Anti-Doping process – Q&A for athletes

  • Integrity Blog

Who sets the anti-doping rules?

As Australia’s National Anti-Doping Organisation, Sport Integrity Australia is required to follow the rules set out in the World Anti-Doping Code (the Code).

The Code isn’t owned by Australia, or by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It is a ‘consensus document’ which is reviewed every seven years or so and every country, every sport, every athlete, every academic can contribute to the rules.  There are more than 300 signatories to the Code, including National Anti-Doping Organisations, International Sporting Federations, National Olympic Committees and Major Event Organisations.

The Code is 181 pages and is also underpinned by 8 International Standards, which are designed to create consistency across every part of the anti-doping process – including things such as how testing missions are carried out, how Therapeutic Use Exemptions are decided and how investigations and legal matters are managed.

Any country that wants to send a team (or host) the Olympics, Paralympics and any major international events like the World Cup or World Championships has to abide by the rules in the Code and International Standards.

Failure by Sport Integrity Australia to abide by the rules, may result in Australia being unable to send an Australian team to the Olympics, Paralympics or any other International Event.

WADA oversee and enforce the Code. WADA’s role is to ensure the Code is being implemented by all signatories. They conduct audits on how all signatories follow these rules. More information on the process can be found in the recently published 2022 WADA Code Compliance Annual Report.

Who does the analysis of samples?

Although Sport Integrity Australia conducts the athlete testing missions, we do not analyse the samples.

All samples must be sent to a WADA Accredited Laboratory. It is a requirement of the Code that these laboratories operate independently of Anti-Doping Organisations, such as Sport Integrity Australia.

In Australia, the WADA Accredited Laboratory is based in Sydney and there are 29 other WADA Accredited Laboratories around the world.  Sport Integrity Australia regularly collects samples from Australian athletes training and competing overseas and these samples are sent to a WADA Accredited Laboratory near-by for analysis.

No one at Sport Integrity Australia has the ability to open any sealed samples.

The International Standard for Laboratories details the requirements for sample analysis, meaning all samples will be analysed based on the same standard regardless of where in the world they are tested.

The WADA Accredited Laboratories are regularly audited by WADA and can (and have) been suspended by WADA in the past if they have failed to meet the strict standards.

Importantly, all analysis is done anonymously – the Laboratory is never provided the athlete’s name, they only receive the identification number on the testing equipment kit selected by the athlete.

What are the possible outcomes of a test?

A test can come back with three possible outcomes:

Negative

This means no prohibited substance was detected in the sample. The sample may be stored for up to 10 years and be reanalysed at any time using new, state-of-the-art detection methods.

Athletes will not be contacted if a sample is negative – no news is good news!  

Atypical

An atypical sample is neither positive nor negative. If this happens, Sport Integrity Australia will be notified and is required to investigate why the atypical result has occurred.

In 2022, there were only 312 atypical results across the entire world, accounting for 0.65% of all samples collected. In the last financial year in Australia, we had only three atypical results.  

An atypical result must be investigated to determine whether there is an explanation for the atypical result or whether there is enough information to bring it forward as a positive test. Atypical results can also form part of a larger picture regarding other non-testing anti-doping rule violations such as the “Use” violation (which does not require a positive test). Following an investigation, the athlete is advised the outcome of their atypical result.

Positive

If a positive result is confirmed during sample analysis, the WADA Accredited Laboratory notifies Sport Integrity Australia of a positive sample. Sport Integrity Australia matches the testing kit identification numbers on the lab report to the athlete who provided the sample.

The athlete will then be notified of the positive result. The athlete is advised of their rights during the investigation process, provided the ADRV process handbook and given options for wellbeing support. 

In the event of a positive test, all athletes have the right to have their B sample analysed. Athletes may attend the B sample opening and analysis in person or appoint a representative. Alternatively, athletes can waive their right to have their B sample analysed.  

From here, Sport Integrity Australia will undertake its investigation process according to the International Standard for Testing and Investigations, and in alignment with Sport Integrity Australia legislation.

Why are mandatory provisional suspensions put in place?

For some athletes that test positive, a mandatory provisional suspension is imposed from the moment they are notified of the positive test, which means the athlete has to stop competing immediately. 

This is done in accordance with the Code, to ensure that someone who has a banned substance detected cannot compete against clean athletes while the investigation is underway.

Whether or not a mandatory provisional suspension is imposed comes down to the substance that was detected in the sample.

For this purpose, the Code separates substances into two categories: Specified Substances and Non-specified Substances.

Specified Substances are those where there is a greater chance that the substance could enter an athlete’s body inadvertently – for example, a substance found in medications, or a substance commonly associated with supplement contamination.

Non-specified Substances are considered very serious doping substances – such as Erythropoietin (EPO), Steroids, Testosterone and Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs). These are very unlikely to be in there by accident and are generally signs of deliberate doping.

Under the Code, mandatory provisional suspension must be imposed for all matters involving Non-specified Substances. There is no discretion for Non-specified Substances.

What happens after an investigation is complete?

Once the investigation is complete, Sport Integrity Australia will either determine an Anti-doping Rule Violation (ADRV) has been committed and the athlete will be notified of the length of the proposed sanction, or let the athlete know the investigation has been finished and no violations will be asserted. 

In the case where we believe there has been an ADRV committed, the athlete will have the opportunity to either accept the sanction or challenge it in a hearing. 

