Gripper hails the wider introduction of the biological passport

Anne Gripper

Anne Gripper (Image credit: Shane Stokes)

Anne Gripper has welcomed news that swimming’s international governing body (FINA) will introduce a biological passport system.

Gripper, who led the UCI’s anti-doping programme until last year, oversaw one of the biggest anti-doping innovations the world of sport has ever seen, introducing a passport system that tracked a number of riders’ physically blood parameters rather than looking for traces of banned substances.

Before she left the UCI in 2010 Gripper had overseen a number of doping cases using data from the passport. Since her departure no new cases have been opened by the UCI. Even though she no longer works in the field of anti-doping, Gripper still keeps a close eye on developments within the sport from Australia.

“We’ll see more and more national programmes doing this,” Gripper told Cyclingnews when asked about FINA move to follow cycling and introduce a biological passport system.

“I’m on the advisory board for our national anti-doping programme and it’s certainly high on their agenda to introduce the biological passport and it’s definitely the way for the future. I would ask any organisation to start doing it. It’s going to give us much better results with much more robust measures and as the concept develops we’ll be able to use it for steroids and other things as well, particularly when we get into the spectrum of genetic changes, then profiling will be absolutely essential to that.

“My advice would be to come in and do targeted testing and collect the data.”

Gripper’s wisdom and experience will be an invaluable ally in any war on doping. During the biological passport’s early days cycling had a deeply entrenched doping culture. When she started at the UCI in 2006 that year’s Tour de France was bookended by Operacion Puerto, and cases involving a Fribourg Clinic and Floyd Landis.

Slowly, Gripper and the UCI’s other ant-doping experts, set about dislodging that culture. Along with an increase in testing and collaboration with national agencies and WADA, she would travel to team camps in the off-season, educating riders on the UCI’s position, on the biological passport and the ADAMS system, which tracked a rider’s whereabouts at any given moment.

Gripper believes that doping was widespread in 2006 but that there was a shift in attitudes from within the sport as the passport came into effect. As well as pointing to new teams like Highroad and Garmin, that set out clear anti-doping messages, she saw a general shift occur as more and more riders began to question ethical standards.

“I would suspect and assume that there was a shift away from dramatic doping and that the high and irregular doses of EPO were virtually non-existent once the passport was in place. I would assume that in 2006 most riders were taking EPO but I have no evidence of that. It’s anecdotal and in 2006 we had no way of checking that. In 2008 when we started the passport, there had been a few things that had happened in the sport. There was the beginning of an emergence of new teams and a new culture and certainly with some riders there had been a complete shift in doping because the teams wouldn’t have allowed it. However with some riders I think there was more of a shift to the micro dosing approach.

“We were constantly challenged and questioned by riders at training camps. They questioned the need for the constant whereabouts and I think they naturally looked around thinking ‘I think this guy is doing it and this guy is doing it, why aren’t they being caught and why should I have to go through all this testing?’”

Defending the biological passport, praising Cadel Evans

Despite this apparent shift and progress the UCI was seen as slow and cumbersome in the fight against doping. The initial five cases launched by the UCI in 2008 involved ‘small fish’ or riders already close to retiring. It was assumed that the UCI didn’t have the guts to take on the larger challenges, an interesting presumption when you consider that Gripper believed that the majority of the field was cheating just two years before the first cases.

However, Gripper is certain that the UCI’s initial cases were the most pressing, dismissing any discussion that the UCI wanted to make examples or precedents out of riders who were either on the cusp of retiring or who perhaps would not have the legal funds to take on a major challenge to CAS.

“That was never the case. Those five were clearly the five we had to start with.

“The sport requires a pretty high degree of certainty. I’m not saying by any means that the passport can pick up every single rider that is doping. The thresholds are pretty high and because we were just starting off, we made the thresholds as close as possible to 100 percent,” she said.

“At no stage have I ever said that in those early years would the passport catch everything. We had to be pretty courageous to open those ones and certainly from our point of view it was important to go ahead with those cases that were close to certainly. At most they’re micro-dosing now which is certainly harder to pick up through the profile and it gives a reduced benefit.”

Since those first five cases the UCI has opened a number of others, including those of Franco Pellizotti and Tadej Valjavec. Both appealed but had their guilty verdicts upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“There were some other profiles that had some air of variability in them. That might have been associated to a whole lot of things and without the knowledge and scrutiny of the experts, the only ones that were clear enough to be seen to be considered, certainly while I was there, we opened those cases. There were heaps of others that had some variability in their profiles, which could have been caused by natural reasons, illness, injury that also went before the experts.”

Gripper now works in the field of triathlon, back in her native Australia. She still keeps up to date with cycling though and watch avidly as Cadel Evans won this year’s Tour de France. While Gripper acknowledges that her time away from the sport would mean her knowledge of details on anti-doping and doping are limited, her opinion is that the sport can look at Evans as a clean winner.

There was a much greater acceptance this year that Evans was able to win the Tour de France partly because there was very little of doping going on amongst his competitors.

“I couldn’t think of anyone, and I know I might seem biased on this, more deserving of the win. Right back to his early days he’s always been the real deal. I had insight into his results for a few years and I just feel that there has never been an issue or a whiff of suspicion with Cadel,” Gripper told Cyclingnews.

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