In light of questions that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) continues to receive from the media and other stakeholders concerning the case of Italian race walker, Alex Schwazer, WADA wishes to share the following statement, which re-confirms its position on this matter (including its 18 February 2021 statement) and addresses some key questions of this case.
On 18 February, an investigating judge in Bolzano, Judge Walter Pelino, made a series of accusations against World Athletics, the anti-doping laboratory in Cologne, and WADA. These were not findings in a judgment rendered after a trial of those three bodies, in which they had been properly confronted with the accusations and given a full and fair opportunity to defend themselves. Instead, they were made in a pre-trial decree issued by the investigating judge in criminal proceedings relating to Alex Schwazer. Nor does WADA, World Athletics, or the Cologne laboratory have any right of appeal against these accusations.
The lack of fairness and due process is obvious. WADA is therefore forced to defend itself publicly, so that fair-minded observers can understand the true facts and make their own assessment. It would take many pages to correct all of the mistakes and misunderstandings in the investigating judge’s decree. In this statement, therefore, WADA addresses only the central accusation, namely that Mr. Schwazer was framed by spiking his urine sample with synthetic testosterone.
Mr. Schwazer’s anti-doping rule violations
Mr. Schwazer is a race walker from the Bolzano region of Italy who won gold in the men’s 50km race at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. In July 2012, just before the London Olympics, Mr. Schwazer tested positive for EPO and was subsequently banned from sport for three and a half years. He was also prosecuted in Bolzano for doping (which is a crime in Italy), and entered into a plea bargain after admitting intentionally taking EPO and testosterone.
World Athletics had a further sample collected from Mr. Schwazer on 1 January 2016, as the end of his ban approached. The anti-doping laboratory in Cologne reported the sample negative for prohibited substances after initial routine testing. It detected testosterone in the sample, but the body produces some testosterone naturally (‘endogenously’), and there was nothing on the face of the screening results to indicate that the testosterone in Mr. Schwazer’s sample was synthetic.
However, the results of elite athletes are tracked over time in the Athlete Biological Passport system in order to identify suspicious profiles, and when the independent Athlete Passport Management Unit (APMU) at the anti-doping laboratory in Montreal reviewed Mr. Schwazer’s anonymized profile, it noticed that the steroid values in the January 2016 sample were inconsistent with the other steroid values in the profile. It therefore asked the Cologne laboratory to test the January 2016 sample again using a specific technique – isotope-ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) – to determine whether the testosterone in the sample was natural or synthetic. The IRMS testing showed that the testosterone was synthetic (a fact that Mr. Schwazer has never disputed), and therefore Mr. Schwazer was charged with a second doping offence.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) heard the case in July 2016. It rejected the various complaints that Mr. Schwazer made about the handling and testing of his sample, including his allegation that the sample must have been tampered with, and banned him for eight more years, the lengthy ban reflecting the fact that it was his second offence (CAS 2016/A/4707).
Criminal proceedings against Mr. Schwazer
WADA was involved neither in the collection of the sample from Mr. Schwazer in January 2016, nor in the Cologne laboratory’s initial testing of that sample, nor in the APMU’s request that the sample be re-tested using IRMS, nor in that subsequent re-testing. However, when criminal proceedings were opened against Mr. Schwazer in Bolzano after the CAS banned him for a second doping offence, WADA was invited to participate as an aggrieved party and offered its support to the Bolzano court. At no point was WADA told that it was being investigated for any alleged wrongdoing. Instead, the case was only about whether Mr. Schwazer should be prosecuted for doping under Italian criminal law.
The accusation that the sample was tampered with to frame Mr. Schwazer
The investigating judge was provided with urine left over from Mr. Schwazer’s 1 January 2016 sample, and ordered further testing of that sample, which confirmed that the urine contained only Mr. Schwazer’s DNA.
The investigating judge has now decided that an unidentified person secretly obtained a third party’s sample that contained synthetic testosterone, exposed it to ultra violet rays to remove all traces of that third party’s DNA, mixed it with Mr. Schwazer’s January 2016 urine sample, then heated the combined sample to increase the concentration of synthetic testosterone in the (combined) sample.
The key evidence the judge relies on to make that finding is the fact that one aliquot (portion) of Mr. Schwazer’s January 2016 B sample, when tested for DNA more than two years later, contained Mr. Schwazer’s DNA at a concentration of approximately 2,500 pg/µL. The court-appointed expert opined that, given degradation over time, at the time of collection the DNA concentration in the sample could have been as high as 18,969 pg/µL. The investigating judge decided that concentration was outside the range of DNA concentrations that would be seen in a healthy human such as Mr. Schwazer. He therefore concluded that the sample must have been spiked and concentrated in the manner described above.
