Germany’s most successful Winter Olympian, Claudia Pechstein, could be cleared of doping charges, after leading scientists find she suffers from a rare blood disease.
Leading scientists say their evidence exonerates Pechstein
A group of renowned German blood experts told a news conference in Berlin on Monday that they had evidence that Claudia Pechstein's suspicious blood levels were caused by a disease called hereditary spherocytosis.
Gerhard Ehninger, the head of the German Society of Hematology and Oncology (DGHO), said that the disease was responsible for the high reticulocyte count repeatedly recorded during tests of the athlete's blood by the International Skating Union ISU.
Reticulocytes are immature red blood cells which typically make up about 1 percent of the red cells in the human body.
In July 2009, the ISU imposed a two-year ban for doping on the now 38-year-old German, on the grounds that her reticulocyte count was above normal, which would suggest that she had taken performance-enhancing drugs.
Ehninger, who led the team of researchers, said that he had fully supported the suspension of Pechstein last summer, after learning of her high reticulocyte levels. He says he has now had to reverse that opinion in light of the new findings.
The research team, led by Gerhard Ehninger (2nd from right), presenting their evidence
“I've studied all the evidence carefully, and have come to the conclusion that the scales have clearly dipped in favor of Ms. Pechstein. Allegations that she had doped can no longer be maintained,” Ehniger said.
Another member of the scientific panel, Winfried Gassmann, even argued that a closer look at Pechstein’s testing records of the past decade could have shown that “there was strong evidence against doping and in favor of a medical phenomenon.”
“While Pechstein’s reticulocyte count was indeed elevated ahead of major competitions, the level of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in her blood was always rather low. This is not the effect athletes aiming to enhance their performance through blood doping want,” Gassmann said.
Hereditary blood anomaly
Pechstein's disease is a genetic defect which results in abnormally deformed red blood cells. The scientists have found out that her father has the same defect and is likely to have passed it on to his daughter.
The DGHO estimates that about 800,000 Germans are suffering from the disease which, in acute cases, can cause symptoms of anemia.
DGHO head Ehninger called on international sports officials to change the rules for doping offenses.
“We want the struggle against doping in sport to be based on the latest scientific findings. That is why it's important that we prevent the automatic exclusion from competitive sport of people suffering from this genetic defect.”
Convincing the critics
Fritz Soergel, an expert on doping at the Institute of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Research (IBMP) near Nuremburg, said he didn’t find the group's findings convincing.
Claudia Pechstein hopes she can now triumph over her critics
“The possibility of physiological causes for Pechstein's abnormal blood levels were intensively discussed during a hearing at the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS). The new evidence is unlikely to change the CAS jurisdiction in this case,” he said.
Soergel also said that he found it “sad and unfortunate” that some of Germany's most respected scientists had been "instrumentalized” for Pechstein's cause.
Pechstein herself, who is Germany's most decorated Winter Olympian with a haul of five gold medals, called on her critics to reconsider their positions.
“I'm very happy about the outcome of the study,” she said in Berlin on Monday, “but it's only the first step in the right direction.”
Last week, Pechstein launched a formal appeal with the Swiss Federal Court aimed at forcing the CAS to reopen her case and lift the ban.
Editor: Susan Houlton