Exclusive: Anne Gripper breaks silence on blood passport

Aussie Anne Gripper is the face behind the UCI's anti-doping campaign

Aussie Anne Gripper is the face behind the UCI's anti-doping campaign (Image credit: Shane Stokes)

The International Cycling Union (UCI) called a press conference with a select band of journalists Wednesday to give them the opportunity to ask questions of the manager of its anti-doping regime, Anne Gripper. Over the last few months Gripper, who is in her own right one of the world’s leading figures in the fight against drug cheats, has stepped away from media interviews in an attempt to concentrate solely on finalising the first cases brought against riders for violations on biological passport.

Anne Gripper: Can I just say that this is a really important day for us. We’ve been confident the whole way through this experience that the passport is what the sport needed in order to eliminate doping from cycling. I know it’s taken a lot longer than what many people expected, but we never doubted its usefulness.

We have been working particularly hard over the last six months so that we could properly interpret the blood profiles, so that by the end of last year we had extensive profiles on a number of riders. This month we’ve been making sure that the whole system works and that our experts understand the data they’re looking at. Our final meeting in Geneva two weeks ago led to them making recommendations to the UCI on the first five cases that we’ve launched today.

To give you some background: The passport software actually interprets the raw blood results and it provides information for the experts to review. It also requires the human touch and knowledge of an expert to look at the data and interpret it. Just because a profile exceeds certain limits we’re looking at doesn’t mean that the rider is doping. The experts then decide if the results can’t be explained by anything pathological or physiological or if the rider has been doping through manipulation of his blood.

Question: Are there other cases in the pipeline?

Anne Gripper: The project is in ‘real time’ now so we’re confident that each week our group of experts will receive any passports that exceed a certain limit and that an updated test will be conducted that week. They then review the profiles as it’s an on-going process. We expect that when the right time comes along we’ll be doing the same thing again with disciplinary proceedings. This is the start. We probably won’t go ahead with another batch of five but if the timing is right we’ll be announcing the names of any other riders.

Question: What are the next steps for the five cases you’ve opened today?

Anne Gripper: We’re following the normal results management rules. That means the UCI do all the initial investigations, and once we’re convinced there is enough evidence that a rider has broken our rules we then request that the national federation of that rider conduct disciplinarily proceeding including a fair hearing where a rider can present their defence. It’s up to federation to appoint a committee to pass any sanction but the minimum sanction is two years but we believe that cases under the passport constitute wilful manipulation of blood and therefore the federations can apply, and we encourage them, a sanction of four years. If a rider admits guilt immediately it’s possible to avoid the four year sentence.

Question: Have any of the five cases from today admitted guilt?

Anne Gripper: No one has come and done this in the last few hours. No.

Question: Are you really expecting national federations to follow suit with each other? We’ve seen in the past that this hasn’t always happened.

Anne Gripper: Our rules advise them to follow a number of steps. Obviously these will be new and difficult cases for them and we’ve offered them any assistance the want. They also have access to our scientific experts and data. What we’re expecting them to understand is that we have the best experts in the world and that they’ve reviewed the data properly. The federations have to trust the review that has been conducted by our experts. Normally we give them a piece of paper from the lab that says, we’ve found EPO or Nandralone, but instead we’re giving them a statement signed by three experts with data and rider profiles. We expect them to trust us.

Question: None of these riders named today are big names of cycling. Have you taken people purely on the evidence of the passport or has there been a weeding out of names?

Anne Gripper: Absolutely not. I would not be here if that was the case. I know people are looking for big names but we can’t artificially create data. We check everyone in exactly the same way and I can guarantee I would not be in this job if there was any other attitude from within the UCI on that matter.

Question: What notification have you given the riders?

Anne Gripper: They’ve been sent three documents. A copy of their profile generated by the software, all their raw blood results and a signed statement by our experts.

Question: You say the passport is an ongoing process. Are you on the verge of naming other riders?

Anne Gripper: We’ve got several profiles that are at various stages of review. We have some that are with the experts for a very initial review. In other cases we’re running additional tests before we decide on whether to open proceedings.

Question: The Tour de France is about to start. Could any of these profiles relate to Tour riders?

Anne Gripper: That’s not a question I can answer. Obviously all of that is confidential. What I will say is that we have an agreement with Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) to focus on riders who are likely to do well at the Tour. We have a list of about 50 riders who are either the strongest for general classification or stage wins and those riders are a focus for testing, not a targeted testing programme, but we’re making sure they’re comprehensively tested in the months of June and July.

Question: Back to today’s news, have you talked to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) about these cases?

