Ahead of a decision Thursday by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to again postpone a ruling in the doping case of two-time Olympic gold medalist Andrus Veerpalu, a team of Estonian Ph.D.s disclosed the findings of a 1.5-year study which they said categorically shows that the World Anti-Doping Association's test is unreliable.
Furthermore, in a legal battle that is being called a precedent for the sports world, Tartu researchers say WADA has suspiciously flip-flopped in its explanation of its methodology and that its test is based on an unforgivably small number of human test subjects.
"Of course, there will always be some margin of error - even the WADA officials will not argue with that. But the question is how big that margin of error is in the given test. We believe that WADA's alleged low margin of error is utterly false. My clear message is that, in the course of this case, prohibited substances have not been found in Andrus Veerpalu's blood test," Sulev Kõks, a professor of physiology at the University of Tartu, told ERR radio.
The court did not give any explanation for the postponement on Thursday. Officials hypothesized that the delay may have been related to it being preoccupied with the current Skiing World Championships or needing to still gather more information on the Veerpalu case.
The retired cross country skiing hero's attorney, Aivar Pilv, guessed that the court needs more time for analysis, mainly due to questions raised by the Estonian researchers. He said the case is a precedent in the growth hormone methodology and that it will affect the whole of professional sports.
"This will shape the principles for the years coming," said Pilv. "Clearly our group of researchers from the University of Tartu [...] have done a very thorough and analytical work, raised many questions and referred to many problems. We think that the questions raised by the researchers are the reason that the CAS needs so much time for thinking."
Speaking on a Thursday prime time, one-on-one interview program on ETV, the head of the Estonian Ski Association, Margus Hernits, reasoned that if Veerpalu's case had been black and white, a ruling would have been announced long ago.
One of the only skeptics to voice an opinion on Thursday, an official from the Estonian Anti-Doping Association, Kristjan Port, told ETV that the research work allegedly invalidating WADA methodology was not objective.
"Certainly they are not independent; we are talking about Veerpalu's defense team here. They admit that their findings were made under the condition of limited access to information, so it definitely does not measure up to the criteria of real scientific research," Port said.
If the sports court were to find Veerpalu not guilty, Port said, it would surely cast a negative light on WADA.
"The principle of WADA's work is largely built on trust and it would be unfortunate if this trust were damaged," Port said, adding that, according to WADA scientists, the chance of Veerpalu being wrongly deemed guilty is one in 10,000.
Releasing its findings to the media, the University of Tartu research team, led by genome and physiology researchers Krista Fischer, Anton Terasmaa and Sulev Kõks, argued authoritatively if dogmatically that regardless of the court's ruling, the doping test could not scientifically determine substance abuse.
"This test is not able to determine the use of growth hormone in humans. Therefore, there is no point in using this test for this purpose. If the lab claims that it has found synthetic growth hormone in the body, then it has to prove that it is indeed synthetic. That is clearly stated in the WADA rules," Kõks told ERR radio.
"It is not enough for them to say that they think that the test measures growth hormone or is capable of identifying doping. They need to be able to show that it is unequivocal, very reliable, and that there is a very small margin of error," Kõks said.
Furthermore, Kõks said that in the researchers' correspondence with WADA, the organization repeatedly changed its responses regarding its test's methodology. Initially, the Tartu researchers said, WADA claimed to use normal distribution, a mathematical model. When the Tartu researchers found that normal distribution could not be used for such analysis, WADA said they actually used lognormal distribution. When that was found inapplicable, WADA said it used gamma distribution.
"It is worth noting that this assertion was presented six months after the court hearing. Such behavior personifies a schoolchild digging himself into an ever deeper hole in an effort to hide unfinished homework assignments," the Tartu team said in a release to the media on Thursday.
They continued: "The test has been developed without accounting for modern scientific standards and using an unforgivably small number of test subjects. Thus, it has not been proven how likely it is for the test to give incorrect positive or negative results. Nor have researchers unaffiliated with WADA been able to independently research the test, because WADA keeps the details of its data in secret."
"The test's creators claim that it will incorrectly give a positive result for an individual who has not injected growth hormone in only one instance out of 10,000. Clearly, 100 test subjects does not give basis to make such an assertion," the researchers wrote. "There is no basis for the accusation made against Veerpalu."