Paula Radcliffe defends herself against claims of doping, but does it stand up to scrutiny?
Published 09/09/2015 | 11:12
Briton named in Sunday Times report says she is innocent, but do her explanations add up?
Why has Paula Radcliffe been accused of doping?
Any suggestion that Radcliffe may have cheated during her career comes down to the interpretation of three blood samples that some experts have deemed “highly abnormal”.
In order to assess whether an athlete is doping, testers take readings of an athlete’s haemoglobin and reticulocyte levels. According anti-doping experts employed by The Sunday Times, who analysed the leaked IAAF data, on three occasions during Radcliffe’s career her test results were so “abnormal” that it is claimed there was only a one-in-1,000 chance that they were natural.
The newspaper claimed that, of nearly 500 tests on British athletes between 2001 and 2012, Radcliffe produced the highest score above the threshold. To allay any suggestion that her blood values were always naturally higher than most, the newspaper said her results varied by as much as 47 per cent.
How does she refute the accusations?
Radcliffe strongly denies the legitimacy of the blood values, the circumstances in which they were taken and the picture they paint. She says that only one blood test score exceeded the allowed threshold, and marginally so. Referring in detail to that sample, she asserts that it is “invalid” because it was collected immediately after a half-marathon run around midday in temperatures of approximately 30C. She also claims that all three elevated blood samples followed prolonged stints of altitude training, while one came after a period of illness. The crux of her argument is that without context, individual blood values cannot be used to determine anything concrete.
Do her explanations add up?
Radcliffe says that the “full explanations and circumstances” surrounding her elevated blood values will “stand up to any proper scrutiny and investigation”. It is indisputable that a number of factors can affect the level of red blood cells in the body (and therefore erroneously indicate doping) including training at altitude, illness, pregnancy and dehydration.
For example, athletes specifically train at high altitude in order to encourage their body to produce more red blood cells to improve their oxygen-carrying capacity. The question is whether these explanations are sufficient for Radcliffe’s three abnormal blood values. Another mitigating factor is the timing of two of the tests, which Radcliffe says were conducted immediately after races. The rules have subsequently changed and there is now a two-hour rule before blood can be collected following competition.
How did the IAAF respond to her elevated blood values?
Prior to the implementation of the blood passport in 2009, the IAAF did not use elevated blood values alone as a basis for a ban. Instead they were used to flag up potential doping and earmark athletes for further investigation. The IAAF has been criticised for failing to act on abnormal samples but Radcliffe insists the governing body did follow up on her blood data and “no abnormalities were ultimately found”. She says that numerous experts looked at her data for the IAAF and found that “there is simply no case to answer”.
Radcliffe's denial in full
"I categorically deny that I have resorted to cheating in any form whatsoever at any time in my career, and am devastated that my name has even been linked to these wide-ranging accusations.
"I have campaigned long and hard throughout my career for a clean sport. I have publicly condemned cheats and those who aid them. These accusations threaten to undermine all I have stood and competed for, as well as my hard earned reputation. By linking me to allegations of cheating, damage done to my name and reputation can never be fully repaired, no matter how untrue I know them to be.
"Whilst I have the greatest of respect for anyone responsibly trying to uncover cheating in sport, and of course for Parliament itself, it is profoundly disappointing that the cloak of Parliamentary privilege has been used to effectively implicate me, tarnishing my reputation, with full knowledge that I have no recourse against anyone for repeating what has been said at the Committee Hearing.
At the time of the recent Sunday Times coverage, I wrestled long and hard with a desire to speak out with the true facts concerning my position, and, to fully explain any fluctuations in my blood data. However by ‘coming out’ in that fashion I was made aware that I would be facilitating mass coverage of my name in connection with false allegations of possible doping, which would enable further irreparable damage to be done to my reputation. As a result of today’s Parliamentary Hearing I can no longer maintain my silence.
"The investigation by ARD and the Sunday Times may have been a perfectly valid enterprise if the goal was to expose cheats, their supporters, and, their infrastructures. If, however, innocent athletes, as in my case, are caught up in the desire to sensationalise and expand the story, then that goal loses a lot of credibility, and indeed, opportunities to catch the true offenders.
"As the journalists themselves state, abnormal readings are not proof of guilt, yet many innocent athletes are being implicated and tainted due to the distorted interpretation of a limited historic dataset. The Anti-Doping system cannot be manipulated in such a way that innocent athletes are no longer protected from the misuse of stolen and leaked incomplete data, the misinterpretation of that data, and, sensationalist newspaper exposés.
"I am 100% confident that the full explanations and circumstances around any fluctuations in my personal data on a very small number of occasions will stand up to any proper scrutiny and investigation. Indeed they have already done so. In my case, numerous experts have concluded that there is simply no case to answer. I have at all times been open and transparent, encouraging and supporting the use of blood profiling for many years.
"At no time have any of the various anti-doping authorities found any reason to level any charge of abnormal practice or cheating against me whatsoever. My results were reviewed contemporaneously, and, more recently at my request following the Sunday Times’ articles, which insofar as they erroneously alluded to me were yrresponsibly published. Nothing improper has ever been found, since it never occurred. Wada themselves have again investigated following the recent articles. I understand the team from Wada found nothing and I fully expect that once the Independent Committee publish their report I will again be found to have no case to answer.
