LetsRun.com’s Thoughts on the Sunday Times Doping Investigation

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by: LetsRun.com
August 17, 2015

September 5th update:We spoke to George Arbuthnott, one of the journalists behind The Sunday Times doping investigation and want to correct a few errors in our article. 1) We wrote, “The Times said only one distance gold medal (5.9%) from the 2012 Olympics was from an athlete that had a suspicious blood value.” We should have wrote, “The Times said only one distance gold medal (5.9%) from the 2012 Olympics was from an athlete that had a suspicious blood value in a 2½-year period before the 2012 London Games” as George said there was more than one gold medallists from 2012 who had a suspicious test in the results going back to 2001, but only one with a suspicious value after the biological passport was introduced in 2009 and athletes could be sanctioned for suspicious values. We think that supports our belief that the biological passport is stopping the most blatant cheats. It does not change the fact that the total number of medallists from London 2012 with a suspicious test is down compared to previous championships, but that may not be an apples to apples comparison because of point #2 below:

2) George also pointed out that the blood data that The Sunday Times had does not include data from the 2012 Olympics. One of our points was that the numbers of suspicious medals from the 2012 Olympics was down which supported our belief that the biological passport is deterring the most blatant cheats. Another reason the # of suspicious medals is down from 2012 is because The Sunday Times data does not include 2012 Olympic results.

Sunday Times Cover

3) We discussed with George LRC using the term “sensationalist” in regards to the series. We wrote”The Sunday Times in Great Britain has had some very interesting and somewhat sensationalist articles that have garnered a ton of attention” and in regards to Kenyan athletes said, “but let’s not let sensationalism get in the way of facts.” If you want to criticize LRC for being sensationalist in our response, go ahead as our headline defending the Kenyans was indeed sensationalist. Sensationalism can be effective so we don’t see it as an absolute negative. Overall, with the way the series was presented there definitely is a sensationalist element as evidenced by The Sunday Times cover. Sensationalism and provocative headlines sell newspapers and bring attention to things that need attention.

The last three Sundays, The Sunday Times in Great Britain has had some very interesting and somewhat sensationalist articles that have garnered a ton of attention about the doping problem in athletics and allegations of a possible IAAF cover-up. The genesis of the articles was a leaked IAAF blood database from 2001-2012 that has the results of all the blood tests conducted by the IAAF during that time period.

There was also a companion ARD German television documentary (available for viewing below if you haven’t seen it) that was very alarming. It showed how easy it is to get EPO in Kenya (which probably shouldn’t be that surprising but is scary when you see it), had Russian athletes and coaches caught on hidden camera, casually discussing what drugs they use, and included multiple allegations of corruption within the Russian and Kenyan federations (athletes paying to have positive tests disappear and Athletics Kenya officials pocketing sponsorship money from Nike). A separate ARD documentary from December on doping is here). We would call both a “recommended watch”.

We at LetsRun.com (LRC) have been strongly against doping since our founding in 2000. People even sometimes get sick of our strong anti-doping stance. Yet when we read the Sunday Times articles, we weren’t sure what to make of them because they did not provide a lot of context and we at LRC already knew doping was a big problem in our sport. Now having had a few weeks to analyze the Sunday Times articles in detail, we present are our main thoughts below.

We want to start off by commending the Sunday Times and ARD for their efforts in the fight against doping. These reports have generated a ton of attention and discussion about anti-doping and that is a good thing. We do have some criticisms of the Sunday Times and feel they can do a better job presenting the data and providing context, but don’t want that to get in the way of saying bringing attention to the doping problem in track and field is a positive thing for the sport. (Most of the articles are behind a paywall, but there is one free article here and they have some free blood graphs here and we try and summarize some of the data here. We recommend buying the Sunday Times for 75 cents on your Kindle each week.)

