There’s news today that anti-doping expert Michael Ashenden has resigned from a panel tasked with evaluating data gathered under the Bio Passport scheme. If Ashenden gets the headlines today, it’s worth taking a quick look at the scheme in the light of the resignation.
The Bio Passport scheme is a great one but we keep getting mixed messages. Flashback to November when the UCI President speculated in public about new bio passport cases:
there was a discussion that did take place in this building about a number of athletes that are being studied because of their parameter data by the experts because we think that there should be cases opened against them
“Cases opened” is ambiguous. As a reminder the Bio Passport scheme is a pioneering anti-doping method that swaps traditional toxicology – detecting banned substances in urine and blood – for an analytical approach to various biological parameters, especially blood values. Measurements are taken and, to simplify, if a rider’s values look odd then they are investigated. Opening a case could mean just looking at this a bit closer, it is not the same as a prosecution. The scheme isn’t perfect. Blood values fluctuate and in an interview with NY Velocitity Michael Ashenden explains this:
“It won’t catch every single rider who had doped. A large part of this is due to the margins of tolerance we must allow to ensure that riders are not wrongly accused of doping – which means that there are riders who we suspect are doping after we’ve reviewed their profile, but these riders are not sanctioned via the Passport because we must allow a large margin of tolerance. They are however closely targeted, which increases the likelihood that they will be caught in the future.”
When the scheme was introduced there were several prosecutions but since there’s not been anything for two years. This can imply three outcomes:
- Deterrent: riders who might have doped in the past are unable to use old methods.
- Adaptation: riders continue to dope but using sophisticated monitoring they “microdose”, flying under the radar of detection.
- Inaction: there might be suspicious data but the will or the means to prosecute these cases is not there.
Ashenden himself said aloud that funding could be an issue, the cases brought against riders were very expensive. But some of this can be seen as a “set up cost”, the need to ensure initial prosecutions were more than watertight and this has proven true when the Court of Arbitration (CAS) sided with the UCI to state the scheme is valid over the case of Franco Pellizotti. With precedent and case law in place it should be easier to nail riders with dodgy data.
It’s a worry when this pioneering scheme becomes a liability for the sport in the headlines. In an interview with the BBC Ashenden uses words like “muzzled” and “omerta“, hardly ideal for a scheme that should normally be associated with clarity and discovery. It is only PR but let’s note the scheme was brought in as a response to all the bad news in cycling. Given the awful reputation of the sport in recent years the Bio Passport should be a shining example but it’s not getting a good press. The UCI usually refuses interview requests with their anti-doping boss Francesca Rossi.
So where’s the good news?
The good news is that nobody is being caught. I suppose we could have 20 angry experts today but so long as riders can’t get away with some of the wild forms of doping in the past then this has to be better, no? But the adaptation point is still valid, it would be foolish to imagine the spectre of doping had gone away. Ashenden seems to be concerned that there are moves to stop talking about the shades of grey.
When giving evidence in the Contador case at the CAS, Ashenden was keen to push the blood doping hypothesis. The CAS ruling states:
Dr Ashenden, member of the UCI’s Blood Passport Expert Panel, after analysing Mr Contador’s parameters available from 2005 to 2010, found that the blood parameters of Mr Contador during the 2010 Tour de France were not normal, even though no blood manipulation can be positively proven.
Of course abnormal values don’t equate to something sinister but Ashenden clearly values being able to explore things like this in public.
One further piece of good news was that the expert reviews of the data are now independent of the UCI and run by WADA. The UCI of course has a mandate to promote the sport. Imagine a hypothetical scenario involving suspicious data from the world number one rider, prosecuting wouldn’t be an easy decision for the UCI to take. But luckily WADA suggested otherwise and since January this year the statistical analysis is now handled and examined by an independent party.
Ashenden has been a public critic of the UCI, giving presentations on the possibility of corruption in the testing process, a guaranteed way to ruffle feathers. Talk of “omerta” will annoy certain people. But more often he’s one of the few people out there explaining the scheme and the intricacies of how it works and should be an asset to the sport; the idea of an eight year confidentiality clause for an academic specialising in the field seems excessive.
Somehow this great scheme only seems to get bad press when it should be a real asset to the sport. Michael Ashenden might be walking away from the experts panel but it’ll be interesting who stays, indeed who replaces him.
- I wrote the piece above earlier in the day and since then NY Velocity have a new and must read interview with Michael Ashenden. It’s long and covers a lot of ground but it’s great to see the subject discussed in the public forum.