Casting a critical eye on corruption in sport: Q&A with anti-doping expert Robin Parisotto
Robin Parisotto has played an important role in anti-doping during his career, with his work including the development of the first-ever tests for EPO, which were introduced in time for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. He was awarded the Australian Sports Medal for these efforts. He was also one of the founding members of the UCI’s biological passport programme, which was a revolutionary system of assessment of blood values to detect doping use.
In the run up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Parisotto and fellow anti-doping expert Michael Ashenden were enlisted by the Sunday Times and German broadcaster ARD to analyse leaked data from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The Australian duo concluded that hundreds of athletes had recorded suspicious results between 2001 and 2012, and that these had not been followed up upon. The news was a major scandal, prompted a denial from the IAAF, and was followed by strong statements by Parisotto and Ashenden defending their position and doubling-down on their suggestions of inaction.
In the wake of that, Parisotto became increasingly disillusioned with a sporting system he views as corrupt and unwilling to properly tackle doping. He backed away from his previous work, including standing down from the UCI’s biological passport panel in 2016.
Now, in a detailed and frank interview with CyclingTips, he highlights what he sees as major flaws in the fight against corruption in sport.
CyclingTips: First off, Robin, can you tell us where things are at now in terms of your involvement in anti-doping, including the UCI’s biological passport programme?
Robin Parisotto: I’m not involved in any official or formal way with any anti-doping organization at all. It was mostly as a result of my participation in [exposing] the IAAF scandal. I couldn’t participate in any expert panel any longer. I guess, in a sense I crossed some sort of ethical line in making comment publicly on unofficial data. But if I didn’t resign, I am sure I would have been asked to go out the door. That’s speculation on my part.
Do you have any regrets, or do you think it was the right thing to do, to speak and to be frank about things?
I have no regrets about doing that. Not so much what the UCI did or did not do. It is more my own perception of how corrupted and how scandalous world sport had become. It wasn’t just track and field: you can go right across the various sports, including team sports, individual sports. And of course you’ve got the usual suspects: track and field, cycling, football, triathlon. You name it, there is probably not a sport that’s not involved in some sort of controversy with doping in sport.
Another who spoke out about corruption and an unwillingness to properly tackle doping in the run up to the Rio Olympics was Jack Robertson, WADA’s chief investigator. He lost his job over that, also paying the price for showing integrity. Much of his frustration was over the situation with Russian athletics. Was that also the main frustration for you, or was it more general than that?
It was just things in general. It wasn’t any particular sport or any particular nation. It just seems to me at the moment, and certainly back then in 2015, 2016, that the governance of sport in a lot of sports was in my view was found to be wanting — was found to be scandalous.
And we’re supposed to be taking the lead. The clean athletes are supposed to have confidence in the leaders of sport, and here they were being deluded, being scandalized, being cheated. Not only by the actual athletes who cheated, but by the very people who were overseeing the sport. I mean, you can’t get any worse than that.
As a scientist involved in anti-doping, I was absolutely appalled by it. I hate to think what a clean athlete might be thinking these days. Even if they are completely clean, they have no confidence that anyone else is. And if they are not competing clean, then are they actually being caught? Because you can’t have any confidence in what’s been going on in the last couple of years. The corruption and the bribing and the extortion, even. I mean, come on, that’s mafia behaviour.
One of the most prominent things that German media uncovered was the Russian cheating at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Subsequent to that, the IOC didn’t take as hard a line as it could have. Was that part of your frustration?
Yeah, I mean that’s certainly built from the IAAF scandal, the fallout from the Russian problems. No one stood up and thought, ‘Let’s grab this by the neck and fix it.’ There’s no one showing any strength or leadership or insight or foresight or fortitude to actually get to the bottom of the problem.
Look, I’m not naive in thinking that it will ever be solved. But when a problem is uncovered, at least fix that. At least instill some confidence that when a problem is evident, fix it. Yet there doesn’t seem to have been any fixes applied. More or less, the status quo is maintained and the rest is just all PR spin.
On cycling: Bio-passport, marginal gains and Team Sky’s credibility issues
Parisotto has long been one of the most highly-regarded anti-doping scientists, with his aforementioned work in developing the EPO test one example of the contribution he has made. He was one of the early members of the UCI’s biological passport programme, which was initially marketed by the UCI as the solution to doping, but which has, in recent years, become less and less visible. The number of high-profile riders sanctioned under the system has plummeted, particularly after the UCI took a case against Roman Kreuziger, ended up in a tough legal battle and eventually dropped the case.
