Starykh Banned for Two Years; Claims EPO Was in Cosmetic Injections of Human Placenta

Chelsea LittleJuly 18, 20146
Irina Starykh (far right) celebrates with the Russian team after their IBU World Cup biathlon relay victory in Ruhpolding, Germany, in January. The result is among those which will be voided with Starykh's doping ban, from a sample collected in December. Photo: Fischer / Nordic Focus.
Irina Starykh (far right) celebrates with the Russian team after their IBU World Cup biathlon relay victory in Ruhpolding, Germany, in January. The result is among those which will be voided with Starykh’s doping ban, from a sample collected in December. Photo: Fischer / Nordic Focus.

On Wednesday, the International Biathlon Union (IBU) announced that it was banning Russian biathlete Irina Starykh for two years for use of recombinant erythropoietin (EPO), a blood-boosting drug commonly used in doping in endurance sports.

Many in the biathlon world have been awaiting the verdict for months: the positive “A” samples of Starykh, teammate Ekaterina Iourieva, and Lithuanian Karolis Zlatkauskas were announced on January 28 after Starykh’s sample was collected on December 23 in Pokljuka, Slovenia, in an out-of-competition test.

Today, the IBU announced that Iourieva will be banned for eight years. It is her second doping offense for EPO. A world champion in 2008, Iourieva announced her retirement earlier this year, after the samples were initially analyzed.

Zlatkauskas admitted to doping in February and said he would not fight a ban.

The IBU Anti-Doping Hearing Panel, chaired by Edward Williams, a 1964 graduate of Dartmouth College who was a national champion in cross country skiing, NCAA All-American before competing in the 1968 Olympics in biathlon. He is now an attorney in sports law and arbitration in New York City.

The panel also included Dr. Walter Frey of Switzerland and Juha Viertola of Finland. The group met on March 21 to hear the case. Their decision was dated July 14; it’s unclear why the decision took so long as no new evidence appeared to be entered following the March hearing.

The hearing panel’s detailed decision (available here) shows that Starykh did not fight the ban. She initially requested that the opening of the “B” sample be delayed from early February until after the finish of the Sochi Olympics on February 26. Russia’s top-ranked female biathlete, Starykh had stood on the World Cup podium earlier in the season and had been expected to compete in Sochi. After the “A” sample was analyzed she faced a provisional suspension from competition, yet still delayed the opening of her “B” sample.

The Russian Biathlon Union was initially extremely defensive surrounding the Starykh case.

The “B” sample was opened on March 3, and Starykh was present along with three of her own representatives. On March 6, the sample analysis was finished and it was also positive for recombinant EPO.

Starykh waived her right to a provisional hearing in a letter stating that “[I] acknowledge the Anti-Doping Rule violation and the consequences of this violation in the form of disqualification.”

In the letter, Starykh claimed that the EPO must have entered her body from an injectable skin treatment called Laennec which she began using on the recommendation from friends for skin resurfacing in order to improve her appearance. With her growing success as a biathlete, Starykh explained, she began being interviewed on television and wanted to look better.

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The active ingredient in Laennec is a “water-soluble substance of a product of enzymatic human placenta”. The drug is manufactured by Japan Bio Products Co., Ltd. The product website lists hepatocyte growth factor as one example of an extracted growth factor; this factor helps recovery from liver damage. The main function of the drug is “improvement of hepatic function in chronic hepatic disease.”

Other distributors have marketed the drug as a skin smoother and whitener.

EPO is a naturally produced hormone. There is evidence that maternal EPO is expressed strongly in trophoblast cells, which initially form the outside of the blastocyst surrounding a human embryo and which then are incorporated into the placenta.

Thus it is not impossible that if Starykh injected Laennec some EPO from the placenta would also enter her system.

However, the lab test specifically found recombinant erythropoietin, which differs in structure from EPO produced by the human body. The recombinant, or manufactured, form contains the same protein but has different polysaccharides attached, resulting in a different electrical charge at the molecule level. This difference in charge is used to separate recombinant and natural EPO in the laboratory test.

Thus, unless Laennec also contains recombinant EPO, not only any extra maternal EPO expressed in the placenta, it is not possible that the substance entered Starykh’s body from her cosmetic injections.

Earlier in the winter Alexander Tikhonov, a four-time Olympic champion and one of the best biathletes ever produced by the Soviet Union, alleged that two doctor brothers named Dimitriev were responsible for doping both Starykh and Iourieva. The two were present in Hochfilzen, Austria, for World Cups in December.

The panel minutes write that they did not find any “exceptional” circumstances and so handed down the standard prescribed 2-year ban for Starykh, starting from the date the sample was collected. All of her results accrued between December 23 and the “A” sample analysis have been voided as well.

The Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper reports that Starykh will not fight the decision.

There do not appear to have been any additional fines or sanctions for the Russian Biathlon Union.

Chelsea Little

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.

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  • Martin Hall

    July 18, 2014 at 10:43 am

    Druggers are all liars—that we know—because they are cheaters

  • highstream

    July 18, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    “Druggers are all liars—that we know—because they are cheaters.”

    If as one of the linked articles points out, the doctors and coaches representing the national federation who are pushing doping this get off free, who exactly are the “cheaters?” And if major national and international coporations that sponsor federations, teams and individuals are knowingly profiting from this, or turning a blind eye, while political nationalism and nationalist political leaders and government agencies are telling or encouraging athletes to win at all costs, and rewarding them for doing so, then again, who exactly are the cheaters?

