Blood on Their Hands: Flawed Statistical Modeling Endangering Athletes Everywhere

By Steven V. Selthoffer, Swimming World Senior European Correspondent

BERLIN, Germany, April 30. "THERE are lies, damn lies, and statistics," the term, popularized by Mark Twain, so clearly revealed. Olympic athletes and others are now in danger of prosecution from a single, blood parameter in their blood profile even if it is only one percent off, slightly outside a statistics-based threshold, (well, it depends on how you calculate it, and there are different ways).

It also depends on who wants to prosecute it, and who makes the decision and how. A number of people, or institutions can. Not just your NADA (national anti-doping agency) or your own national sport federation (NF).

An athlete, 100 percent clean, never doping, (never even thinking of it), carefully watching their diets, supporting numerous charities, getting good grades in university, is now not a strong enough defense against a false allegation and possibly a CAS prosecution and a long entanglement clearing your name and career, if a doping-related blood parameter lay slightly outside a statistical threshold.

Dark Clouds and Secrecy
Regarding the Claudia Pechstein case and these issues, there have never been so many experts, present and former anti-doping executives, attorneys and other sport officials wanting to be off-the-record, only meeting or calling confidentially, and not wanting their name or opinion known, regarding the blood passport system and the prosecution of Pechstein. This is cause for concern. Throughout this article, I have quoted several different anonymous experts. As explained, they all have requested anonymity before being allowed to be quoted.

The longer your career and the increase in the number of entries in your blood profile or blood passport system, you will most likely have an abnormal value occur in the future. "With lots of testing, you will eventually have a value outside the norm due to chance," stated one expert.

We are not talking about athletes who cheat. We are not talking about athletes who dope, or who miss out-of-competition, anti-doping tests. Not at all. We are not even talking about athletes with questionable moral values, or those with personal relationships or associations that raise concerns.

We are talking about clean, healthy, athletes who now are "on the radar screen," and others who are allegedly the victims of flawed, statistics-based, prosecution behind the blood passport system and other procedural, decision-making fallacies in the course of their prosecution.

One expert said, "Approximately, 250,000 samples are evaluated each year in sports. A certainty level of only 95% means you will automatically have nearly 12,500 bogus doping cases each year."

"Adding the values of the blood passport system into the prosecution for PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) makes everything more complicated, and the expertise hasn't caught up yet," said one anti-doping expert.

Even defense attorneys can sometimes have a wrong mindset, and pursue a wrong target, jeopardizing time, resources and an appeal. It takes an entire team approach to handle the new challenges.

Take for instance Olympian Claudia Pechstein, who was banned for two years by the ISU (International Skating Union) in July, 2009, until February 9, 2011. Pechstein was subsequently stripped of her fifth and fourth place finishes in the 500m and 3000m speed skating races at the World All Around Championships in February, 2009.

The Pechstein case is not a "biological passport case," as some say. It's not a "doping case," as others say. It's a "statistical value case," and the efforts to justify bringing it to court, and the extensive and laborious analysis of the blood parameters, creating a global stage for experts to postulate about "doping possibilities" that are only guess work, to justify their opinions and the legal action. No steroids, no rhEPO, no CERA or anything else in more than 10 years has ever been found in her blood and urine. Nothing.

It's about applying one set of statistics against someone else's set, and the athletes are caught in the middle.

Keeping Sport Clean and Safe
The sport world wants biological passports. They are needed. However, blood profiling and the statistical processes and procedures international federations are using in the process of anti-doping is still an evolving science, only in its infancy. It is imperfect. There are gaps and flaws in the anti-doping system.

In-competition and out-of-competition testing in doping control looks for PEDs (performance enhancing drugs), amphetamines, steroids and other classes of drugs that will automatically disqualify an athlete immediately if found in the urine or blood. All good. All necessary in the fight for clean sports.

However, now, with the newly developed blood passports questions are arising.

The following are excerpts from Selthoffer's full article raising and discussing all the issues. The unedited article can be downloaded by clicking here.

Flawed Statistical Models
With Pechstein in Hamar, NOR, her RET% (reticulocyte) level was 1.05% off the norm. The ISU (International Skating Union) apparently ran a statistical analysis, and then consulted with a panel of experts according to the ISU rules and WADA guidelines.

Did they run the statistical model, as an onsite calculation in Hamar? Were they in place to do it? If not, who did it? How? What drove the decision making criteria with Pechstein?