"In all of these three cases referred to by the Sunday Times (as well as on many more occasions) I was EPO urine tested at the time, and also in follow up. All of these three cases followed periods of altitude training. Only one of my blood test scores is marginally above the 1 in 100 accepted threshold, and this is invalid given that it was collected immediately following a half marathon race run around midday in temperatures of approximately 30C.
"None of my blood test scores are anywhere near the 1 in 1000 threshold as was claimed by the Sunday Times and that which is seen as suspicion of doping. No abnormalities were ultimately found and any allegation that the IAAF did not follow up on blood data results in my case is false.
"Further, not one of the values questioned by the Sunday Times occurred around any of my best performances or races, including all my appearances at the London Marathon. This makes it all the more disappointing that my identity was effectively leaked at the Parliamentary Hearing, under the guise of there being a British athlete and London Marathon winner who is erroneously under suspicion.
"There is undoubtedly a major issue with doping in sport, and blood doping in its various guises has become a tough opponent for the authorities to combat effectively. The processes to capture those involved are complicated and have taken many years to evolve. The process continues with the help of athletes, scientists, and in some cases, the media. It was in the spirit of this that I agreed to meet with the Sunday Times reporters before publication of their story. I was incredibly disappointed however that they appeared to purely want to link me to their story. Their experts (one of whom spoke at the Committee Hearing today) gave their assessment of what they say 'may' have led to abnormalities in my data.
"However, they did so without any knowledge of context, of personal circumstances, and, of any other facts; all of which would be, and in fact were, available to the multiple experts who examined my data at the time and more recently. The consideration and indeed necessity of that type of extrinsic information is paramount for all proper evaluation and interpretation of test data. Sadly, in my case the Sunday Times’ experts failed appallingly.
"In my case, the necessary extrinsic information relates to how and when the tests were conducted. I had been ill prior to the race and was taking strong antibiotics, which may have affected the data. Two (of the three flagged tests) were done immediately following races, which today would invalidate any tests. Indeed there is now a two-hour rule before blood can be collected following any training or competition. This is because the evidence showed how this affects the figures.
"Furthermore, they were all conducted following prolonged periods of altitude training, which is today recognised as significantly impacting blood figures, and is therefore taken into account when interpreting blood data. There are also other reasons why the pre-2009 data may be considered unreliable, as various experts have explained in their evaluations; these include unreliability and inconsistency of analysis machines and transportation and storage variances. Obviously dehydration is a huge factor in post-race tests, particularly in very hot conditions.
"For example, one of the tests was done immediately after finishing a half marathon in Portugal in midday temperatures of approximately 30C heat.
"The Sunday Times recently attempted to obtain the consent of athletes to publish their stolen medical data, asserting behind the scenes to the effect that if consent isn’t given it will look like an athlete has something to hide and may therefore be guilty of doping. This was effectively tantamount to blackmail, and plainly unacceptable. I was extremely disturbed to see how young athletes preparing for the World Championships were upset and confused by the intrusion and demands of these journalists.
"A further important point is that cheats wishing to know the normal ranges were being given very valuable information and assistance by the Sunday Times. For these reasons and primarily the need for qualified interpretation with all relevant context, the sport’s governing bodies requested that athletes should not release their blood data. I was happy to stand with them.
"Although I have nothing to fear in terms of what the data shows, because I have nothing to hide and have done nothing wrong, it should be remembered that what is being discussed is confidential medical data which has been stolen or leaked.
"Such partial and historic data is of little value on its own, and, can only result in further misinterpretation and speculation. One expert said to me that trying to evaluate the data in question, shorn of context, is like trying to put speed values on a car without knowing whether the readings show miles per hour or kilometers per hour.
"Another senior independent expert who Wada recommended and who is head of the Wada accredited laboratory in Lausanne was asked at my request to review the data following the Sunday Times articles (without being told my identity). He concluded that:
“Evaluation of Profile [redacted] - Review of Blood Data from 2001 -2008 I looked carefully the data which are part of the profile [redacted]. To my knowledge, they were obtained through several technologies. Moreover, data obtained for example in Vilamoura in 2003, with bloods collected before and right after the half marathon, ran in hot conditions, are typically showing effects of confounding factors. The increase of 2.8 in Hb (and no significant effect on ret%) is due to a drastic hemo-concentration caused by the specific race conditions. This post-race value, as most of the others, today would not be validated, and then not be implemented in a real biological passport.
"Therefore, I consider that any interpretation of this profile, which would be done by ignoring the confounding factors cited above, is abusive.
"Furthermore, any interpretation of these data implemented in an individual and longitudinal blood profile between 2001 and 2008 can be considered to my eyes as intellectually dishonest and scientifically biased.”
"And here lies the problem, incomplete data can be incorrectly interpreted, and indeed, has been in my case by the Sunday Times. I would like to reiterate my abhorrence at having fingers falsely pointed at me and being accused of having suspicious blood results and therefore of possibly cheating in the sport I love. I have never resorted to cheating in any form whatsoever at any time in my career.
"I welcome further investigation if it is necessary, however, multiple experts having already concluded contemporaneously and following the Sunday Times’ articles that there is simply no case to answer. I will continue to fully support and help the quest to find and remove those who cast a huge shadow over athletics which sadly threatens to envelop the innocent along with the guilty."