The UCI's anti-doping department recently experienced a major change when Anne Gripper stepped down as its manager. Having spent over three years in the role, she took the decision to leave for personal reasons and has been replaced by Francesca Rossi.
The Italian spent three years as the Administrative and Scientific Manager of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations). She previously spent a decade working for the anti-doping laboratory in Rome, having acted as Deputy Director and Routine Activities Manager.
Rossi takes up the new position at a time when the biological passport is fully implemented and continuing to build data. Several riders have been suspended as a result of the longitudinal studies and, as time passes, the analyses should become more precise. This should make the passport even more effective.
Steroid profiles will also soon be added, thus tracking hormonal changes in riders and seeking to identify those who are using other methods to try to gain an unethical advantage.
Cyclingnews: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Francesca Rossi: I don't have a real background in sport, but I do have a background in anti-doping. I worked for 10 years in the anti-doping lab in Rome, starting in 1997 after getting my degree in pharmaceutical chemistry. I worked there until 2007 when I left; I then went to Monaco, where I worked for the IAAF as a scientific and administrative manager.
I was the deputy of Dr Dollé, the head of the anti-doping department there. In that location I had the possibility to really become familiar with how a federation works.
I was the head of the ISO [International Standards Organisation] project, and now the medical anti-doping department of the IAAF is ISO-accredited. I am also part of the WADA lab committee, which is keeping an eye on the labs.
CN: How did it come about that you replaced Anne Gripper (pictured below)?
FR: I met Anne a year ago. She came to the IAAF for a meeting about the blood passport, as athletics is starting the blood passport programme. We invited her to explain the strong and weak points to us.
I knew that she was leaving for personal reasons, and I sent my application as for me it was time for me to change a little.
I applied exactly as the others candidates. The UCI received my application, they said 'come' and we had a meeting. In the beginning they wanted a lawyer, someone with that background, but after a while they changed their mind and my candidature was the most appropriate for them.
It was really by chance. It was the same as how I got the IAAF role - I applied for that by chance, too. At the time, I was working at the Winter Olympic Games in Torino. I was the logistics person. After that, I said 'Basta' ['Enough'] I wanted to go in a different direction. Ten years with samples was enough for me.
CN: Do you know much about cycling?
FR: I know sport as an independent person. Being in anti-doping for a long time, you are obliged to know about rules in sport and what is going on in sport. I don't really have a specific knowledge, but I was always interested, from a personal point of view and also professionally.
My knowledge is an indirect one; I know sport, as I must know when is the best time for an athlete to dope. In this way, I must know when is the best time for a sprinter, or a cyclist or for somebody else to use substances.
CN: Taking over in your new role is undoubtedly a big task. Did you work alongside Anne Gripper before she left?
FR: I started on the 24th of February, so it was not so long. She tried to communicate everything to me, but of course it's quite complex. Anne is a person who is in contact with lots of people; I think that a network is a personal property. It is not possible to simply communicate a network to another person.
That said, she was very clear with me about the duties. She communicated everything. She left the UCI under the best conditions; she was not angry with the UCI or anything, but rather she really wanted to change her life. She wanted to have a different perspective.
CN: What is your view of what Anne Gripper and the UCI have done thus far regarding the fight against doping?
FR: I like the UCI anti-doping programme. Anne Gripper was very good and she built a very consistent programme for the blood passport. For me, this was a very important step in the right direction. It is more and more difficult to discover, in a direct way, doping by athletes. Now, with this system, this indirect system, we have more chance to discover what is going on in the doping world.
For me, the UCI programme is a really consistent one. I like it. This was also a reason why I decided to come here, to say yes. I knew Anne Gripper and she was a real pioneer in this sense. For me, it is more or less straightforward at this stage to move into her place; the programme is running very well, and I am very happy about this.
I am still at the beginning, so maybe sooner or later I will discover some things that are not perfect, but for the moment the impression that I have [of the biological passport] is very positive.
New elements in the fight against doping
CN: Recently a sportsman was suspended as a result of a test for Human Growth Hormone and the substance has long been perceived as undetectable. Will the UCI also introduce this test?
FR: Yes. I am almost sure that we are going in that direction, even though there are some difficulties. That is usual at the beginning, when you are speaking about proteins. It was the same at the beginning of the EPO test... before having a positive that was really consistent, they spent a long time studying. There were some kamikaze cases before the programme was consistent.
But I think that it is time for this. I was also involved in the WADA project for hGH, which we developed in the IAAF, and I had the opportunity to follow it. Now it is time to come out with this kind of analysis. They are ready. I am sure that we will also start a programme in this sense.
