Thursday 18 July 2019

Curious case of the positive test, the destroyed sample and the lurking questions

Five years on the shadow won’t go away but the experience of former Irish athlete Steven Colvert shows how anti-doping is far from black and white

Steven Colvert says if he had his time back again there’s no way he would want to be an Irish athlete. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Steven Colvert says if he had his time back again there’s no way he would want to be an Irish athlete. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

In December, a letter was slipped through Steven Colvert's door in Inchicore.

Sent from Sport Ireland, it was a box-tick response to his telling them more than two months earlier that his days on the track were over. On the surface, the bland content was simply in keeping with the matter, as his time might as well have been up since failing an EPO test in 2014 anyway.

Dear Steven,

Many thanks for your correspondence received on 1st October 2018.

Please note as per Article 5.9.4 of the Irish Anti-Doping Rules you will need to give notice regarding return to competition ...

May I take this opportunity to wish you all the best in your retirement and your future activities. Thank you for your support of the anti-doping programme over the last few years.

Yours sincerely,

Siobhan Leonard

Director of Anti-Doping & Ethics

After everything that had gone on, it seemed like two angry relatives agreeing to be civil for one afternoon but, while that was the authorities' cutting him out of their hair as if matted chewing gum, he was having none of it. Especially after the wording of that last paragraph for reasons that will become clear. Besides, here we are five years on from his positive test and, according to all official records, he's a cheat.

"That's inaccurate," the 28-year-old says. "So that's what kind of drives me to do what I can to change things.

"They all say that though," I tell him, reminding it's harder to find a guilty person in prison than someone there by right.

"Oh I get that," he retorts. "The minute I protested, I was aware of that. I know what people thought. Absolutely. Incredulous. I knew the perception."

It's against that backdrop he's been fighting hopelessly it seems at times. By now you may have forgotten his case, but how can he? For instance having graduated in law in November, only this month did he start this job hunt. That suddenly comes with an extra hurdle.

It reminds of how little we think about the person and their existence, in the hunt to bury the athlete.

* * *

Even when he was missing out on the A standard for the 2012 Olympics by just one-hundredth of a second, Steven Colvert barely registered on the Irish sporting seismograph. So why are we back at the scene of the crime, still examining?

It's because his is an insight into what we don't consider in this realm, never mind what too often we don't know.

His story is one that should make you question everything you know about drug taking in sport and those over it.

"Anti-doping is in need of reform," he opines. "If you look at the scientific facts of my case minus the opinions of those with a somewhat vested interest in the status quo, it speaks for itself. In terms of the reliability of their testing, is it up to scratch? Do they know their job?"

He asks that rhetorically. Little wonder.

It's another take on the Floyd Landis argument that anti-doping doesn't work as it's a one-way street. There is supposed to be respect from the competitor for the authorities, but that isn't often reciprocated. So how can there be trust? And if no trust, how can there be clean sport?

Back in 2014 when Colvert got the call from the Irish Sports Council, he thought it was a joke. They told him it was serious and soon after he traveled to the WADA lab in Cologne to watch them open his B sample. They explained the process and he was assured that positives were stored and kept. Meanwhile "just to back that up I requested the sample be frozen too at the expense of myself to have it there. You know, to make it really clear it would be kept."

He shouldn't have had to force it home as page 14 of WADA's own athlete reference guide says they keep even negative samples for a decade. Guess what though? His sample was later destroyed.

"There were a lot of ah-here-now moments, that was just one more of them. To the eye anyway, you could put the urine that was left in a vat, reseal and store. It wasn't like scrapings of a tiny amount but they said there wasn't enough. It didn't sit well but it was a case of then getting legal representation to challenge the decision but there was roadblock after roadblock."

As an example, come the disciplinary hearing in 2015 his expert Peter Kwasowski, a British biochemist. Kwasowski's testimony was slurred and was therefore unconvincing. That night the reasons behind it became clear as he died in his room in the Maldron Hotel.

Maybe he was guilty, you say? We'll never know and that's the problem because we should. Instead, alongside the two-year suspension, there are just inconsistencies left lingering and no way of proving anything. Plus there are the many questions lurking.

Having later stumbled upon expertise in the area, four Norwegian biologists independently went over his case.

"It is obvious that something is wrong and the problem must be clarified before making any judgment on whether or not Steven Colvert did use rEPO," they said in their findings.

