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An interview with Rasmus Damsgaard, January 7, 2008

The man with the plan: part two

Danish anti-doping expert Rasmus Damsgaard was hired to pioneer Team CSC's anti-doping program. In doing so, he created a system which will be adopted by the Astana team as well as provide some structure for the UCI and WADA's 'biological passport' system. In part two of the interview with Cyclingnews' Sabine Sunderland, Damsgaard talks about passing his program on and his optimism for the future. (See also part one.)

Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard
Photo ©: Sabine Sunderland/Cyclingnews
(Click for larger image)

Getting interested parties on board with a completely new paradigm is always difficult, and the situation was no different for Damsgaard and his predecessors who wished to implement a system of 'parallel testing' to track riders' blood profiles over time looking for irregularities.

"The first official body I approached was the Danish Anti-Doping Agency. They dismissed the idea with no further comments," Damsgaard said of the early days of the concept. "[UCI president] Pat McQuaid, on the contrary, was from the very beginning very positive, and after a meeting in January 2007 the program was official!"

Now that the program is one year old, the concept is catching on. After a meeting between WADA and the UCI in France in October, 2007, the idea of the 'biological passport' gathered steam, and the UCI intends to implement it in time for the 2008 season.

Damsgaard said the UCI's program, "comes quite close to being identical to the Team CSC program". The concept is also in the process of being adopted by WADA. "I know WADA has been working on a similar program to implement in all sports for many years and if the Team CSC program has had just a little impact on the speed of the implementation process, we are very proud!"

Sharing data with the anti-doping establishment can have its drawbacks. While Damsgaard's intent was to release a generalised report of the results on a regular basis, his willingness to share made some trouble in May, 2007. "We provided the chairman of the Danish Anti-Doping Agency with some of the results from the program to get their opinions on different issues. The chairman decided, without consent from neither the rider - which is obligatory according to Danish hospital law - nor from the agency's board members, to pass this confidential material on to the press!"

News off an 'irregular' blood value was leaked to the press, forcing Damsgaard to issue an explanation that the fluctuations were shown to be normal variations. He also learned a valuable lesson. "We learned that only relevant partners can be trusted despite the fact that we are fighting the same fight: to combat doping." The full mid-year results were finally reported in June.

Past efforts pay off

The UCI has come under plenty of criticism for the sport's current situation, with many detractors blaming the sport's governing body for failing to get the EPO use under control before now. But Damsgaard is of the opinion that the UCI put together a sound basis on which to build the best possible testing program.

"As a matter of fact I think that the UCI has done an extended amount of work within the anti-doping framework. Work that all IF's are benefiting from today."

"It is always easier to look back and point out the mistakes or the flaws in the work, but overall, I think the UCI have done a tremendous job."

The willingness to accept Team CSC's ambitious project only added to Damsgaard's positive view of the UCI. "I can say that the UCI supported the Team CSC program immediately: they have never questioned our work or our integrity but only ensured themselves that we are conducting the best possible testing program."

"They were able to certify that program. Mutually, we have called the Team CSC program a 'pilot program', established to see whether it was possible to conduct such an ambitious program and to learn from the problems that we experienced underway.

"Therefore it is so that the UCI 'biological passport' may share identical elements with the Team CSC program. But again, the tools used in the Team CSC program have been present for a long time, so there is no magic in the program - just hard work!"

Test after test after test

"I am truly sad that the problem of parallel testing seems so difficult to solve. After all, it is the athletes that pay the price."

- Damsgaard laments the fact that results of all anti-doping tests have yet to be unified.

With the addition of team anti-doping programs to the battery of tests to which riders must submit on and off-season, the danger is there that riders will be giving their bodily fluids out once, twice, maybe even more times in one week. The result could be an undue burden on the athlete.

"This is unethical to the riders and I am truly sad that the problem of parallel testing seems so difficult to solve. After all, it is the athletes that pay the price," the Dane lamented. Another problem is the enormous body of data left for anti-doping authorities to sift through.

"The results [of all tests] are centralized in a WADA program called ADAMS," Damsgaard explained. "However, ADAMS has experienced a tough and challenging birth and until the baby is ready to breathe on its own, I am afraid that the athletes will still experience parallel testing from various bodies."

