The Pechstein Case
Claudia Pechstein, a 37 year-old German speed skater capable of winning 5 Olympic Gold medals, was the first athlete to be banned for doping (2 years) by the International Skating Union (ISU), on the basis of variations in hematologic parameters, without any direct proof of doping substances or practices.
A pool of 14 “experts” contributed decreting that the variations in her reticulocytes values could only be explained as “illegal hematic manipulations”.
Successively appealing to CAS in Lausanne, 4 other “experts” only helped confirming the ban.
The athlete in the meantime was not able to participate to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, saw her house raided by the eager German Police (equipped with bullet-proof vests…) and was exposed to the usual mediatic storm with inevitable negative consequences to her reputation and family.
Claudia Pechstein, who always claimed innocent, did not give up and turned to the prestigious Center for Hematology and Oncology at the University of Berlin, where she got diagnosed with hereditary spherocytosis, a genetic condition that determines a particular fragility of red blood cells, which tend to live shorter than usual. This causes obscillations and quick increases in reticulocytes, especially when under intense effort or illness.
Analyzing the data (www.claudiapechstein.de) of the numerous tests/controls that the athlete had to go through her career, it is suprising to note that none of the “experts” even remotely suspected this form of hemolytic anemia to be the cause.
It is also interesting to notice that many of the “experts” consulted by ISU and CAS are among the founders or advocates of the Biologic Passport, recently approved by WADA and utilized by the UCI: Ashenden, Damsgaard, Sottas, D’Onofrio being the most prominent.
This last March, a group of physicians represented by the President of the German Society for Hematology and Oncology, Prof. Gerhard Ehringer, formally accused CAS of partially handling the Pechstein Case and excluded that the anomalies in her hematic history be due to doping practices.
Just a few days ago the Helvetic Police seized all the documents of the Case, surmising illegal behaviour by ISU and CAS, particularly the omission of hematologic reports of the athlete.
Although the media, so keen on reporting the initial ban, so far ignored the latest outcome, I hope the Pechstein Case will induce the various Federation and their “experts” to be more prudent, also assuming a request of conspicuous indemnification by the athlete.