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The Colombian Hematocrit Case

On May 27th, the Colombian Federation quietly issued a press release stating that following WADA’s and it’s own resolutions (one suspiciously dated May 11th), 16 athletes (senior & junior) were to be excluded from the national trials for Cali ’07 due to high levels in their hematocrit counting, making a point that under no circumstance this should be considered a doping case. See it here >> (in Spanish)



As it is, it sounded (and smelled) like a huge stinker since the very beginning. Nevertheless, some people around the world quickly pointed their fingers and accused these young athletes of being dopers, something that’s hard to prove… but the bad rap is even harder to stop, as everyone reasonably involved in speedskating knows.
A case like this had no precedent in our sport, so it was worth to investigate further into the subject. I collected as much data as I could from June, and the matter was definitely solved just before the World Championships ended, but I think it was best to bring it back now, before some of the implicated athletes show up on the final two WIC races this season to somehow prove their innocence.

Preliminaries and facts

You might remember that early this season Mr Elias del Valle was removed from his position as National Team Coach, after a ridiculous disciplinary action being taken against him and a few athletes, for a silly stupid joke that was made last year during Anyang’s Worlds. Elias found out about the joke later on, but in spite of that he was considered accountable, since the whole team’s discipline burdens on his shoulders. Now, who accused him in the first place? The father of the junior skater that was objective of the joke (which is a common practice among Latin-American teams: what’s called a “baptism” for rookies in their first Worlds). This gentleman happens to be very close to Mr Carlos Orlando Ferreira. Maybe not as close as Elias used to be… before he got sentimentally involved with Carlos Orlando ex-wife. Got it?

After Del Valle’s demise, apparently the climate was not really joyful inside the prospected national team, which included a large number of his pupils in its ranks. While the final trials were being completed in Cali, on May 25th, several Federation’s officials unexpectedly showed up to collect blood samples at 6:30am in the hotels where all the athletes lodged… not quite following WADA protocols this time (especially considering there were junior athletes in the mix); yet the Federation is entitled to do so. The samples were taken to a private laboratory to be analyzed: another non-WADA issue, since it should be the National Olympic Comitee’s lab the ONLY one authorized to carry such analysis and recommend athletes dismissal from national teams; then again, the Federation has the rights to act this way.
The results were known more than 24 hours later, the concerned athletes immediately excluded from the trials. The percentages shown in those results are, to say the least, surmising. WADA’s indication marks values of 50% (for men) and 48% (for women) as possible sign of something weird going on (for populations living at sea level), but medical authorities consider that a little more than 50% could well be normal in certain cases (see here >>). Andres Felipe Muñoz’ case is epitomical: he’s got 51.3%. Apparently his was the higher level found amongst all the 16 skaters on the “official” test, yet he’s suitably documenting levels between 47% and 49% in tests done in the days immediately prior and after the Federation’s raid, conducted by private hospitals and even by the local Red Cross. Most of the involved skaters did it as well, even in the same laboratory used by the federation, and got consistently lower levels. Some of them asked about a counter-test: “it was done and results are the same”, they were told by officers. But those counter-test results are nowhere to be found, and the samples taken were destroyed right away as per sanitary protocols. It must be said, however, that since no doping was formally declared, a counter-test was not supposed to be prescribed, as per WADA directions. Please note: doping levels are in the 60% area for hematocrit counting.
Let’s consider now some of the physiological and environmental factors that can temporarily increase the hematocrit levels on a person:
● body position during sample collection
● time of the day
● local temperature
● duration of tourniquet being applied
● hydratation and nutrition
● circadian rhythm variations
● training level
● all of the above
Think for a minute: if you were 17 and placidly sleeping, then all of a sudden a huge ugly chap wakes you up in the middle of the night to insert a needle in your arm… Do you think your values would have been normal? Let me tell you I would have been in need of a fresh pair of briefs, myself.
But the most important factor is that many of these skaters live and train at high altitude, hence their naturally superior levels in hematocrite percentage. Moreover, the error margin this test usually has is rather steep, even with well calibrated instruments and properly trained personnel… It should be taken into account that all this happened in a country that doesn’t excel precisely for its flawless procedural policies and professional accuracy: the monumental clumsiness recently seen at Cali during a certain global tournament should be more than enough proof about that.

The implicated skaters formed a coalition, hired a lawyer and demanded the Federation through Cali’s Court of Justice to perform new tests in order to clean up their names. The judge’s response, unsurprisingly, favoured the Federation just a couple of days before Worlds were over. The Federation press release stated that the 16 athletes were taken out of the national team “to preserve their health”, but if that was the case, why didn’t they order (or at least suggested) further tests and examinations, since high hematocrit levels can indicate several dangerous pathologies?
Case closed, although the truth is that none of the parties was able (or allowed) to prove beyond any doubt their innocence.

Unanswered questions

Now, even if you didn’t possess all the facts and figures stated above: wouldn’t you ask yourself what was the point in all this mess? Didn’t it look weird to you that 16 of the best Colombian skaters (from different cities and clubs) might be using doping substances, all at the same time? Even juniors, for Chrissake? If the Federation’s officials suspected doping, why didn’t they went forward and carried out conclusive EPO tests? Blood manumissions are out of the question here, since the values shown in tests posterior to the official one are similar: if that method were used, after a day or two the values would have been considerably lower.
A couple of years back I wrote an article in Spanish & Italian regarding the supposed doping use in our sport. It took extensive research, and I compiled my info not only from pro skaters and coaches, but also from cyclists, physiologists, and even a former skating champion that’s a doctor now, specialized in doping. The article’s conclusion is actually obvious: whoever resorted to doping in modern skating, is just plain stupid. In particular, the asking price for EPO and homologous/autologous blood doping treatments (those that are related to high hematocrite levels) are simply not cost-effective given the prizes claimed on the best paid marathons or government grants for World Champs medals. Besides, the physical/physiological requirements of our races (even the harder ones) make this kind of doping simply useless. Well, for the really good skaters, that is.

So, here is my assumption: this is yet another case of personal and political matters mixing with sport, badly gone out of hand, consequently tampering with blameless athletes’ careers. It’s not the first time, it won’t be the last. Fact is, we’ll never know exactly what was left hidden under the carpet in Colombia.
Of course, you’re entitled to have your own opinion regarding this messy affair. But I beg you please: next time something like this arises, get to know what really happened, before lightly accusing a young skater of wrong doings.

M. Bresin © SpeedSk8rs.com

Further reading

WADA: all about hematocrite >>
IAAF: EPO testing protocol >> (pdf)
Hematocrit – Wikipedia >>
Hematocrit – Answers.com >>


Farewell to a friend
Berlin 2007: race report