Parisotto speaks about where he sees the sport of cycling, in terms of cleanliness and corruption, and also discusses the biological passport. Was it ever what it was billed as being? Where is it now? And were there outstanding cases that never saw the light? He also gives his thoughts on Team Sky’s use of TUEs, the team’s “script” when scandal strikes, and more.
Where do you see things in cycling? Did you have frustration with cycling as well?
Look, it’s hard to say what is going on in cycling in terms of doping, because I haven’t been really doing anything in that field for a couple of years now. There haven’t been a lot of indiscretions, from what I can see. Not as many as there used to be.
Now whether it’s a cleaner peloton, I don’t know. How long is a piece of string? But the thing that really is interesting in cycling is there’s been a lot of talk about motor doping, and marginal gains. So there’s obviously tinkering going on around the edges. It’s not blatant doping as it was in the early days, but there certainly seems to be anecdotal evidence that there’s a lot of marginal stuff going on.
There was the parliamentary inquiry into Team Sky and the use of supposedly legitimate medicines, normally banned but permissible under a TUE system. Those investigating concluded that the team was using it for performance gains, to get an edge on others. Did that give you concern?
Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, whenever there’s an inquiry and the allegations put forward are challenged by them, are rebutted by them, it’s almost sort of a script. ‘Ah, we’ve lost the data.’ Or, ‘the data has been misplaced,’ or ‘the data has been corrupted.’ I mean, for God’s sake, give me a break.
It is always the same response in any enquiry, and it’s just a joke. If people are legitimate about, let’s say TUEs or medical problems or medical diagnoses and supposed treatments, then show us the records.
Unless you have a communicable disease or a disease that the athletes have that’s embarrassing for them. But, if I’m an asthmatic, I don’t really care if someone else knows that I’m an asthmatic. Or if I have diabetes, I don’t care too much if someone else knows I have got diabetes.
And this thing of hiding behind the wall of privacy…it should be part of the athlete’s appointment charter, almost. That if you are going to go down the road of TUEs, be aware that you are going to have to make a public announcement that you are required to take these drugs because of this reason.
It’s a farce. It’s a farce.
You were part of the bio-passport panel. When it first was set up, Pat McQuaid, who was UCI president at the time, implied it was the solution to doping. It was initially marketed that way. You finished your involvement with the bio-passport in 2016 — did you feel it was as powerful as it was said to have been?
Well, I was very conscious about making a blanket statement saying this is the answer to all the blood-doping questions. It wasn’t. It never was, and never will be. What it was going to do was, in a sense, identify those people that were most likely to have blood doped, so that the testers could use their resources much more strategically and efficiently and cast a better net.
Now if they used that in a more strategic way, I am sure that they could have caught most of the dopers, especially before the cheats brought in the microdosing method. Even with microdosing, using the passport in a more efficient and strategic way, they certainly could have identified more than I think they have.
But that is speculation on my part.
I also did a lot of work for the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. That almost seems ironic, but in my mind, they were actually very, very good and open and upfront about the results that I was actually reviewing. And they certainly did sanction the athletes that I detected on the blood passport system.
Now what happened in Sochi and thereafter, I don’t know. I had nothing to do with that side of things. I did work for them from 2011 to until 2014, I think.
In the last two or three years that you were involved with the biological passport panel, were you satisfied with it? Did you believe that it was being used as it should, or did you have concerns with the implementation of it?
I certainly had concerns because when I finished up, there were quite a number of cases that were outstanding. I don’t know what happened in those cases.
So you have concerns that maybe those cases didn’t go anywhere?
It is possible, I don’t know. I don’t know who they were, so I can’t say were those cases finalised. I don’t know. I would have to go and actually look up the UCI anti-doping records from the last couple of years that have been uncovered or sanctioned.
There certainly haven’t been many big names in recent years. To my memory, there have been some smaller riders from countries like Colombia or other places like that. Do you know what level the athletes you had concerns about were?
No, they never provide the IDs with the UCI data.
But did you get a sense that they were racing in big events?
Ah, we certainly got that information as to what races these cyclists were in. They were all Grand Tour riders, all professional peloton racers.
I can’t remember any big amount of Grand Tour riders being sanctioned. It seems to have been small names in recent years.
So did you get any sense that things weren’t being tackled as seriously as they might have been with the bio passport?