This could either be at the National Sports Tribunal, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, or a Sport’s Tribunal. 

WADA is able to appeal any decision by Sport Integrity Australia or a Sports Tribunal, if they do not believe the Code has been applied correctly.

Why don’t you wait for the B sample to come back before announcing a positive test?

The Code offers anti-doping organisations flexibility around public disclosure of an alleged anti-doping rule violation. Flexibility is provided in the Code because there can be pros and cons each way.

At Sport Integrity Australia we make decisions about if, and when, to make a case public on a case-by-case basis, considering things such as:

  • The status of the investigation (is it valuable to keep the matter confidential while enquiries are made about other people who may be involved?)
  • The welfare support available to the athlete
  • The importance of transparency (noting that many athletes, journalists and stakeholders do not accept matters being hidden from the public, especially if a high-profile athlete suddenly stops competing) balanced against the importance of athlete privacy.

Some organisations (including International Federations) have policies that all Mandatory Suspensions are publicly announced immediately, in the interest of transparency. Under the Code, Mandatory Provisional Suspensions must be imposed at the point the athlete is notified of the A sample result.

What support services are available to athletes during the process?

Sport Integrity Australia offers all athletes access to free, independent counselling at the point they are notified of a potential anti-doping rule violation. We also work closely with National Sporting Organisations to ensure that athletes still have access to welfare support throughout any investigation.

How does EPO testing work?

EPO is a naturally occurring substance which tells your body to create more red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen around the body. Unfortunately, there can be instances where people do not have enough red blood cells, due to some medical conditions like kidney failure, and require injections of synthetic EPO to increase the amount of oxygen circulating in the body.   

In anti-doping, EPO tests are able to differentiate between naturally made EPO, and synthetic versions of EPO. The test is looking to see if there is any synthetic EPO mixed in with athlete's natural EPO (not the amount of EPO in a sample).

How is EPO testing different to other tests?

For an EPO test to be confirmed positive, the sample is first analysed by a WADA Accredited Laboratory. The finding is then reviewed by an independent EPO expert appointed by WADA.

There are only eight EPO experts in the world who can make a decision about whether a sample is positive, and none are based in Australia. This is because EPO results require very specific interpretation and expertise.

Synthetic EPO is the only prohibited substance with this subjective element in its analysis process.

How can an A and B sample not match?

There are a number of reasons why samples may not match, but all are rare. Examples include:

  • A sample may have degraded over time, between the A and B sample being analysed.
  • No sample is entirely exactly consistent the whole way through. Just like choc-chip ice cream might have chocolate chips in different densities through each different scoop, the same can be said of the molecules in urine.
  • Human variability in the interpretation of results (specifically EPO).

What processes are in place to make sure the Laboratory gets it right?

Just like Sport Integrity Australia is audited by WADA, so too are Laboratories.

At multiple times through the year, WADA conducts ‘blind testing’. To do this, WADA sends samples that they know to be positive/negative (due to excretion studies) to Sport Integrity Australia.

These samples look the same as any other athlete sample. Sport Integrity Australia will then send these to a WADA Accredited Laboratory to undergo routine screening.

The Laboratory doesn’t know the samples are ‘tests’ and they report the results in the system as they would any other sample.  

If they do not get the right outcome, WADA can suspend a laboratory or take other action as required.

In addition, WADA can conduct audits of Laboratories in person, unannounced, or via desktop means whenever they choose.

Why doesn’t Sport Integrity Australia comment during cases?

Under the Sport Integrity Australia legislation, there are strict rules about what we can and cannot say about ongoing matters, and it is a criminal offence if a staff member breaks these rules.

We recognise that athletes have a right to privacy, and also recognise that the media is rarely the right mechanism to air disagreements with athletes undergoing an ADRV process, particularly when an investigation to understand a case is underway.

Does Sport Integrity Australia have any tips for athletes being tested?

Athletes should be aware that they have rights when being tested, and we encourage all athletes to become familiar with these athlete rights during the testing process

We also encourage athletes to ask questions about the process – you have a right to know what is happening at each stage. 

If you are tested overseas, we strongly recommend you take someone with you during the test. That person will not witness you providing the sample but can witness every other part of the process and are another set of eyes to ensure your rights are upheld.

If you have any concerns about your test or process – we also recommend that you document these on your testing paperwork in the comments section or provide feedback via the Sport Integrity app.

This enables us to ensure that we are applying the rules and processes consistently, no matter where you are in Australia. You can also report any issues that occurred overseas, which we can follow up on your behalf.  

Finally, we encourage athletes to be cooperative with doping control staff – we know that we don’t always arrive at ideal times, but non-advance notice testing is a key principle of the Code and an important part of protecting a level playing field.

Can athletes have confidence in the testing process?

The anti-doping process has significant safeguards in place to ensure testing is consistent and accurate. Safeguards include the ability for athletes to have their B sample analysed free of charge, the requirement that EPO results be confirmed by an independent expert, and that Labs are routinely audited through blind testing to ensure accurate reporting of results.

These safeguards will, at times, highlight components of the Anti-Doping process that may require review. These reviews are important to ensure that processes maintain the appropriate protections for clean athletes. Sport Integrity Australia works with its Athlete Advisory Group (AAG), National Sport Organisations and other athlete bodies to inform our work informing and promoting such reviews.

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