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CAS upholds first suspension based on blood profiling

It's all about blood. Increasing the ability of the blood to deliver oxygen to the muscles is a potent performance-enhancer. Athletes are prepared to go to tremendous lengths to beat the tests.

It's all about blood. Increasing the ability of the blood to deliver oxygen to the muscles is a potent performance-enhancer. Athletes are prepared to go to tremendous lengths to beat the tests.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has ruled for the first time on the suspension of an athlete based on irregular blood values alone, and said that manipulation was the only explanation for such blood values in the case. The CAS on Wednesday upheld the two-year suspension of German speed skater Claudia Pechstein, who never returned a positive doping control.

The Pechstein case is considered to be the test case as to whether athletes can be convicted of doping offences based solely on their blood profiles.

The court ruled that the discrepancies in Pechstein's blood values could not "be reasonably explained by any congenital or subsequently developed abnormality. The Panel finds that they must, therefore, derive from the Athlete’s illicit manipulation of her own blood, which remains the only reasonable alternative source of such abnormal values."

This summer the International Cycling Union (UCI) announced that it had requested disciplinary procedures be opened against five riders based on their abnormal testing results as part of the UCI's biological passport programme.

Pechstein, 37, is Germany's most successful female Olympic athlete, with five gold medals, two silver and two bronze.

The International Skating Union (ISU) took 27 blood samples from her between October 2007 and April 30, 2009, with 12 of those samples being after January 1, 2009. Based on those samples, and fluctuations in her reticulocyte values at the World Championships in Hamar, Norway, in February 2009, the ISU filed a complaint against her with its Disciplinary Commission. She was charged with “having used a prohibited substance and /or a prohibited method, i.e., some form of blood doping, which would constitute an anti-doping violation.”

Pechstein was subsequently suspended for two years, and she appealed this suspension to the CAS.

The Court acknowledged that the speed skater had never tested positive for a forbidden substance. She had argued that if she had used EPO, a common doping product, it would have been found in a urine sample. The Court noted that EPO can only be detected within a few days of its use, and that the increased red blood cell production encouraged by the substance will remain long after traces of the EPO have disappeared.

“The Panel is also aware of sophisticated doping plans which provide for the frequent administration of very small doses of EPO, which makes it increasingly difficult to detect it in urine samples at all. Hence, the Panel does not consider the absence of a positive finding EPO to be evidence which could exclude blood manipulation.”

In addition, the court said that “all experts acknowledged that … the haemoglobin and hematocrit levels may be manipulated quickly and effectively by quite simple methods of hemodilution.” Further, “there are easily-operated machines that athletes may use to constantly check and keep under control the levels of haemoglobin and hematocrit, thus avoiding the no-start sanctions connected with high values of those blood parameters.”

The CAS's decision means Pechstein will miss the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Her two-year suspension will end on February 8, 2011.

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