Inquiry Into Jones's Test Results
Friday, September 8, 2006
A day after Marion Jones was cleared of anti-doping charges because the second half of her urine sample did not corroborate an earlier positive result, World Anti-Doping Agency Chairman Dick Pound said the agency would request documentation from the lab that handled Jones's case to ensure that "things were done properly."
Pound defended the reliability of the test that was used on Jones's sample and said WADA would seek an explanation for the disparate results in the so-called A and B samples of Jones's urine from the Los Angeles lab that conducted the testing and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which oversaw it. WADA sets protocols for tests used and has ultimate authority in anti-doping matters but had no involvement in Jones's case.
"In these unusual cases . . . our role is to get all the material from both tests," Pound said. "Let us see the results and figure out what happened."
The director of the Los Angeles lab, Don Catlin, declined during a phone interview to discuss the reason for the discrepancy in Jones's results, but he said: "I have full confidence in the test. I've been doing the test for many years; I've probably done it 1,000 times. I've studied it. I've written papers about it. I've gone to court to defend our results. . . . I like the test."
One half of Jones's sample, which was collected after she won the U.S. 100-meter title in Indianapolis on June 25, showed the presence of the oxygen-boosting drug erythropoietin or EPO. But confirmation testing conducted later on the second half of her sample did not. Jones said in a statement she was "ecstatic" when informed Wednesday of the negative result.
Pound said WADA could challenge the results if it were dissatisfied with the lab analysis. Though cases in which the B sample does not support the A are extremely rare, there can be several explanations when they occur.
Pound and several anti-doping experts said the EPO test, which was pioneered by French scientists and implemented at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, was more susceptible to variations in the A and B sample analyses because the test is highly complex and interpretive. Jones's lawyer, Howard Jacobs, said he thought even the A sample was suspect because it appeared to be just above the threshold for being positive.
Jordi Segura, an EPO testing expert and the WADA lab director in Barcelona, said the EPO test consists of 170 steps that take three days to perform. Segura, who had no connection to Jones's case, said any minor mistake along the way can affect the quality of the result, making it effectively too "blurry" to fit into the criteria necessary for a positive result, particularly if the sample is right at the threshold.
Segura said mistakes can be circumvented if there is enough urine for retesting. However, he said, the EPO test requires a lot of urine -- about 20 milliliters per test. If there is not enough to produce a clean test result, then the sample has to be called negative.
"It does not mean the sample is negative," he said, "but the result is considered negative."
Added Segura: "The criteria for accepting a test is very strict. WADA and the lab never want to have any doubt for an innocent athlete."
Pound said WADA would be disappointed if labs were too cautious in interpreting results.
"That's almost as alarming as the opposite, if a lab doesn't want to stand up and take responsibility for its analysis," he said.
Jacobs and others have argued that the EPO test does not do what it is supposed to do, which is distinguish between natural EPO and artificial EPO. Critics say that false positives can occur when natural EPO or other proteins are erroneously measured as artificial EPO. Kenyan-born distance runner Bernard Lagat tested positive for EPO at the 2003 world championships in Paris but was cleared when his B sample did not support the A; and there have been other cases in which EPO positives have been overturned.
Jacobs also expressed frustration that the positive result on the first half of Jones's sample was leaked to the media. USADA does not officially announce positive tests until the work is complete.
Despite the negative B sample, significant damage had been done to Jones's reputation, Jacobs said.
"If this is the climate, that every high-profile [athlete's] A sample is leaked, you better make sure the test works," Jacobs said.
Wednesday's development ensured that Jones, who won five medals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, could continue what has been a remarkable comeback to the sport this season after four years marked by disappointments, drug allegations and the birth of her son in 2002. USADA attorney Travis Tygart declined to discuss the specifics of Jones's case, but he also defended the test, saying the agency was "100 percent confident in the reliability of this test and will continue to use it without hesitation."