As usual, Friday’s news in the track and field world focuses mostly on the meets occurring over the weekend. But, we do have some more news coming out of Alburquerque – where Indoor nationals were held, and where most of the hot news came from this week. USATF takes home the gold this week for “most notorious governing body of the week.” Here’s the scoop: USATF Indoor Nationals, like most major events, rely on many volunteers to make the event run smoothly. One way USATF assembles volunteers is by sending an email to people associated with track and field requesting help. One of these “blanket emails” that went out arrived in the inbox of Christian Hesch. Hesch, an athlete “currently serving an 18-month ban from USADA for committing an anti-doping rule violation involving EPO,” received an email from USATF asking if he wanted to volunteer “escorting athletes to drug testing” at the National Championships. As a “humorous” gesture, Hesch accepted. He attended the meet, secured the necessary credentials, and hung around for an hour or two before Jim Estes, the USATF Director of Events, recognized who he was. Thereafter, a USADA coordinator was advised, and then revoked Hesch’s credential.
While Hesch never escorted an athlete to doping control or had any involvement in the process that would raise concerns, his presence alone highlights problems USATF has in its infrastructure. USATF did perform one thing right in its expedient revocation of Hesch’s credential, but it illustrates some important takeaway points. Hesch’s action does not advance nor help the sport. Doping is a huge problem in sports – in particular, track and field. This action, albeit for humor, only pushes USATF deeper into the quagmire of problems it has. Now, Hesch does carry some of the blame here. It is possible that he could have sent an email back with an explanation of why he could not serve as a volunteer. At the same time, this debacle reveals further problems with the way USATF selects its volunteers for certain tasks. The absence of “stopgaps,” or filters to sift out doping sanctioned volunteers, not to mention the obvious “incompetence in the sport’s governing body” only makes the circumstance worse.
Yesterday, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced that it will launch an investigation on Russian athletes on their use of xenon, an alleged “performance enhancing gas.” A German broadcaster alleges that top athletes from the Russian team are known to have used xenon in an effort to improve their performances, which tipped off WADA and is part of the reason to investigate. According to the article, use of xenon “artificially increases [erythropoietin] EPO in the blood, which is forbidden under WADA rules.” No WADA members made any comments, and will likely refrain from doing so until after its annual conference this April, where the members will discuss the topic. An interesting piece of this puzzle is that Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia’s Federal Biomedical Agency, does admit that Russian athletes “may indeed have been using xenon gas,” but he believes that its use “is not illegal.”
While the article is short, its effect on Russia could turn out to be catastrophic. The article points out that Russian athletes have been inhaling xenon since the 2004 Olympics. If WADA’s investigation reveals that xenon gas is indeed illegal, any athlete who used it throughout the Olympic Games (or earlier) is in jeopardy of losing any medals, points, awards or prizes. Given that Putin is an extremely powerful figure, not to mention Russia taking home 13 golds from the Sochi Games, makes me think that politics might overrule here, and that somehow xenon gas will either be “permissible,” or legal in some narrow construction of the phrase. If not, it’ll be one of the top ten most humiliating experiences of the Russian Federation’s history.
While some Russian athletes are likely using xenon, the UK anti-doping agency officials claim to be “unaware of any British athletes inhaling xenon gas to improve performance.” The article discusses the history of injection EPO, and notes that the practice has been banned since the early 1990s. This article points out an aspect missing from the previous with this sentence: “experts are divided over whether inhaling xenon is illegal under the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) Code.” Some experts, such as former WADA president Dick Pound, asserted that the issue is clear: use of xenon qualifies as doping, and “it is impossible to say in this process that the rules are not clear.” Others discredit the practice, arguing that it inhaling xenon is ineffective. One anonymous anti-doping expert stated that xenon has the ability to increase EPO in animals, but its effects on humans may not translate in the same manner. Another unnamed source pointed out that inhaling xenon gas is no different than the use of “legal oxygen tents,” which also naturally increase red blood cells.
According to the article, the relevant rule is “section M1, which deals with ‘manipulation of blood and blood components.” Section M1 contains a listed of prohibited substances, which include “artificially enhancing the uptake, transport or delivery of oxygen, including, but not limited to, perfluorochemicals, efaproxiral (RSR13) and modified haemoglobin products (eg haemoglobin-based blood substitutes, microencapsulated haemoglobin products), excluding supplemental oxygen.” Supplemental oxygen is a designated exception. One issue WADA may encounter is whether the use of xenon closely resembles the banned list of substances, or whether it looks more like the exception of supplemental oxygen. Where it falls on the scale will determine whether it is a prohibited substance.
In non-doping news, Peter Shankman, a known author and speaker, was cited for running in Central Park yesterday for “breaking the 1am curfew.” According to Central Park regulations, it is illegal to run in the park between 1am and 6am, although the article does point out that Shankman has “waved to [the police]” during some of his morning runs within the illegal time frame without them giving him a citation.
If you’re a Russian athlete who earned a medal at the Sochi Games, then congratulations on your new Mercedes. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev handed out Mercedes “as prizes for the country’s Olympic medalists at the Sochi Winter Games” yesterday. Wonder if those vehicles will be revoked if xenon gas turns out to be illegal?