CN: To what extent will there be retrospective testing for hGH? Will the UCI re-examine old samples?
FR: I think the test for hGH is done via blood, and we don't have so many blood samples. It is a little difficult to make a retrospective analysis in these situations. It is not a case that you can work with stored urine, which you can test for years - blood is a little bit different and more delicate.
I think that for this part, we don't have so many retrospective possibilities. But we have so many athletes for the future [that can be tested]...
Retrospective analyses in general are really tricky. You cannot apply this for every sample in every time. So it is really a complicated matter for me, in general.
CN: What do you mean?
FR: Well, what I mean is that you cannot always act in the same way. Only in some competitions, in others not; for some athletes, for others not.
CN: Do you mean that this retrospective analysis is less precise?
FR: No, not less precise, because the technique is always the same. I am not speaking about it being precise or not precise. I am speaking about the fact that you cannot apply the same analysis on all samples that you have, because it depends if the labs have kept the samples or not.
Going by the rules, they should keep the samples for three months. By chance, if they have the samples longer, you can make a retrospective analysis. So it is really a different view in this sense.
Ideally, you'd ask the lab to keep the sample for years, but they don't have the space. They can do it only for some competitions, not for others. So it is not a question of technique or science. The science is safe, it is okay. The problem is to choose the right athletes or competitions - it is a little bit delicate in this sense.
I think that in this area WADA should work together with the IOC. They should decide which way to act to keep samples. This is the concern that I have. You cannot do this kind of retrospective analysis on all samples... it is impossible. Maybe they should create a very big, big fridge to keep all samples forever!
CN: Should WADA develop guidelines on sample storage time?
FR: Yes. I think that the guidelines should be updated and be consistent with what they want. We will see what is the right decision in the future of this retrospective analysis.
Goals and targets
CN: What do you want to achieve in your role with the UCI?
FR: I hope to survive, first of all! The passport is an ongoing project and we will continue to develop the system, continue to follow athletes. The new athletes will have a lot of controls and we will have the passport for them, and of course we will have steroid profiles.
CN: Is it only blood levels that currently make up the passport?
FR: Yes, at the moment it is only blood parameters. For the future, WADA is working very hard on the urinary profile for the steroids. We will be involved as a test model as usual... But it is good, doing this brings very good results.
CN: Cycling is used as the model by WADA and other sports. You mentioned that the IAAF is now introducing the biological passport...
FR: The problem facing the IAAF is that the athletes are located all over the world. This was the main difficulty for them and so they hadn't started earlier. In a certain sense, the UCI was lucky as its athletes are mostly in Europe. So they had the opportunity to develop the system in a really strong way.
I think that the UCI is really a model. The IAAF is in contact with the UCI; I think they want to learn the way to act.
When I was still with the IAAF, we invited Dr. Zorzoli to come to our medical anti-doping commission in February. He presented the UCI programme there. Really, the IAAF would like to hold up the UCI as an example, a good example.
CN: A few months ago the UCI said that it was reviewing some suspicious profiles. Is there any news on these ongoing cases?
FR: We are continuing and studying it... the situation is ongoing. It is one that is in progress.
Biological passport tracking of steroid profiles - an evolution in testing?
Cyclingnews: Do you think that steroid hormone tracking will be introduced this season?
Francesco Rossi: I think that we will introduce it very soon, as a trial. We don't really have strict guidelines from WADA, not yet. They are trying to produce it. As soon as we have guidelines, we can discover at which level we can do what we can do with these profiles.
What is important for us now is to start to collect the information.
CN: What's different to the current analyses?
FR: Currently they are not as consistent as a blood profile. What you can do with blood and what you can do with urine is a bit different.
CN: Does 'a trial stage' mean you can't sanction riders, but you can build up a database and maybe use the data to sanction later?
FR: Really, we are at the stage of collecting information. One thing that should be evaluated very strongly is the consistency between labs. With blood, it is very easy as you have one machine, a sysmex. You use a sysmex all over the world, it is always the same machine.
But with the urine, you have different techniques. You have a different way to collect information. The urine should be treated, while the blood is not treated at all; it is just put in the machine and it is done.
So we should analyse, we should see what is the consistency among labs.
CN: That's important for a longitudinal study; when analysing several samples you need to know that they have been treated in exactly the same way...
FR: Yes, one aspect of the programme of longitudinal studies has already been in place for a long time, the T-ratio. That started before I was born, a very long time ago. But this is a new step, they are trying to involve all the labs and all the results.