'No basis to say Colvert didn't dope - but no basis to say he did, either': Experts cast more doubt on Irish sprinter's positive test
Experts cast more doubt on sprinter's positive test
He was fast asleep when the call came, but little did he know of the nightmare he would wake up to.
It was a Tuesday morning in June 2014, and in his room near DCU, Steven Colvert listened to the voice telling him he had tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO).
He assumed it was a prank call. But it wasn't, and the grim reality soon set in: to everyone else, if not himself, he would now be known as a drug cheat.
"I was devastated," he says. "It affected all aspects of my life - friendships, job opportunities, relationships, everything. I knew something had to be wrong, but was it a case of mis-labelling samples or something more insidious?"
Over the past two years, he spent more than €12,000 of his family's money trying to clear his name.
"To see how much it racked up was terrifying but everyone pulled together," he says. "I don't come from a family of incredible means but I thought I had a case."
In July last year, it sure felt like a waste when Sport Ireland found him guilty of using synthetic EPO and confirmed a two-year ban.
For Colvert, it was like being cut adrift of the life he knew. He turned his back on athletics, too embarrassed to show his face at events, too worried what people would say. No-one confronted him in person, but he remembers the remarks online, like the day on Twitter when he joked about Manchester United's poor form.
"At least they didn't have to dope to become successful athletes," came the response.
"It's not pleasant, but I get where they're coming from," he says. "I can't condemn it."
At his hearing last July, the case against him was laid out by two of the world's leading authorities on EPO. Phillip Reihlen, head of the EPO department at the Cologne laboratory, described Colvert's sample as "clearly positive", an assertion backed up by Dr Christian Reichel at the Seibersdorf lab in Austria.
"It is positive because it's a mixed profile consisting of recombinant (synthetic) EPO and endogenous (natural) EPO," he said.
Emails requesting comment from Reichel and Reihlen went unanswered this week, while both the Cologne and Seibersdorf labs responded that they were not allowed to comment on Colvert's case due to the World Anti-Doping Agency code. The official line from Sport Ireland was they were satisfied with the findings, and his case will be closed for good.
But how conclusive was it?
In September last year Colvert came across an article in Lab Times in which a team of Norwegian scientists raised issues surrounding the positive EPO test of race walker Erik Tysse, whose protestations of innocence had a familiar ring.
He reached out to one of the authors, Tore Skotland, who together with his co-authors had a wealth of experience in interpreting electrophoretic data such as that used in the EPO test. Initially Skotland and the Norwegian team were hesitant, aware of the can of worms they had opened before, but that changed when they saw Colvert's test data.
"We saw it as impossible to interpret as a positive test so we felt we had to do something," says Skotland. "There was definitely something wrong, either with the analysis or with the sample.
"I cannot understand how experts in the field were able to conclude the first sample, or B-sample, was positive, because it's so similar to the negative controls and the other samples. This data cannot be trusted."
Of course, when Colvert originally tried to find experts to back his case, they were in scant supply, which doesn't surprise Skotland.
"The only labs that have experience with this EPO analysis are those working in the WADA laboratories and they are obviously protecting each other," he says.
Sport Ireland had little reason, or indeed ability, to doubt the results.
International anti-doping expert Michele Verroken explains: "Within the WADA code, the Irish Sports Council (ISC) is entitled to regard what the laboratory has done as fact and they don't have to question it. It's then very difficult for an athlete to question that.
"Laboratory scientists are prevented from providing evidence so you haven't got access to the same level of expertise to challenge the findings. That's where Steven would feel he hasn't got an equity of arms to fight his case."
Verroken knows the system well, having spent five years on the ISC's anti-doping committee, and she knows more than most about false positives.
She was an instrumental force in exonerating Gareth Turnbull in 2006 after the Irish middle distance runner tested positive for testosterone. In that case, it took Turnbull 12 months and an investment of €150,000 to clear his name, eventually proving that his positive test was caused by excessive alcohol consumption. Were it not for him having the means and expertise to fight his case, he would most likely have been issued a two-year ban.