1. Doping is a big problem in track and field

We almost didn’t write this one down as we take it for granted, but is anyone really surprised 1/3 of Olympic medallists could be cheating? (The Sunday Times said 1/3 of medallists in endurance events from 2011-2012 had at least one suspicious blood test at some point in their careers.) There was an Irish radio interview with anti-doping journalist Paul Kimmage and he said the Sunday Times reports painted a “damning picture” of the sport. The host acknowledged that and then at the same time said isn’t it “totally unsurprising”? Much more can be done on the anti-doping front, but we already thought doping was a big problem and so did many of you as evidenced by the LetsRun.com Doping Polls.

2. We see no evidence of a direct IAAF cover-up (but the IAAF could do better)

The Sunday Times says that 1/3 of the athletes that it has identified as “likely cheats” have been sanctioned by the IAAF. Anti-doping authorities always have to err on the side of caution and not having false positives. The Times‘ own anti-doping experts will acknowledge that “likely cheats” does not mean “definitive cheats.” So catching 1/3 of these people is a positive sign, especially with the delay it takes to announce some of the cases. The Sunday Times talks about the “dirtiest race” ever run (free link here), the women’s 1500m final at the 2005 Worlds, where four of the top five across the line (Russia’s Yuliya Fomenko originally placed second but was DQ’d for obstructing another runner) had ridiculously high blood values. Well you know what, all four of them eventually served drug bans even though the IAAF was not allowed to sanction athletes for blood profiles until four years later. We would be much more troubled if The Sunday Times talked about four of the five having really high blood values and they were never caught.Doping is a huge problem in the sport, but without more specifics we don’t see evidence of a cover-up. The Sunday Times authors don’t even allege a cover-up themselves.

Sunday Times author Bojan Pancevski told LRC his criticism of the IAAF and WADA was less of a cover-up and more of a “lack of will” to go after suspect athletes. He said, “This is a cartel… They don’t want to go after sport’s heroes,” adding, “I don’t think it’s been actively covered up, they just haven’t acted on [the suspicious values]… They’ve marked people red and haven’t done anything on it.”We’re not sure how he can say they haven’t done anything about it.

In terms of distance races, the 1500 may be the most prestigious event of all and we’ve had an Olympic 1500 champ banned in each of the last two Olympiads — Aslı Çakır Alptekin from 2012 and Rashid Ramzi from 2008. If we want to damn the IAAF, then we need more specific allegations (even with anonymous names) of where specific athletes were not sanctioned who should have been. There will always be way more athletes with high blood values than people who actually get convicted. Worse than letting a guilty athlete go off is banning an innocent one. More transparency is coming out from the scientists who analyzed the data for The Sunday Times, which is good as the initial articles lacked enough specifics for people already aware of the doping problem in athletics. Michael Ashenden, one of the scientists hired by The Sunday Times to analyze the blood data, wrote an open letter to Seb Coe and in it, he points out how rarely World Marathon Majors champion Liliya Shobukhova was blood tested despite having very suspicious results. It is a good read and has a specific accusation, instead of a vague generalization like much of the public discussion surrounding the articles. Ashenden concludes the Shobukhova part by saying, “Do you think the IAAF could have done better?” We think the answer is yes, but in fairness to the IAAF, Shobukhova is now banned. In the Irish radio interview, Paul Kimmage said the IAAF “isn’t trying to tackle the problem, it is managing it.” We want the IAAF to tackle the problem, so we applaud whoever leaked the IAAF blood values for going to the press. Clearly, the leaker must have inside access and think way more could be done.

Medals That Were Suspicious in Endurance Events from 2001-2012

Medals That Were Suspicious in Endurance Events from 2001-2012

3. The drug testers are doing a better job of catching blatant dopers — blatant doping is just 2/3rds of what it used to be

The Times said only one distance gold medal (5.9%) from the 2012 Olympics was from an athlete that had a suspicious blood value. That is an extremely positive development and to us means the system is catching the most blatant cheats. Now the weird thing is, two distance gold medallists from London 2012 (Aslı Çakır Alptekin in the women’s 1500 and Yuliya Zaripova in the women’s steeple) are already being sanctioned through the biological passport. Is it possible the IAAF caught more people with the biological passport from London than the Sunday Times experts? Or did The Sunday Times remove Alptekin and Zaripova from their results? We are not sure because as mentioned above there was not a ton of transparency in what was released by The Sunday Times.

