October 10, (THEWILL) – On Thursday, the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) charged Nigerian sprinter, Blessing Okagbare, with three different charges in relation to distinct disciplinary matters. Two of the charges pertained to testing positive for banned substances and refusing to cooperate with an investigation regarding issues around her suspension during the recent Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
According to the official statement containing the charges, Okagbare was “charged with the presence and use of a prohibited substance, following the detection of Human Growth Hormone in a sample collected out-of-competition on July 19 in Slovakia and reported to the AIU on July 30.” As THEWILL reported as of the time this charge was issued on July 31, 2021, resulting in the provisional suspension of Okagbare, the Nigerian had been scheduled to participate in the semi-finals of the Tokyo 2020 women’s 100m that day.
The AIU statement contained a fresh second charge of doping in the statement released on Thursday. It charged Okagbare with “the presence and use of a prohibited substance, following the detection of recombinant erythropoietin (EPO) in a sample collected out-of-competition on June 20 in Nigeria. The AIU requested EPO analysis be conducted on the sample on July 29 and the adverse analytical finding was reported to the AIU on August 12.”
It further claimed that Okagbare was notified of the adverse analytical finding on August 20 and described the reason the charge was weighty and deserving of suspension, saying, “Human Growth Hormone and EPO are non-specified substances on the 2021 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List. A provisional suspension is mandatory following an adverse analytical finding for such a substance under the World Athletics Anti-Doping Rules and the athlete remains provisionally suspended.”
For the final charge, the AIU insisted that “in accordance with Rule 12 of the World Athletics Anti-Doping Rules following the athlete’s refusal to co-operate with the AIU’s investigation into her case,” Okagbare had earned herself a separate third charge. It pertained to her alleged failure “to comply with a formal requirement to produce relevant documents, records and electronic storage devices, which was issued to the athlete by the AIU on September 15.”
The statement also included the fact that Okagbare specifically denied all charges based on her sustained insistence of her innocence of these charges brought against her. To further strengthen her confidence in her non-complicity in any acts of seeking an unfair advantage by cheating and using any performance enhancing substances, the African queen of the sprint immediately requested that each of these charges be submitted to a hearing before the Disciplinary Tribunal for adjudication.
THEWILL recalls that after an out-of-competition sample collected on July 19 came back positive for the human growth hormone (HGH), the Beijing 2008 Olympic silver medalist was embarrassingly barred from competing at Tokyo 2020. That initial provisional suspension for the offence arrived on July 30, the day before she was scheduled to compete in the women’s 100 metres semi-final event and effectively ruled her out of competing in the entire Olympics, thereby striking off a very reliable medal hopeful in Team Nigeria’s contingent.
As THEWILL reported, the interim suspension of Okagbare in the middle of the Olympics was an embarrassment for Nigeria, as it came not long after the AIU barred 10 Nigerian athletes from competing because they had not been thoroughly checked in the build-up to the Games. The 33-year-old was entering the Tokyo Games as a multi-time African champion, who won silver in the long jump at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, before devoting herself primarily to competing in sprints. She was primed for success at Tokyo having earned gold in the women’s 100m and 200m events at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, as well as silver in the long jump and bronze in the 200m at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.
However, dreams of an Okagbare podium finish for Team Nigeria were thwarted by the AIU hammer. The integrity unit of World Athletics explained the embarrassing abruptness of their suspension on the eve of the sprint champion’s participation in the semi-final of the women’s 100m, which she had strenuously fought hard to qualify for, by claiming that “the WADA-accredited laboratory that analysed the sample notified the AIU of the adverse analytical finding at mid-day Central European Time yesterday, Friday 30 July. The athlete was notified of the adverse analytical finding and of her provisional suspension this morning in Tokyo.”
The issue to deconstruct now is: what are the medical implications of the substances for which Okagbare was charged, what do the charges truly mean in their very essence and by implication where does that leave Okagbare in the sustained insistence on her innocence?
