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Cardoso EPO case highlights inequalities in anti-doping process

By Fred Dreier • Published
Andre Cardoso received a provisional suspension in 2017 after his A sample tested positive for EPO © Tim De Waele

While the cycling world spent much of 2018 focused on Chris Froome’s adverse analytical finding for Salbutamol, a different, but also controversial, anti-doping case simmered outside of the limelight.

Portugal’s André Cardoso was provisionally suspended by the UCI on the eve of the 2017 Tour de France after an out-of-competition doping test came back positive for the blood booster Erythropoietin. Cardoso, 33, denied taking EPO, and requested that authorities test his “B” sample.

After the initial finding, the UCI went quiet on Cardoso’s case. Behind the scenes, a strange legal situation played out in the weeks following Cardoso’s initial test. Official documents obtained by VeloNews show that the results of Cardoso’s “B” sample, performed by the Laboratoire Suisse d’Analyse du Dopage in Lausanne, Switzerland did not match that of his A sample.

“The result of the analysis of the urine sample is doubtful but inconclusive regarding the presence of recombinant EPO,” reads the test report for the B sample.

Per WADA guidelines, a negative B sample overrides the A sample, resulting in no sanction. Rather than categorize the result as negative, however, the Lausanne laboratory listed Cardoso’s result as “Atypical Finding.” That decision left the door open for cycling’s governing body to pursue a sanction against Cardoso under a section of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code that grants enormous power to governing bodies in cases where doping tests do not align.

VeloNews reached out to the UCI multiple times for comment on Cardoso’s case without success, eventually being told by a representative that the governing body does not comment on ongoing cases. A representative from the WADA also declined to comment.

The documents from Cardoso’s case shed light on the opaque and expensive process involved in an anti-doping case. More than a year after his initial suspension, Cardoso maintains his innocence. He works as a cycling tour guide in Portugal. He says he has expended much of his disposable income on legal fees over the past year and believes that he may lose his ongoing case because he simply lacks the resources to take it to higher courts.

“I don’t think this is about doping anymore, it now feels like it is about politics,” Cardoso told VeloNews. “The UCI knows that I’m not a star, I’m not a millionaire. I don’t have the big money to fight. They do not want to say, ‘Maybe the lab made a mistake,’ because it is easier to just put me out of the sport.”

A ring of the doorbell

WADA documents show that testers came to Cardoso’s home on the evening of Sunday, June 18, 2017 and performed both urine and blood controls at approximately 8:15 p.m. Cardoso had recently returned from France’s Critérium du Dauphiné, where he had worked as a domestique for Alberto Contador and finished 19th in the overall standings, 16:38 down to winner Jakob Fuglsang.

The result helped earn Cardoso a spot on Trek-Segafredo’s Tour de France squad, which would mark his debut at cycling’s biggest race.

Cardoso said he spent the day having lunch with his parents and then looking after his child. Just before dinner he heard his doorbell ring, looked onto the monitor of his security camera, and saw the testers at his door.

“I think, ‘Oh, that is OK, it is maybe 10 minutes and is pretty easy,” Cardoso said. “I open the doors. I already knew the doctors and I’m like, this is no big deal.”

Athletes in WADA out-of-competition testing pools must file whereabouts documents that provide a specific 60-minute slot every day between 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. that anchors the athlete to a specific location. Athletes must make themselves available for testing during that time.

“Athletes will receive a missed test if they are unavailable during the specified 60-minute time slot indicated on their whereabouts filing when attempted for testing,” reads a note on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency website.

Cardoso references this 60-minute window as proof of his innocence. Cardoso’s testing window was from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Had he been doping, Cardoso said, he would not have opened the door. He would have instead simply skipped the test since the testers were well outside of his testing window. WADA guidelines say that an athlete will receive a sanction after three whereabouts failures during a 12-month period.

“If I take anything then why do I even open the door because it’s not my [test] time?” Cardoso said. “I open the door because, if I’m completely honest, I don’t care about the [test] time. I always open the door. I never miss one test, because it’s no big deal.”

Cardoso learned of his positive test on June 27, the day before he was to fly to Germany for the start of the Tour de France, via a phone call from a UCI lawyer.

“I said it is not possible. It is not possible. Is this a joke?” Cardoso said. “Then I ask him what is the substance, and he says, ‘EPO.’ I’m like this is crazy, nobody takes EPO. This is crazy for sure.”

Cardoso maintains his innocence after his B sample returned an inconclusive result. Photo credit: Courtesy Andre Cardoso

The rules of punishment

After Cardoso’s B sample returned an inconclusive reading, the UCI still decided to pursue a suspension. In a letter to Cardoso dated August 9, 2017, the UCI explained its decision and referenced WADA code 2.2.

