From Arm To Arbitration: the story of a blood sample from the race, to the lab and potentially to the courts…
The use of performance enhancing drugs in cycling is never far from the public mind. In recent weeks, Tyler Hamilton’s case was brought to our attention once again after the Court of Arbitration of Sport upheld his suspension, but how is the drug testing of cyclists orchestrated? What chain of events takes a urine sample from a small plastic pot to a confirmation of innocence or a charge of guilt? The UCI accepted the World Anti-Doping Agency code back in 2004. Their regulations are based upon the WADA code of practice.
Taking The Test
Riders may be tested in two ways, post competition, and out of competition. Post competition refers to the tests that take place immediately following a race. The selection of riders to be tested varies slightly according to what type of race it is, be it a Pro Tour single day race, Pro Tour stage race or World Championship. However, the general rule is that the winner of the race is tested along with two riders selected at random by the inspector. The random riders are selected by the drawing of lots. In a stage race, the leader of the General Classification is also tested and in a ProTour race, the leader of the ProTour at that time will be obliged to provide a sample. One interesting variation is that in specific time trial events, the first three riders are tested along with two random selections. In World Championship events, the first four riders and two random selections are made. The regulations even include a detailed plan of a ‘standard testing station for anti-doping tests’.
After the race, the winner should be fully aware of how they finished and get ready to empty their bladder. For the other riders to be tested, a list is posted, usually on the Doping control station. Whilst riders are deemed to be ‘responsible for ensuring personally whether he is required to appear for Sample collection’, other forms of notification are sometimes used such as announcements on ‘Radio Tour’ or at the finish venue. Also, it is recommended that ‘an escort shall remain close to the Rider and observe him/her at all times, and accompany him/her to the doping control station’ We’ve heard the horror stories of old school riders using catheters to replace their urine to avoid testing positive and measures like this are intended to resolve this problem. In years gone by, riders were allowed to change in their team cars or bus before being tested. Rider’s must submit themselves for control thirty minutes after the end of the race or award ceremony if they are required. If the rider is required to attend a press conference, this is extended to 50 minutes.
Filleth Thy Cup
Once the rider is in the station and the paper work has been carried out it’s time to think of waterfalls and fountains. If that doesn’t work, there’s not too much to worry about as the stations are required to carry an abundance of drinks ‘such as lemonade, mineral water, etc.’. The sample is ‘deposited’ into a small plastic container with its own unique number anonymously linking it to the rider, and has a tamper evident seal.
A Canadian friend of mine had an interesting experience with one such seal after the junior World Championships. He was advised to “make sure the lid is pushed down tight”. He decided the best way to achieve this involved his foot which resulted in a smashed container, a rather pungent testing station and another trip to the bathroom. However, it’s not only urine that the scientists are interested in.
Taketh Thy Blood
With the advent of improved testing methods, blood samples can also be taken for analysis. This may be used to identify use of prohibited methods such as blood transfusions. The medical inspector, (usually a doctor) is responsible for taking the samples. The Anti-Doping inspector is responsible for storing all samples prior to transport, sending the samples and accompanying documentation and sending the documentation outlining what occurred during the testing session. The costs of In-Competition testing are borne by the organizer.
Samples are sent to one of the 33 WADA accredited laboratories around the world as determined by the anti-doping commission. The samples are split into an A and B specimen and the A sample is tested for prohibited substances and prohibited methods. If there has been no breach of anti-doping regulations, no problem, the case is taken no further and the rider will hear nothing more about it. However, a positive test is known as an ‘A Sample Adverse Analytical Finding’. A review is conducted to determine whether: (a) an applicable Therapeutic Use Exemption has been granted, (E.g. an exemption for use of a salbutamol inhaler for exercise induced asthma) or (b) there is any departure from these Anti-Doping Rules, the Procedural Guidelines or the International Standards for Testing or laboratory analysis that undermines the validity of the finding. I.e. the lab messed up the testing procedure. If neither of these contingencies apply, the rider’s national federation is notified of an adverse analytical finding and must notify the rider within two working days by registered letter.
The rider may request a B sample analysis within five days of receipt of the letter. This will be carried out by the same lab as the A sample within ten days of the request. However, for blood samples this is reduced to three days. Also, the UCI can designate a different lab. The analysis of the B Sample may be carried out by two laboratories. Should the analysis of the A Sample be carried out in this fashion and have shown that the Adverse Analytical Finding is verifiable in the second laboratory only, the analysis of the B Sample shall be valid only if carried out in this laboratory. This raises the question as to why the UCI should choose to retest in the lab in which a positive test was found, not the lab where a negative result was analysed.
When the B sample is opened, the rider, an expert designated by him or by his National Federation, a representative of the Rider’s National Federation and a representative of the UCI may be present; but if they can’t attend, the B sample result is still legally valid. The costs of these follow-up investigations are borne by the rider.
Finally, should the B-sample also deliver an adverse analytical finding, the anti-doping commission can ban the rider from competition but not before they have given the rider an opportunity to be heard, either in written or oral form. The commission will also request that the rider’s national federation impose disciplinary proceedings. Should the rider wish to appeal the findings, they are guaranteed an audience with a ‘fair and impartial hearing body’.
As you can see, the testing procedures for cyclists are rigourous and this is only in-competition. There is still room for improvement. For example, much of the initial responsibility for the validity of the testing rests on one person: the Anti-Doping inspector. Sometimes Radio-Tour announces the riders to be tested before the stage finish giving the potential for the use of a fast acting stimulant. No system can be perfect, but the agencies involved strive for improvement and cycling continues to be one of the most tested disciplines. This can only be for the benefit of the sport as the ‘clean’ athletes and spectators can be sure that their achievements will be celebrated for effort alone.
• Tune is next week when we serve up some plain talk on the what’s and how’s of EPO.
• UCi Anti-doping rules
• Epo Testing Method
• WADA Clarification of Epo Testing Method