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Dr Michael Ashenden
Blood expert decries UCI policies on confidentiality
The following extract comes from an interview carried out by Andy Shen from nyvelocity.com with anti-doping expert Mike Ashenden. The full interview can be found over at nyvelocity.com.
Andy Shen: I understand that you'll no longer be on the panel for the Biological Passport Program. Can you explain your reasons for resigning your position?
Michael Ashenden: That's correct insofar as I will not be an expert on Lausanne's Athlete Passport Management Unit (APMU). I do intend however to remain a member of WADA's Expert Panel. As well, Dan Eichner at the Salt Lake City lab has also convened their own APMU with a truly formidable panel of experts, and I've accepted their offer to participate on that panel. I'm enthusiastic about the prospects for that to grow and establish itself in the future.
From the beginning of 2012, Lausanne have been managing cycling's Passport program, so it means I will not be interpreting rider's blood profiles any longer. The reason I have resigned comes down to an issue of freedom of speech.
In their terms of agreement, Lausanne inserted an additional confidentiality clause that precluded an expert from making any public comment or giving any personal opinion on any aspect of their role as an expert on the panel. Not just now, but for eight years after the expert leaves the panel.
In my opinion such a clause is ludicrous. Perhaps an employer can insist that their employee signs such a contract, but us experts are not employed by the APMU, and in fact their contract states that we must at all times exercise the greatest care to ensure that we do not become dependent to the APMU. In other words, they see independence as being of paramount importance. So it comes down to the APMU squashing the freedom of speech of a person who by their own charge is completely independent of them, and I refuse to be a part of that.
Of course, I am willing to sign confidentiality clauses which preclude me from sharing any information I encounter in my role as an expert, and that is precisely the clause and contract I signed to be on WADA's Expert Panel. However I am not willing to go further and allow the APMU to censor the expression of my personal opinions about non-confidential matters.
In my opinion, that clause can only serve one purpose, which is to muzzle us experts from giving interviews to the media. I think it's important to have transparency and accountability in all facets of sport and antidoping. As meagre as our role might be, we experts are an independent entity within the Passport program which means we can serve as a canary in the mineshaft, a crosscheck.
As I said earlier, I consider the media's role to be pivotal to maintain antidoping vigilance, and unless the media has access to expert interviews that vein of information will be strangled and eventually expire. We understand the Passport, how it works, and what it can and cannot do. Our opinion and contribution to media is vital. I cannot condone that role being snuffed out, thus I have refused Lausanne's offer to be a part of their expert panel.
I sought to find a compromise with Lausanne but with no success. That was certainly disappointing, but I find it unconscionable that an antidoping entity would seek to impose an omerta on us experts. Particularly where cycling is concerned, because we have struggled for years to break the rider's omerta, and asked riders to speak out about their peers who are cheating the system. Yet Lausanne takes that omerta one step further and prevents its experts from speaking out not just via an unspoken code but also reinforced with a legal contract.
I am distressed that this has led to me no longer being involved in cycling. I have been involved in their program since day one when Anne Gripper first sought out my participation. The UCI have certainly broken new territory, and at the same time there is still a long way to go. However at the end of the day, I seek to live by my principles, and I intend to do so not just now but in the future as well.
AS: Even though the Contador case was specifically about Clenbuterol, you were brought in as WADA's expert witness because they had a theory that the Clenbuterol entered his system as a result of blood doping?
MA: Depending on how you choose to look at the Contador case, it was either drop dead simple to resolve, or impossible to address. Quite honestly I sometimes waver within those two extremes myself. But at the end of the day, the presence of clenbuterol had been established, and there was no proof available to establish how it entered Contador's system. From that perspective, it seems quite straightforward that it would lead to a two year sanction.
I think the enormous volume of public debate muddied the waters. As well, Contador made a persuasive case in the court of public opinion that unless WADA could establish how it entered his system, the only reasonable thing to do was to accept his proposal that it came via a steak. What concerns me about that argument is why Contador should be treated any differently to any other athlete, for whom the reverse has always been true. As succinctly summarised in paragraph 265 of the ruling, the athlete has to establish how the prohibited substance entered their system, rather than the other way around. I don't think the number of races you've won, or whether or not the Prime Minister is in your corner, should change how your case is adjudicated.