According to a study conducted by Kien Vinh Trinh, Dion Diep, Kevin Jia Qi Chen, Le Huang and Oleksiy Gulenko and published in Volume 1, Issue 6 of the BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine, titled “Effect of Erythropoietin on Athletic Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” athletes have attempted to glean the ergogenic benefits of recombinant human erythropoietin (EPO) since it became available in the 1980s.
Produced naturally by the kidneys, EPO is also available as a pharmaceutical. EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells in bone marrow and regulates the concentration of red blood cells and haemoglobin in the blood. This is useful for athletes, since red blood cells shuttle oxygen to the cells, including muscle cells, enabling them to operate more effectively.
In layman’s terms, muscle cells are factories that take the raw materials, oxygen and glucose, and turn them into energy. Now, although training increases the ability of the body to deliver oxygen to the cells and increases muscle size, more efficiency and more power yield better athletic performance. Increasing the number of red blood cells in the body increases the ability to deliver oxygen to tissues and that is where blood doping and the infusion of EPO into the blood stream come in to maximise this increase for the prospective athlete, providing an unfair advantage in the process.
As a type of blood doping that can help improve an athlete’s endurance, its use in competitive sport was first brought to the public’s attention during the 1998 Tour de France, where the entire Festina team was disqualified after several hundred doses of EPO and other doping products were found in the team car. An approved test for EPO was first introduced at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The test used a combination of urine testing, which would identify the presence of EPO (direct test) and blood testing, which would show the residual “footprints” of EPO drug use over time (indirect test). This was the first time blood was used for drug testing.
Since 2002, EPO tests in the United States were undertaken using only urine. However, in recent years the joint testing methods, such as direct EPO testing in urine and use of indirect markers in blood tests as part of the Athlete Biological Passport, have been used to help identify the use of newly-developed erythropoiesis stimulating agents.
However, EPO was once again linked with the Tour de France in its biggest and most famous case following the disgraced Lance Armstrong’s admissions in 2012 of EPO use throughout his seven tour victories. Other sports associated with EPO use include boxing (Shane Mosley, 2003), 50km walk (Alex Schwazer, 2012) and athletics (Rashid Ramzi, 2008).
The 2008 case of Ramzi is most pertinent here given that, like Okagbare, he is an athlete of the track and field category. The 30-year old Moroccan won both the 800m and 1500m events at the 2005 World Championships, becoming the first person to win both events at the competition. Running for Bahrain at the 2008 Summer Olympics, Ramzi took home gold in the 1500. It was a historic occasion as that was the first Olympic medal Bahrain had ever won. However, in an unfortunate turn, Ramzi was stripped of the medal after he tested positive for an advanced version of the red cell boosting drug EPO. His two-year ban from competition ended on May 2nd, 2011.
It is but an indication of the seriousness with which World Athletics and its Anti-Doping agencies take the policing of cheats to keep the competition clean. They trained their sights on EPO doping ahead of the 2012 Games hosted in London when it was made known that mini-doses of the erythropoietin and EPO-like drugs as well as human growth hormone (HGH) could thwart the prevailing anti-doping tests at the Olympics. Smart cheats could apply mini-doses of EPO to avoid triggering positive test results. It urged the Athletics governing body to improve the technologically-driven detection of these processes from samples collected from competing athletes at random times.
These conditions make it an uphill task for Okagbare’s challenge of the two lab-based doping charges against her as they came from samples obtained at randomly unscheduled time frames. As the AIU statement on Thursday made known, from “a sample collected out-of-competition on 19th July in Slovakia and reported to the AIU on 30th July” and from another “sample collected out-of-competition on 20th June in Nigeria”, their technologically advanced tests were able to confirm the presence of Human Growth Hormone and the EPO respectively in the samples collected from Okagbare.
Yet, as Africa’s Queen of the sprint has demanded her day of self-defense to clear her name and restore her long and abiding pedigree of clean competitiveness, which have brought her laurels and medals, fame and renown on the continent and abroad, she will have her day of hearing before the Disciplinary Tribunal. It is hoped that a fair hearing will acquit her and confirm once for all that every accolade she has today, came from nothing but sweat, sacrifice, professional devotion to her career, dedication, discipline and that never-say-die Nigerian spirit that propels the best to the top.