The Lab That Couldn't Compute Straight

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Personally, I wouldn't want to take a drug test at the Chatenay-Malabry laboratory, would you? Lately, the French lab has demonstrated more leakiness than airtight science. The lab apparently has fresh evidence that Floyd Landis cheated in last year's Tour de France -- and as usual, its findings wound up in the newspaper L'Equipe before you could say "n'est pas." There are so many leaks from the lab that you wonder if it's symptomatic of an all-around leakiness in the place, a sloppiness of process, accidental spillage.

Landis certainly appears guilty of putting testosterone into his Gumby-like body during the 2006 tour. But that's why the slipshod conduct of the anti-doping authorities is all the more aggravating. What should be an open-and-shut case has been confused by the sloppiness of the French lab, and the blindly prosecutorial behavior of the World Anti-Doping Agency and its underling, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which threaten to compromise the facts and make the accused, Landis, look like a victim.

Landis has accused the lab of "gross negligence and scientific malfeasance" for the way it handled his test results, and frankly, he has a bit of an argument. His legal team has demonstrated some startling procedural errors in the testing of his original "A" sample at Chatenay-Malabry, including the disconcerting fact that both the athlete and lab identification numbers on the sample are plain wrong. Landis's ID number was 995474. The paperwork on his "A" sample is labeled 994474.

There are other examples of mis-numberings, as well as typos, and illegible scrawls in crucial documents. All of which Landis has posted on a Web site, Landis's attorneys rightly ask, if the lab couldn't even accurately label and track the sample, how are we supposed to believe it properly carried out the more complex analytic steps of confirming a positive test?

No wonder the USADA decided it needed to bolster its case against Landis last week. In preparation for a May 14 arbitration hearing, the USADA asked the lab to test seven additional samples taken from Landis during the tour for evidence of synthetic testosterone. The results came back positive, according to L'Equipe. Landis's attorneys are furious, arguing the leak indicates the extent of the lab's poor practices and unethical conduct, and they also complain that Landis's designated representative was denied access to watch the lab's analysis. Landis accused the lab of "potentially deliberate falsification of results and the willful destruction of evidence."

On CBS Tuesday morning, a calmer Landis said, "If it's going to be objective, the least you could do is send it to a lab that doesn't have motivation to confirm their work in the first place."

This is a very good and rational point, even if it does come from a suspected doper. Look, Landis is a bad messenger -- and he may well be indefensible. It's entirely possible that the man charging the doping system with corruption is guilty of it himself. But that doesn't mean his message is without merit.

The fact is, while the latest leak did not necessarily come from Chatenay-Malabry, information somehow makes its way from the French lab to L'Equipe with metronomic regularity, which is as worrisome as it is convincing. We depend on arbiters of justice to be beyond reproach. When WADA and USADA officials can't properly control the evidence, or their own mouths, it shakes our confidence in their control of the entire process.

The Landis case has followed a familiar WADA pattern: a high-profile athlete's supposedly confidential test results wind up identified by name in the newspapers, sometimes prematurely. This pattern has been seen at other WADA-accredited labs, not just France's, as in the case of Marion Jones, whose initial positive test for the endurance-boosting drug EPO made the American papers, but was not confirmed by subsequent results at a California lab.

The WADA has long had a fixation on the absoluteness of a positive drug test. It insists on the infallibility of its lab work, no matter how iffy, and on the sacrosanct infallibility of its rules, no matter how harsh. There is little room in its code for the inadvertent, the accidental, or the extenuating circumstance. No matter how an athlete wound up with a banned substance in his or her system, he or she is presumed guilty. There is simply no room for the mistake.

But Landis, whatever you think of him, has jabbed his finger at a central flaw and hypocrisy in the doping system: The WADA accepts all kinds of sloppy mistakes from the Chatenay-Malabry lab that it would never accept from an athlete. Drink from the wrong bottle, take the wrong allergy remedy, make a mistake on a form or forget to show up for a drug test, and you face a two-year ban, maybe worse, regardless of the innocence of your mistake or legitimacy of your excuse.

If you work for an accredited doping lab, on the other hand, you can apparently mislabel, misplace, mishandle, and, for all we know, knock over a glass of fume blanc on the specimen, and the WADA will defend your work.

The WADA and the USADA are as ethically flawed as the dopers they pursue. It's time to rework the anti-doping code into a more just and merciful one, one that takes into account the possibility of a mistake, and which allows for repentance. Why should athletes be held to an iron, inflexible standard, while doping agencies and accredited labs are permitted mistakes, indiscretions, and lapses?

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