The Balance of Power Shifts
It seems that all that the IOC has done for decades to inspire the world with wonderful, breathtaking moments in sports, all that the various OCOGs have produced every quadrennial period, the intense, hard work of the 25 Olympic Commissions, the 33 international federations, the 205 NOCs, the host broadcasters, the TOP sponsors, the podium finishes, the medal ceremonies, all that the coaches have done, the athletes, the years of training, the families, everything that fathers and mothers believe in, and who have worked so hard to achieveā€¦ all of it can be wiped out, instantly and softly, within a second, by one lab technician, or a few others, expressing their opinions that a blood value is outside of the statistical threshold, recommending the prosecution of the athlete.

A lab official, armed with an anomaly, and access to another sport federation official, can encourage, or support, or recommend suspending an athlete for a blood value anomaly, that later begins the process of legal proceedings against the athlete for "doping." The lifetime of effort, the victories and medals are instantly tarnished. Now you must fight the entire system.

According to many, the Pechstein-CAS case should never have happened.

Statistical Models Given Too Much Credibility
Many feel, the outcome of these statistical models should never play a solo or even a major role, in determining whether to prosecute an athlete or not. They should only be used for screening purposes.

The World Anti-Doping Agency Mission Statement
WADA's mission is to promote, coordinate and monitor the fight against doping in sport in all its forms. That's good. That is necessary, and what we all have fought to bring about in sports for decades.

However, it's time to examine and improve the "monitoring the fight" aspect to ensure best-methods and best-practices are utilized everywhere, in order to raise the level of excellence in the organization and bring damaging "friendly fire" incidents to light and reduce them to a zero.

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? (Who watches the guards?)
Klaas Faber, PhD., CEO, Chemometry Consultancy, Beek-Ubbergen, NED, wrote the defense for Pechstein. If flawed science and faulty statistics are the problem, Faber knows where to find the solution. Flipping through 200 pages of scientific and court documents, Faber can slice the issues down to a few core points- in half a minute.

"Currently, the athletes are in a weak legal position. Athletes cannot really challenge the science. Doping trials are extremely unfair. The prosecutors have an advantage. The authorities are not really honest about this. Perhaps, they are not aware," said Faber.

Question Authority
To comply with the anti-doping regulations, an athlete must tell where they will be for one hour each day, months in advance. They must cooperate fully with any out-of-competition doping test, immediately. At competitions, the same thing applies. 100% instant cooperation.

Why aren't the anti-doping authorities that way? Why is it so difficult to get basic answers? They are not held to the same standards as the athletes.

Bundeskriminalamt Home Search
On March 4th and 5th, 2010, Pechstein's home was searched by the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA is the Federal Criminal Police Office) in a planned, early morning, operation. That is the same special police unit responsible for state security, organized crime, weapons trafficking and terrorism with 5,500 employees from more than 70 different professional groups.

They used the BKA to search the home of an ice-skater. FOR WHAT???

A Cause for Concern- Little or No Flexibility in the Future
How does an athlete like Pechstein defend herself against such statements? What about other speed skaters with RET% values like Pechstein? Will the experts be able to say the same thing about them? Even if they are 18 years old? Can the CAS verdict then be shifted on to others, so that it will always be about CERA and micro doses of rhEPO in the future? Will they always assume that young athletes have access to rogue doctors, and sophisticated doping supply chain networks to facilitate the verdict?

The Politics of Personal Destruction- The Cost to the Athletes
What is emerging in the analysis of these cases is the little value placed on the lives of the athletes, before, during and after the processes. Many feel it is time to examine the human cost to the athletes from all sides regarding their emotional, psychological, medical and financial health as they battle charges against them in CAS.

Enough is Enough
Some leading anti-doping executives and some scientists say "it's about facts." On the contrary, it's about truth. Facts can be assembled in a variety of different ways and forms, all fair, however, they can be expertly woven and presented to support a wrong conclusion and allegation that is used mainly to justify many experts presence and opinions, and in bringing the case to court, when it shouldn't have ever come at all.

Athletes deserve the right to compete free from the fear of the anti-doping authorities they support and endorse, and free from fear from any human suspicion from any international federation authorities. The athletes have a personal right to know where they stand at all times.

It is difficult dealing with statistics, thousands of athletes, and the desire to keep sports clean. But, the absence of checks and balances in anti-doping and/or with the Pechstein case needs to be examined.

Clean athletes who have been harmed by the international federations and anti-doping authorities, with various statistical models and faulty analysis want more than money. They want blood. No half measures in her exoneration.

Doping and cheating is a character issue, not a single value, statistical issue.

Claudia Pechstein is innocent. Deal with it.

About the Author
Steven V. Selthoffer is a communication specialist based in Germany who has coached a number of Olympic swimmers and who served as a commentator for swimming for the 2000 Sydney Games. He has been called to testify before a number of government committees in Washington D.C., the United Kingdom and Germany on various international government relation and security issues.

Mr. Selthoffer finished his career, swimming at Indiana University under legendary U.S. Olympic coach, Dr. James E. Counsilman.