The Value of An Athlete: Claudia Pechstein Defended by Medical Experts

By Steven V. Selthoffer

BERLIN, Germany, March 19. THE Deutschen Gesellschaft für Hämatologie und Onkologie (DGHO) represented by senior physicians, Dr. Andreas Weimann, Charite, Berlin, and Dr. Norbert Schmitz, supervising doctor, Department of Hemotology and Stem Cell Transplantation, Askelpios Clinic, St. Georg, and other scientists, in a press conference in Berlin, March 15, 2009, have publicly come out in support of five-time Olympic gold medalist, Claudia Pechstein, GER, saying that the cause of the single anomaly in her blood test is most likely due to a very, "mild form of spherocytosis," a genetic disorder in the blood, most likely transmitted genetically from her father, that would have caused a deviation of 1% in her reticulyte levels.

Top winter Olympian, Pechstein 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.

"More than 800,000 Germans are estimated to have it," stated Dr. Andreas Weimann, senior physician, Charite, Berlin. Apparently, spherocytosis is not easy to detect. Dr. Schmitz explained, that even if you were looking for it, it would be difficult to detect in hundreds of blood profiles. Many people go their entire life not knowing they have it in any form, thus, never having it detected and correctly diagnosed.

The Importance of the Case To Swimming Athletes
Why is this case so important? Because all clean athletes are threatened by the possibility of being falsely accused of "indirect" doping through one value of circumstantial evidence alone, and the subsequent suspensions and possible court cases arising from questionable evidence. Each athlete would then have to defend him or herself from a matrix of possibilities and a combination of factors most likely, costing millions of dollars.

According to experts, not everyone produces new red blood cells in perfectly systematic and equal amounts. Sometimes red blood cells are produced and released from the bone marrow in slightly greater quantities than at other times in the body. Apparently, much of the science and reticulyte percentages applied in the Pechstein case, are not sufficient to cover her or other large populations of people. As more and more athletes come into the Olympic Movement through various sports, it makes the former committee-generated parameters obsolete. How many global or large scale population studies have been done on reticulyte levels? When have they been updated? No one we spoke too could give a definitive answer.

The Wind Shifts in Pechstein's Favor
Pechstein had all the circumstances going against her. But, now, a growing number of hemotologists, leading blood and medical experts are unsolicited, coming out against the CAS ruling and the ISU on behalf of Pechstein. Thus, demonstrating the divisions in the global medical community and highlighting concerns other anti-doping experts have been expressing for some time regarding challenging the accepted norms, medical grey areas and the absence of clear, established science. In the anti-doping movement, the legal side is going too far and too fast, in relation to the medical and scientific side of things.

Gerhard Ehninger, Chairman, der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Hämatologie und Onkologie (DGHO) said from the results of Pechstein's blood tests, that the accusation of any use of performance enhancing drugs was "untenable." "The increase in cell count for a short time span released from the bone marrow, is not from performance enhancing drugs."

Dr. Wolfgang Jelkmann, Director of the Institute for Physiology, University of Lübeck, also stated, "In the face of the medical facts, Pechstein should be absolved. From the data and results of the past 10 years, the assertion of performance enhancing drugs, or EPO cannot be sustained. Many readings (blood test data) contradict any performance enhancing drugs."

Another top hemotology expert, Dr. Winfried Gassmann, Senior Physician, Hemotology Lab, Marienkrankenhaus, Siegburg, has previously come out in support of Pechstein, drafting an unsolicited 32-page report, condemning the CAS ruling and the lab work done on Pechstein.

In the media, complaints also have surfaced that other experts have criticized CAS because certain medical experts were being excluded from the case. They want to know why and how experts were chosen, and why others were not permitted to give testimony on behalf of Pechstein.

In the Pechstein case, it appears from statements and media reports, that scientists and attorneys in a collective zeal, were moving into uncharted science and legal territory in an attempt to establish a legal precedent and new framework for indirect doping.

One leading expert said, "There was a mentality within the anti-doping community to establish… to be able to get athletes for indirect doping. That is a good thing, to be able to look for certain signs and signatures for violations. But, only in using a combination of factors. And not in this case. They rushed to judgment. In their zeal to establish the first precedent, they chose the wrong person."

"If you are an athlete, and you are falsely accused, the whole system is against you. There is no fair playing field, especially with some of the gray areas in the sciences. No one has done all the research, and these are new areas."

Indirect evidence of doping is one thing, but, a zeal to hastily establish a legal precedent, by various organizational sports governing bodies, on only one slight anomaly, thus, ruining the career of a distinguished and honorable Olympic athlete is another thing.

Single category circumstantial evidence alone, with no history even remotely of doping, is a threat to all athletes.

A Finding of One Percent Off
The ISU parameter for reticulytes is from 0.4% to 2.4% as being "normal." However, Pechstein's measurement was 1.05% over the limit with a 3.45% level (just once), then a 0.98% of a percentage point over the limit, with a 3.38% the next day, and 11 days later it was measured at 1.37%. She was also reported to have the flu after racing.

Only one measurement, was 0.98% to 1.05% over the limit. Only one factor. Only one slight anomaly, out of 95 anti-doping tests for more than 10 years.

Legal Reasoning
In its 66-page ruling, CAS stated, "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."

In light of the new evidence given at the Berlin press conference, can't we use the same flawed legal reasoning to now assume she is innocent? "The court of public opinion finds that we must, therefore, derive from the authorities' illicit manipulation of the information, which remains the only reasonable alternative source of such abnormal conclusions, therefore we declare she is innocent."

Exoneration of Pechstein and the Settlement
It is now time for truth and justice to prevail. It was reported that now the ISU (International Skating Union) has acknowledged that the symptoms of the disease could exist. Which is the beginning of an open door for the exoneration of Pechstein.

But, this is no simple story. Stopping the suspension from competition is not the complete picture or answer in this case.

An Athlete's Agony
What about Pechstein? No one has told the full story. Who has taken the time to understand the point of view from the athlete's perspective? What about Pechstein's own personal internal anguish and agony? The humiliation? The condemnation? The sleepless nights? The ostracizing and rejection as being labeled a doping cheat and from being suspended for "doping" and having a lifetime of work disqualified, due to a 1% point reticulyte reading? Pechstein has even been criticized for launching a public defense of herself.

There is no other position or career where such a single, minute, data interpretation, turned into a false accusation can so completely destroy a person and a lifetime of distinguished and inspiring achievement as with a false doping allegation against an athlete in sports.

Pechstein has proved she is a force to be reckoned with. She went loud. She went big. She went public. She could do a better job at protecting athlete's rights than most Board members of the DOSB, ISU, NADA, and the other organizations. Her future plans seem to be laid out and established all ready.

What is the value of an athlete to the Olympic Games? It appears from this case, as she has been treated, not much.

The Olympic values Pechstein has exhibited on and off the ice rink are worth taking notice. She has stayed cool and firm through every phase of this ordeal. Not diminishing her contribution to sports.

President Jacque Rogge, IOC, said "Athletes are our raison d'être." Hope so. Now, let's see what a five-time Olympic, gold medal, athlete is financially worth to the IOC, DOSB, and ISU in the reversal, restoration and settlement phase of this case.

* Due to the number of technical and medical translations from German into English, we apologize in advance for any inaccuracies of any quotes or statement summaries. Thank you.

** We would like to thank Anja Berninger, Director, Legal Department, NADA, Bonn, Germany for her contribution, clarifications and analysis.