Franco Pellizotti had more than a bad hair day yesterday. The Italian rider, nicknamed il delfino, the Dolphin, got a two year ban plus his results from May 2009 onwards were annulled. His podium place in the 2009 Giro and the Tour de France King of the Mountains title are now erased from the record books, and his bank account takes a hit too given the €115,000 fine plus some big legal bills.
But for all the talk of this being a victory for the UCI and a major step in the anti-doping fight, the bio passport’s future is still unclear and it’s possibly open to exploitation by riders and suspicious doctors.
Netting the Dolphin
The case centred on changing blood results recorded under the bio passport scheme. Essentially a rider should go to pieces during a grand tour and the blood is no exception, the amount of red blood cells tends to diminish. More precisely the data should reflect a falling haematocrit count and other trends. Only the testing revealed that Pellizotti’s values were rising at times during the race.
Joining the dots
The bio passport therefore detects abnormal results but it does not prove doping. The WADA code lists prohibited substances and prohibited methods but doping is not about abnormal results. No, the passport scheme allows the UCI to examine a rider’s data and infer that doping took place.
This inference is complicated. CONI, the Italian olympic authority, rejected the UCI ban last October stating that whilst Pellizotti’s blood values were curious, the leap to asserting that only doping could be involved was too big a jump to make. The CAS has rejected this, siding with the UCI and WADA in agreeing that the only possible explanation for the values can be blood doping. The actual method isn’t stated, only that the numbers are so suspicious as to invite only one cause. It’s all about the burden of proof.
It’s worth nothing that Lampre’s Pietro Caucchiolo was also banned yesterday. Looking ahead, the outcomes of the appeals of Francesco de Bonis and Tadej Valjavec are crucial. The passport has survived but the Valjavec case could still determine its future, a ruling is expected by 25 March. The UCI should leave the champagne in the fridge for now.
It’s worth remembering that one questionable result alone isn’t going to result in a letter from the UCI. No, it seems a series of data is required so that the proof becomes incontrovertible. The UCI does monitor and warn, for example they came very close to suspending Levi Leipheimer in the past.
As a result the passport again appears a useful tool but one that tolerates some margin for error and one that cannot see the odd rogue result punished. I wonder therefore if certain riders might exploit this, doping for example at key moments, but crucially not as often or in a manner to just fly under the radar. It’s the grey area of the passport, the burden of proof, that can be exploited by cheats. Similarly, the old 50% limit for the haematocrit just saw riders boost their blood levels to 49%.
Information is power and the CAS has ruled that the passport is now powerful enough to ban a rider. But the passport’s future isn’t safe until the remaining two cases at the CAS are heard. This is a useful tool, another weapon in the anti-doping armoury, but it won’t stop doping.