The bio passport survives

Stripped by the CAS

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.

6 thoughts on “The bio passport survives”

  1. It seems a contradiction that the Passport sees you suspended for abnormal blood values that the most likely explanation is doping while Contador is currently racing following abnormal blood values, and heightened levels of plasticizers, for which the most likely cause is doping. Oh to be Spanish and be able to blame everything on cattle that graze on plastic bags and are injected with Clenbuterol.

  2. Jii,

    I was going to say the exact same thing. However, Contador only passed through is own corrupt federation’s review. He still had WADA and the UCI to deal with, and if it goes to CAS, how can they rule the Dolphin is a doper and not Contador. If I am Bert, I am a bit more nervous today than I was yesterday.

  3. Inner Ring:

    If they end up doping to pass the passport, then this has at the very least, helped reduce the obscene levels of doping and reduced the overall effectiveness of doping. Maybe not perfect, but maybe the best we can hope for.

    And – if all they can do is micro-dope, at some point, this shifts the cost-benefit scales towards cleaner riding.

  4. I am a fan of the passport, not as much for its ability to suspending riders, but for keeping riders in check. Of late we haven’t seen as many ridiculous performances from unknown quantities (think Stephan Schumacher and Bernard Kohl) because an athlete isn’t able to make drastic changes in their blood values. Even if doping is occurring, the gap between clean and dirty is a lot closer than in the 90’s because athletes cannot increase their Hct from say 40 to 49% (unless you have been doping since you were mid-teens (ie Ricco).

    Regarding Pelizotti, I am confident the UCI/WADA has a lot more ‘data’ than what they let on with the Bio Passport and anti-doping controls, though there is not always enough to charge a rider. I have no doubt that any rider considered ‘suspicious’ by WADA has been detected with something, and using the Bio Passport is another way to build enough evidence to charge the rider.

  5. brunette: not a fan then? You’ll be pleased since he’s promised to walk away from the sport and never return.

    Jii / ColoradoGoat: it’s more the reasons for the abnormal levels. The CAS believes only blood doping could explain Pellizotti’s numbers whereas there’s a variety of potential causes for Contador’s “non-negative” test results.

    ColoradoGoat / Mike: yes, the UCI can monitor and warn. Indeed I’ve been told by a well-placed source that this most certainly does happen and to the extent that a rider is asked not to race.

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