Anne Gripper: Yes and I must add that there has never been a difference of opinion between WADA and the UCI on the biological passport. The difference of opinion has been over a very political level and not an operational level. We would not have been able to implement the passport without their assistance and the initial investments they made in the testing. In fact I was recently in Montreal at a meeting with WADA and the UCI played an important role in the proceedings.

Question: Slightly off topic, but have you noticed patterns from ADAMS and the whereabouts system when it come to building up rider profiles?

Anne Gripper: The concept of whereabouts has given us a great understanding of where and when riders are training. So when a bunch go to Tenerife we have people there testing and observing. As far as a broader investigation goes into particular countries or areas - that is something that if and when we have information we’ll pass onto WADA. Knowing where riders will be has really strengthened out testing and we frequently send people to places like Tenerife.

Question: One win for the passport is that you don’t need to prove what suspicious riders have been taking but what’s you guess on what’s going on the bunch? Blood transfusions, perhaps?

Anne Gripper: I think it’s a combination of things and again we rely on our experts. It is a mixture though, largely of transfusions and a high likelihood of CERA and EPO. But as you say the profiles don’t tell us what they’re doing, just that they’re manipulating their blood in an illegal way. This is the big value of the passport, as there’s no direct test for blood transfusion. We believe that is activity is going on in the peloton and the passport is the way of detecting it. The passport is critical in the fight against doping.

To give you some background, we really had to come up to an alternative to typical dope testing and for me the passport was a fantastic break in what we’ve done in the past and it’s sets us up in the future in a great way as even though we’re currently using it for blood, as soon as WADA validates the steroids elements everything will be set up. Then we can also set up the possibility for profiling for growth hormone.

Question: You’re case makes the passport sound watertight but in recent weeks Bernhard Kohl made comments about evading positive test doping since an early stage in his career. What do these comments do to the validity of the passport and the work you’ve done and continue to do?

Anne Gripper: We have made contact and he’s coming to visit the UCI in the next few weeks so he can tell us the techniques he used. You have to remember though that when he finished cycling last year we were certainly getting good information on the profile but we weren’t in a position to open a case. So the comments made by Kohl probably didn’t reflect the true situation. Look at what he said too, for instance if I were a rider who was doping I wouldn’t; rely on a few UCI tests to monitor my doping programme, I would be going into clinic every three days to monitor my doping regime. There are far more predictable ways for a ride to monitor their values than relying on a few UCI tests.

Question: Every time we have something new the riders get one step ahead. Could the riders one day manage the passport and resort to cheating?

Anne Gripper: It’s going to be much harder to find something new that can’t be seen in the profiling. I agree there is always the possibility of something totally different but there really doesn’t appear to be something on the horizon at the moment. There is some discussion on gene therapy but that really hasn’t moved on in the last five years and it seems quite a long way away from being used by athletes. Even so, I think the profiling approach will make that a lot harder though.

We have to be patient with the passport though and build up the evidence. Okay, we no longer get a nice bit of paper from the lab saying rider X is positive, so we have to take longer but for the future it’s worth going down this approach.

Question: How clean do you think the peloton is?

Anne Gripper: Ah, I’m an optimist by nature but when I look at the 840 riders in the passport programme the vast majority of the peloton have very normal blood values. So I’m really confident that we have a far higher number of clean riders than ever before. Those that choose not to ride clean are being exposed. The sport looks like it’s chaotic but we knew when we started this programme that we’d have two or three difficult years but the number of riders needing to be exposed is getting smaller and smaller and our ability to expose that number is getting better.

Question: Have you notice the passport acting as a deterrent? I’m thinking about how profiles may have changed or evolved in the last 18 months.

Anne Gripper: Absolutely. Even though it’s taken longer than expected I can see that it’s been a huge deterrent because of the real insistence on the whereabouts system. There’s no chance to hide and if they do they get a miss test and every rider is really scared of missed test.

We also have the out of competition tests where we have been knocking on the doors of their Italian houses in tiny villages, so the threat of unexpectedly turning up has been a huge deterrence too. The risks are perceived to be much higher now.

Question: Does that mean possible riders whose profiles were open to question but are no longer within the barometers for suspicion and if so what do you do with them?

Anne Gripper: Regarding the first question, yes it’s possible that cases can move from a certain level to another. But over any stage in the 18 months we can see that if rider has been doping we will go forward with those case. Some times it takes a while to get a few more tests to check if what happened in April last year, for example. We’ll also keep profiles active and if they convince the experts there is values that need to looked into we’ll open cases.

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