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ALEX SCHWAZER: AN ONGOING BATTLE



On 7 April 2022, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released the results of its investigation into the case of Italian race walker Alex Schwazer. WADA states that the results confirm that the biological sample collected on 1 January 2016, which tested positive for substances considered prohibited by the WADA Code, had not been tampered with in any way.


Let’s take a step back and trace the stages of the well-known affair. Alex Schwazer is a South Tyrolean race walker who won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the men’s 50 km race. In July 2012, shortly before the London Olympics, Schwazer tested positive for EPO and was banned from athletics for three years and six months by decision of the Italian National Anti-Doping Tribunal on 23 April 2013. He was also subject to criminal proceedings, whereas doping, according to Italian Law No. 376 of 14 December 2000 regulating health safeguarding in the context of sporting activities and the fight against doping in Italy, is a criminal offence under Italian law, and as such prosecutable and punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. On 22 December 2014, the proceedings ended with a plea bargain (8 months’ imprisonment plus a €6,000 fine), a special procedure aimed at closing the criminal case without a trial.


A few months after returning to competition at the end of his period of ineligibility (29 April 2016), news broke on 21 June of the same year of a new positive test related to the sample collected on 1 January 2016, when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and NADO Italia had conducted a surprise out-of-competition urine test carried out in Racines, Italy.


It is precisely such second positive result that has been the subject of harsh criticism and accusations of tampering on the part of the athlete and his entourage, whereas an initial test of the urine samples had been negative and only later, through more in-depth analysis, anomalies emerged that subsequently revealed the presence of anabolic steroids.


The athlete appealed against the provisional suspension decided by the IAAF on 8 July 2016 following this second positive test, confirmed by counter-analyses, to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. After rejecting the athlete’s request for the provisional suspension to be lifted, on 10 August of the same year, the CAS sanctioned Schwazer with an eight-year ban, a particularly harsh sanction based on the circumstance that it was not the athlete’s first doping offence.


As a result of the second positivity to substances prohibited by the WADA Code, the race walker was again investigated for the offence under Article 586-bis of the Italian Criminal Code. On 18 February 2021, at the request of the public prosecutor’s office of Bolzano, the preliminary investigations judge (GIP) Walter Pelino dismissed Schwazer’s case on the grounds that ‘he did not commit the offence‘, basing his decision on the high degree of rational credibility given to the theory that the urine samples had been altered to make them positive. In fact, in the order of dismissal[1] , based primarily on the results of the Scientific Investigations Unit (RIS) of the Carabinieri of Parma, which showed a concentration of DNA in the biological sample positive considered to be physiologically impossible, and therefore considered by the GIP evidence of a manipulation of the same biological sample, the GIP also notes the presence of evidence of criminally relevant false declarations committed throughout the case and particularly regarding the custody of the urine samples of the athlete.


This is the background to the statement published on 7 April on the WADA website, which states that the report by Professor Martial Saugy, a scientist at the University of Lausanne, shows that ‘the manipulation scenario envisaged by Judge Pelino is completely implausible and that there is no analytical evidence to support it‘.


In the note, WADA also states that the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), the entity that has been overseeing anti-doping on behalf of World Athletics since 2017, commissioned a study from the Forensic Genetics Unit laboratory in Lausanne, the results of which would incontrovertibly prove that the DNA concentration in Schwazer’s analysed sample is within a “normal physiological range“.


AIU and WADA cooperated in drafting a detailed joint statement setting out the reasons for the unreliability of the theory of manipulation of biological samples in the light of their respective reports.[2]


WADA has always believed that the Judge’s theory of manipulation was not supported by facts,” said Director General Olivier Niggli. “The results of the DNA study and Professor Saugy’s review of the evidence confirm our position and fully refute Judge Pelino’s theory, which is based on a number of incorrect assumptions.


The response of the athlete’s lawyers was prompt. In March, they had already announced that they would be filing an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg: “These Wada initiatives deserve only contempt. To err may well be human (not in this case, because there is, to say the least, bad faith) but to persevere is diabolicum!” the lawyers continue. “Insisting on secret expert opinions, without any contradiction, from controversial subjects, on phantom urines, without observing any procedure, betrays only the desperate attempt to justify an unjustifiable procedure, seriously flawed from the beginning, from Racines to Rio, with violation of every elementary principle of a fair trial, even arbitration“.


The defenders also complain about the failure to comply with the order of dismissal of the GIP of Bolzano, which was the result of ‘a technical and scientific expert assessment of the highest level; in that case, it would have been possible and necessary to provide concrete counter-evidence, which was not produced, and on the contrary, even in that case, a late, non-controversial, absolutely adventurous and unsustainable expert assessment was used’.


The legal and sporting affair involving Alex Schwazer is still far from reaching a conclusion. The WADA, despite the continuous and heavy accusations by the athlete’s entourage, is definitively trying to dispel any doubts on the authenticity of the positivity found following the now famous doping control carried out at dawn in 2016. Further developments are still awaited, first and foremost the eventual decision on the announced (but not yet filed) appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which could have a significant impact on the case. The only certainty is that the sporting career of the now 38-year-old Italian race walker has indeed been the subject of heated controversy.


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