After cover-ups, Moscow’s doping lab makes quiet return
MOSCOW (AP) — The Moscow laboratory that was shut down in 2015 following doping cover-ups has quietly become a crucial part of the world’s drug-testing system once again.
Under an often-overlooked provision in anti-doping rules, the lab handled 1,763 blood samples last year from athletes, including foreign tennis stars, and a total of 3,539 from 2016-18. That’s despite not being fully accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The samples include 58 over the last two years from the International Tennis Federation under its biological passport program, 23 of which were from non-Russian players. They could include some of the world’s biggest names since nine of the current women’s top 20 played in Russia last year.
“We have no reason to doubt (the lab results) and have no concerns about the service,” the ITF told The Associated Press.
The world governing bodies of swimming, track and field and biathlon all told the AP they used the lab. While the samples haven’t resulted in any bans for tennis players or swimmers, track’s governing body said “several” ongoing investigations relied on some of the 409 samples it has tested in Moscow since 2016.
The International Biathlon Union said it uses the lab but didn’t give any further details. The IBU’s headquarters were raided last year by Austrian police after bribery allegations related to Russian doping. Another major source of samples is the national anti-doping agency of Kazakhstan, a country with a prolific history of Olympic doping violations, which said it sends “no more than 100” samples each year.
After it suspended the Moscow lab in 2015 for a wide-ranging cover-up under former director Grigory Rodchenkov, the World Anti-Doping Agency was left in a bind.
Unlike urine, blood samples degrade quickly. Under international rules, if they don’t make it to a lab within 48 hours of leaving the athlete’s body, they must be discarded.
So as to not give up on blood testing in Russia and nearby countries that relied on the Moscow lab, WADA allowed it in May 2016 to do limited blood testing. That was one month after WADA had revoked the lab’s accreditation and less than three months before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In WADA terms, the lab is “approved” but not “accredited.”
The lab’s director is Elena Mochalova, who worked alongside Rodchenkov at a time when doping in Russia was widespread and lab employees were accused of routinely covering up cases.
Mochalova is listed as a co-author of a scientific journal article with Rodchenkov and others on the testing at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Rodchenkov later told WADA he switched out samples from doped Russian athletes for clean urine during those games, undermining the testing process. Forensic analysis backed up his testimony, with some bottles bearing scratches from where they had been illicitly opened.
For part of 2016, after WADA allowed testing to resume in Moscow, it was overseen by Grigory Krotov, a former lieutenant of Rodchenkov’s. Documents released as part of a WADA investigation include an email addressed from Rodchenkov to Krotov discussing samples and a possible cover-up.
Krotov left the lab some time in 2016 and has since appeared on Russian state TV calling allegations about steroid use in the country “a big myth.” He did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Mochalova did not answer written questions about the lab’s activity and how it could stop cover-ups from happening again. She referred the AP’s questions to Moscow State University, which oversees the lab and did not respond.
“We have a lot of samples,” Mochalova told a Russian parliamentary committee in March, according to state news agency Tass. “Unfortunately, for now, we can only work with blood.”
WADA said it would be hard to fake the blood test data.
“The blood analysis procedure is conducted with an automated blood analyzer that requires careful calibration protocols and is submitted to external proficiency tests conducted under WADA scrutiny,” WADA said.
Any lab approved to do this testing meets “high analytical and custodial standards,” WADA said.
It didn’t give details of how the Moscow lab was deemed to meet those standards in early 2016, while it was banned from testing.
Blood testing is crucial for initiatives like the biological passport program. That seeks to catch dopers who can outwit traditional testing by using substances that are hard to detect or are quickly flushed out of the body.
The biological passport doesn’t track the banned substances, but instead looks at the changes they cause in the body, and suspicious changes can be grounds for a ban.
WADA obtained stored data from the lab in January — though only after Russia missed a deadline to hand it over — and said Tuesday it had obtained more than 2,000 stored samples from the facility. Those could reveal yet more past doping by Russian athletes.
Once that process is over, Russia could apply to have the lab fully reinstated, potentially allowing it to test thousands more urine samples.