    And as Floyd Landis and (now Tyler Hamilton) pointed out in Graham Bensinger interview, if all the top contenders and at least 85-90% of the peloton are doping, then who’s cheating. Like it or not (and I don’t), at that point it’s effectively a professional standard.

    That’s why I think an intelligent discussion of doping in sports and what to do about it can’t get anywhere if it’s focused on moralistic notions (and name calling) like cheating.

  • Martin Hall

    July 19, 2014 at 7:41 am

    Get off it HS—these people are all adults—most times their doping experiences are self-initiated —- this is a profession that they perform in—there are forms of payments—sponsor, supplier-racing results and performance schedules that they have access to to earn there livings. Some countries use the military to pay athletes, other countries have so- called carding programs. If you are reading blogs and access the twitter talk you can get an idea of how well these people live and what they are doing in what little spare time they have. It looks pretty good to me—compared to the old days—-I think you have to look deeper then the money.
    I had an athlete approach me one time back in the old days and this person put it this way—if it will make me win I will take what ever it is that I have to take–get it for me—-I told this person that they were already taking the magic elixir–it was lots of hard work. The request was there and I’m sure this is how it happens most of the time–even today.
    In the 90s and the early 2000s I know and think there was a wave of time that coaches and some medical people were very involved with assisted doping programs. I think over the years—-especially with how often their athletes are caught, the Russians have had a government assisted (at the sport level) program. They should be penalized—no doubts about this in my mind.
    The hierarchy of sport—being especially the IOC, FIS and NSGBs have been delinquent in there efforts to control this disease in our sport—with weak efforts in the beginning—denial—even hiding results and not culling out, as you say, all the real cheaters. They were reluctant to see this disease that had invaded xc skiing —they were embarrassed—afraid to bring forward the proper penalties and money to get programs going to find these people and appropriately penalize them and kick them out of sport—a few of these kinds of actions in the beginning would have stopped the rest of the history that has taken place.
    All this talk and you and I have not really talked about the victims—-the NON_CHEATERS—the honest people who have been screwed out of the medals, the money, the fame and the right too compete on a level playing field. In the 70s and 80s, drugs were rampant behind the curtain—government driven programs to dope, to cheat—-not government and NSF driven programs to find the cheats. It is in my estimation a shameful part of xc skiing’s history and the big names can take this so called credit for doing essentially nothing during these years.
    One more thought HS—search history, and I can tell you from the beginning of all this doping, the first words from those caught is denial—-actually lies—they are almost 100% liars and cheaters and they deserve these references I have used. It doesn’t bother me at all!

  • highstream

    July 19, 2014 at 9:14 am

    It’s interesting how people divide up social behavior. If it’s, say, large banks and financial corporations that have an effective or actual policy of breaking laws and cheating customers and screwing the economy, such as goes on every day and causes societal crises every so often, most people recoil from blaming the employees and contractors, i.e., calling them “cheaters.” But let it be athletes, acting under the effective orders of coaches and doctors and the pressure and actions of sponsors, owners, governments and nationalistic ideologies, it’s all on the individuals and moralism runs rampant about “cheaters” and how much the athletes make, etc.. I’m not ignoring the role of individual athletes’ egos in the process, or differences between sports and PEDs, but it’s hard to separate those from the overall cultures and systems in which they operate. Compare, for instance, the needs and attitude of a typical Cuban athlete (or citizen) toward individualism in sports with that of athletes from major capitalist countries to get a picture.

    There’s something else here: It’s widely recognized by those in the know that the reason Ben Johnson of Canada didn’t get away with a positive test (contaminated or not) in 1988, was that Canadian Olympic federation was weak. Had it been the U.S. or most Soviet bloc countries, the speciman would have been altered or mislaid on the way to the lab or someone would have shown up in the middle of the night and stole the samples (as happened with U.S. athlete samples at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics). That difference in international power helps make Canadians all high and mighty moralistic, a strong Protestant culture focused on individual behavior aside, because they feel defensive nationally about being at once excluded from the inside and more exposed when things go bad, just as Western European countries in the 1960s and 1970s were upset about doping because they were effectively left out of the system and thus couldn’t compete with the U.S. and Soviet bloc. Talking about individual “cheaters” in these kinds of economic, social and political contexts may make one’s chest feel good, but doesn’t get anyone very far towards dealing effectively with the issue.

  • Big Joe

    July 21, 2014 at 9:02 am

    I’m not sure I am comprehending HS’s point. If HS’s point is that there are others who are complicit in doping and should be caught and punished too… then I agree. I have stated before – I believe an individual caught cheating should be given a provisional lifetime ban. They can either chose to cooperate and give testimony under oath describing all of their doping activities and naming all individuals with knowledge of their doping and have a shorter term granted or accept their lifetime ban. If they elect to give testimony and any testimony is later found to be untruthful or less than fully revealing, the lifetime ban would be reinstated.

    Make those complicit fearful too…

    Having said all that — I do think HS has a point. Those who participated in US Nordic skiing’s lone doping scandal were never named or sanctioned in any way other than one athlete…

  • Martin Hall

    July 23, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Big Joe—think the people who aided in this US case you mentioned were sanctioned, but then the sanctions were dropped.
    Like your sanctioning option and do the same with those who are complicit–life ban—confess their involvement and who else was involved and the sentence will be reduced. This will widen the net immensely.

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