According to the rule, a governing body can still pursue a ban even if the doping tests fail to produce a positive A and B sample. The rule is a powerful tool in pursuing possible drug cheats, as it allows WADA to ban a rider based on admission of guilt, the statement of witnesses, or even evidence from police investigations. But the rule also allows governing bodies to throw out the results of an inconclusive B sample and simply reference the results of the A sample.

“Use may be established upon reliable analytical data from the analysis of an A sample (without confirmation from an analysis of a B sample) or from the analysis of a B sample alone where the Anti-Doping Organization provides a satisfactory explanation for the lack of confirmation in the other sample,” reads a clause in the rule.

In Cardoso’s case, the reported presence of recombinant EPO in his A sample was proof that he had used or attempted to use the drug.

Cardoso hired a lawyer and challenged the UCI’s ruling. In documents from the appeal, the UCI lays out its case against him. A report produced by Dr. Gunter Gmeiner and Dr. Christian Reichel of the WADA-accredited laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria states that Cardoso’s A sample shows signs of recombinant EPO use — the test involves examining colored bands produced by chemicals in the urine. The B sample, however, produced a color band that’s intensity was “drastically reduced compared to the A-sample.”

According to multiple reports from the appeal, the explanation given for this inconsistency is the potential degradation of EPO within the two samples. In simpler terms, Cardoso’s A test showed the presence of EPO, and by the time researchers tested Cardoso’s B sample, the EPO had dissipated.

“It is our current opinion that immunopurification and/or degradation of EPO are highly likely phenomena as a source of the inconsistence result between A- and B-sample,” reads a report from Dr. Tiia Kuuranne, Dr. Nicolas Leuenberger, and Dr. Sylvan Giraud, dated August 8, 2017.

Still, the inconsistencies between the two samples raise questions about the science surrounding the EPO urine test. In 2003, Kenyan runner Bernard Lagat returned a clear positive A sample for EPO, only to have the result dismissed when his B sample came back negative. Lagat was not banned. In 2006, track and field sprinter Marion Jones returned a negative B sample for EPO nearly two months after she tested positive at the U.S. national track championships. A year later, Jones admitted in federal court that she had doped during her track career and received a lifetime ban from the Olympics.

Cardoso’s legal team attacked the testing process and raised questions about the insular nature of WADA’s expert opinions — the researchers involved in the analysis are affiliated with WADA labs. In Cardoso’s official appeal, Dutch Dr. Douwe De Boer raised the question of whether Cardoso could suffer from a Congenital Disorder of Glycosylation, a metabolic disorder that could explain the inconsistencies in the test. He also challenged the WADA process — there was no independent witness for the testing of the A sample to make sure the procedures were done correctly.

The team also argued against the logic behind the UCI’s decision to pursue the suspension, despite the lack of a positive B sample. Should the B sample be labeled “inconclusive” simply because the A sample showed signs of doping? Or should the B sample be viewed independently?

“It is not a process that is fair to the athletes in my opinion,” De Boer told VeloNews. “All of the power is in the hands of the authorities.”

The UCI rejected Cardoso’s challenge, and in a letter dated January 16, 2018, it informed Cardoso that his next opportunity was to take his case to the UCI Anti-Doping Tribunal.

Maintaining innocence

Cardoso remains provisionally suspended by the UCI while his case runs its course. His legal fees have soared into the tens of thousands of euros. De Boer’s fee to observe the testing of his B sample cost 3,126 euros alone, and an initial retainer for his lawyer, Thilo Pachmann, came in at 4,417 euros. Pachmann’s fee was 300 euros an hour.

Cardoso’s next legal step would be to take his case to the Court of Arbitration of Sport, but Cardoso admits that this step may be beyond his means.

“I don’t have the money to go to CAS — I already put everything into this case,” he said. “The moment I saw the UCI fighting against me with five experts and a big lawyer was the moment I think, ‘OK maybe this is a bad sign.’”

At 33, Cardoso’s career may be over. Prior to Trek-Segafredo he rode with American team Cannondale-Drapac and Spanish squad Caja Rural. He turned professional in 2008 with the Portuguese team Fercase-Rota dos Moveis.

EPO was one of the most heavily abused drugs in the pro peloton a decade ago, however suspensions today are uncommon at the WorldTour level. Athletes do still test positive — Frenchman Remy di Gregorio received a ban in April after testing positive for the drug. Cardoso’s EPO positive stood out as an oddity.

Cardoso understands that many may not believe his proclamation of innocence. It’s cycling, after all, a sport with a long history of EPO use. When other cyclists tested positive, Cardoso said, he rarely believed their explanations. So why will anyone believe his?

“For me, it was much easier to think ‘this guy is crazy — nobody takes EPO anymore’ and he is not believable,” Cardoso said. “When I was a rider I thought like that. And for sure people will think the same about me.”

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