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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Kieran Pender

Peter Bol: what does an atypical doping test result mean for the Australian athlete?

Peter Bol of Australia wins silver in the Men's 800m Final during Day 10 of the XXII Commonwealth Games at Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, England, Friday, July 29, 2022. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

On Tuesday, Australian middle-distance runner Peter Bol posted a statement to his social media channels, announcing his provisional doping suspension had been lifted. On Instagram, he captioned the statement with one word: “Alhamdulillah” – thank God.

If only it was so simple.

The initial outpouring of relief, that an Australian Olympic hero was not a doping cheat, was tempered by a subsequent statement from Sport Integrity Australia (SIA). Bol’s B sample had returned an “atypical finding”, or ATF. While his suspension has been lifted, SIA’s investigation remains ongoing. If this was a 800m contest, Bol’s preferred distance, the finish-line might be in sight, but the race is not over yet.

There are a few layers to unpeel here. Bol’s A sample tested positive for recombinant EPO – an artificial form of a naturally-occurring substance. His B sample was an ATF. This, in the words of SIA, is “is not the same as a negative test result”.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) publishes exhaustive technical standards that govern testing for different prohibited substances. When the results of a B sample “do not fulfil the quality and indication criteria described” in the technical standards, the result is returned as negative. That renders a positive A sample as a false positive; in simpler terms, it represents vindication for those like Bol who maintain their innocence.

An ATF, on the other hand, is recorded when testing results are “inconclusive” – for example because “presence of interferences, band(s) intensity too low to ensure reliable identification”. It is not entirely accurate, then, to say – as Bol did – that he “was hopeful that the process would exonerate me. This morning, I am relieved to report that it did.” An ATF is not a positive result; Bol and his supporters can take much relief from that. But an ATF is not a negative result either.

And so the process continues. SIA’s statement indicated that its investigation “remains ongoing”. It would not specify a timeframe, although a hearing is scheduled for next month. There are two possible outcomes. SIA can determine Bol has not committed any anti-doping rule violation and close its investigation. Bol’s nightmare will be over. Or SIA could reach the view that Bol’s combined positive and ATF results suggest a possible violation and proceed to take action. A legal fight would likely ensure.

Bol in action at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Bol in action at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

Further complexity has been thrown on the situation with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting that Bol had contradictory EPO testing results in 2021 – with one lab identifying a minor positive, and another concluding the same sample was negative. Bol was reportedly unaware of this until now; it may suggest naturally-occurring high levels of EPO within his body.

Another unusual aspect of Bol’s statement, and the vocal criticism of the process mounted by his lawyer, is the attack on the transparency of SIA’s process. “I wish that the results of my A sample had not been leaked, but there is nothing I can do about that,” said Bol on Tuesday.

It is not quite right to describe that transparency as a leak – Bol’s sample result was not leaked. Bol’s positive result in his A sample meant that, pursuant to Wada rules, he would be provisionally suspended. It’s hard to envisage how Bol could be suspended but SIA and Athletics Australia say nothing. “We anticipated that his absence from training and published start lists for upcoming events would lead to questions and media reporting, as it did,” Athletics Australia chief executive Peter Bromley said on Tuesday.

“It’s always better to be transparent about these things,” one leading sports lawyer told Guardian Australia. “There’s discretion on part of the testing authority but ultimately transparency outweighs any prejudicial value, because a B sample negative means no provisional suspension and no positive finding.”

Bol’s case may well prompt further reflection on processes and disclosure within SIA; his lawyer has suggested that the US Anti-Doping Authority would not have announced the A sample result in such circumstances. Balancing transparency and the legitimate interests of an athlete is not easy.

None of which is to understate the immense impact of the past month on Bol. “The last month has been nothing less than a nightmare,” he said on Tuesday. His hopes of being named Young Australian of the Year were scuppered. Even if he is ultimately vindicated, this saga will remain a footnote to an otherwise glittering career.

Now able to train and compete again, Bol will begin a path towards the world championships in August and the 2024 Paris Olympics – but the lingering stress of the investigation won’t help his preparations. His ability to qualify for the world championships might also depend on discretion from Athletics Australia, if he does not compete in the national titles in March.

Tuesday’s announcement was met by a collective sigh of relief from many in the Australian sporting community. Bol is an inspiration, a hero – his journey from Sudan to Egypt to Australia to the Tokyo Olympics is truly remarkable. Most want Bol to be innocent, and Tuesday’s news is a step in the right direction. But he is not in the clear just yet.

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