Doubts grow over fairness of doping ban for Irish sprinter Steven Colvert
A controversial doping case against an Irish sprinter has been thrown into doubt by a series of scientific articles that have highlighted inconsistencies in the process and raised questions about the anti-doping system.
Steven Colvert was given a two-year ban by a Sport Ireland tribunal in July 2015 after he was deemed to have tested positive for synthetic EPO, a hormone that stimulates the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
The two-time Irish 200m champion has always denied doping but until recently had received almost no media attention outside Ireland or scientific support.
That changed earlier this month when four Norwegian researchers wrote an article in the Lab Times that accused the World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratory in Cologne of making a subjective initial analysis and then ignoring a contradictory follow-up finding.
Speaking to Press Association Sport, one of the article's authors Dr Tore Skotland said: "The different results obtained with the two methods show there is something wrong with the work performed by the laboratory.
"It should be obvious to all scientists that something is wrong when results that are so different are obtained from two methods to analyse the same sample.
"We are really worried that the laboratory staff did not recognise this obvious discrepancy."
The Norwegian team's article was picked up by several anti-doping commentators, including the University of Colorado's Professor Roger Pielke Jr and Professor Ross Tucker from South Africa's University of the Free State.
Tucker told PA Sport he was "less concerned" about the subjective reading of the first screen the laboratory used, a SAR-PAGE test, but was damning in his assessment of what happened with the follow-up IEF test.
"That second test should at the very least support the first - it didn't," said Tucker. "That alone should be grounds to go back and start again.
"How can they have the confidence to hand down a ban and tarnish an athlete's name?"
PA Sport has tried to reach the Cologne laboratory for a response to the Lab Times' article but has received no reply.
Sport Ireland, however, defended its ruling and pointed out that experts from an Austrian anti-doping centre in Seibersdorf backed the Cologne laboratory's findings.
"Sport Ireland is comfortable that the science implemented is aligned with internationally recognised WADA standards," it said.
A spokesperson for WADA said the case was "judged through a sufficient legal process" but offered Colvert some hope by adding "should new information be provided then of course it remains possible for any doping case to be re-examined".
Sadly, the 26-year-old Colvert told PA Sport the Cologne laboratory has informed him that his urine sample has been destroyed.
He also explained how "hugely destructive" the case has been on both his athletic and professional careers, as the law graduate has found it hard to get jobs with this hanging over him.
Colvert is now working at a bank in Dublin and trying to train when he can but said he has been "cut adrift" by the Irish athletics authorities. He also said he could not afford to appeal against his ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
But his story took a fresh and unlikely twist on Wednesday when Professor Christiane Ayotte, the president of the World Association of Anti-Doping Scientists (WAADS), published a critique of the Norwegian team's piece.
Having explained why she feels there is strong evidence against Colvert, her article on the WAADS website contained a sentence that supports one of the main criticisms of the case: that the SAR-PAGE test suggests small amounts of synthetic EPO, while the IEF test suggests lots.
Ayotte, who runs the WADA-accredited laboratory in Montreal, wrote it is not possible to determine "the relative abundance" of synthetic and natural EPO in Colvert's sample and "if the laboratory expert was correctly quoted, he made a mistake" when he said the amount of synthetic EPO was small.
But the hearing transcript is clear and both the Cologne and Seibersdorf experts stress there was only a small amount of synthetic EPO.
Pielke told PA Sport this apparent disagreement between WADA laboratories "really seals the deal from a process standpoint" and the conviction should be overturned.