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Beijing busts are better late than never

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Matt Slater | 18:27 UK time, Thursday, 30 April 2009

It's been a busy few days at the Beijing Olympics. Kenya climbed from 15th to 13th in the medal table, Switzerland from 35th to 33rd and New Zealand squeezed into the top 25.

That, and the personal accolades involved, is the good news.

The bad news is that the Beijing Olympics finished over eight months ago and these adjustments to the medal tally only came about because two medal-winners have just been uncovered as drugs cheats.

If Bahraini athlete Rashid Ramzi and Italian cyclist Davide Rebellin thought they had got away with it in China they have been given an almighty, but overdue, shock.

These two were the biggest losers when the results of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) re-tests of 948 blood and urine samples taken in Beijing were announced on Tuesday.

Ramzi and Rebellin

Ramzi claimed 1500m gold in a thrilling display at the Bird's Nest. The Moroccan-born star waited patiently on the shoulder of Kenya's Asbel Kipruto Kiprop before powering home from 200m out to win in fine style and earn his adopted country its first ever Olympic medal.

Or so we thought.

It seems that finishing burst might have had something to do with the extra oxygen reaching his tiring muscles thanks to the banned drug Cera.

For those of you who prefer to take your sport without a chemistry degree allow me to explain, and don't panic, I've got an arts degree.

Cera, or Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator to its mother, is a newish version of synthetic EPO, the naturally-occurring hormone that regulates the production of red blood cells.

Intended for the treatment of anaemia and kidney problems, synthetic EPO is a temptation for endurance athletes because red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. They also play a part in the healing process.

Cera is a particular temptation because it lasts longer - and therefore doesn't need to be administered so often - than earlier versions of EPO. There was also a belief that it was undetectable. Ha!

Hopefully, Kiprop will receive his gold medal very soon. It won't be quite the same, though, as getting it on the podium in Beijing whilst his national anthem plays, the crowd applauds and the cameras beam his smiling face around the globe.

That's an experience you can't return in the post but Kiprop won't be the only one wondering about the moments Ramzi has stolen.

Whilst the 28-year-old's victory in Beijing was a slight turn-up for the books in terms of recent form, Ramzi had previous at major championships.

Three years before at the 2005 Worlds in Helsinki, Ramzi became the first man to complete the 800/1500m double at a major event since the great Sir Peter Snell did it at the 1964 Olympics. Ramzi would also claim a 1500m silver at the 2007 Worlds. Begs the question, doesn't it?

Rebellin, who claimed the silver medal in Beijing's road race, is another who has enjoyed a glittering career in his chosen field.

A relative lack of success in the Grand Tours means the 37-year-old might not be so well known to the general sports fan, but "Tintin" is a pretty big name in professional cycling.

A specialist in the one-day classics that populate the calendar between the big stage races, Rebellin recently claimed his third win in the prestigious La Fleche Wallonne race in Belgium.

That should be the last of his victories, though, as he too has been caught with his hand in the Cera jar.

As well as Ramzi and Rebellin, there were four others caught by the IOC's retrospective action: Dominican weightlifter Yudelquis Contreras, Croatian runner Vanja Perisic, German cyclist Stefan Schumacher and Athanasia Tsoumeleka, a walker from Greece.

Seeing Schumacher amongst this company was hardly a massive surprise as he has just been handed a two-year ban by cycling's governing body for failing a drugs test during the 2008 Tour de France.

He won two time trials during that race, and wore yellow for two days, but we can hopefully say we have now seen the last of him in a professional peloton.

Little is known or remembered of Contreras and Perisic, but Tsoumeleka won a gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens.

I should at this stage point out that it is only the "A samples" of these six that have been tested. All can ask for their "B samples" - a smaller sample used for confirming positives - to be tested and all will no doubt make this request.

Off the top of my head I can only think of two occasions when a B sample has not supported the first analysis and that involved sprint superstar Marion Jones and Spanish cyclist Iban Mayo. Jones's luck would eventually run out and Mayo's reprieve was similarly temporary.

Mistakes can happen, though, and I will be the first to apologise for unfairly assuming the guilt of the "Cera Six". It is not, however, an apology I expect to make.

So what has this episode taught us about doping and elite sport? Is the amount of cheating up or down? Is this the end of Beijing story?

Those are three good questions and I don't know the answer to any of them.

What I can say is that the IOC performed more tests in Beijing than ever before at an Olympics, nearly 5,000 of them. These tests were also of a higher quality and better targeted.

The six fails this week takes the overall doper count for the Games to 15 (if you exclude the horses, who were up to all sorts of mischief).

Given that there were 10,000 competitors in Beijing, this doesn't sound like a catastrophe, although the sport of athletics, with seven doping cases, will know its integrity remains under serious threat.

But even the most optimistic IOC official will know this doesn't mean all the bad guys were caught.

It might mean, however, that a few more cheats have been found out than in the past. And more importantly, it might mean a few seeds of doubt have been planted in the minds of those tempted to cheat.

That is the real effect of retrospective testing. By keeping samples for eight years (although it should really be longer) the deterrent factor rises exponentially. Dopers might be ahead of the testers now but are they eight years in front?

We can all be cynical about the effectiveness of drugs testing and the chances of ever really cleaning sport up - we've been lied to too many times.

But I think the situation is improving and while the falls from grace of Ramzi and Rebellin lack the immediate drama of Ben Johnson's ignominy in 1988, they could have more resonance.

