Team Sky have announced that Sergio Henao has been “taken off Team Sky’s race schedule” following “out-of-competition control tests”. The story first appeared in La Gazzetta Dello Sport where British journalist Daniel Friebe picked up on it. Within minutes Team Sky put out a press release.
Little is known and it leaves many scratching their heads while others are happier to fill the vacuum with speculation and more. But at the risk of thinking out aloud, let’s try to review some of this.
First we have the news in La Gazzetta, via Henao’s agent, rather than Sky putting out the news. It seems that the story has to be flushed out by a newspaper rather the team putting the news out. Now who controls the story and the media agenda is a second order concern but all the same, when did the team see the test data and when was Henao stopped from racing?
Next up are the “out-of-competition control tests” which don’t state that they are blood tests. Can we presume this? Only by joining some dots: given the talk of altitude and that these are tests requested by WADA; it’s unlikely as if he was setting off alarm bells by setting big power numbers. Similarly it seems – and I stress this is just trying to understand the news – that this is related to blood values in an anti-doping context. Now not for the first time let’s assume Henao is innocent but clearly the results of the tests came back in way that caused concern. It wasn’t that the values were different or even unhealthy, a theme of the press release is discussing Henao’s values with the UCI and its anti-doping agency, the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF).
We also have the concept of altitude and “natives”. Contrary to what many might think, living at a high altitude doesn’t confer extra athletic ability. Instead it’s moving to altitude, whether to Tenerife for a month, two weeks in an altitude tent or several generations of a family or even a tribe that moved upwards. But there are some populations that live at high altitude and by history have genetic traits. It’s not moving that created this – sorry Lamarck – just selection. Anyway see some folk in Tibet or the Andes. The science of sport at altitude and the field of altitude training is still very weak. As an anecdote when EPO came out many sports scientists thought its abuse would slow athletes because the increase in blood viscosity from all those extra oxygen-carrying red blood cells would make it harder to pump the blood around. Yes it was harder but ask Bjarne Riis or hundreds of others whether they got slower after injecting EPO. There are studies on native populations and their haematology but surely none on native elite athletes moving up and down. Plus is Henao a genuine native in the genetic sense, does he have similar DNA to those tested in Andes for example.
Note Henao isn’t the only rider from altitude at Team Sky. They’ve just signed his cousin Sebastian Henao and Rigoberto Urán spent three seasons with the team. At least if Urán doesn’t have the native DNA he could be a useful control as another who lives at altitude; similarly what about Henao’s past values as he shuttles between Colombia and Europe? Although in the name of science, testing should really evaluate a large group. Which brings us to the “research”. Here’s Dave Brailsford:
“We are commissioning independent scientific research to better understand the effects of prolonged periods at altitude after returning from sea level, specifically on altitude natives.”
This could be an interesting study but is it in the name of science or just an exercise in testing Henao, for example he’s taken back to Colombia and kept on a tight leash with regular testing to see what happens and then he is brought back to sea level, whether in Colombia or Europe and his values are monitored to see what happens. Science is about expanding knowledge, will this “research” be public?
Henao vs Tiernan-Locke
The case might be different to that of Jonathan Tiernan-Locke. The UCI has asked the British anti-doping agency to prosecute “JTL” and his case is ongoing. If “once is an accident and twice is coincidence” then the media will be linking these two stories although for now there’s little of substance to compare. Instead it’s more stylistic with JTL being dropped from the Sky website while Sky commission a private research project in Henao’s name. On style over substance again we should note the news of JTL’s suspension was flushed out by journalist David Walsh who started asking questions about his absence at the Florence Worlds; from memory we were given tales of “fatigue” by the media.
Let Sergio Ride
I’m not necessarily proposing this but there’s a good argument that says Henao should be racing rather than doing a science project. If he’s not been busted by the UCI then could he not appeal to them to race? Indeed it OK for teams to stop their riders from competing? Sky seem to be employing the Precautionary Principle and this can be praised for the pro-active nature but condemned too because it means different teams are left to different actions rather than a shared approach for all teams. Maybe one or two would think “stick this guy in a race because he’s red hot”.
The paradox of transparency
Sky might be applauded for their caution in benching Henao but it invites more scrutiny too. Sky will not be enjoying this but would other teams act in the same way or might they opt for a more aggressive stance and tough out any odd-looking passport data, knowing they can always dump the “lone wolf” if the UCI opens a case. The UCI issued a tiny statement but it says even less than La Gazzetta this morning.
The main missing item is context. Remember for the UCI to open an anti-doping biological passport case against a rider it has three experts who must arrive at a unanimous conclusion that it is “highly likely that a prohibited substance or prohibited method had been used and unlikely that it is the result of any other cause” in order to launch a case. We simply don’t know how often the UCI is finding curious, interesting or even outright suspicious data on riders but which falls short of the unanimous likelihood of doping in triplicate required to prosecute. We do know thanks to a conference presentation by a UCI doctor that in 2009 the Athlete Passport Management Unit (APMU) – a WADA-funded scheme based in Lausanne, Switzerland, just around the shore of Lake Geneva from the UCI’s HQ – was flagging up 10-15 cyclists a week.
Statistics and probability are complicated by false positives and more. Here is an example from a New York Times blog I’ve used before:
Suppose that police pick up a suspect and match his or her DNA to evidence collected at a crime scene. Suppose that the likelihood of a match, purely by chance, is only 1 in 10,000. Is this also the chance that they are innocent? It’s easy to make this leap, but you shouldn’t.
Here’s why. Suppose the city in which the person lives has 500,000 adult inhabitants. Given the 1 in 10,000 likelihood of a random DNA match, you’d expect that about 50 people in the city would have DNA that also matches the sample. So the suspect is only 1 of 50 people who could have been at the crime scene. Based on the DNA evidence only, the person is almost certainly innocent, not certainly guilty.
In the example above we go from thinking there’s a 99.99% chance – 1 in 10,000 expressed as a percentage – that the suspect is guilty with the DNA match… to a 2% chance. And all this is just by measuring probabilities before an individual gets to speak about their actions, present an alibi and more.
So given we don’t know whether Henao’s out-of-competition control tests were merely interesting or red-alert status be careful of associating his status as a rider being removed from racing (which is unique) with that of a rider with alarming test results (we simply don’t know how many others look ill, curious or dodgy).
Finally for all the news it could be that Henao’s blood values went in the opposite direction to any performance-enhancing plans and it merely indicates illness; but the tone of the press release references the CADF rather than rest and recovery.
Do you know what’s going on? I don’t and today’s newspaper story and the subsequent press release didn’t explain much either. So we’re left with more questions than answers, ranging from when his withdrawal began to whether other teams or the UCI have seem similar test values and what they’ve done.
The above gives some more thoughts to things but it’s more important Sky and others like the UCI move to fill the vacuum otherwise, as we see in the aviation world right now, daily speculation will fill the rest.