March 07, 2006

The Italian Job: Doping Scandal 2006

In the months before the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, there was a political dispute between the IOC and the Italian government over control of anti-doping efforts in Torino. Sports doping is a criminal offense in Italy, which is at odds with current IOC policy. The IOC and WADA have been working to have anti-doping regulations adopted in national laws, through the UNESCO International Convention Against Doping in Sport. That convention, however, follows the philosophy of the WADA Code, specifying only sports-related sanctions for doping.

In keeping with that philosophy, the IOC resisted the idea of having the Italian police involved in Olympic anti-doping activities. The dispute was only resolved about two weeks before the Opening Ceremonies. In essence, the IOC lost the battle, acknowledging that there would be no legal exemptions for Olympic participants, but maintaining control over dope testing. The Italian health ministry was given a seat on the anti-doping commission, which normally includes the IOC and WADA.

While Jacques Rogge was working to keep the Italian criminal justice system away from his Olympics, he was bragging about new "police-style" intelligence gathering in the fight against doping:

Some athletes will be targeted for testing based on tip-offs from what IOC medical director Dr. Patrick Schamasch described as a network of mostly anonymous informers around the world. "More and more we are using the same procedures as the police," he said. Just as police forces have profilers of serial killers, Schamasch said the IOC is compiling a "cheater's profile" to single out potential drug offenders. Rogge said the testers are also zeroing in on athletes who show a suspicious improvement in their level of performance. "Whenever there is a big surge in the performance that we don't consider as being normal, or a reasonable progression, then we target the athlete," he said.

Some of these "police-style" techniques were apparently on display in the days leading up to the 2006 Games, including ambush drug tests being conducted by the Torino Organizing Committee (TOROC):

Posing as an Italian couple and big fans of two-time gold-medalist Hermann Maier, sample collectors dispatched by the Torino Organizing Committee entered the athletes' village Thursday and convinced both Maier's coach and his agent to help them get an autograph and perhaps take a picture alongside the Olympic champion. Once they located Maier, the two announced they were doping officials, hustled Maier into a nearby clinic, extracted blood and urine samples and then — you can't make this stuff up — the woman actually planted a kiss on his cheek.

In the event, the 905 tests conducted prior to, during, and after the 2006 Winter Olympics ― with or without intelligence gathering ― turned up only one positive test. Russian biathlete Olga Pyleva tested positive for a stimulant that probably has little or no performance-enhancing effect in biathlon. Of course, she will still face a two-year ban from competition. On top of that, Italian authorities have announced a judicial inquiry into her case.

That positive test, though, became a minor subplot of the doping story at the 2006 Winter Olympics. Of the 904 tests that didn't turn up any adverse findings, ten in particular received special scrutiny. Ten members of Austria's nordic ski team — cross-country and biathlon — were surprised by a late-night raid at their residence on February 18 and taken for drug testing. The Italian police then searched their residences, seizing a number of suspicious items.

Let us, for the moment, leave the Italian police out of this story; we'll come back to that. The actions of the IOC in this case are within the rules in place for the 2006 Olympics. Those rules state that:

  • The NOC must tell the IOC where all athletes are training, competing, and residing for the duration of the Olympic Games (paragraph 5.5);
  • The IOC can select athletes for Doping Control based on any fact it deems relevant, at its sole discretion (paragraph 5.6);
  • All athletes shall be subject to doping control initiated by the IOC at any time or place, with no advance notice. Such doping control may include testing for all prohibited substances and all prohibited methods (paragraph 5.1); and
  • Mere possession of a prohibited substance or prohibited method is an anti-doping rule violation (paragraph 2.6).

So here, as near as I can determine, is the sequence of events in this particular intelligence-gathering operation. Doping control officers working for WADA learned that former coach Walther Mayer was in Italy with the Austrian nordic team. Mayer had been previously banned from the Olympics because of his suspected role in performing blood transfusions at the 2002 Olympics. WADA tipped off the IOC about Mayer's presence, and the IOC initiated an unannounced (no advance notice) test for ten of the members of the Austrian nordic teams.

Accounts differ about how the police got involved. At any rate, the Italian ministry of health would have known about the targeted testing, and the reports of Mayer's presence, because of their seat on the anti-doping commission.

It turns out that the Italian police had authority in this case that the IOC did not; there is nothing in the Olympic doping rules that allows the IOC to search athletes' residences, or seize their property. Law enforcement authorities confirmed that the seized materials included "blood analysis equipment," syringes, vials of distilled water, asthma medication, and "other substances." In addition, Mayer's presence in Italy was confirmed when he crashed his car into a police roadblock.

That's a pile of circumstantial evidence, and there's more where that came from. Without more details, it proves nothing, in my opinion, but it still smells bad. We shall see whether the evidence constitutes proof of "possession of a prohibited method" in the eyes of WADA and the IOC. They have announced that they will launch a disciplinary hearing, and that they will consider all of the evidence collected by Italian police. Recall that this is the same organization that made a show of trying to secure exemptions to Italian law prior to the Olympics. Now, faced with an embarrassing scandal and an absence of positive tests, they have decided that perhaps police raids and criminal investigations are not so bad after all.

I suspect that it will be difficult to tie the seized materials to any particular athlete or athletes, and even to prove that the equipment was used (or intended for use) in a prohibited method. It may come down to an argument about the burden of proof.

This leads to some difficult questions about WADA's new investigative approach to anti-doping. Most of the discussion, to date, has been framed in terms of testing. The IOC and WADA are claiming that informants, profiling, and data mining will enable them to make their drug testing program more effective. We know, though, from the Tim Montgomery / Chryste Gaines case, that the fight against doping has already moved beyond testing. We know that a positive test is not required to prove a doping violation; Dick Pound himself calls that idea "preposterous" and "nonsensical." In the Montgomery case, the CAS ruled that two athletes had violated anti-doping rules based on their alleged confessions to a third athlete. So what does that mean about the IOC's new network of informants — and about their intelligence in general? Would the testimony of an anonymous snitch be enough to pursue sanctions? What about suspicious telephone conversations? Association with known cheaters? How much (or how little) circumstantial evidence is enough? If the case against the Austrian athletes goes forward, some of these issues will come before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the next few months.

It seems to me that we have come to a new crossroads in the effort to reduce doping in sport. The anti-doping authorities see themselves as law enforcement agencies. But what kind of law enforcement agency do we, as sports fans, want them to be?

Evidence only knows one thing: the truth. It is what it is. — Gil Grissom, CSI
Where is the Nerve Gas? I'm gonna cut your right eye, then I'm gonna cut your left eye and I'm gonna keep cutting you until I get the information I need. Where is the nerve gas? — Jack Bauer, 24

Is anti-doping "police" work the kind that strikes preemptively and recklessly, assumes guilt, and uses any means necessary to enforce the rules? Or is it the kind that requires conclusive evidence of guilt and respects the rights of the innocent above all else?

I think you know where I stand. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the vast majority of Olympic athletes are not cheaters. In my opinion, a false conviction is far more tragic than a cheater who escapes detection. After all, for all the apocalyptic talk about the end of sport as we know it, we're still talking about cheating at sports. It isn't terrorism, or organized crime, and we don't need to trample the rights of the innocent to catch the guilty.

I would never argue that we should surrender the fight by making doping legal, and I don't think we should go easy on proven cheaters. Cheating is bad, and doping is the worst kind of cheating. But let's make sure that anti-doping tactics are appropriate to the crime.

Further Reading

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