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What went wrong in Peter Bol’s doping case? A sports integrity expert explains


Lawyers for Australian 800 meters star Peter Bol say the runner is guilty of doping should fall after two independent labs found no evidence that he had used a banned substance.

Bol has always strongly denied the allegations.

So what went wrong?

How we got here

Bol is a national champion, Commonwealth Games silver medalist and finished fourth at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

He was provisionally suspended in January 2023 after tests suggested he was using a banned substance called “synthetic EPO”.

EPO stands for erythropoietin, which occurs naturally in the body. It is excreted in the kidneys and stimulates the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow.

Synthetic EPO (or rEPO) is made in a lab and is known to improve athletic performance. It was most famous abused by disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Read more: Lance Armstrong accused of ‘blood doping’ and EPO use…so how do they work?

On October 11, 2022, Bol provided an out-of-competition urine sample that was analyzed for a range of banned substances, including synthetic EPO.

The timing is important. While athletes looking to cheat in the off-season often use banned substances to increase their training load, Bol suggested this date falls outside the time when an athlete could benefit from taking synthetic EPO (roughly a three-month window).

On January 10, 2023, Bol advised his October 2022 A sample had tested positive for synthetic EPO and was provisionally suspended.

Bol was also told that another previous sample analyzed for EPO and collected sometime in 2021 was a uncertain result.

Bol’s team believes this is evidence the athlete may have naturally occurring high levels of EPOwhich may have been misinterpreted as synthetic EPO.

Bol has requested that the B sample from 2022 be analysed.

On February 14, 2023, Sport Integrity Australia found it the B-sample gives an atypical result (neither positive nor negative, but an indication that further investigation is required).

Bol’s provisional suspension was lifted, but Sport Integrity Australia said the investigation is “still ongoing”.

Natural vs synthetic EPO

An athlete is unable to take what is left of their original urine sample for retesting by another lab.

However, athletes can get the data, photos and detailed documentation of the procedure being followed by the lab, known as the “lab pack”. The athlete must then find an expert to translate the complex documentation.

Two independent labs have analyzed Bol’s labpack.

One was David Chen, a chemistry professor at the University of British Columbia, and the other was a group of four experts from Norway.

Both claim there was no proof of synthetic EPO in Bol’s sample.

The Norwegian group found it “a large amount of natural EPO” in Bol’s sample, and hypothesized that its atypical result could be due to high naturally occurring levels of EPO.

In an interview with Channel 7 in early March, Bol speculated it could be a Sudanese gift:

It’s in our genetics, of course. We’re fitter, we’re faster, we’re more resilient because of how much we’ve been through and been through. It’s our genetics, it’s who we are. We can get back into shape pretty quickly; (it) doesn’t mean we cheat. It’s how we were born.

While there have been studies on the effect of ethnicity in patients undergoing synthetic EPO treatment, it is not known whether there are ethnic variations in EPO production among elite athletes.

Bol won a silver medal in the men’s 800m final at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Dean Lewins/AAP

There are several ways to make synthetic EPO and the source materials also vary. So identifying variations in what falls within the “normal” range and what is synthetic EPO is becoming increasingly difficult.

Synthetic EPO is also made by legitimate manufacturers as it is used to help some patients chronic anemia (who do not have enough healthy red blood cells).

Research suggests that even legitimate products can differ significantlylet alone what is produced on the black market.

The different methods of manufacturing synthetic EPO seem to cause problems in identifying synthetic EPO and in interpreting the results of analyses.

So it is possible that naturally occurring EPO looks (incorrectly) as if it is a variation of one of the synthetic EPO products.

A ‘catastrophic blunder’?

Bol’s legal team, in a letter to Sport Integrity Australia, said that “inexperience and incompetence at the Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory (ASDTL) led to an incorrect determination”, accusing Sport Integrity Australia of making a “catastrophic blunder”.

David Chen, of the University of British Columbia, suggested that the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) method of testing for synthetic EPO should be changed, including for the amount of urine used in the analysis. Under WADAs regulationsis it possible to challenge the validity of the tests.

Quoted in the letter, Chen said all tests performed for Bol used 15 ml of urine, but that “an experienced lab worker should have understood that this was the upper limit”.

While this means the lab followed WADA guidelines, Chen’s concern is that “for many athletes, this amount is too high.”

What is not explained in the letter, at least in what is publicly available, is why 15 ml of urine is too much for “many athletes”.

Read more: Snubbing Chinese swimmer Sun Yang ignores flaws in anti-doping system

Technically, the Bol investigation could be closed because the B sample did not confirm the A sample, so the evidence may be insufficient to comfortably establish a doping violation.

However, Sport Integrity Australia will no doubt be just as excited as Bol and his team to get to the bottom of this.

It is important for all athletes, and for confidence in the anti-doping system, that the validity of the EPO test and the interpretation of the analysis can be transparently relied upon.

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