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by Shane Stokes
May 24, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
Reports in recent days that 31 athletes from the 2008 Olympics had tested positive grabbed the headlines, and also raised the possibility that cycling could be one of the sports concerned.
In 2009 the-then road race silver medallist Davide Rebellin was disqualified after retests determined that he had taken the EPO-related substance CERA.
The latest retests again revisited stored samples from the Beijing Games and, using new methods of detection, scrutinised these for signs of doping.
Media reports stated that a total of 454 samples were examined and resulted in a positive rate of approximately seven percent. Six sports and 12 countries are understood to be involved.
While the athletes won’t be named until a later point, CyclingTips has tried to determine if cycling was one of the sports in question.
Asked for clarification, the UCI referred questions to the International Olympic Committee, which is responsible for the retesting.
The IOC then replied, but said that it was currently unwilling to specify the sports concerned.
“For legal reasons the IOC cannot give more detailed information on the cases at this point,” said a spokesperson.
However a press teleconference with IOC president Thomas Bach and a question and answer session with IOC medical director Dr Richard Budgett has provided some extra detail about the current process and how it came about.
“Protecting clean athletes means zero tolerance against doping cheats and their entourage,” said Bach, explaining the reason for testing.
The IOC and WADA have been in the firing line due to the doping scandal involving countries such as Russia, which was further implicated in a doping coverup at the Socci winter Olympics in 2014.
Some have wondered if the IOC retesting is an attempt to gain positive press, although Bach claimed that the re-examinations of samples was long planned.
“Actually, this procedure started already in August last year when we gave a green light to the intelligence gathering around the world to target the athletes and the sports which would have to be tested,” he said. “This intelligence gathering then resulted in the procedure which was initiated in March and comprised 454 selected doping samples.”
Athletes who didn’t compete in Beijing need not feel complacent.
“There are another 250 selected doping samples on the way from the Olympic Games London 2012,” he said. “All of this is part of our effort to protect the clean athletes, which means to keep dopers away from the Olympic Games and to protect the integrity of the competition in Rio.”
“Some of them [the athletes] are the same, ones who participated in Beijing and London and who may quality for Rio.”
What exactly this might mean for cycling – if anything – remains to be seen. Certainly in the past when a new or refined test was applied to samples, there have been casualties. The CERA positives during the 2008 Tour de France are an example, and so too the same examination applied to Rebellin’s Beijing Olympic samples.
Davide Rebellin (Italy, l) finished behind Samuel Sanchez (Spain) and ahead of Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), taking the silver medal in the 2008 Olympic road race. His samples were retested and he was subsequently disqualified. Alexandr Kolobnev of Russia moved up to the bronze medal position after Cancellara was promoted to second.
IOC medical director Dr. Richard Budgett didn’t want to go into specifics about the precise tests involved, but he said that as time has moved on, the odds of catching those who were doping in past Games has improved.
“As regards the new methods that were used in the reanalysis, the most important of these are the long term metabolites,” he explained. “For several years now, many of the traditional anabolic agents have been detectable for weeks rather than days, thanks to those long-term metabolites.
“That is obviously a big difference from the scientific situation in Beijing. The other important one is ESA, erythrocyte stimulating agents such as EPO. The testing is more sensitive and better for that now.”
In general, the prospects of detecting those who have doped have improved significantly.
“The analytical equipment now is better at distinguishing the signal of a prohibited substance from the background noise. All together, the science has moved on.”
He indicated that the provisional positives from Beijing were linked to both these long-term metabolites [likely steroids] and ESA agents [blood boosters].
It may prove to be the case that cycling is not one of the six sports identified in relation to the 2008 Games. Conversely, riders who competed in Beijing 2008 or London 2012 might be pinpointed. The weeks ahead will show which of these two possibilities will be the case.
The likely timeframe for results from both of those Olympic Games have been laid out. According to Dr Budgett, the initial talk of 31 positive samples from Beijing is a provisional finding. These examinations were based on the remainder of the A samples from 2008. What the IOC will do next is to split the B samples into two parts, with one of those halves used to either confirm or dismiss the A finding.
He said the outcome of this is likely to be known this week. As for the London samples, the provisional findings are imminent, while the B samples from those tests – and thus the final confirmation – is likely to be known in a couple of weeks’ time.
If and when the A sample result is confirmed by the B sample, the athletes in question will be provisionally suspended. Disciplinary processes will then follow to determine the final outcome of these cases.
One thing is certain: it’s a very nervous time for anyone who may have doped in Beijing or London and evaded detection the first time around.