UCI anti-doping head encouraged by outcomes of biological passport conference
Anne Gripper has declared that the war on doping is being won. The head of the International Cycling Union's (UCI) Anti-Doping Department, Gripper's assessment came after last week’s meeting of an independent scientific expert panel to discuss possible anti-doping rule violations under the biological passport programme. The World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) and the UCI Anti-Doping Commission were also invited and present at the conference.
Last week’s meeting focussed on a number of issues along with a new batch of riders that had been identified during the weekly process of review that is undertaken of passport data. It’s not known how many profiles were looked at or how many of those anonymous riders will face a doping violation, but for Gripper the meeting marked another step in the fight against doping. Those attending included six of the nine UCI anti-doping experts (the remainder were brought in via email and phone).
"While the [biological] passport is still in its early stages, we think it’s beneficial for the experts to come together to discuss the profiles in more detail. They came up with a range of recommendations on those profiles we looked at," said Gripper.
"All the cases came to our attention since the meeting in Geneva in June. The period of doping, if there was one, may have commenced before that."
Another development has been the ratification of WADA’s athlete biological passport guidelines. This means that the UCI now have concrete guidelines, rather than the draft versions they’ve been following since the passport programme’s birth in 2008. Part of these guidelines means the UCI must give a rider who returns an abnormal blood profile a set period of time to provide their account or explanation of the abnormal profile before a case is opened. Therefore, there will now be a time period in which the rider is aware that their profile is under scrutiny, without the knowledge of anyone else, including their team.
For Gripper, all of this progress is a success, and something she has strived to achieve since she joined the UCI in 2006 and launched the biological passport programme in 2008. "It’s been a great success. That’s not just based on how many cases we’ve opened on the blood profiles but all the information we’ve gained in the year. In 2009 we’ve really come to understand how much information the profile provides us with.
"If you look at the number of professional riders who have been detected for CERA or EPO in planned out-of-competition tests, based on what has been seen on their profile, there’s been eight this year. That was all based on information from the profiling data and means we can plan our more expensive out of competition testing better," she told Cyclingnews.
One other aspect Gripper points to is the deterrence or fear of being caught that has spread though the peloton. Hypothetical perhaps, but Gripper insists there’s evidence to back her up, with fewer riders who have abnormal reticulocyte values - something that can indicate EPO use.
But is the cheat simply more sophisticated? Are they using the data from the passport to manipulate or manage their results? "It’s much harder for them to manage their reticulocytes than the haemoglobin. So it would be hard to say that they’re manipulating that. We need to also think that this has been an important element of the passport. We hear from riders that not knowing when the knock on the door will come has changed the balance between risk and benefit. They now know that the risks are significantly higher."
This time last year Gripper was at a ProTour team training camp in Majorca, educating riders and staff on the progress the UCI had made and how the Whereabouts System and Anti-Doping Administration & Management System (ADAMS) worked. It was an integral part of the UCI’s fight against doping. This year, with the programme's administrative components already in place, camp visits will become less frequent and more targeted.
"We did it for all the teams for the last two years. This year, because there’s not that many dramatic changes to the programme or the ADAMS user interface, we’ll only go if there’s a specific need. For example, Saxo Bank has changed from their own Whereabouts system to ADAMS so we visited them, and because Astana has had so many changes in team management we went to speak to them too."
But for Gripper visiting camps, no matter how beneficial it may be, still holds an element of frustration, especially when she knows that there are a percentage of riders in the audience who aren’t taking her seriously or who will decide to cheat when and if they need to.
"Yeah, that is frustrating, but it’s human nature that there’s always some people that will deliberately try to do the wrong thing. We always knew that what we’re doing with cycling is changing the culture. You can change behaviour quickly but the deep culture will take a few more years yet."
The war on doping hasn’t become any easier over the last few months with the very public fall between the UCI and the French anti-doping authority (AFLD) after this year's Tour de France. Claims that some teams were given preferential treatment from the testing authorities greatly undermined the work being done by the sport, but also the potential creation of a clear and concise testing arena. The result of the rift is such that the two parties will unlikely work together in the future. This is despite what was perceived by many as a clean Tour in 2008, where the AFLD carried out the testing.
"We believe we have the confidence and the authority to conduct the testing on our own under the world anti-doping code. We have worked with the AFLD in the past but we don’t necessarily need their assistance. It’s a case of whether it’s worthwhile to us from a political point of view," said Gripper.
This throws up the greatest and most difficult set of questions of all: Can a governing body safeguard drug testing while also looking out for the best interests of the sport? And, if not, shouldn’t an independent body with no ties or interest to cycling manage all elements of testing and subsequent violations?
"There is a sense that you have to trust the international federations and anti-doping organisations, and that they want the best for their sport. I would hope, just as the UCI does, that all other organisations are doing testing to protect the integrity of their events and the future of their sport. There’s no incentive to cover up or not conduct a rigorous anti-doping programme.
"We’ve been very public about the fact that there is a problem in cycling and that we’re going head on against it, so the more we can expose the better it is for us. Even if it does have a negative impact in the short term the more cheats we can expose the better it will be. I have complete confidence in our testing and there’s no doubt that [the Tour saw] the most comprehensive and robust event testing that’s ever been.
As we said in our response [to the AFLD] we really questioned their motivation and their accuracy. For me it was quite hurtful that we’d put so much time and effort into a sophisticated programme and all they [AFLD] could come up with were procedure issues that weren’t correct. There was nothing on the fact we’d tested riders at all different times of the day, used different labs."
Gripper herself has a background working for organisations similar to the AFLD. She worked for the Australia Sports Commission in the Active Australia programme between 1994 and 1999, and later the Australian Sports Drug Agency, before her move to Switzerland in 2006.
"I’ve always been a strong advocate for working with organisations like that and because I came to the UCI it was one of the things I wanted to achieve as well. So it is disappointing when we fail to achieve cooperation with a group like AFLD. It seems strange that we can have good relationships with the other groups, but can't with them. The AFLD have lost our trust."
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