'I felt let down by the system. It put me in a bad place, a very bad place' - Irish sprinter says doping system 'is a farce'
On the surface, it was just like any other doping case - a positive test, an athlete screaming his innocence, and few willing to believe him. It was June 2014 and Steven Colvert, it seemed, had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
The Irish sprinter, now 26, had tested positive for synthetic erythropoietin, a blood-boosting drug known as EPO and more commonly used in endurance sports. With his reputation in ruins, the Mullingar man went in search of an answer, refusing to ever admit or accept that he had cheated.
His pursuit, ultimately, was in vain. In June last year, Colvert was banned for two years by an Irish Sports Council Disciplinary Panel, which heard evidence from anti-doping experts at WADA-accredited laboratories in Cologne, Germany and Seibersdorf, Austria, who assured them the only explanation was that the DCU student had been injected with synthetic EPO.
"It was heart-breaking," recalls Colvert. "I felt let down by the system. It put me in a bad place, a very bad place."
Ever since, he's been waging a quiet, determined war to restore his reputation. In September last year he contacted a group of Norwegian scientists who had been involved in a similar case two years earlier and asked them to review the evidence.
Earlier this week, they finally published their findings in the medical journal Lab Times and raised grave concerns about the anti-doping procedures which led to Colvert's positive test.
One method used to detect synthetic EPO indicated a "twenty-fold higher ratio" of synthetic to naturally-occurring EPO than another method. "That discrepancy is implausible," they wrote.
Yesterday afternoon the lead author, Tore Skotland, told the Irish Independent that the finding "indicated there is something wrong with the work performed by the laboratory".
The lab, he said, "should have clarified this discrepancy before concluding about a positive doping sample. Alternatively, the sample should have been analysed by another laboratory."
The authors also highlighted a subjective approach to the primary test used to determine if Colvert's sample contained synthetic EPO, which they said contradicted a prior ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that "a sample cannot be declared positive or negative depending on the subjective opinion of the laboratory staff according to the maxim 'I know it when I see it'".
The only fair decision, they concluded, "should have been to drop the case against Colvert."
They were not alone. Yesterday afternoon Roger Pielke Jr, a political scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and a widely respected voice on sports governance, wrote in Newsweek that the findings provide sufficient concern for Sport Ireland to re-examine Colvert's case.
"It's remarkable how thin the evidence is, and the flaws in the procedure," Pielke Jr said when contacted on Tuesday night. "Reading through the hearing it's pretty clear the Irish Sports Council didn't give him a fair attempt at a defence. I have no idea if Steven doped or not; all I can say is the evidence used to convict him doesn't pass a simple common sense test. If their evidence is strong then it will stand up to a second look, and if not then he deserves to have his reputation cleared."
Last night, however, a representative from their anti-doping branch rejected the idea. "Sport Ireland is comfortable that the science implemented is aligned with internationally recognised WADA standards," they wrote. "Two WADA-accredited laboratories confirmed with two different validated methods the presence of recombinant EPO. Sport Ireland does not intend to re-examine the evidence."
For Colvert, that leaves no option other than to tell his story and hope those who've heard it a thousand times before are willing to believe him.
"I completely understand where people come from, because that is the go-to line: 'I didn't do it'," he said. "I knew people would need to see something more than just a statement because that doesn't mean anything."
That's the reason he contacted the Norwegian scientists, whose findings, he now hopes, won't fall on deaf ears.
"I always had faith in the (anti-doping) system and thought it was right, but this shows it's a bit of a farce.
"I've been wronged and it needs to be set right, and there's ways and means to do that. Ultimately it lies in the hands of the Sports Council."