No doubt about Merlene’s innocence

Those of us who support good science and have conducted any research on steroids and sports in general and Nandrolone in particular are not surprised at the decision by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) arbitration panel in the case of Jamaica’s track legend Merlene Ottey. My worry was whether the panel would succumb to the pressure of the IAAF. Fortunately the panel demonstrated its integrity by making a decision based on the weight of the evidence presented, just as the local panel did.

The whole matter of setting limits and testing for metabolites of Nandrolone is fraught with uncertainty and disagreement. Searching questions are being asked about the limits set by the IAAF for this particular drug by several individuals and organizations, including FIFA, but in this instance I wish to address the other side of the issue – that of the analyses.

There seems to be the impression that Merlene has escaped on a "technicality". The fact is that sampling, storage and analytical methods affect results of analyses. Using inorganic geochemistry as an example, if I am testing rocks for the element sodium (found in common salt), I would get the sample into the appropriate solution and then carry out my analyses. But I cannot store the solution in glass flasks because the sodium in the glass will be leached (absorbed ) by my sample solution, giving me results which are higher than they should be. The significance of the error so introduced will depend on the level of sodium in my sample.

Other examples of samples being affected by various conditions could be quoted; the most familiar to readers would be substances which are placed in dark bottles because they are sensitive to light. In some cases the sample could be temperature sensitive, in others it could be pH, (acidity). Because of such reasons, the exact way of carrying out analyses and doing calculations for results are established, and analysts are required to follow them exactly and to do the correct thing every time.

If specific gravity (s.g.) is important in the calculation of the results in this particular test, and the specific gravity of the sample can change, this change must be kept to a minimum and it must be clearly stated which value of the s.g. is to be used. This is where the chain of custody of the sample becomes critical. The sample has to be kept under very controlled conditions if the analysis is not being done at the time of sampling. Some person or persons must take responsibility for ensuring that these conditions are met exactly until the test is completed. In the case of the samples of Merlene’s urine taken by the IAAF, this was not done. Not only was the chain of custody compromised, the conditions under which the samples were kept were, apparently, inappropriate.

Another consideration is that at low concentrations, very small errors can be significant. So going back to my rock sample, if my rock contains forty percent sodium, then if twenty parts per million leach into the solution from my container, it will not significantly affect my result. If however my sample concentration is five parts per million and one part per million leaches into the solution, I have a significant error. At the minute concentrations being analysed in the case of nandrolone metabolites, a small error in the s.g. can be significant.

Reduction of error is an integral part of all analytical work, and the amount of the error associated with each result must be calculated and stated. If the error introduced is too large, the result must be rejected. The analyst who does not diligently and carefully follow correct procedures can place no trust in the results obtained and should redo the analysis.

Based on the evidence presented to the arbitration panel, Merlene could have been exonerated on various grounds. The one stated, however, allowed the IAAF to save face. Hence, even though the panel of arbitrators did the right thing in the end, several fundamental questions remain to be answered about the Federation’s anti-doping programme.

Special commendations to those who supported Merlene during this difficult time, with honorable mention going to the JAAA which showed moral courage by not rushing to judgment in order to please its parent organization the IAAF.


Dr Barbara Carby (Red Hills P O, Kingston, Jamaica)

(Article send to the fanclub by Claire Forrester)