Ashenden: I don't know whether Armstrong's passport file was ever sent to any of us experts’
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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Ashenden: I don't know whether Armstrong's passport file was ever sent to any of us experts’

by Shane Stokes at 7:37 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews, Doping
 
Bio passport scientist expressed concerns to UCI in 2009, unsure if issue went further

Michael AshendenAnti-doping scientist Michael Ashenden has confirmed that he raised concerns about Lance Armstrong’s published blood values three years ago, while being part of the UCI’s biological passport expert group.

However the Australian said that as the UCI had first say over which profiles were assessed, that he and the other experts had to rely on the governing body to take first action and give them the passport file for examination. Without that action, they were powerless to do anything.

“It was obvious to an expert eye that his published values during the 2009 Tour were not typical, but until and unless the file was sent to the experts it was completely outside our control,” he told VeloNation. “All that I could do was raise my concern at what I had seen published as Armstrong's values at one of our passport meetings.

“They listened, but I never heard anything more about it. Whether the UCI made a decision to proceed or not proceed is something only they could answer. To this day, I don't know whether Armstrong's passport file was ever sent to any of us experts.”

In recent days Ashenden told the California Watch publication that two aspects appeared irregular about the Texan’s 2009 Tour readings. He further explained his point to VeloNation, saying that one of those aspects was successfully used to sanction another high profile rider.

“There are two damning features present in Armstrong's blood values during the 2009 Tour de France,” he said, referring to the published figures. “First, his haemoglobin values did not decline by the 10 percent or so that is typically found during three week stage races. In the Pellizotti case, the publicly available CAS decision shows that the CAS found that this characteristic demonstrated the use of blood doping practices.

“Second, his reticulocyte levels were below the average of the rest of his reported results. Both of those are consistent with the use of blood transfusions.”

His concerns echo those recently expressed by Robin Parisotto, another member of the biological passport expert panel. He too felt the Texan’s published blood values showed unusual patterns. Again, like Ashenden and the others on the panel, he would only have been able to investigate further had the UCI put the file forward for assessment.

It is worth noting that in the event of an investigation, that just three out of the nine panel members would have been required to assess the athlete’s passport. It makes it theoretically possible that other panel members studied the results and opted not to proceed, but there is no way to verify that. No formal disciplinary action relating to biological passport was opened against Armstrong.

However Ashenden’s statement that he is unsure about whether or not the file was investigated is important, as it explains why the blood profile could form part of USADA’s evidence, as has been reported, but was not necessarily red-flagged at the time.

The Australian resigned from the biological passport panel earlier this year, saying he would not agree to a confidentiality clause required by the new co-ordinators, the Athlete Passport Management Unit in Lausanne.

He told VeloNation at the time that had he signed the new contract, that he would not have been able to comment on anti-doping issues for eight years. Since standing down he has spoken more freely about perceived shortcomings in the fight against doping.

In the interview below, Ashenden discusses a range of topics, including the UCI’s suing of Floyd Landis and Paul Kimmage, the lack of an investigation unit to tackle doping in the new direction recommended by WADA, the need to comprehensively acknowledge and deal with the past, and the UCI’s decision not to proceed with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He’s particularly frustrated by what happened at the UCI’s annual congress in September, specifically the decision to move forward only rather than establish the full truth of what happened before. He describes as extremely worrying ‘the claim by the UCI congress that awareness of what had happened in the past does not help clean up cycling today. At this point, so contorted was their logic, that the collective head burying must have damn near penetrated the earth’s crust.”

He explains why action rather than inaction needs to happen. “Cycling simply has to address its past. First, not doing so fuels the perception that the UCI are deliberately covering things up,” he argues. “Second, unravelling the past helps clean up sport today, as we’ve seen by the banning of several conspirators linked to Armstrong who were still preying on current athletes.”


VeloNation: Of late, two big stories have been the UCI's suing of Floyd Landis and Paul Kimmage. What are your views on these actions?

Michael Ashenden: I'll continue to stand by Floyd Landis because I admire that he stood up and told the truth about doping's underbelly when no-one wanted to listen. I also support what I think he is trying to bring about, namely making people accountable. That said, if I was him I perhaps would have gone about things a bit differently. I think he provoked then backed the UCI into a corner and they lashed out accordingly. But from what I can gather from newspaper reports the court finding has had no impact whatsoever, so perhaps there's a lesson there for the UCI.

As for Paul Kimmage, my emotion when I read that he was being sued was one of anger. That's the first reaction I have whenever I perceive someone being bullied or being forced into an unfair contest. I had no hesitation donating to his fund.

However now that Paul has the resources to defend himself in court, I'm satisfied that it will be a fair contest. So now I welcome the hearing because I think it will help shed light on the truth whatever that truth may be, and that can only help cycling in the long term.

VN: The UCI recently voted not to proceed with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, saying it preferred instead to focus on the future. Do you see this as wise or counter-productive?

MA: I thought the UCI congress stuffed their head in the Maastricht sand. I think the motion they put to the management committee was self-serving twaddle. For example, they claimed that some doping practices can only be detected by police methods. That’s just rubbish. USADA are not the police, they do not have subpoena powers, and yet they were able to unearth evidence of blood tranfusions simply by interviewing cyclists who were persuaded to tell the truth.