When the first hearing took place in Spain, that RFEC panel was only presented with Contador's evidence that the clenbuterol had come from a steak, and no other alternatives were put before it. The RFEC concluded that on the evidence placed before it, the clenbuterol came from steak. When the UCI and WADA appealed that decision, they argued that the clenbuterol might not have come from a steak but instead from, for example, a transfusion or a contaminated supplement. As I understand it, the CAS panel needed to decide whether the evidence put before it indicated that it was more likely that it came from steak than from any other possibility. My role at the hearing was to help the panel evaluate, based on the evidence available, whether a transfusion could have taken place. Experts from WADA attended the hearing to help the panel understand whether, if a transfusion had taken place, it could have led to the clenbuterol concentrations found in Contador's urine.
Although that might seem like the same argument made twice, in fact there is an important distinction. Both steps would be necessary to explain clenbuterol at the concentrations found. Each argument was considered separately, with me being responsible for helping the panel evaluate the first but not the second argument, and vice versa for WADA's experts. It is therefore not surprising that Contador's legal team sought to rebut each of those arguments separately, and they brought different arguments to bear in each case.
AS: So you were called to evaluate Contador's passport profile. How were you able to establish his ‘normal' values, considering that he's suspected of blood doping?
MA: First I need to clarify a misconception - when you say I was there to evaluate his passport profile, in fact this was not an Athlete Passport case. I realise the confusion has been propogated by the panel's use of the abbreviation ‘ABP', which they mistakenly apply whether talking about actual Athlete Biological Passport data (which is the correct use of ‘ABP') or blood data in general. I was there to evaluate his blood results, period. Whether those data came from his passport profile, or somewhere else, was not relevant provided that the data were reliable. As you can see in paragraph 351, which describes the blood data I based my opinion on, I incorporated data from as far back as 2005 which predates the beginning of WADA's ABP.
Because Contador had previously applied to the UCI for an exemption for high haematocrit, during 2006 he had spent several days at the Lausanne antidoping laboratory who collected some very carefully controlled blood tests. Those data were obviously considered to be reliable - Contador had been granted an exemption based on the validity of those data thus it would be very difficult for him to turn around and suggest those data could not be relied upon. I used those data to establish to my satisfaction what his natural values for haemoglobin and reticulocytes were.
AS: Based on that baseline data, what were you able to establish about Contador's '10 Tour test data?
MA: His 2010 Tour data definitely attracted my attention. As described in the panel's ruling, my testimony was that his reticulocytes were higher than I would have expected. Not just a single result, but every result during that race was equal or above the carefully collected results he'd provided to the Lausanne lab in 2006.
At first I thought this could have been due to the analyser used during that Tour. If the analyser had been reporting results slightly high, that would have explained why Contador's values were higher than expected. However I cross-checked the results of other riders, and it was not due to the instrument.
My second thought was that perhaps this signature was just typical of how Contador's body responded to the competition of a major stage race. Again I was able to cross-check this with his other results during previous victories at major Tours, and that did not explain the 2010 Tour values either. In fact his 2010 Tour results were higher than any other value he'd provided during any of his previous major victories.
The inescapable conclusion was that his reticulocyte results were unusual for him. In fact, neither his own blood expert nor myself could conceive of any naturally-induced circumstance that could explain his elevated reticulocyte results during the Tour. I was surprised to read paragraph 359 of the ruling, which in fairness only refers to written submissions that had preceded my opportunity to address questions to Contador's expert. However what that paragraph does not reflect, which the court transcript can establish, was that during the hearing itself I categorically asked Contador's expert whether he had any natural explanation for Contador's reticulocytes during the 2010 Tour, and he did not. Both of us also agreed that some forms of doping, for example a microdose EPO regime, could yield higher-than-expected reticulocytes.
During the hearing, I helped the panel to objectively evaluate for themselves just how unusual Contador's reticulocyte results were during the 2010 Tour. They refer to this in paragraph 368. I presented a probabilistic evaluation which replaced my subjective opinion with mathematical odds. The calculation found that the probability of Contador's four highest results occurring at a single race was less than 1 in 7000. However, the panel concluded that probability calculations, which had been scrutinised by two colleagues each with a PhD in statistics, were not a sufficiently secure method of establishing inconsistencies.
As I explained earlier, I regard haemoglobin and reticulocytes as separate entities and when I examined Contador's haemoglobin values during the 2010 Tour I found his results to be more or less what I would have expected. However since I already had his data from previous major victories in hand, I went ahead and compared his 2010 haemoglobin results with those other races and I was concerned that I was not able to see consistency between races. In very general terms, you'd expect the same rider to show the same response each race. There is a dilution of the haemoglobin as the cumulative impact of multiple days of stage racing leads to an influx of water into the circulation. Whereas I would have been reassured to find the same characteristic signature in Contador during every one of his victories, I did not.