September 5th update:We spoke to George Arbuthnott, one of the journalists behind The Sunday Times doping investigation and want to correct a few errors in our article. 1) We wrote, “The Times said only one distance gold medal (5.9%) from the 2012 Olympics was from an athlete that had a suspicious blood value.” We should have wrote, “The Times said only one distance gold medal (5.9%) from the 2012 Olympics was from an athlete that had a suspicious blood value in a 2½-year period before the 2012 London Games” as George said there was more than one gold medallists from 2012 who had a suspicious test in the results going back to 2001, but only one with a suspicious value after the biological passport was introduced in 2009 and athletes could be sanctioned for suspicious values. We think that supports our belief that the biological passport is stopping the most blatant cheats. It does not change the fact that the total number of medallists from London 2012 with a suspicious test is down compared to previous championships, but that may not be an apples to apples comparison because of point #2 below:

2) George also pointed out that the blood data that The Sunday Times had does not include data from the 2012 Olympics. One of our points was that the numbers of suspicious medals from the 2012 Olympics was down which supported our belief that the biological passport is deterring the most blatant cheats. Another reason the # of suspicious medals is down from 2012 is because The Sunday Times data does not include 2012 Olympic results.

London also had the lowest number (10 = 20%) of medallists with suspect blood values. Apart from London, from 2001-2012, 38.2% of golds were suspicious and 33.6% of medals, so London was a big step in the right direction. If one looks at the last three Worlds/Olympics from 2009 to 2012 and compares it to the previous three from 2005 to 2008, the number of suspect medallists is down by a 1/3rd. It went down from an average of 20 suspect medals to 13.33. That is a step in the right direction.

4. Kenyan medallists are WAY LESS likely to dope than other distance medallists — non-Russian medallists are 58% more likely to have suspect blood values than Kenyan medallists

This one gets its own bullet point because we’re sick of getting emails from visitors along the lines of “See, all the Kenyans are dirty.” Kenya, along with Russia, has been one of the biggest targets in recent media doping discussions. Some of that is because of the ARD documentary, which had some very troubling footage of athletes shooting up with EPO in Kenya, but let’s not let sensationalism get in the way of facts. Rather than single out Kenya for doping, the data easily could have been used to say the Kenyan medallists are way LESS likely to have suspicious blood values than other medallists. The Times wrote, “Kenya, renowned for producing great distance-runners, is also a doping hotbed, with questions over 18 of the country’s medals.” (What The Sunday Times did not mention was Kenyan won an amazing 92 medals during this time period).

What did the IAAF blood passport data show? That the Kenyans had suspicious values at a much lower rate than the medallists overall, even after removing the Russians. We took the Sunday Times data and extrapolated that 19.6% (18/92) of Kenyan medals came from someone who had at least one suspect blood value. The Sunday Times said 80% of Russian medals came from suspect athletes. Once we removed the Russians and Kenyans from the data, we found 31.1% of the remaining medals (80/257) were from suspect athletes. So a Kenyan distance medal is way less likely (19.6%) to be suspect than a medal from someone from another country (31.6%).

5. Microdose/use steroids all you want

Before we pat ourselves on the back and think the sport is getting cleaner, remember the Sunday Times data is not designed to catch steroid users, and most experts believe may not be catching microdosers.

6. The Sunday Times did a disservice by commingling athletes who are “highly suggestive of doping” and those who had “at the very least abnormal” blood test results

Overall, The Sunday Times wrote, “1 in 7 named in the files has recorded blood tests results described by an expert as ‘highly suggestive of doping or at the very least abnormal,”‘ yet there is a huge, huge difference in magnitude between “abnormal” and “highly suggestive of doping.” To be flagged as “abnormal,” an athlete only had to have a sample that was 1/100 chance of being natural (clean). It wasn’t clear what the numerical cutoff was to be “highly suggestive of doping,” but The Sunday Times talks about athletes who have a 1/million (Rashid Ramzi, some of the Russians) and 1/billion (Shobukhova 2009 Chicago) chance of being clean. To commingle athletes who are 1/100 with those who are 1/10,000 or even 1/million doesn’t help give anyone context.  1/100 or even 1/1,000 likely isn’t evidence of a cover-up.