You might have fooled us once but don't count on fooling us forever.


  • Comment number 1.

    Bernard Lagat also passes his B sample after failing the A Sample for EPO. He missed the 2003 World Championships due to temporary suspension by the Kenyan Athletic Federation as a result.

  • Comment number 2.

    Let's hope that none of the B samples have been destroyed or damaged. Remember Tyler Hamilton... now banned on account of a separate failed test for illegal anti-depressants

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Matt - you note that the new positives take the total count to 15 for the Beijing Games. Yes and no: it's worth bearing in mind that 80+ Beijing-bound athletes were prevented from competing after testing positive BEFORE the games (including most of the Russian women's middle-distance squad, for example, and a lot of Greeks). This shows that the IOC is, quite rightly, targeting suspicious athletes and federations, but also that there's no room to relax. Assuming that only a minorioty of dopers are caught, this figure of around 100 is quite worrying really. Can you imagine the outcry if that number had been caught at the Games themselves?

  • Comment number 4.

    If they tested half of the competitors (5000 of 10,000), why dont they just test them all.
    Cost cant be an issue, the London games are costing us anywhere up to £10 billion. Surely 1% (a massive £10m) can be set aside for testing and storage of samples.

  • Comment number 5.

    "Three years before at the 2005 Worlds in Helsinki, Ramzi became the first man to complete the 800/1500m double at a major event since the great Sir Peter Snell did it at the 1964 Olympics. Ramzi would also claim a 1500m silver at the 2007 Worlds. Begs the question, doesn't it?"


    No, it doesn't. Begging the question is a logical fallacy which purports to prove something previously assumed, otherwise known as circular reasoning. What you mean is "Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"

  • Comment number 6.

    Afternoon all, lovely day here in London, hope it's nice where you are too. Some quick replies:

    TandF1 - Good shout re: Lagat. As I said, Jones and Mayo were the only two I could recall without trawling through the press clippings (don't worry, it's all automated now, but still cumbersome) and I'm not sure Mayo's case was even as simple as a B not backing up the A. I'm sure there are a couple more too but you're right, Lagat's was a biggie.

    only1redders - Where do we start with Tyler Hamilton? And to think that I once really liked him (remember his TdF ride with a broken collarbone?). But I don't think we need to worry about the IOC fluffing this one...the stakes are too high.

    singlespeed - You're right but I wanted to keep this about positive drugs tests at the Games for a few reasons. The main one was to keep things relatively straightforward - start bringing in all the pre-OG fails and "withdrawals" and it gets very complicated. I also wanted to focus on the in-competition side of things, as we have been led to believe that in-comp tests are a complete waste of time as only the stupid or unlucky get caught. Well, this week's news makes me think there is still some value in in-comp testing. But you're right to highlight the issue. I also wonder if your 80+ is a little conservative! But even here it's important to keep this in perspective. Let's say the true total is more like 100 cheats, that's still only 1% of the total number of athletes at a Games. see what I mean about 80+ being conservative!

    workvisapermitting - Difficult one this. I can see where you're coming from but I wonder if testing everybody would actually ensure a cleaner Games. Put it this way, do you really need to test everybody if everybody believes they might be tested? OK, a few desperate types might flip the coin and take their chances, but I'd like to think they'll make the wrong call at some point in their careers. The other thing to consider is just how effective in-comp testing really is. OK, I know in the previous answer I've said it does still have some value, but how much value is debatable. Just look at the numbers. The IOC took nearly 4,800 blood and urine samples in Beijing and tested them for a range of banned drugs. They then re-tested almost 850 of these for Cera and 100 for insulin. That's a lot of lab time to catch 15 cheats. I would argue that the time/expense was worth it and it's exactly what the IOC should be doing. But I would also argue that intelligence-led, targetted, no-notice out-of-comp testing is what we should be concentrating on.

    I'll have lots more to say about that subject in a week or so. The World Anti-Doping Agency has a big meeting in Montreal next weekend and the thorny issue of "whereabouts" is on the agenda.

  • Comment number 7.

    I see somebody's been reading Wikipedia, MrNeutron...fair cop, though. I'll be on that like a hawk from now on. But did you read further down? Apparently my usage is colloquial and some experts think it is to do with "begets the question" being shortened to "begs". Fascinating.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Matt - thanks for your response. The 80+ pre-Games positives came from memory. I got my info from the Steroid Nation blog, which keeps tabs on such things. On the eve of the Games, I think there had been between 80 and 90 confirmed positives. But I agree that once you take 'withdrawals' into account, this figure goes up again; and when you consider all the athletes smart enough not to have been caught, then you could be looking at a much much bigger figure. I take your point about in-competition testing, but I think it only has true value if backed up by the kind of intelligence that led to these positive Cera tests. Basically, this was a new form of EPO for which, as far as these athletes were concerned, there was no test yet; in fact, the testing authorities had quietly worked with the medical company to develop a test. They caught the athletes out. But I wonder why so few? I reckon a fair number of competitors knew something was afoot and didn't take the risk; or, more likely, they are all highly-skilled at micro-dosing, which could lead to suspicious blood values, but not enough to trigger an out-and-out positive. Biological passports are the way forward.

  • Comment number 9.

    They'd have known CERA could be detected after Ricco's positive at the Tour. Probably the only reason we caught anyone was that this drug is detectable for a long time.

    In some ways, it's perhaps a shame they couldn't have kept the Ricco positive under their hats, and perhaps caught a more significant amount of dopers at Beijing


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