What’s up with the Bio Passport?

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.”

What’s up?
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.

12 thoughts on “What’s up with the Bio Passport?”

  1. One small thing. There has always been a APMU in the process, and the Expert Panel part of that process was always independent of the UCI (quasi-independent at worst) with the UCI only acting when that panel agreed to recommend a case go forward, and presumably listen to their advice re targeting testing etc.

    Now it is envisaged by WADA going forwards the APMUs will ideally be based in accredited labs (not WADA per se) rather than set up and managed by IFs, though this still allowed unreservedly. Many other sports and national ADAs now have a ABP in operation and this is all a response to harmonising approaches now the passport more widely used.
    UCI has immediately applied that recommendation and has gone with the Lausanne APMU (which is supposedly funded by WADA and LAD).
    The Ashenden thing is solely an employment matter between him and Lausanne, and nothing to do with UCI, apart from him now being missing from the panel at the APMU they have selected.

    (Bearing in mind the APMUs role and responsibilities there is a lot to work out on how they will work alongside IFs and NADAs going forwards. It is quite a sea change)

  2. andrewp: correct. But note that Ashenden has been part of the UCI and WADA efforts here in the past; today’s interviews and resignation can be seen (partially) in the light of his past experience.

  3. I’ve always appreciated Ashenden’s candidness in interviews. I’m hopeful, now that he’s not affiliated with the UCI, that he may have more to say or even write a book on his experiences.

  4. Fair – but if anything can argue it shows the previous process in quite a good light. Presumably he never previously felt muzzled, unable to speak out etc – and as you say has certainly made noise when he wanted to – until the wholesale move to the Lausanne APMU, and has found similar satisfaction in the offered conditions at Salt Lake.

    As cases go forward when nine agree he would certainly have had detailed knowledge of cases referred to UCI v prosecutions started or not started, and hard to believe he would be silent if there were discrepancies in the same.

    Imagine he would have an element of sadness to leave the cycling ABP behind – due to longevity of involvement and that it is the most developed of the ones out there currently

  5. I don’t know how they stop the continued shit storm of doping scandals but unless they do, pro cycling may be doomed to support only from the bike industry and enthusiasts, which will most likely greatly reduce the amount of money involved. The whole thing could end up like back in the pre-LeMond era, but perhaps that is really NOT such a bad thing? I still believe the big-money era that began around LeMond’s time and continued through the BigTex era was a spike in the curve rather than a genuine progression in the sport. It’s the same thing with the tobacco money in motorsports, which caused a huge upsurge in budgets and expenses that the motor racing community is feeling the pain from now that most of the cancer-stick money is gone. I’m not so sure we really want or need all the “new golfers” and multi-national sponsors of the recent era…it’s possible all this money has simply made the corruption and cheating worse than it was before. Is this all a case of “be careful what you wish for”?

  6. ” pro cycling may be doomed to support only from the bike industry and enthusiasts”

    Isn’t the sport supported primarily by industry and enthusiasts today?

  7. @andrewp:

    Well – ignoring the past, the question is why would this be asked of Ashenden? And what about the indications the UCI told Contador not to say anything (all the while signing with Saxo-Bank)? Add to the fact the UCI has another organization that is now a money making venture, and can you see where we may start to see that suddenly, a true, robust anti-doping program is now considered a hindrance to the UCI?

    My feeling – the UCI wants the illusion of an anti-doping program, but wants to be able to, in cases where the results or fall-out could significantly harm the financial prospects of the sport, want an “out” option, and keep everyone quiet.

    Conspiratorial? – Sure. But has anything up to this point really refuted that as the default position for this sport?

  8. One additional thought…I do wonder whether the UCI, initially tried to do the right thing since Festina, and has realized recently, that given the near impossibility of preventing doping, that they have put themselves in a pickle, and they now have to find a way to reduce the actual doping controls without explicitly just coming out and claiming they give up.

  9. @ CAt4Fodder
    You need to ask Lausanne why this is being asked of Ashenden not the UCI, Lausanne wanted to employ him. It could just be that it is the standard contract for all employees of the university hospital where the lab is based or one of any other number of reasons not connected to the UCI

    As to why the UCI now contract this out: (from WADA’s operating guidelines, as updated 1/1/12)
    “However this Guideline strongly suggests that the ADO establishes a process which ensures transparency in process and ideally independence between the planning, interpretation, and results management aspects of an Athlete Biological Passport…… This central hub (the APMU) may be associated with a WADA accredited Laboratory’s operations, or be managed under the responsibility of an ADO. While all such options are acceptable…. WADA will support the establishment of Laboratory-affiliated APMUs as the preferred method of ABP practice and engagement going forward”

    It is the WADA view that using an outside Lab as the APMU is best practice/preferred method. Little harsh to then criticise them for doing just that, no?
    The UCI no longer needs a 9 member panel to review passport data, Lausanne and other labs becoming APMUs do.

    Whatever else you think of the UCI the passport is an area where the conspiracy theories leave me cold. The money spent, the amount of testing information in it, the analysis done of the data by a high calibre 9 member panel, that the good/bad experiences have been widely shared and analysed in/outside of the UCI to improve the process for all other prospective passport schemes etc etc etc mean find all the conspiracy theories fall a little flat on this one.

  10. I think andrewp has the gist of the issue.

    I can’t help but think that as candid as Ashenden is he is a bit of a loose cannon. He then justifies his actions by claiming “freedom of speech.” His speculations on various doping techniques and linking them to various riders over steps the boundry of a due process for the determination of doping infractions.

  11. I’m not sure Ashenden’s point of view should be supported. On one hand, as a fan, I want to know all there is to know, and all a knowledgeable expert can tell me, about the riders’ physiological optimization techniques, and I’m ready to admit that the more is known, the more informed our judgment on what is too dangerous or too wrong to be tolerated.
    On the other hand, I’m also ready to admit that cycling authorities have the duty to make sure that the only doping issues the public is informed about are those related to proven facts and findings, and that anti-doping policies are not driven by rumour and suspicion, and thus feel compelled to make sure that those who handle specific information on riders’ “profiles” only talk about it only according to legal procedures, only in relation with cases which are open and need to be sanctioned, and only to the relevant sanctioning authority.
    If, for example, Andy Schleck’s (or the whole peloton’s) reticulocyte levels in the 2011 TdF are “suspicious”, Andy (or the whole peloton) is entitled to have that piece of data kept confidential as long as a sanction is not pronounced on that basis. And it seems Ashenden wants to be able to comment on things like that.

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