The Sunday Times did give medallists more scrutiny, having Australian scientists and anti-doping experts Robin Parisotto and Michael Ashenden manually look at the blood values of all the medallists. They flagged athletes as “likely to have doped” or as “suspicious requiring further investigation.” However, they don’t break down how many fell into each category. We think an athlete “likely to have doped” is very different from one who is “suspicious requiring further investigation.” We’d like to see a detailed breakdown of how many medallists fell into both groups and a more thorough explanation of what those terms mean. It’s possible all 26 medallists with suspicious values since the passport went into effect at the end of 2009 were deemed to “likely to have doped,” but we can’t be sure with the way it’s written.

7. The Sunday Times did a disservice by commingling pre- and post-2009 numbers

Prior to December 2009, the biological passport could not be used to sanction athletes or keep them from competing for “health reasons” like some other sports. Now maybe the rules should have been different and were created intentionally just to pay lip service to anti-doping, but you can’t accuse the IAAF of covering up anything prior to 2009 when the IAAF couldn’t use the data to sanction an athlete prior to December 2009. To be honest, if The Times is super confident that athletes prior to 2009 were doping and not caught, then we’d prefer them to release the athletes’ names, their blood values, and how suspicious they think the results are, but we don’t see the point in criticizing the IAAF. The libel laws in Britain are different, but in America you could easily print “Athlete X had an off-score that has a one in a million chance of being natural” if that is a factual statement. The Sunday Times can’t do this as they were only given the data by the leaker under the conditions that names not come out. So what we’d like to see is an article on how X number of athletes who were 100,000 or one million to one to be clean won medals prior to 2010.

8. We need more data transparency from The Sunday Times

Of the 70 post-2009 athletes that the Sunday Times says escaped censure, what were their blood values, their off-scores, and how positive are The Times‘ experts that these athletes were doping? There could be a cover-up, but there is no proof of it without more data being released. The Sunday Times instead gave at least the impression of a cover-up while intermingling pre-/post-2009 data, and 1/100 and 1/million data. If The Times is to pen a credible argument about an IAAF cover-up, it needs to be far more specific. For example, Michael Ashenden’s open letter to Seb Coe where he pointed out some specifics on how Liliya Shobukhova was not blood tested enough was a valid and specific criticism. There is mention in one article “that 14 highly suspicious athletes had registered blood scores during the same period that had less than a one-in-a-million chance of being natural. None of these athletes has ever been banned.” We want a lot more data like that. Just as the IAAF can’t just say, “Trust us, we’re doing a good job on drug testing,” The Sunday Times can’t say, “Trust us, they’re not” without releasing more specifics.  14 one-in-a-million athletes not getting banned doesn’t look good, but we need more data.

We tried to put our criticisms of the Sunday Times at the end of the article because we feel their reports and the ARD report are positive steps for the sport. If the leaker had not come forward, allowing The Sunday Times to investigate this, would the IAAF have gone back and retested 2005 and 2007 Worlds samples? We have no idea, but anti-doping is not something that should be done under cover of darkness. Let us shine the light on what is being done. With that in mind, we have three policy ideas that the Sunday Times story has prompted us to put forth to help the sport be cleaner.

They are in a separate article: LRC Three Things That Need to be Done To Immediately Improve the Anti-Doping Fight

And if you didn’t pay to read the Sunday Times articles (we highly recommend you to download The Sunday Times each Sunday for 75 cents if you have a Kindle), we have another article:
LRC The Sunday Times Doping Data: The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting

Click for Times interactive data

Click for LRC Article The Sunday Times Doping Data: The Good, The Bad, & The Interesting

We also highly recommend you read a free article republished in another paper on the Dirtiest Race Ever Run (2005 Worlds 1500).


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