Life is not so good for Mo Farah right now. The reigning Olympic and world champion in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, Farah hit an unforeseen hurdle this month with the ProPublica/BBC report alleging that his coach, Alberto Salazar, had broken doping rules.
In response to those allegations, UK Athletics says it will review Farah’s blood and medical data. “We need to make sure there’s nothing else there we haven’t seen, we’re not aware of, hasn’t been analyzed,” UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner told the Guardian. Even the press has started in: The Telegraph called Farah “oddly detached” from British athletics, while the Independent decried his “preening self-absorption.”
It’s a level of scrutiny that’s new for Farah, 32, who’s one of the most successful British runners of all time. And if he looks to the sport of cycling for clues on what’s next, he may not like what he sees: Anti-doping tools were designed to catch dopers, not guarantee an athlete’s cleanliness.
Take the case of Roman Kreuziger. In June 2013, cycling authorities opened a case against him based on suspicious biological passport markers from the 2011 and 2012 seasons. It coincided with news that Kreuziger had once been trained by Dr. Michele Ferrari, Lance Armstrong’s preferred doctor who was accused of helping several pro cyclists dope.
Although Kreuziger raced the 2013 Tour de France and finished fifth, his team was pressured to hold him out of last year’s edition as the investigation dragged on. The biological passport is an indirect way to look for doping. Rather than testing for certain substances, it focuses on tracking changes in an athlete’s blood chemistry for signs of manipulation. That’s both its strength and its weakness: Biological passports can be more sensitive than traditional tests, but a successful case relies on interpretation.
Farah finds himself faced with suspicions that may never result in an anti-doping case but leave him powerless to disprove.
The Kreuziger investigation ultimately proved fruitless. After the Czech Olympic Committee cleared him last fall, Kreuziger was able to race while WADA and the UCI appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Last Friday, after a two-year legal battle, the UCI and WADA quickly and mysteriously dropped the case, saying in a press release that due to “newly obtained information,” the organizations decided there was “at this stage no basis to proceed further.” Since that point, they’ve doggedly refused to comment. So Kreuziger is again free to race with no real explanation for why. But questions persist in the absence of a clear resolution. Farah can only hope not to end up in the same kind of purgatory.
The worst-case scenario is that UK Athletics’ review of Farah’s passport data similarly produces more questions than answers, or at least more debate, because of the asymmetry in the system. Any ambiguous data in Farah’s medical records will be fuel for the fire, already burning brightly because of accusations against his coach by former teammates.
If Farah’s data is examined and found to be clean, that still won’t assuage his harshest critics. Gaps in those tools also can mean cheaters slip through the cracks. That’s an issue with the passport in particular. If the software doesn’t flag a profile, it may never make it to expert review. That means sophisticated doping—like microdosing, which keeps fluctuations small while still aiding performance—might evade detection. Another tool called retroactive testing, where old samples are screened with new or refined methods, is infrequently used. It’s even more rare to catch someone with that method. In cycling, the last rider caught with retroactive testing was Thomas Dekker, in 2009.
For all the science, the most effective anti-doping tool is often eyewitness testimony.
The ProPublica/BBC report relied heavily on first-person interviews with former Oregon Project coaches like Steve Magness and athletes like Kara Goucher to levy the most serious charges against Salazar. In total, 17 athletes and staffers have come forward to describe “what they feel was inappropriate prescription drug use orchestrated by Salazar,” ProPublica writes.
As Kreuziger learned in the Ferrari episode, association with a dodgy coach can be a kind of penalty all on its own. That’s where Farah is now. And yet, on the subject of direct testimony, the ProPublica/BBC piece explicitly said that none of its sources implicated Farah in any doping. “Nothing reportable came up,” David Epstein told Competitor. “It’s as simple as that.”
But instead of being exonerated, Farah finds himself in a position much like Kreuziger: faced with suspicions that may well never result in an anti-doping case but leave him powerless to disprove.
Kreuziger is free to race now. He’s free to try to help his captain, Alberto Contador, accomplish a historic double victory in the tours of Italy and France. And yet he’s anything but free. His website protesting his innocence is still up, with documents there for all to see and debate. There are whispers that he’s a shadow of the rider he was before the UCI went after him. And the sudden and mysterious denouement of his passport case hangs over his reputation.
Farah must hope his journey does not follow a similar path.