But even more worrying was the claim by the UCI congress that awareness of what had happened in the past does not help clean up cycling today. At this point, so contorted was their logic, that the collective head burying must have damn near penetrated the earth’s crust. USADA had to go back in the past to unravel the web. But when they did, every single one of Armstrong’s conspirators named by USADA were still active in sport today. How on earth does banning them from sport not help clean up cycling today? Either the UCI congress had not read USADA’s charging letter - head in the sand - or they had wilfully disregarded it - head in the crust.

I do understand why the UCI congress feel that doping scandals stigmatise their sport for the young generations. I don’t think there is any question they do. But on the flip side, does massaging the truth about doping disregard a duty of care toward that young generation? Is it conscionable to watch young riders enter the ranks of professional cycling without disclosing to them the risks?

VN: There have been suggestions that Lance Armstrong's data from 2008 - 2010 may be indicative of blood doping. Do you have a view on this? If you believe it's likely, how would this have fallen through the cracks of bio passport?

MA: There are two damning features present in Armstrong's blood values during the 2009 Tour de France. First, his haemoglobin values did not decline by the 10 percent or so that is typically found during three week stage races. In the Pellizotti case, the publicly available CAS decision shows that the CAS found that this characteristic demonstrated the use of blood doping practices. Second, his reticulocyte levels were below the average of the rest of his reported results. Both of those are consistent with the use of blood transfusions.

VN: As Armstrong's data was published, presumably his file was identifiable by the biopassport committee. Were there any decisions not to proceed, perhaps due to concerns it would lead to legal opposition or other consequences?

MA: Unless the experts re-opened one by one each of the several hundred anonymous passport files sent from UCI to check if the dates and values matched Armstrong's published values, there is no way we could have identified which anonymous file belonged to him. Plus at the time I think it would have taken a leap of faith to believe that Armstrong had published all of his values - so his real passport may well not have matched the published data anyways. It would have been like searching for a needle in a haystack, so I never bothered doing that.

Of course it was obvious to an expert eye that his published values during the 2009 Tour were not typical, but until and unless the file was sent to the experts it was completely outside our control. All that I could do was raise my concern at what I had seen published as Armstrong's values at one of our passport meetings. They listened, but I never heard anything more about it. Whether the UCI made a decision to proceed or not proceed is something only they could answer. To this day, I don't know whether Armstrong's passport file was ever sent to any of us experts.

VN: What do you believe needs to happen to put the sport on the best possible footing?

MA: There are no two ways around it. Cycling simply has to address its past. First, not doing so fuels the perception that the UCI are deliberately covering things up. Second, unravelling the past helps clean up sport today, as we’ve seen by the banning of several conspirators linked to Armstrong who were still preying on current athletes.

However I think the most compelling reason for cycling to address the past is to give the current riders confidence in their peers. As swimming’s Cameron van der Burgh admitted, he cheated to win his Olympic gold medal because he feared that everyone else was cheating and so felt he had no choice. Tyler Hamilton said much the same thing.

As long as riders see notorious support staff working with other teams, they will have grounds to doubt those rider’s accomplishments. Refer to it as the Nash equilibrium or whatever term you'd prefer. Bottom line is that the fear will remain that they have to dope because their competitors are doping. And that will mean cycling continues in this vicious circle.

VN: Are changes needed to the anti-doping system, the UCI, and other aspects?

MA: Once upon a time the UCI could rightly claim that it was at the forefront of antidoping initiatives. However the Maastricht congress’ claim that cycling has always used all available means and made all reasonable efforts to fight doping does not stand up to scrutiny. In USADA’s letter of 26 July 2012 to Pat McQuaid, USADA laid out in graphic detail how the UCI had failed to investigate allegations made by Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton of anti-doping rule violations, not just by riders but also support staff still involved in cycling. USADA set out how those allegations were pre-judged and rejected by the UCI without them ever meeting with either individual.

On face value, it would seem very difficult to argue that the UCI had used all reasonable efforts to investigate those claims.

And investigations is where cycling’s claim to being at the forefront of anti-doping initiatives collapses. Major League Baseball in the United States, although much maligned, have implemented their own investigatory unit. So have the United States Anti-Doping Agency, UK Anti-Doping and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority. None of them are the police entities to which the UCI congress referred.

Its not as if the UCI are not aware of the contemporary shift toward implementing investigations units. In May 2011 the WADA released its Investigations Guidelines. In the opening paragraph, the document spells out that anti-doping organisations need to move beyond drug-testing alone to develop additional ways of gathering, sharing and exploiting information and evidence about the use of prohibited substances and methods by athletes under their jurisdiction. So-called ‘non-analytical’ information and evidence. The document goes on to emphasise that international federations must do everything in their power to build their own relationships with public authorities.

In fact the UCI must have been aware of the role of investigations even before 2011. Under Article 20.3.9, the 2009 WADA Code states that it is the role and responsibility of international federations “To vigorously pursue all potential anti-doping rule violations within its jurisdiction including investigation into whether Athlete Support Personnel or other Persons may have been involved in each case of doping”.

Investigations are at the cutting edge of today’s anti-doping strategies, and the UCI have fallen behind.

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