Claudia Pechstein Anti-Doping Crisis: Lessons for Clean Athletes

By Steven V. Selthoffer

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, December 14. CLAUDIA Pechstein, GER, finished 13th in the 3000m in a time of 4:04.59, on the former Olympic speed skating oval, in a last ditch attempt, failing to qualify among the top eight, for the German Winter Olympic Team for Vancouver 2010.

Pechstein, temporarily cleared to compete in the Salt Lake City World Cup event by a Swiss Court had been in a lengthy battle with the International Skating Union and CAS fighting a two-year ban from the sport for "indirect" doping. Consequently, Pechstein has become the first athlete, ever to be banned from sports over an unexplained, abnormality in her blood screening.

Pechstein, charming, projecting a wholesome image, is Germany's most successful Winter Olympic athlete with nine medals including five golds over the course of three Winter Olympic Games.

Pechstein Did Not Fail a Doping Test
Pechstein has been tested vigorously, (95 times) for more than nine years by German labs utilizing the latest testing procedures, and has never failed an anti-doping test and has denied ever doping. Regardless, the International Skating Union banned her anyway in July 2009, until February 9, 2011, for a single "anomaly" found in a blood sample taken earlier in the year that was slightly, "outside the norm" of her other blood samples in her blood profile. Roughly, a 2.0% to 2.2% deviation of reticulyte levels from the data charts.

Earlier in the year, Pechstein was told to quietly retire from the sport, and that "nothing would be made public." However, believing in her innocence, "I have never taken drugs and my conscience is clear," she chose to go public and fight the abnormal finding, citing laboratory error as the cause. The German Skating Federation supports her, and does not believe she has doped.

On August 6, 2009, Claudia Pechstein, her manager Ralf Grengl, and her attorney, Christian Kraehe, held a press conference at the Ellington Hotel, in Berlin, and with support from other experts, challenged the singular finding. The authorities compared the computer printouts of dozens of samples she had given since 2000, and stated their intent to fight the conclusions and the ban. Subsequently, Pechstein's fifth and fourth places finishes in the 500m and 3000m races at the World All Around Championships in February 2009, were nullified.

Absence of Certainty- More Doubt than Confidence
The Pechstein case is not characterized by senior anti-doping officials stating with confidence, during a press conference, the positive results of a doping test confirming the use of any particular banned substance, but, more by the number of anti-doping experts, active and inactive, observing the case, who do not want to go on record to voice their combined apprehension concerning the single abnormal finding and process, and what they believe are alleged laboratory procedural errors that were coupled with a flawed judicial ruling.

Various sources describe the CAS ruling and outcome as "special and frightening," and "a real nightmare" for her, other athletes and the anti-doping authorities as well.

The CAS Ruling
Pechstein took the matter to the Court of Arbitration and Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland and after lengthy deliberations, the judges, in a 66-page ruling, upheld the ISU two-year ban.

The ruling stated that it "could not be reasonably explained by the various justifications submitted by the athlete nor (explained) by a congenital medical condition…" The ruling also said, that "there were no signs of any detectable blood disease or anomaly."

Therefore, the judicial reasoning is, because there is an abnormality, it is up to the athlete and their team to scientifically prove how it may have occurred.

"The panel finds that they must, therefore, derive from the athlete's illicit manipulation of her own blood, which remains the only reasonable alternative source of such abnormal values."

Since the panel and scientists can't explain the single abnormality in the one test, they concluded that the athlete must have illicitly manipulated her own blood.

Yet, no one is coming forward to offer any reasonable explanation of how and or with what, that could have occurred.

Thus, an athlete is guilty of doping without any record or trace of any banned substance(s).

Frustrated, Pechstein lamented, "It remains inconceivable to me, that I can be suspended without proof on the basis of a single finding which is still very much disputed by science… it remains incomprehensible for me (that this has occurred)."

The "Prove You're Innocent" Trap
One senior source who refused to be identified, stated, that athletes, zealous to prove their innocence by permitting monthly or more than the required federation or NADO on-demand, administered blood tests for their blood passports, open themselves up to a higher degree of risk for procedural or laboratory or human error, thus bringing the athlete and authorities into a nightmare scenario of unforeseen consequences.

For Pechstein "it is incredibly hard for me to accept it."

Pechstein's outstanding career and image is now tainted as she has already begun her two-year ban. Despite her failed qualification attempt for Vancouver 2010, she is not retiring. Her attorney recently stated that she will now take her case to the Swiss Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn the CAS ruling.