Two more cases against triathletes accused of using banned performance-enhancing drug recombinant erythropoietin (rEPO) are about to be dropped because of doubts about the validity of the urine test for rEPO. At the Ironman triathlon in Lanzarote, May 21, 2005 women's winner Virginia Berasategui and Ibán Rodríguez (21st overall in the men's race) were tested for rEPO and initially returned positive readings. Both denied the accusation and maintained their innocence from the outset.
There were doubts about both cases from the beginning, according to Dr. Iñigo Mujika, Virginia Berasategui's coach and scientific advisor to both athletes in this case. Dr. Mujika told Cyclingnews, "First, there still is a complete lack of information on the whereabouts of the urine samples from the moment they were collected in Lanzarote immediately after the event until they arrived to the WADA accredited laboratory in Madrid - two days and seventeen hours later. Second, out of the ten samples analysed after the event, two were declared positive, one 'non detectable', three 'non qualifiable' and the remaining four negative. Very unreliable results for a test that is supposed to be qualitative."
Encouraged by the battle that was being fought by Belgian triathlete Rutger Beke against his own case of rEPO use, Berasategui and Rodríguez decided to look for the cause of their false positive results. They undertook additional tests under the guidance of the Belgian scientists dealing with Rutger Beke's case. All three triathletes were shown to have extremely high protein levels in their urine after strenuous exercise, which according to recent findings by Belgian and Australian scientists, is one of the main causes of false positive EPO tests.
On August 9, Beke was cleared by the Disciplinary Council of the Flemish Community in Belgium, who ruled, based on the report of an independent expert they appointed, that given the lack of reliability of the urinary rEPO test, there was no scientific evidence that Beke ever used rEPO. This sentence represented a major blow to the World Anti-Doping Agency's main weapon against rEPO abuse in sports. In addition, Beke announced a few days later his intention of suing WADA and the accredited labs of Gent (Belgium) and Cologne (Germany) for €125,000.
On September 8, Berasategui and Rodríguez received from the Spanish Triathlon Federation the proposed resolution to the disciplinary proceedings against them. In it, the case judge proposed to the disciplinary committee of the Spanish Triathlon Federation, "A stay of proceedings and definitive closure of the case".
According to the document, on September 5 the president of the Spanish National Anti-Doping Commission (NAC) sent a communication to the disciplinary committee of the Spanish Triathlon Federation. They were advised that WADA phoned its accredited laboratory in Madrid on August 31 to communicate new instructions to modify the evaluation criteria for the detection of urinary rEPO. As a consequence, the NAC ordered to revise any proceedings that were still open. As a result of the revision, the NAC considered that from a technical point of view, such proceedings should be closed.
"This shows on the one hand the athletes' innocence, and on the other hand the lack of reliability of the test for detection of urinary EPO," added Dr. Mujika. "The criteria used until August 31 were established by WADA on January 15, 2005, modifying those that were in place since the creation of the test in 2000. Interestingly, Virginia's and Ibán's samples should have never been considered positive according to the initial criteria of 2000. In addition, we still have not received from the Spanish Triathlon Federation the information requested over and over again on the conditions of transport and storage of the urine samples from Lanzarote to the laboratory in Madrid, nor the above mentioned communication from the President of the NAC."
Dr. Mujika also pointed out that, "Athletes throughout the world are at risk of falsely testing positive for rEPO, given that the new criteria established by WADA are not known and the major issue with the test, which is the lack of specificity of the antibodies they use, causing cross reactivity with urinary proteins that have nothing to do with EPO, still remains. It all suggests that the change of criteria is just a desperate manoeuvre to save the urinary EPO test, despite the fact that it has recently been questioned by Belgian and Australian scientists."