In response, WADA notes the following:
- Neither WADA, nor World Athletics, nor the Cologne laboratory, nor anyone else involved with the doping control in this case, had any plausible motive for committing such an outrageous act.
- Mr. Schwazer transferred the urine that he provided on 1 January 2016 into two sealed glass bottles (A and B). There were no breaches in the external chain of custody of the sample (transportation from doping control to the laboratory) or in the internal chain of custody (within the laboratory). The CAS Panel found, after hearing witness testimony from the doping control officer who collected the sample as well as from the courier, that the transport of the sample from Racines (place of residence of Mr Schwazer) to Cologne (including the overnight storage in the offices of the sample collection agency in Stuttgart) occurred in a manner that protected its “integrity, identity and security”. The CAS Panel also found, based on a thorough examination of the Laboratory Documentation Package and witness evidence from the Cologne laboratory staff, that all the movements of the sample within the Cologne laboratory were “properly documented”. None of the witnesses relevant to the external or internal chain of custody was ever examined by Judge Pelino.
- Mr. Schwazer’s January 2016 sample was anonymized, and so no one at the Cologne laboratory knew it belonged to him, either when they conducted the initial testing of the A sample, or when they conducted the IRMS testing of the A sample and found that the testosterone it contained was synthetic. Nor did anyone at the Montreal APMU know that the steroid profile they were looking at belonged to Mr. Schwazer when they saw an anomaly and requested the specific IRMS test.
- The CAS Panel, which (unlike Judge Pelino) examined representatives of the Cologne and Montreal laboratories, specifically found that “no breach of the anonymity of the sample and of the anonymity of the Appellant occurred” and, in particular, that the Cologne laboratory staff “had no clue to whom the 1 January Sample belonged”.
- Mr. Schwazer’s representatives were present in the Cologne laboratory in July 2016 for the opening of his B sample from January 2016 (the reserve sample). They confirmed that the sample seal was intact and there was no sign of tampering. The investigating judge notes that evidence emerged during the subsequent McLaren investigation that ‘magicians’ in the Russian secret service (FSB) had worked out how to open and close sealed sample bottles without leaving any trace. Apparently, Judge Pelino thinks that the (world-renowned) Cologne laboratory had also worked out how to do this, separately and independently from the FSB and was ready, willing, and able to do it to Mr. Schwazer’s sample so that it could be spiked with synthetic testosterone. What was the Cologne laboratory’s motivation to behave in this way? The investigating judge does not say.
- Furthermore, if the intent was to frame Mr. Schwazer, why spike his sample with a substance that would not be distinguishable, in routine testing, from endogenous testosterone? Why leave it to chance that the independent APMU would subsequently spot an anomaly in the steroid profile and call for IRMS testing of the January 2016 sample? Why not simply spike the sample with a well-known steroid that is not produced naturally and is detected easily (e.g. stanozolol), so that instant detection and an immediate charge was certain?
- As for the supposedly decisive evidence – the fact that the concentration of Mr. Schwazer’s DNA in a portion of his January 2016 B sample (projected to have been as high as 18,969 pg/µL at collection) was supposedly outside the normal range for healthy humans – in fact:
- DNA concentrations in urine can vary widely, as urine is a waste product that collects DNA as it leaves the body, not a cellular substance like blood.
- A concentration of 18,969 pg/µL is well within the range of DNA concentrations found in healthy humans. For example, the Lausanne anti-doping laboratory provided evidence that it had found DNA in an athlete’s sample at a concentration in excess of 25,000 pg/µL.
- The DNA concentration found in a sample collected from Mr. Schwazer in July 2016 was 14,013 pg/µL, notwithstanding that that DNA was measured in October 2017, i.e., more than 15 months after the sample was collected, and therefore after having degraded from its original amount.
- For these and other reasons, three independent experts provided clear and unequivocal opinions in the Bolzano proceedings that the DNA concentration in Mr. Schwazer’s January 2016 sample was not abnormal.
- The investigating judge chose to disregard all of this evidence. For example, he suggested that the Lausanne laboratory’s evidence had not been properly filed with him or the court-appointed expert, even though that expert referred to the Lausanne evidence in his first report. This sort of approach is possible when you are not conducting a trial and do not have to follow due process, or to give the people you are accusing a full and fair opportunity to defend themselves and explain what is being missed. But it does not lead to reliable or well-founded accusations.
WADA is shocked that the investigating judge would see fit to issue a decree making these very serious accusations without first giving WADA or the other parties an adequate opportunity to defend themselves. That is not due process. WADA utterly rejects the allegations made against it by the investigating judge. So too will any fair-minded observer who is prepared to listen objectively to all of the evidence.
The original article can be found here.