Well, in the first few years I was quite happy with how it was all going and the number of cyclists that were being uncovered. I guess towards the last year or two we didn’t really…there weren’t really any great exposures or cases that had gone all the way. Look, I don’t know what happened… Maybe there wasn’t unanimous agreement at some stage in the in the blood profile review, because there are three different stages and at any stage those cases can stop if there isn’t a unanimous agreement.
And there are many of them that I wasn’t involved in – we were only assigned a certain number of cases each. So we only ever see the full information on the cases that we are involved in. Because of that, I can’t speak for the other cases that other people were involved in.
Like I said, things could have stopped at any of those three stages. But I know that when I finished up there were quite a few at various stages, and I don’t know whatever happened with those.
So do you think the Roman Kreuziger case hurt the biological passport, or made the UCI wary of going forward with cases?
That’s a very interesting question…. [he pauses, laughs].
Look, I don’t know how they reacted to that. Unfortunately, as I said to other journalists, because I am bound by a confidentiality clause, I really just can’t go there. Because I would be liable to the UCI and to Kreuziger himself.
I’ll phrase the question slightly differently and not specifically to Kreuziger: Given that the UCI has faced expensive lawsuits, etcetera, do you think there is a possibility that the bio passport is now really just being used for targeting athletes as opposed to actually taking cases based on the passport itself?
Look, that’s a reasonable assumption…and it probably wouldn’t just be limited to the UCI. It could well be limited to other sports as well, in that they are they can be very expensive cases. And if many of them are just on the edge, just exceeding thresholds then it could be difficult to get a unanimous decision all the way through.
And then you have got the prospect of appeals and then CAS hearings…it can become a very lengthy and costly process.
I can see how sport might balk at those sort of cases. And given that many athletes and some sports have become very clued-in to that passport, that’s where they’re probably going to be dabbling at. In those marginal areas.
Because certainly, the behaviour changed. When the passport was introduced there were many, many cases where they were just so profoundly abnormal. Pretty much just like the IAAF scandal in 2015. That is where cycling was back in 2008.
And I am thinking that in athletics, track and field, there’ll be a lot more people tinkering at the edge rather than blatantly doping and having results that are just off the radar. Because, before, the IAAF data was so terrible, in terms of the doping being so blatant.
Was it worse than cycling? Was it more blatant?
It was shocking. There were levels in some of those athletes that were so high that it was a wonder that they didn’t succumb, that they didn’t die. They had blood levels that were so dangerous. The IAAF only brought in the passport around 2009, but some of the values in some athletes had been high since 2001. So they knew for about eight years who may or may not have been blood-doping.
It was just astonishing that, even from a safety aspect, that the IAAF wasn’t even tapping these people on the shoulder and saying, ‘Listen we can’t sanction you, because we don’t have any rules in place for the blood passport. But stop what you’re doing because you’re going to kill yourself. Let alone that you are cheating and that we know that you are cheating, and we know that you are fraudulently winning races and taking all the money.’
It is just crazy.
When the bio passport first came out, it was detecting big fluctuations at different times of the year, and perhaps in the Tour de France you could see blood changes compared to early in the season. Is there any possibility that athletes have just kept to their levels more consistent throughout the year? In other words, that there might be microdosing throughout the season to stop those fluctuations?
Yeah. They’ve certainly learned how it all works. And the microdosing, it is effective in keeping them under the radar, so to speak. But you know, at the same time, if you are continually flying under the radar and you are not varying too much, then are you getting a performance benefit?
To me, it’s like they are probably blood doping and they are probably getting a little bit of benefit from it, but not a lot, and so that is where the other marginal gains come in, the TUEs and the alleged motors. That all adds to the mix.
So what was achieved through blatant blood doping is now achieved through a bit of blood doping, a bit of TUE stuff, a bit of motor doping, and whatever else they can through into the mix.
So everything plays under the radar.
And I guess maybe one small bright side to that is, in theory, it’s more possible for a clean athlete to win, even occasionally, than perhaps in the heyday of doping where things were really crazy.
It is said that there are EPO variants that there aren’t tests for. Could it also pick them up?
What do you mean by variants?
I mean variants of EPO that were said not to be detectable.
In terms of EPO and all the other synthetic drug, those tests should already be out there. I know a couple of years ago they were looking at some drugs that people had never heard of, which are probably not too far away.
