Less than a week ago, Johannes Dürr of Austria was kicked out of the Olympics for doping. He later admitted that he had been taking recombinant erythropoietin (EPO), a blood-doping drug, since June, and had passed 14 anti-doping tests before finally being caught in Austria during a mid-Olympic training camp.
The explanation has raised a lot of questions about how an athlete could get away with doping for so long. We read the International Ski Federation (FIS) Anti-Doping Rules (which you can download as a PDF here) to see what the federation had been doing, or at least said that they would be doing, in the months when Dürr was getting away with cheating.
Q: Was Dürr just not getting tested? Is that how he got away with doping for so long?
A: No, Dürr said that he had been tested 14 times in the leadup to the Olympic Games.
Q: So did he know when the tests were coming?
A: In some cases, yes. For instance, if you hit the podium, you’re going to get tested. FIS rules state that after each top-level competition, the top four athletes are drug tested as well as one additional athlete. This is referred to as in-competition testing. Dürr was thus tested at the Tour de Ski, where he finished third overall.
There is also out-of-competition testing by FIS. This season’s FIS Registered Testing Pool consisted of 334 athletes across the six FIS disciplines. The pool consists of athletes in the top 30 of the World Cup rankings – Dürr was not in it at the beginning of the season, but then skied his way into it. Athletes must provide a 60-minute period of time each day where they will be in a specific place and can be tested, and list it in their “whereabouts” information. They can also be tested at any other time and three missed tests means an automatic positive.
On the cross country athletes in the Registered Testing Pool, FIS conducted 139 urine tests, 103 EPO tests, 5 blood tests, and 135 biological passport tests (more on those later) from May to November of 2013.
Dürr was also almost certainly in his country’s national testing pool, which may have been where some of the 14 tests came from.
Finally, during the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee oversaw testing. Although it is all deemed in-competition testing, the IOC may test any athlete registered at the Olympics at any time during the period of the Games, and in any place – not just in Sochi. The IOC employs both random and targeted testing.
Q: If he was tested 14 times, why did none of those tests detect EPO?
A: The half-life of EPO is quite short – five hours for the natural hormone, and varying lengths of time for the recombinant forms. This means that the drug itself flushes out of the body fairly quickly, especially if an athlete is drinking a lot of fluids. Basically, if the testers don’t shot up on the right day, they probably won’t detect EPO use.
As described in the (excellent) cycling exposés Wheelmen and The Secret Race, dopers assumed, usually correctly, that if they took their EPO at night and got tested in the morning, they would be safe. Doping testers allow the athletes a night of sleep, so they don’t show up in the middle of the night – although Canadian biathlete Megan Imrie did describe being in anti-doping at the Olympics at 11:30 p.m. one night.
Dürr said in an interview that the people who sold him the EPO also gave him a doping schedule, which might have helped avoid the tests.
Q: That is terrible!
A: That’s not a question! Yes, you’re right. There is a new test out there, called a “dipstick test”, which will be able to detect much smaller amounts of EPO which stay in the body for a longer time. As far as we know, it has been described in medical journals but not yet implemented, although anti-doping bodies sometimes keep their new tests under wraps so that doping athletes don’t know what’s coming.
There have been hints at innovation in the pipeline, including a new implementation of the test for human growth hormone that should be in use by the end of the winter.
Q: So if you can’t detect the drug – why not have this biological passport thing? What is it, anyway?
A: FIS does actually have a biological passport program. As described in the FIS anti-doping rules, longitudinal monitoring (that means long-term) is conducted on the following markers in an athlete’s blood, which are affected by blood doping among other factors:
FIS Procedural Rules and Guidelines page 63 Edition 2013
RBC: Red blood cells count
RET%: The percentage of reticulocyte
RET#: Reticulocytes count
MCV: Mean corpuscular volume
MCH: Mean corpuscular haemoglobin
MCHC: Mean corpuscular haemoglobin concentration
The numbers are analyzed based on an athlete’s own past physiology, and any abnormal developments are flagged. Once an expert reviews the data, the athlete can even be prohibited from starting a competition. However, there has yet to be a FIS doping case based on the biological passport alone. Athletes have been barred from starting due to high hemoglobin levels, but a ban has never been pursued. FIS states that the passport data can be use to further target testing of suspicious athletes.
There is also the possibility of “full field” biological passport testing at major international events.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.