Experts predict ‘potentially massive’ global impact of Peter Bol doping case

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Sport Integrity Australia (SIA) and the government laboratory accused of botching Peter Bol’s anti-doping sample are staying silent as pressure builds and experts underscore the “potentially massive” global ramifications of the Olympian’s case.

Tokyo 2020 star and Commonwealth Games silver medallist Bol tested positive for synthetic erythropoietin (EPO), a performance-enhancing drug, in January. But last month his B-sample returned an atypical finding, allowing Bol to return to competition as SIA’s investigation continues.

Related: Peter Bol’s lawyers claim ‘blunder of epic proportions’ after independent labs find no EPO

On Wednesday, details of two independent scientific reports commissioned by Bol’s lawyers became public. Both reports found no evidence of synthetic EPO in Bol’s samples and raised questions about the testing methods used in his case.

EPO is a naturally occurring hormone, but a synthetic equivalent can aid performance and improve recovery. In a letter providing the reports to SIA, Bol’s lawyer Peter Greene described the body as “completely wrong” and called on it to end the investigation and admit its mistake.

SIA and the Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory (ASDTL), a government body which provides testing for SIA, stayed silent on Wednesday, refusing to respond to Greene’s allegations. SIA and ASDTL declined multiple requests for comment.

“The Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory carries out testing on behalf of Sport Integrity Australia,” the ASDTL said. “It would not be appropriate to comment on an operational matter of Sport Integrity Australia.”

Bol’s agent, James Templeton, hit out at SIA, telling Guardian Australia he was disappointed it had not yet dropped the investigation and cleared the athlete’s name. “SIA are being disingenuous in stating that they are still investigating,” he said. “They have nothing to investigate.”

Templeton said SIA had postponed an interview with Bol in February, a month after they had downloaded everything from his electronic devices. “They have nothing to ask him – zero,” the agent continued. “It’s despicable to continue to throw shade on Peter Bol. They don’t have the good grace to properly clear his name.”

The saga seems unlikely to blow over, with observers highlighting the international significance of Wednesday’s developments. Sports integrity expert Catherine Ordway, a research lead at the University of Canberra and senior fellow at the University of Melbourne Law School, said there would be major ramifications if the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) accepted the independent reports.

“This is an international issue for Wada,” she said. “It will impact the Sydney lab, and any of the other Wada-accredited labs doing EPO testing. It will impact previous EPO cases and future EPO analysis. It is potentially massive, and much bigger than Australia”

But Ordway suggested that more time was needed for Wada’s expert group to review the independent reports and either concede that errors had been made, or suggest an alternative explanation. “The information from [Bol’s lawyers] looks damning, but I’m not a scientist and I’m really keen to see what Wada comes back with.”

A prominent Australian sports lawyer, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the saga, called the situation a “farce”. They described it as “the least likely of all the outcomes, but certainly the best outcome for Bol’s sake.” The lawyer added: “I hope [SIA] drop this, apologise and move on.”

The allegedly botched testing was carried out by the ASDTL, a Wada-accredited lab at the National Measurement Institute, part of the federal Department of Industry. The independent reports are highly critical of the testing methods used.

The first report, by Professor David Chen at the University of British Columbia, noted that the lab “should have immediately recognised” issues with the testing and “followed the procedure described in the Wada Technical Document [TD].”

Chen identified that “another obvious phenomenon that should have been noticed, but wasn’t, is the intense band” observed on one of the samples. Research has shown that people who have recently taken synthetic EPO do not have high levels of naturally occurring EPO. “The gel pattern … showed very strong [natural EPO] intensity, indicating it did not come from a person [who] recently used [synthetic EPO],” Chen wrote in his report.

Related: Peter Bol: what does an atypical doping test result mean for the Australian athlete?

The researcher was also critical of “the poor quality of the standards”. Chen concluded “the reported finding of [a positive result] was improper and did not meet the criteria required by the WADA TD”.

The second report, by Norwegian researchers Professor Jon Nissen-Meyer, Professor Erik Boye, Professor Bjarne Østerud and Tore Skotland, made similarly critical findings. The report said that “we have carefully evaluated the documents that report the tests performed on Peter Bol’s A-sample and find no scientific evidence in this document which proves the presence of synthetic EPO in Bol’s urine”.

According to the letter from Bol’s lawyers to the SIA, Chen was engaged independently by a third party and was kept unaware of the identity of Bol. The Norwegian experts were engaged directly by Bol’s lawyers, but in an independent, unpaid capacity.