So they are potentially ahead of the game on that?
Look, the one thing that WADA does well with its very limited resources, and research resources in particular, is to stay at the forefront of what drugs are out there. The problem is the research and then implementing the test, there’s a time lag. And so by the time the test is introduced the drug’s probably already been out there for a number of years.
‘We need to drain the swamps’
Parisotto’s frustration with the governance of sport and the anti-doping system is evident: he believes that those who have the power to really effect change are unwilling to do so, and are thus part of the problem. Read on for his thoughts on what needs to change.
If today WADA, the IAAF and others aid said, ‘okay, we were wrong,’ and they want to bring people together to really tackle things seriously, what do you think should be the priority?
I’ll tell you what I really think: We need to drain the swamps. I think there are now too many people who have been there too long with such vested interests. And they’ve demonstrated an unwillingness to actually tackle the problem with any great gusto. The innovations that the IAAF made following their scandal – what’s really changed? I don’t know. Between new committees and ethics committees, and this, that and the other, we’ve still got people waiting to be adjudged, and we’re now three years down the track.
And that to me just typifies where they are going with anything to do with doping. ‘We will get to it when we are ready.’ There is no real will or effort to even right what is wrong – that is what I said at the start of the interview. When they find a problem, ‘we will put it aside and we’ll get to that when we can.’
Do you think that is laziness on their part, or do you think they simply don’t want to tackle full-on and to expose sport as much as it would be exposed?
To my mind, there is no excuse. They either tackle a problem and an issue and resolve it and move on, or… what’s the alternative? What’s the alternative? The alternative is what they are doing, delaying and putting in these sort of little band-aids all over the place. Make some real change.
So do you feel they’re really just concerned about public image, and giving the image that, ‘oh yeah, we’re strongly anti-doping,’ but they’re really just masking the problem?
Of course. And I guess the other issue too is they sort of look around and they go, ‘well, you know, a lot of this has been damaging to our sport and our image and stuff, but hey, what the heck, people are still turning up in their hundreds of thousands to watch our sport. What should we really move on this, and ruffle more feathers? We will just keep it on the low-down, and it’ll just eventually peter out. People will lose interest, but people will still turn up to see us.’
Would you say that you’re pessimistic about where sport is?
Certainly the governance of sport has left a lot to be desired. And I haven’t seen anyone or any sport that fills me with any confidence that anything will change. It would be good for someone to almost come out and say, ‘well, we’re going to actually change things. We’re not going to just patch things up, we’re going to change things. And let it be known that we’re going to be changing things. And that’s from now on this is what goes. And our sport, and our supporters, and our sponsors and whoever is involved in the sport is going to at least have to lift their game as well.’
It’s not just sport itself. It’s everything that hangs off it, you know? Sponsors. Why aren’t they jumping up and down? And some of them have, and I commend them for doing that. They have said enough is enough, we don’t want to be involved in a sport that just has continual scandals coming out of it. And there’s probably be a bit more of that happening.
So do you think the sponsors can be the ones that can drive it forward?
Well, they would have a lot of influence, because they actually provide a lot of monetary value to the sports. And some sports really do rely on that corporate support to keep functioning. And if that corporate support is not there any longer, then it makes it a little bit tougher for them to survive. If there’s no coverage, then what’s there for the sponsor?
Finally, let’s return briefly to cycling — did you have any thoughts on the recent Giro d’Italia?
I didn’t watch the Giro. What I will say is that there was a lot of angst, I guess, curiosity, suspicion on some of the individual performances in the Giro. And it’s almost par for the course, that there doesn’t seem to any competitive event where there is not some sort of suspicion raised by various, or some, or an individual athlete. And that’s the state of sport at the moment, isn’t it? It’s maddening that there’s not an event [without that].
Even with the soccer World Cup coming up, there’s going to be talk about that now. Because of previous behaviours, people are going to have a preconceived idea. ‘Well, who’s going to be doping in the World Cup?’ Well, you know, you could name any number of countries that might be doping the World Cup. And do we have any confidence in FIFA to actually patrol and police and uncover any doping that’s going on in that event that’s coming up?
I guess I’m probably more cynical than most people in the street, because most people on the street don’t give a shit. But I have this…[sighs]…my faith has been shattered in a lot of ways by the IAAF scandal and the way the whole Russian scandal was handled. It raised a lot of questions about both sides of the fence, not just one. I have no confidence in any administration of any sport at the moment.