After the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Executive Board published a sparsely-worded change to its Olympic blood screening procedures in the minutes of its last meeting, many in the biathlon world have been perplexed about why the organization would stop doing blood screening at the Games.
It also led the IBU’s Vice President for Medical Issues, Dr. Jim Carrabre, to send out a letter explaining that he was not present at the meeting (due to a family health emergency), was not consulted about the decision, and was not told about it until he received the Executive Board minutes along with the rest of the IBU members. The Medical Committee is responsible for overseeing antidoping efforts.
Reached by phone on Thursday evening, IBU President Anders Besseberg defended the decision, explaining that there are two reasons for the change, which will see the IOC taking over all blood screening. He also claimed that Carrabre had never tried to contact him about the issue before sending out his letter to the members, although e-mail archives show otherwise.
Rationale for the Change
The first reason that the IBU will no longer do its own Blood screening at the Olympics, Besseberg explained, is that in Sochi the IBU’s testing equipment was not functioning at the beginning of the Games, due perhaps to being jostled in transport. Instead, the organization had to use the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) lab. This was also the case four years earlier, in Vancouver.
“In Sochi we had to use the WADA laboratory because our machine was not functioning for the second time in four Olympic Games,” said Besseberg, who is a member of the WADA board. “We cannot go on like this. We must react and take action so that it can be effective… The alternative is that for 2018 we have to send the machines by plane and we risk not being able to do what we can.”
The IBU board decided that the best way to do this would be to hand all testing over to the IOC at Olympic Games, but “that we will help them with our experience and intelligence.”
Carrabre confirmed that the equipment had not been functioning at the beginning of the Games, but said that he didn’t believe that halting the IBU’s own testing was the right solution.
Besides the equipment problems, Besseberg said that another, larger factor was at play. The second reason to change the protocol was a request from the IOC to “harmonize” the procedures and testing standards between the different international winter sports federations which do their own blood screening. This includes The International Ski Federation (FIS) and the International Skating Union.
“It could even be a situation where an athlete could start in one discipline and not in another one,” Besseberg said. “It is important that this is harmonized. I have been tasked by the two other federations to bring this to the IOC. And the IOC also supports this. This is the wish of everybody who is involved in either blood testing or blood screening.”
For instance, FIS still employs “no-start” rules based on hemoglobin cutoff values, while the IBU does not do this at Olympic Games.
Lack of Communication
What the situation shows more than anything else is a troubling lack of communication between Besseberg, the IBU’s highest-ranking member, and Carrabre, who is responsible for its medical and antidoping efforts.
The two men are running against one another for the presidency of the IBU, to be voted on at the federation’s congress in September. Internal accord or even discussion of antidoping protocols may be a casualty of this competition.
For instance, Carrabre wrote in his June 17th letter (which you can see here) to the member federations that he was never consulted about the issue and that Besseberg had not responded to his requests to explain the decision and where the proposal came from.
Besseberg, on the other hand, claims that Carrabre misunderstood the situation when he sent out the letter, and that furthermore he never tried to contact the president.
“He should get educated and explain it, instead of sending out this letter,” Besseberg said.“He was not at the meeting and it’s a complete misunderstanding from his side. He has absolutely not been communicating with me after the board meeting or even after the minutes were sent out. I am very surprised and disappointed that he has been sending this letter along… there is absolutely no telephone call, no e-mails, nothing has been going between us. I am very disappointed because he has created a lot of misunderstandings.”
Besseberg even said that someone could “look at his phone” to see that this was true.
However, Carrabre showed FasterSkier an e-mail which was addressed to both Besseberg and IBU Secretary General Nicole Resch dated June 12, in which he asked “who initiated the idea to discuss the Olympic blood testing at this meeting and why? What led to this proposal and decision?”
The next day, Resch replied to the e-mail saying she was forwarding the message on to Besseberg.
This followed earlier e-mails to Resch asking why the issue was not brought up at a Medical Committee meeting a few weeks earlier, where both Besseberg and Resch were present, before being presented to the Executive Board. Resch asked him to address questions to Besseberg.
The IBU President evidently did not respond to Carrabre’s questions.
But on Thursday he told FasterSkier that he did not consider the decision about blood screening to be a “medical issue”.
“He is not the one responsible for this,” Besseberg said of Carrabre. “It is the Executive Board which is responsible for biathlon issues.”
The Vice President for Medical Issues is a position elected by IBU Congress and which has a seat on the Executive Board.
Furthermore, although Resch did not answer Carrabre’s questions about who proposed the change of protocol or why, an internal Executive Board memo obtained by FasterSkier shows that the proposal was included, in great detail, in Resch’s report to the Executive Board at the meeting. Carrabre claims that this document was never sent to him.
For his part, however, Carrabre did not include Besseberg in the recipient list for his letter.
“I personally have not had it in my hands, but so many have called me like you and told me what it says,” Besseberg said. “I’m very surprised. I haven’t seen it myself. But I asked someone and they will copy me on this e-mail sometime in the next few days.”
Yet the letter was sent to over 100 other recipients (federations and individuals), and it seems hard to believe that in the nearly ten days since its initial release none of these people would have passed it along to Besseberg had he asked to see it.
Regardless of whether the decision turns out to be the correct one, when pressed Besseberg admitted that it should be better explained. Members of both the U.S. Biathlon Association and Biathlon Canada had told FasterSkier that they were perplexed and worried when they saw the Executive Board minutes, and did not understand the decision since it came with no justification.
“This I can understand,” Besseberg said when asked why the change was never explained clearly to members. “Usually we publish new protocols without explanations, but I see clearly that it’s necessary to have more here.”
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.