By Michael Gleeson
Embattled athlete Peter Bol in action at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.Credit:Getty Images
Peter Bol was stopped by security at the airport as he prepared to leave Australia early last year. He spent about an hour standing by as his bags were searched. It was annoying, but he thought little more of it.
When he returned to Australia months later and Border Security tugged him aside at the airport once more and picked through his bags, he again figured it as just a random check. A surprising coincidence, but random.
When he was drug-tested 26 times last year he knew it was more excessive than previously but felt it might just be a consequence of his new celebrity. He didn’t connect all the tests to the airport searches.
Bol was, by now, a sporting celebrity. His fourth place in the 800 metres final at the Tokyo Olympics had vaulted him from nobody to somebody. He excited the public consciousness as much as any Australian at the Games, including decathletes Ash Moloney and Cedric Dubler and their boys’-own-annual blend of performance and mateship. Bol was daring in his running and carefree in his manner. He was good, and he was likeable.
Bol assumed those 16 urine tests and 10 blood samples he gave in the year were just part of the price you paid for being among the world’s best, not because anyone had reason to doubt why he was good.
And he is good. At those COVID-delayed Olympics in 2021 in front of stands of empty of fans, watched live only by masked officials and media, but by millions more on couches at home in COVID lockdown, Bol was the show. An Australian by way of Sudan and Egypt, he gusted to a series of lead-from-the-front wins that were quicker than any Australian had run before. He broke two national 800m records in getting to the Olympic final.
Bol in the 800-metres men’s final in Tokyo last year.Credit:Getty Images
In that final race he again led from the front, but this time could not hang on. He was overtaken at the line and squeezed off the podium by about the width of one of his diamond stud earrings. He finished fourth in 1 minute 45.92 seconds, just 0.53 seconds behind third place. The gold medallist was only 0.86 seconds ahead of him in the cluster of runners at the line.
Last year he bombed at the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, but weeks later in Birmingham at the Commonwealth Games he finally made it onto the podium, winning bronze in a field that was almost as strong as the Olympic and world championship fields.
He rested at the end of that punishing season then barely a week after rejoining training he was drug tested again. It was months from when he planned to race. Two months later, on January 10, when Sport Integrity Australia officers knocked on his door his world was shaken. He had failed that first drug test back after his holidays, testing positive for Erythropoietin, or EPO.
The SIA officials took away his laptop and phone to search for any incriminating evidence: text conversations about EPO, phone calls to suppliers, google searches about doping, drug purchases, anything.
Peter Bol takes a moment after his race at the World Championships in Oregon in 2022.Credit:AP
The officials told him he was provisionally suspended from the sport, so he couldn’t train with his group or coaches, and certainly not compete. He was also given a document that said he failed a test 12 months earlier. On that occasion, according to his coach Justin Rinaldi, he was told one laboratory came back saying the sample was positive but a second lab (all samples are tested in two different laboratories) disagreed with the positive test. So he was not banned or charged back then and was not alerted to the result.
The information did make him and his team look differently on the events of the previous year and come to understand he was targeted.
Given the mixed result of that test from 2021 it is neither surprising, nor wrong, that SIA would target-test an athlete. But the saga as it has unfolded since has observers asking about the accuracy of the tests and why an investigation kept so thoroughly from the athlete at its centre nevertheless found its way to the media. The authority has declined to talk to the Herald.
While the new information about the disputed test a year earlier alarmed Bol’s broader team of coaches, managers and lawyers, who were bewildered by how Bol had tested positive, they believed it was also proof that EPO tests were not as clear as people assumed. It fuelled the idea that EPO tests relied on subjective interpretations of results and not an objective measure.
It also made them believe that two new labs looking at Bol’s “positive” urine sample might well see things differently than the two labs who looked at this sample and returned a result that had led to him being suspended.
All of these were private discussions … until they weren’t.
Word got out that Bol had been suspended for a positive A sample. And Bol’s world closed in.
SIA and Athletics Australia confirmed the suspension publicly after media reported it based on sources, in a move that infuriated Bol’s lawyer Paul Greene, who blames one of the organisations for the leak.
