Rio Games drug lab suspended after 'disturbing' technical errors

ByBonnie Ford ESPN logo
Friday, June 24, 2016

The Rio de Janeiro laboratory responsible for processing all athletes' drug test samples at the Summer Olympics has been suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency just weeks before Games begin, it was announced Friday.

Outgoing WADA director general David Howmantold New Zealand website the suspension was due to technical errors and called it "pretty disturbing."

WADA issued a statement Friday saying the lab was shut down Wednesday due to "non-conformity with the International Standard for Laboratories" and is prohibited from "carrying out all anti-doping analyses on urine and blood samples."

No details of the errors were specified, and the lab has 21 days to appeal the decision to theCourt of Arbitration for Sport.

In the meantime, all samples collected from athletes in Brazil will be transported "with a demonstrable chain of custody" to another WADA-accredited laboratory "as soon as possible," according to the statement.

"This will ensure that there are no gaps in the anti-doping sample analysis procedures; and that, the integrity of the samples is fully maintained," WADA's incoming director general Olivier Niggli said in the statement.

"Athletes can have confidence that the suspension will only be lifted by WADA when the Laboratory is operating optimally; and that, the best solution will be put in place to ensure that sample analysis for the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games is robust."

The Rio Games open Aug. 5 after months of political turmoil and financial crisis for federal, state and city authorities.

"This is another severe blow," Mario Andrada, the spokesman of the Rio Games organizing committee, told The Associated Press.

Officials at the Rio lab, however, believe the conformity issue can still be resolved in time.

"The lab expects its operations to return to normal in July after a visit from WADA's technical committee," the laboratory said in a statement.

That view was shared by Brazil's anti-doping authority, known as ABCD and run by the sports ministry.

The authority said it was "confident that the institution will take all the necessary procedures" to have the provisional suspension lifted.

WADA had suspended the Rio lab twice previously in the last four years.

In 2012, the lab was barred from conducting one category of tests -- isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), a method of detecting synthetic testosterone -- for nine months after a doping case against a Brazilian beach volleyball player had to be dismissed due to a false positive.

In August 2013, the lab's accreditation for all testing was suspended by WADA because of what it termed "repeated failures" but was reinstated by the agency in May 2015.

That suspension period included the 2014 World Cup held in Brazil, forcing FIFA officials to ship samples -- at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars -- to another WADA-accredited lab in Lausanne, Switzerland. However, the number of samples collected before and during the tournament -- 1,009, with no positives reported -- is far smaller than the roughly 6,000 expected from Rio 2016.

The lab faced yet another administrative scramble earlier this year, when the Brazilian government just beat a deadline to pass legislation mandated for compliance with the WADA code.

If the Rio lab is not reinstated in the next six weeks, other testing centers with WADA accreditation include: UCLA in Los Angeles; Salt Lake City, Utah; Bogota, Colombia; Havana, Cuba; and Mexico City.

Brazilian officials invested $60 million in a new facility after the previous suspensions, and expanded the lab's staff from 20 to more than 100.

Including Rio, six of the 34 WADA-accredited labs around the world are suspended and currently unable to perform testing. Facilities in South Africa, Spain, China, Portugal and Russia are off-line, although the lab in Moscow was recently permitted to resume blood testing only.

Marjolaine Viret, a Swiss lawyer who specializes in scientific issues related to anti-doping, said the spate of suspensions reflects the increasing demands on labs trying to meet the stringent International Standard for Laboratories required by WADA.

"If anti-doping analytics continues growing more complex -- and there is no reason this should stop -- and we do not want to lower the standards on the labs, probably the only solution is to move away from the historical goal that each lab should be able to offer all technologies, and have a selected number of 'specialized' labs for more sophisticated methods,'' Viret wrote to

"It still seem preferable to suspend (the Rio lab) now and have the samples analyzed at a different lab, rather than to end up with findings during the Olympic Games that could not be confirmed,'' she added.

Paul DiMeo, a senior lecturer in sports policy at the University of Stirling in Scotland, called the suspension "fiasco and failure -- and inconsistent,'' writing in an email to that it reflects badly on a global anti-doping system charged with setting compliance standards for individuals and countries.

"What bothers me is they chase down athletes for relatively minor offences (sometimes completely innocent). Then they fail to deliver something as important as this,'' he wrote Friday afternoon. The suspension also opens up questions on the effectiveness of testing within Brazilian sport, he wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.