain in dealing with an imperfect sports legal system might not have even started. Either way, all that anyone interested in the matter can do right now is keep an open mind. That said, EPO can kill.
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