The International Biathlon Union (IUB) enacted bold anti-doping plan last autumn: they took stored blood and urine samples from previous seasons which had been deemed suspicious, and re-tested them using newly available methods to try to catch dopers who had flown under the radar and under detection limits.
That effort yielded two positive results for erythropoietin (EPO), an illicit blood-doping drug. They belonged to Alexander Loginov of Russia and Sergui Sednev of Ukraine. The results from Sednev’s hearing panel have now been released, and the Ukrainian veteran has been banned for two years. He retired four days after the testing result — before it was announced to the public — but if he wished to return to competition he would be allowed to do so in December 2016.
The details of the testing in the case are unremarkable, as using the new method there was little doubt that the sample – which had been considered “suspicious” the first time around – contained EPO. Sednev, a Junior World Championships, European Championships and World Championships medalist, did not seem to have mounted much of a defense. He sent a note to the IBU reading,
“Therefore, I can’t explain this incident since, as I have already indicated, I have never taken prohibited substances and nobody ever has prescribed them to me. So, I am unable to provide with the necessary objective documentary evidence to the contrary … I do hope for a fair decision from the Anti-Doping Hearing Panel.”
Since Sednev couldn’t provide compelling evidence that the test was incorrect, the chain of custody of the sample had been broken, or any other reason for a possible mistest, the IBU’s Anti-Doping Hearing Panel, chaired by Christoph Venner, a Munich law professor panel decided that it was appropriate to give him a standard two-year ban.
In addition, all of his results since January 22, 2013, when the sample was initially collected, were disqualified. That included placing 39th in the sprint at 2013 World Championships; placing 33rd in the sprint and 40th in the pursuit at a World Cup in Oberhof, Germany, in 2014; and finishing 44th in the sprint and 54th in the pursuit at the 2014 Olympic Games, among other results.
One man who might be particularly devastated by that last one? Russell Currier, a U.S. athlete who placed 61st in the Olympic sprint and missed a place in the pursuit competition by 2.6 seconds. Unless Ukraine replaced Sednev with another top-60 competitor, the doper’s presence in the race might have been what kept Currier from getting another Olympic race start under his belt.
“Sounds like the sport is one step closer to being clean,” Currier wrote in an email. “At the end of the day the more doping athletes we can uncover and penalize for the better. It’s hard not too look at past results and wonder what if, but it’s also doesn’t help much either. I just hope that WADA is doing everything in their power to bring the sport up to 100% clean.”
Most of Sednev’s best results, including one World Cup win and three other individual podiums, came from well before the 2013 sample was collected.
But even after disqualifying all of Sednev’s results, there was still the question of the suspension. The sample in question was collected in January 2013, but was re-analyzed in December of 2014. So should the two year ban start from 2013? Or 2014?
The panel referred to “cumulative effects” of a retroactive disqualification plus a suspension from the date of the re-test. In addition to the two-year ban beginning on January 15, 2014, when Sednev’s provisional suspension was announced by the IBU, the disqualification of his results would increase the time of the punishment in these cases.
“Retroactive disqualification of the competitive results obtained during the time between sample collection and the suspension imposed after the re-analysis may amount to some years, in the case of the Athlete to more than 22 months,” the panel noted.
The question the panel seemed to mull was, is this OK? In effect, it means that the punishment for athletes who initially get away with doping but are later caught, turns out to be different than for those who are caught immediately. There’s no clear philosophy in the anti-doping rules about these cases, which likely weren’t imagined when the rules were written. And while punishment is supposed to be just that, punishment, it is also supposed to be equal among offenders.
The panel noted that one “obvious option” would be to have the two-year suspension start from the date of sample collection. But in that case, Sednev would have served 22 months of the 24 month suspension by the time he as even caught, and would never have had to actually sit out of competition except during his provisional suspension.
“In such situation, in re-test cases, the athletes, in reality, were free to compete all over the time of the disqualification and only run the risk to lose their results and to be declared ineligible for a period of time which already elapsed in full or partly,” the panel wrote.
Furthermore, they believed that athletes should be aware of this.
“The fact that this ADRV [Anti-Doping Rules Violation] was not detected as an immediate result of the sample collection in January 2013 reveals that the athlete committed the ADRV in such meticulous manner that it remained undetected in the analysis of January 2013. After the failure of that first analysis the Athlete bona fide could not have the belief that he was legally free to compete. On the contrary, he must have been conscious that, due to the possibility of a re-test, the ADRV could be detected at a later stage.”
They concluded that to start the suspension from 2013 would be unfair to clean athletes, and not be much of a deterrent to other dopers.
Thus, Sednev has been suspended for two years, starting with his provisional suspension on December 15, 2014. Sednev has 21 days to appeal the decision, should he wish to.
There is no word yet on the results of the Loginov case, perhaps because Russian athletes in the past have attempted to fight suspensions, while Sednev’s case was straightforward. However, the Sednev case provides a blueprint for the retroactive disqualifications and two-year suspension that are to be expected for Loginov.
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.