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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Huge drug bust out of Russia

Russia's "finest" women athletes: Suspended from the Olympics for doping-related offences!

Well, yesterday I did a post saying how the upcoming Olympic Games were bound to bring up a few doping stories. I must confess, I did not think that we'd get such a huge story so soon afterwards.

It has emerged that SEVEN of Russia's leading women athletes have been banned from competition with immediate effect following what the IAAF are describing as tampering with the urine samples provided for testing. The rule in question is 32.2, and bans the women for "a fraudulent substitution of urine which is both a prohibited method and also a form of tampering with the doping control process". It would seem that the IAAF, perhaps suspicious of the Russian women for reasons we'll get to in a moment, did DNA analysis on various samples provided by the Russians, and found that the DNA did not match. Therefore, different samples, substitution, call it what you wish, it is grounds to exclude seven women from Beijing.

The seven women include some big names, especially in the world of middle distance running:

  • Tatyana Tomashova - twice world 1500 metres champion
  • Yelena Soboleva - world indoor 1500 metres champion and current world leader over 800m and 1500m
  • Olga Yegorova - former world 5000m champion (and not Paula Radcliffe's favourite athlete - she once protested against Yegorova competing after a positive EPO test)
Soboleva out: world leader in 800m, and a race against Jelimo is denied

Of these three, the biggest disappointment is Soboleva. It was about two weeks ago that Soboleva ran a brilliant (well, at the time) 1:54.85 to win the Russian championships. It was the fastest time in the world this year, beating even the incredible performances of Pamela Jelimo of Kenya.

And OK, when the news broke of that performance, a huge part of me was sceptical, but hope does tend to die hard, and a tiny sliver of hope was looking forward to a race between Soboleva and Jelimo in Beijing. As it the situation now seems to be developing, Jelimo will likely be unchalleged in Beijing (barring her own fall from the peak she's on), and the Games has been denied a great race. If that race was only drug-induced, of course, then it's irrelevant, but a shame nonetheless (any takers on Jelimo's status? Just a thought...)

As for the 1500m event, it also loses a huge name in Tomashova, who has three major medals from the last four outdoor championships, including two golds (Paris and Helsinki). The race will of course be a little more open without her.

Russia's women: A doping flag

Consider the following facts about Russia's women:
  • In 2007, the top 10 lists over 800m featured only two Russian women. As of today, they had 8 out of the top 9 (only Jelimo is non-Russian in position 2)
  • Three of their 800m women have improved by over 2 seconds in 2008 alone (this is not grounds for anything more than suspicion, admittedly)
  • Over 5000m, Russian women are ranked 3rd and 4th, and another two in the top 10 list this year. In 2007, they did not have a single runner in the top-10, suddenly now they have four
  • In track events from 400m up to 10,000m, Russia owns 24 out of the top 60 performances. That's 40%, and in 2007, they only had 18% of the leading performers. This is extra-ordinary dominance over a wide range of events.
Finally, consider that the Russian women who feature in these top 10 lists have only run these times in Russia, and not on the European circuit (Golden Leagues and IAAF events). That is grounds for suspicion, regardless of your hope in clean competition!

The bigger picture: Targeted testing approach pays dividends

Looking at the bigger picture, however, this story is another encouraging step in the right direction for the authorities. There was a time where this would never have happened, and the IAAF might have continued to analyse the urine unsuspecting. But the early reports (and these are early - we'll cover it more as news is released tomorrow) suggest that the IAAF specifically did the DNA analysis as part of an investigation they have been carrying out for more than a year.

That kind of targeted approach is paying off, and it will be interesting to see how the story develops in the next few days, or whether it will remain somewhat hush-hush. It would seem that the IAAF have identified "high-risk" athletes and targeted them in a specific testing approach.

An illusion of control over the doping process

One other point that must be made is that the fact that the women could submit fake samples means that there MUST be some kind of conspiracy or assistance from within the federation or meeting organization level. The doping process is strictly controlled, right down to the point where an official will usually accompany an athlete to make sure that the urine sample collected belongs to the athlete. We can of course remember the famous Hungarian discuss thrower in Athens who implanted a bag of urine in his bladder and ran a catheter out through his penis to falsely provide someone else's urine!

The fact that the Russian women have managed to submit somebody else's urine should be of concern to the IAAF, the IOC and WADA, because it means that the "illusion of control" that the authorities think they have is clearly just that, an illusion. These women were, if the story pans out in the coming days, able to provide samples "officially" without any direct observation of wrong-doing. Who were the "accomplices" and how did the women get away with it?

Let's hope that the biggest impact of this particular story (apart from losing out on Russia's women in the Games) is that we get a step closer to learning how the cheats operate. Any chance of collaboration from the guilty parties, and maybe a lid blown off doping practice yet again? I won't be holding my breath...

We'll keep tabs on this story as it develops, so join us then. In the meantime, I wonder if we'll get a day between now and the start of the Games to actually talk about the competition, rather than doping. Again, I'm not going to hold my breath!



Anonymous said...

Where was I just reading how oil-rich Russia is once again able to spend big money on training and facilities for its athletes to showcase the superiority of Mother Russia ... _The Economist_, maybe? Just like the Chinese. Then, when the athletes are done winning their medals, toss them by the wayside, without a useful education or trade, physically scarred by years of doping.

Anonymous said...

Well, it seems like its not much different in track and field than in cycling. But I guess that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine that there are no cut-off limits for blood tests in t+f! You can start with any blood values as long as your urine test is negative...
Happy Games !

Anonymous said...

To add to my previous comment:
Consider the fact that two romanian middle distance ladies are under investigation by their (!) federation at the moment as well (abnormal Haemoglobin values) and that last year, virtually the whole of France´s female middle distance team was taken out either in controls (EPO..) or at the border smuggeling substances, this sheds a very bad light on long and middle distance running! If they are doing it, what are the other ones doing who are running just as fast. And the men...?! Is it just talent ?! I think the cycling scandals have taught us not to be that naive anymore... :-(

Anonymous said...

With the ASO taking over testing at Le Tour and catching people like Ricco (who, apparently had been told they wouldn't be caught) it shows that governing bodies (in cycling's case, the UCI) have to be looked at very carefully. Don't forget that Hein Verbruggen, ex head of the UCI is now in the IOC, and he is not exactly, shall we say, untainted - just look at the allegations this week of taking bribes to have the Keirin event included in the Olympics... And don't forget about the 'overlooked' positives that the US track and field association covered up for the last few Olympics. This will be a very interesting meet, especially with the new tests for third-gen EPO and (apparently) HGH....

Anonymous said...

@ roadent

Hey, dont get the things in the press about the testing at the Tour and the ASO wrong: ASO is very smart in communication ! The facts: ASO uses exactly the same laboratories as the UCI the previous years (Lausanne and Paris) and caught just as many dopers (4) as the UCI the year before with just as innovative techniques (this year 3rd Gen EPO, last year transfusion). So give credit to the labs, not to ASO. And I guess Ricco wouldnt even have started the tour if the biological passport had been ready to go..

Jamie said...

Add this to the bunch of rowers banned last year and you start to get big problems coming out of Russia.

Desperate to get back on the world map???

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jamie

Yes indeed. Perhaps they figured it was time to go back to the old tried and tested methods that brought them success in the 1980's and early 1990's? At least it's a sign that times are changing, and they failed to get away with it!