"I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea for all testing on the international elite to be conducted by the International Federations themselves, leaving the national elite to be tested by the national anti-doping agencies," Damsgaard suggested. "It would reduce the total cost, diminish the amount of unethical tests and create more ambitious anti-doping programs for the very elite."

As the number of controls the riders are subjected to rise, Damsgaard sees the need for improvement to the athlete whereabouts system and the related procedures. He believes the testers will have to allow more time to find athletes. "I want to stress that with a more frequent testing program, enabling the doping control officers to spend more time waiting for the athletes to show up than what they are allowed to now, the sanction of a no-show becomes more and more irrelevant."

This is one area the UCI will need to address if it is to institute the 'biological passport' system. "Isn't it a way-better method to wait let's say 24 to 48 hours for the athlete, and thus actually obtain the test, than to leave the testing site after the International Federation set time-limit available to the athlete for testing?"

Damsgaard believes that consistent collection of data is important, and the testers will have to be flexible. "I think my argument is confirmed by the vast numbers of 'no-shows' that have been overruled because the excuse of the athlete was valid. What I am trying to say is that it is more important to come home from Russia or Argentina with a test in hand after maybe having to wait 36 hours than to end up with a 'no-show'. The anti-doping authorities should think about that."

Damsgaard's fellow Dane, Michael Rasmussen famously was fired from his team for lying about his whereabouts for out of competition testing, and Damsgaard believes Rasmussen's whereabouts issues should have come out well before he was about to win the Tour de France.

"I think that everybody is trying to wash their hands in this case," Damsgaard opined. "You don't have to look very hard to see that some anti-doping authorities or sport authorities had the full knowledge of the number of warnings but never revealed this knowledge to the right people."

To Astana and beyond

The success of Damsgaard's program was such that he was brought in by Johan Bruyneel to help provide assurance that his 'new' Astana team will not suffer the same embarrassment that the 2007 team did, with the testosterone positive of Mathias Kessler and the blood doping positives of Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin. However, he declined to see himself as the man who would 'clean up' Astana. "I think Astana has already done the cleaning-up," he clarified. "I am merely brought in as an independent source to consolidate their anti-doping policy."

"Never have I thought of myself as being the 'cleaner'. There is too much 'policeman' in that expression."

- Damsgaard prefers to think of himself as a consultant.

"Never have I thought of myself as being the 'cleaner'. There is too much 'policeman' in that expression," he continued. "I see myself as an anti-doping consultant with an expert knowledge in how to perform proper doping controls and how to interpret the results correctly."

"By doing so I am not only ensuring a better independent UCI/WADA certified control - which in the long run will protect the health of the riders. I am also the riders' best lawyer in cases in which measurements, for some natural reason, show large variations. In those instances the international press needs in-depth explanation before they make it the story of the day."

His role as a sort of rider advocate is designed to help protect both rider and team. "Approaching things in this new way we may avoid large personal costs due to unfounded accusations."

However, the fact that he is hired by the team to administer the anti-doping program should not way be seen as a way to cover up bad results. "As mentioned before, I have also stipulated in the contract with Astana that all the results are made public - the rest is up to the team and the riders."

Damsgaard hopes that his time of running such programs will have an end - he hopes to see the UCI adopt its own program and run with it. "Personally, I have told the teams and the UCI that I am slowly terminating my engagement with Team CSC and Astana the minute UCI have their 'biological passport' up and running."

When that day comes, Damsgaard believes that the sport will have come a long way towards ensuring that cycling can repair its reputation with its fans and sponsors.

"I think that cycling will enjoy a very clean future if the teams, the race organizers and UCI can unite their efforts in implementing the 'biological passport'. I strongly believe that the passport should be available for scrutinizing by everyone interested so that trust can be brought back into cycling. That seems to be the biggest hope of many team directors."

Does he think that the 2008 cycling season, and especially the three big tours, will indeed be the cleanest in history? "Yes!" was the resounding reply.

*Sabine Sunderland, a long-time contributor to Cyclingnews, is the wife and partner of Scott Sunderland, a directeur-sportif at Team CSC.

Go back to part one of of the interview.

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