The troubling facts rather than WADA scientific opinions around this went on.

A second method of detecting rEPO in his urine had indicated a 20-fold higher ratio in synthetic rEPO to naturally-occurring EPO than the WADA lab had claimed was indicated by the first method. As one of the Norwegian scientists, Dr Tore Skotland, added: "The different results obtained with two methods show there is something wrong with the work performed by the laboratory. It should be obvious to all scientists something is wrong when results that are so different are obtained from two methods. We are really worried that the laboratory staff did not recognise this obvious discrepancy."

Don Catlin, the father of drug testing, even looked at his results and announced, "Negative", without doubt. He then also added that, in his opinion, the people in the lab "don't know what they were doing".

At best his positive test was open to interpretation but in the legal system there's a need to prove beyond reasonable doubt. But here was science saying there's doubt but we just know. The exact term used is subjective expertise - and this is ruled inadmissible by CAS, the highest court in such matter.

Despite all this those with power have refused to budge and have always refused to comment. "It's maybe a reputational thing," he continues in terms of WADA. "They were looking for people to truly believe they are without fault. But if you're an organisation and can't say you are wrong when at fault, then things need to change. I think even at an Irish level too, if I'd been one of the more front-and-centre athletes, it would've been a case of what can we do to protect them. 'Now we've huge evidence to the contrary, it's enough to go back and reinvestigate this'."

There is an angle on that element that perhaps involves going too far down the wormhole. Within some circles, the theory had been floated that the sample belonged to someone more high profile, although there is zero evidence. Colvert says he no longer knows what to believe, however it didn't stop that athlete getting in contact.

"There were people asking. Close to this person - friends and colleagues. They'd ring me up and say they saw this person and that person on forums and social media posting this theory. They wanted to know if I'd any details. Their name, their club, where they trained, who their coach was, even phone numbers and addresses. It was strange. Weird. I also got a phone call from this athlete claiming I started the rumour, they were really aggressive. I said, 'Look, I think it's the lab's fault'. But it's strange and a bit intense. You think, 'What's going on here?'"

As for what's going on now, we've moved on having had our fill, even without the facts that emerged long after most stopped caring. That's a great indictment of our willingness to learn and understand. For think about the hypocrisy staring us in the face.

Maria Sharapova had the money to line up a team of lawyers to argue her case. When it came to Chris Froome failing a test, WADA said the onus was on them to prove that positive, but it would involve replicating the exact conditions in the midst of a grand tour which they could never do.

As for Covert, he was told he had to disprove a sample they'd gotten rid of against their own guidelines.

Some are more equal than others.

"They are making the rules, playing by their own rules. What applies to me doesn't apply to Chris Froome and people where there's more money. This isn't my take. It's all out there in fact. Maybe my treatment would have been different if I was further up the food chain. People can say move on but it doesn't sit right with me. And CAS? There's costs involved in that."

Black-and-white

Besides, there's already been a massive cost to both him and those closest to him. And while doping isn't the black-and-white area people like to pigeon-hole offenders into, and while anti-doping despite seemingly being science clearly isn't as his case shows, there's a life beyond that.

"At the time athletics was everything. Friends, my college - athletics was central to all that so when the accusations came out it all fell to pieces. It was tough. In the years after 2015 I went to a really dark place. I was quite social before all of this but most of my friends around then haven't heard from me since as your head goes to bits.

"My family worried sick. My mother was always concerned that I might do something harmful to myself. I've tried to build off of it I guess, and resettle myself. I went back and got my Masters too and DCU were always fantastic but the dark side of things raises it's head every now and again. When I graduated with my Masters, during graduation the president commended me on my sports for the university and that was a weight off, it meant so much.

"It's not over though."

Google his name and see what comes up. Now imagine you are an employer seeing that.

"In business your reputation is everything," he says. "This is misrepresentative yet I'm sure if has affected me in terms of job opportunities as it's a dishonesty offence and people are going to be wary of that. That shadow won't go away, and I don't think WADA will ever hold their hand up and I don't think Sport Ireland would do anything until it's a high-profile athlete in a similar situation and then the optics are right.

"That should worry a lot of athletes across sports here. Like I had a few good years in athletics, sure. But if I could go back in time and you asked me if I wanted to be an Irish athlete, I'd say, 'No way'. Because of this sport I have been to hell."

And he's nowhere near back.

Irish Independent

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