Actovegin, the drug that Russian cross-country skier Nikolai Pankratov was allegedly caught with last week, is old news, according to experts in the field of anti-doping. But it was unlikely that Actovegin was the only substance Pankratov was using, says one admitted cheater.
Few details emerged over the weekend about the case of Pankratov, who according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti was stopped at the Swiss border with intravenous equipment and 22 vials of Actovegin, a suspicious—though not banned—substance extracted from calf’s blood.
In their report, RIA Novosti quoted the director of the Russian Winter Sport Association as saying that Pankratov could face a two-year ban from competition.
But in an e-mail to FasterSkier, International Ski Federation (FIS) Secretary General Sarah Lewis would not even confirm the existence of a case involving Pankratov. Pressed by Russian media, Russian Ski Federation President Elena Vjalbe would only say that Pankratov was banned from competitions—nothing more. And Frédéric Donzé, a spokesman for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), also declined to comment.
“This case is being handled by the International Ski Federation,” Donzé wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier on Monday. “In order to protect the integrity of this work, following its policy, WADA refrains from commenting publicly on pending cases.”
But while the specifics of Pankratov’s case were hard to come by, interviews with anti-doping experts revealed more about Actovegin, the drug he was reportedly caught with.
According to Dr. Gary Wadler, the chair of WADA’s prohibited list committee, Actovegin has been around since the 1970s—commercially since the mid-1990s.
Supposedly, Wadler said, the drug has properties that facilitate the transportation of oxygen, and potentially insulin, throughout the body—both of which are of interest to athletes.
Actovegin was briefly placed on the International Olympic Committee’s banned list in 2000, but Wadler said that “the evidence was not sufficient to keep it there.”
“It’s really never been shown to be performance-enhancing,” Wadler said.
While its benefits are unproven, cyclists are still known to have been fans of Actovegin. After a TV crew discovered leftovers in a trash bin, the manager of Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service squad admitted that the team had brought the drug to the 2000 Tour de France, though he said that no riders had actually used it.
Joe Papp, a former professional cyclist who has admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs, told FasterSkier that he had taken Actovegin for five years.
While he used the drug because of its supposed ability to “increase energy output by enhancing cellular metabolism,” Papp said that the Actovegin had no perceivable impact.
“I don’t believe it works…If it does anything, it’s probably attributable to the placebo effect,” he said. “The only reason, honestly, we even used it was because of the warped mentality of the doper: ‘Hey, I have access to this product, very few other people do, and I’m going to use it.’”
Papp injected Actovegin through an IV, which he said was the method recommended by the drug’s manufacturer. He also said that it was unlikely an athlete would use Actovegin by itself.
“I would consider dubious anybody claiming to be using just Actovegin,” he said. “If you have the sophistication, the knowledge, the access, the comfort level to inject yourself with an extract of cow’s blood, you probably aren’t hesitant to use something like EPO or HGH.”
But Actovegin is not banned, and RIA Novosti’s report mentioned no other drugs that were discovered in Pankratov’s possession. As such, any case against him would likely hinge on the intravenous equipment. According to WADA rules, “intravenous infusions are prohibited except for those legitimately received in the course of hospital admissions or clinical investigations.”
Athletes do not have to be caught in the act, either: the WADA rules have provisions for the mere possession of prohibited substances and prohibited methods, so-called “non-analytical positives,” Wadler said.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.