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Landis case succeeds in exposing faults

Cyclist's appeal hearing reveals rules that make it possible to conceal lab errors and standards that fall short of `beyond a reasonable doubt.'

May 31, 2007|Michael A. Hiltzik | Times Staff Writer

It could be weeks before an arbitration panel reveals whether American cyclist Floyd Landis has a chance to retain his Tour de France title in the face of doping allegations, but one thing was clear even before marathon public hearings ended last week: Landis succeeded in putting the international anti-doping enforcement system on trial.

The open proceedings raised very public questions about the competency and test procedures of the Paris lab that ruled Landis' urine samples positive for illicit levels of testosterone. But they also exposed a rigid anti-doping enforcement system that could conceal lab errors and mistakes.

One of the arbitrators bluntly questioned World Anti-Doping Agency rules, suggesting that WADA's labs shared a code of omerta rather than a code of ethics.

Earlier, a copy of the agency's bylaws had been beamed to a large screen in the Pepperdine University hearing room. One clause notably forbade officials at all 34 WADA labs around the world from giving testimony to assist accused athletes or dispute the work of any other WADA lab.

"You've got a code of ethics that essentially states [the labs] can't point out mistakes," said Christopher L. Campbell, the arbitrator who had been selected for the panel by Landis.

"I think it's a real problem."

The restrictive clause was previously disclosed in "Presumed Guilty," a series of reports by The Times in December that found the doping enforcement system favored accusers over athletes. It also found the WADA program to be based on flawed science, afflicted by faulty and inconsistent lab procedures and resistant to outside scrutiny.

The cyclist's defense focused on many of the same issues. His attorneys painted, brushstroke by brushstroke, the picture of a forensic system with procedural and documentation standards far short of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Landis forced the hearings to be held in public, providing a uniquely open forum that also has raised the political stakes in the case.

The reputation of the Paris lab, one of WADA's busiest, was pummeled by critical testimony from eminent scientists and admissions of mistakes by its own staff.

The potential effect of even minor mistakes in lab practice came into focus when hearing evidence showed that the case against Landis ultimately hinges on a single number -- minus 6.

As explained by experts in the case, testosterone breaks down in the body into four compounds, known as metabolites, which can be identified and measured in a urine sample. An anti-doping lab subjects these molecules to various analytical procedures to generate a so-called "delta-delta" value for each.

Under WADA rules, an athlete can be judged guilty if this value drops below minus 3 for any metabolite. Landis' delta-delta value for the metabolite 5-alpha-androstanediol (5A for short) was minus 6.

Landis' task at the hearing was to cast doubt on that figure. Lawyers for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, prosecuting the doping case against him, sought to protect its credibility.

USADA's basic argument was that Landis' number was so unnatural -- one of the lowest ever encountered -- that no concatenation of laboratory errors could have produced it from an innocent urine sample.

No matter how many retests the lab performed before expert witnesses, that figure always held up, observed USADA attorney Richard Young, adding that it was sufficient evidence all by itself.

"My opinion is that doping was going on," testified Don H. Catlin, the recently retired head of the WADA anti-doping lab at UCLA. "It's just inescapable."

Raising doubts about the 5A result, the defense argued that in the context of Landis' entire urinalysis profile, the figure looked more like a laboratory error than a credible analytical finding.

Defense witness John Amory, an expert in testosterone medicine at the University of Washington, pointed out that the 5A value always tracks closely the value of another metabolite, known by the shorthand 5B. No published study -- either of those not testing positive for doping or known dopers, including two published by expert witnesses who appeared for USADA at the hearing -- have ever found them to be more than two units apart, he observed. In Landis' results, the gap was four.

"That doesn't look like anything we've seen in studies of men who've been given testosterone," Amory said.

That led to the issue of whether the Paris lab was capable of analyzing Landis' urine with any accuracy whatsoever. Defense exhibits and testimony established that an enormous amount of the lab's analysis involved subjective judgments by technicians -- so much so that when asked to rerun their tests, the technicians were unable to duplicate their original results.

Despite the disparities, USADA argued, the subsequent analyses still established that Landis was guilty.

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