The news broke the Friday before Australia Day, only days before the Australian and Young Australian of the Year awards would be announced. Bol was the WA nominee for Young Australian of the Year and regarded as a strong chance to win the award. After news broke of his suspension, of course, he kissed that hope goodbye.
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, who is in Australia for the World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst, was unwilling to comment on Bol’s case but, speaking about doping allegations in general, said: “Confidentiality, of course, is very important. There are some balances there.
“The Athletic Integrity Unit [the global body] does, on occasion, talk about an A-sample because of the proximity to a championship and giving complete clarity.
“As you would understand I can’t get into an individual case, but confidentiality is not something that should ever really be compromised.”
Peter Bol (left) won silver in the 800m. at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Credit:Getty Images
Once he was provisionally banned Bol had the right – at a $2000 cost – to have the leftover portion of that urine sample (the remainder is known as the B sample) tested in two more labs to see if they matched the findings of the first two laboratories who tested his A sample. If they matched he would be charged with a doping offence and face a sports tribunal. Of course, he handed over the money and got the B sample tested.
The first sample (the A sample) was judged as that Bol had too much EPO in his system. The assumption is the only way that much EPO can be in an athlete’s system is if they top up with a synthetic version. Because EPO is a naturally occurring hormone that produces red blood cells it is enormously helpful to endurance athletes.
Stunningly, this week, the B sample came back inconclusive: not positive like the first one, but nor was it negative. They just couldn’t be certain either way and not being sure is not good enough for a charge. It casts doubt on the accuracy of the first positive test.
It is very rare that the B sample does not align with the A, but it is not unheard of. Bernard Lagat, the champion distance runner, is the most famous athlete to have his B sample overturn his A.
With the B sample not confirming the A, Bol’s suspension was lifted, but he is not officially cleared. In accordance with WADA rules, SIA must continue investigating until it has at least spoken to Bol about the case. That is expected to be a fairly short conversation if there is no evidence beyond the disputed drug tests.
His coaching and legal team have always protested his innocence and pointed to several curiosities about his case. First, they say the positive test was only marginal. They were only given a summary of results and not the full lab report, but they said that of five bands on which EPO is measured, Bol was marginally over on only one. This they argued gave credence to the accusation the test is subjective.
Then there were further things they felt didn’t add up. Why would he be doping in October, when only just back from holidays and months before racing again? Sports doping investigators would argue this is not uncommon among athletes who “micro-dose”, regularly taking very small amounts of EPO to keep a consistent level and help in training.
Then there was a point about Bol’s times. At the Olympics a year earlier he twice broke the national record, but it had been years since he had set a new personal best. In 2018, he ran a personal best 1:44.56 for the 800 in Stockholm. It took him four years to improve that time and when he did, it was by just half a second. As Rinaldi said, if he was doping he was not getting much benefit.
Australia has a parochial tendency to never doubt the guilt of foreign athletes accused of doping and never doubt the innocence of Australians. But in Bol’s case, the B sample suggests credible doubt about his guilt.
For Bol the damage that has been done cannot fully be undone. For sport the damage is more profound for it casts doubt on the accuracy of the testing for EPO in sports doping cases.
Four Norwegian scientists, all professors of biochemistry and molecular biology, who are experts in this area of drug testing contacted this masthead after Bol’s positive test and warned that the method of testing for EPO was notoriously unreliable as it relied upon the subjective view of the scientist looking at the test results.
They had previously urged WADA to reassess how EPO is tested, and this case has only heightened those concerns.
An Australian legal academic, associate professor Catherine Ordway, the sports integrity research lead at Canberra University, queried whether the EPO tests suitably accounted for genetic or racial differences. Ordway questions whether the threshold mark over which EPO is deemed excessive properly considered differences for athletes of African, Asian or South American heritage.
For Bol, until the formalities of investigation are complete, he is not officially cleared but not charged.
For an athlete who is being so closely scrutinised in the name of fairness in sport, he feels like he is the sport, and it has been anything but fair.
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