Olympic drug samples stored with the sandwiches

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Serious questions were raised over the London 2012 anti-doping process last night as it emerged that van drivers stored their sandwiches and soft drinks in the same refrigerator as athletes' blood and urine samples.

One expert called the arrangements "bizarre" and said athletes would be angered to discover their samples were being treated so casually.

Astonishingly, however, the firm which transports the samples said no rules had been breached.

According to the pre-publicity, the 6,250 samples in sealed, bar-coded bottles packed in insulated boxes to keep them cool, were to be picked up from Olympic venues by couriers UPS for analysis at the GlaxoSmithKline laboratory in Harlow, north-east of London.

But a whistleblower, has uncovered a secure secret "holding area" at a police facility on a slip road just off the M11 in Chigwell, about 13 miles from Harlow.

Under a white awning, similar to an aircraft hangar, the UPS drivers deliver their square blue boxes of samples to a walk-in refrigerated unit about the same size as a shipping container.

The refrigerator is locked, but the whistleblower said the key-holder on each shift, a UPS employee, would allow drivers to walk in and out, not only to store their cargo, but also to place their packed lunches inside the cooled room.

A photo, seen by The Mail on Sunday, shows the distinctive blue boxes of samples on one side of the unit, with bottles of Coca-Cola, milk, Sprite and water only feet away on the other side. The whistleblower said that at other times they had seen wrapped supermarket sandwiches in the unit.

"You have to pass through security to get to it. It is a temporary set-up, just for the duration of the Games," said the whistleblower. "It is manned 24 hours a day by three or four UPS staff who work in shifts."

The whistleblower said the samples tended to remain at the holding area for around two hours before being shipped on to Harlow - despite international drugs watchdog guidelines stating they should be transported to the lab "as soon as practicable".

"At every step of the way there is supposed to be a record - a chain of custody - of who has had contact with the boxes containing the samples," said the source.

"There are clearly defined stages all requiring signatures when the sample changes hands, from the dope tester, the courier, the storage depot supervisor to the person receiving at the laboratory.

"The access drivers and UPS staff have to the container makes a mockery of this. Drivers are going in and out at will.

"No chance of contamination': Sports experts claim this storage method is 'bizarre' despite UPS claiming there was no way it would affect the samples

"No chance of contamination': Sports experts claim this storage method is 'bizarre' despite UPS claiming there was no way it would affect the samples

"The UPS manager at the site was OK with this. Mainly it's the drivers who store their food and drink in the container, but other UPS staff do so too. There are bottles of water, Coke and Sainsbury's sandwiches piled up near the boxes of samples. Some UPS staff weren't happy and one emailed someone at UPS to complain. I'm sure that will put an end to it but it shouldn't have been allowed to happen."

When told of the existence of the holding depot and the sandwiches in the fridge, Michele Verroken, former director of Ethics and Anti-Doping at UK Sport, said: "This is totally bizarre.

"While I doubt this set-up would increase the risk of samples being contaminated as long as they're sealed, I cannot see why they would introduce another stage into the chain of custody. I can imagine the reaction of athletes, who've been working for four years to come to the Olympics, which have been hailed as the most tested ever, seeing their samples stored next to a van driver's sandwiches. I think they'd be very angry."

She also pointed out that World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) guidelines state: "Samples should be transported to the WADA-accredited laboratory... as soon as practicable after the completion of the sample collection session. Samples shall be transported in a manner which minimizes the potential for sample degradation due to factors such as time delays and extreme temperature variations."

She added: "To me, it's not so much about a real risk of contamination, more that it just looks rather shoddy and I doubt if it would qualify as best practice. And I certainly wouldn't want to eat sandwiches which had been stored in close proximity to bottles containing urine and blood."

Both the Games organisers Locog and UPS said there was no danger of sample contamination, but neither would explain why the holding area was set up at all.

One sporting expert suggested the reason may be connected to Locog's guarantee that all samples would be analysed within 24 hours of arrival at the laboratory.

Delaying that arrival by introducing a holding area would ensure the flow of samples into the laboratory could be kept at a steady rate and minimise the risk of missing the 24-hour deadline which would come into play only once the samples were in the laboratory.

So far, only a handful of athletes have tested positive, including race walker Alex Schwazer, 27, who was ejected from Italy's squad for taking a blood boosting drug before defending his 50km title, and US judo team member Nick Delpoplo, who admitted eating food containing marijuana.

UPS said: "Our commitment to deliver these samples safely was securely and properly fulfilled at all times. At no point during the storage or transportation was there any chance of contamination or damage. Nor did UPS deviate from the agreed protocols for transporting and storing these items as outlined by the IOC and WADA.

"Samples are completely secure and tamper-proof at all stages of transportation; they are sealed in at least three layers of tamper-proof containers and transported within a secure chain of custody."

UPS said that "less than ten people" - including drivers - have access to the refrigerated container, but denied this posed a security risk and said the storage of sandwiches inside was "not breaching WADA protocols".

It declined to say why the samples weren't transported directly from the Olympic venues to the GSK facility at Harlow.

Asked if food and drink would still be kept in the same container as the blood and urine, a spokesman said: "I will have to check."

Locog said: "There are no issues with the integrity of the anti-doping programme, and no risk of contamination or damage to samples. The IOC and WADA are happy with the processes followed."

- DAILY MAIL

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