"If this is the case (with Colvert), it won't be the first time the Irish Sports Council's anti-doping department had a problem," says Verroken.
"The laboratories, when scrutinised, have to get it 100pc right, but the question is whether the measurement we are using is 100pc right."
Changes made to WADA's technical document for conducting the EPO test, coincidentally implemented three months after Colvert's test, suggest it was still an evolving method.
Ross Tucker, a renowned South African sports scientist, believes testers ignored an inherent contradiction in the analyses on Colvert's sample, with one method displaying a ratio of synthetic to naturally-occurring EPO 20 times greater than the other. Both methods, however, deemed Colvert's sample to contain the banned substance. The samples has since been disposed of.
"The second test should at the very least support the first," says Tucker. "It didn't. That alone should be grounds to go back and start again, but they pushed through a guilty verdict in the absence of scientific agreements between their own tests.
"If the B sample was not tested fully, and the DNA test could not be performed as requested, then simply procedurally, I'd argue that the case should be dropped. It's late for that, but he should at least be cleared.
"Does it mean to say he didn't dope? No, because there's no basis on which to say he didn't. But there's no basis on which to say he did, either."
Colvert's ban expired in June and he is free to compete. In recent months he resumed training under a new coach, squeezing sessions around his job as a due diligence officer.
"It feels good to be back training and I'd like to come back," he says. "In the past I was going through the motions a little bit, but now it feels personal. The damage has been done and it's cost me hugely."
Does he feel he was treated fairly?
"Not really," he says. "It seems a case of a dog with a bone, a possibility of getting a conviction and they were going to ride that out and see how it goes.
"There was never any feeling of: let's see what we can to mitigate this. It was just cold, like: that's it, that's you now; it's done."
So here he is, done, at least in terms of that test still blighting his name. His remaining hopes are either to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport or that Sport Ireland may re-examine his case.
The latter seems unlikely, given the cost and potential precedent it would set, with little incentive for them to chance the embarrassment of an overturned verdict.
All of which leaves Colvert in limbo, while the rest of us trying to work out if he's lying. Because here's the thing about his case: while the results of the EPO test can be open to interpretation, the substance he has been found guilty of using can't be ingested accidentally.
Synthetic EPO doesn't sneak its way into dodgy supplements, and you won't find traces of it lurking in flu remedies. In almost all cases, it has to be injected.
That inconvenient truth forces those pondering his case to a decision.
Either Colvert purchased and injected himself with synthetic EPO, which makes the subsequent draining of his family's resources, his constant cries of innocence and his persistent pursuit of science that might overturn his verdict an especially egregious act of continued deception.
Or else he actually is innocent, in which case one of the best labs in the world has got it wrong, and in this great, big hunt to catch the vast swathe of cheats, they have snared in their net an athlete playing it fair. So which is it?
The science behind the EPO test
In the EPO tests at the Cologne lab, a measure of Colvert's urine was incubated, then placed in a lane on an electrophoretic gel alongside other samples, some of which were controls and others which were purposefully spiked with synthetic EPO.
An electrical current was passed through each lane, causing the EPO proteins in the samples to migrate to a certain point and form a blot. The machine then calculated a cut-off line across the lanes, whereby the majority of the staining below the line was naturally-occurring EPO and the majority above it synthetic.
Most samples, even clean ones, created some staining above the line, with Colvert's the most pronounced. The final determination of his positive test came down to an individual's judgement about the size and shape of the blot, which was then confirmed using a different method, before the data was reviewed by a separate laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria.
Three experts in Cologne and two in Seibersdorf agreed that Colvert's sample contained synthetic EPO.
"This is clearly positive," said Phillip Reihlen, who conducted the first analysis. "There is clearly a signal above this line which cannot correspond to endogenous (naturally occurring) EPO."
However, the Norwegian scientists hold a different view, highlighting that one method of detection found a 20-fold difference in ratio of natural to synthetic EPO in Colvert's sample.
"That finding is implausible," they state. "It's certain something was wrong. It was not good enough to have somebody convicted for doping."