Peter Bol’s positive drug test feels like a bad dream. It will be a real-life tragedy if confirmed
It is hard to know what to think, what to believe, what to expect. Given the controversy and conjecture surrounding Australian Olympic hero Peter Bol’s positive test for synthetic erythropoietin (EPO), it is helpful to begin with a few facts.
At 4.51pm on an otherwise uneventful Friday in mid-January, Athletics Australia issued a statement that threatens to forever tarnish Bol’s reputation: EPO had been found in an out-of-competition anti-doping sample he gave in October. His fate now hangs in the balance while a B sample is tested.
Bol established an image of courage, determination and warm-heartedness at the Tokyo Olympics, where he finished fourth in the men’s 800m. Born in Sudan and arriving in Australia via Egypt, Bol was an archetype for this modern, multicultural nation – even if he pushed back against simple narratives. He captivated local audiences during the pandemic lockdown, becoming the first Australian since 1968 to reach an Olympic 800m final.
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The 28-year-old’s burgeoning promise was confirmed with strong showings last year – reaching the final at the world championships and winning silver at the Commonwealth Games. But if Bol is unable to clear his name, this glittering career may be over.
Bol insists he is innocent. “To be clear, I have NEVER in my life purchased, researched, possessed, administered, or used synthetic EPO or any other Prohibited Substance,” he said in a statement on social media.
The doping positive is entirely contrary to the person Bol appears to be, the seemingly-authentic image of a running-obsessed, upbeat young man eager to give back to his community. It is hard not to be drawn to Bol’s charisma and spirit; the instinctive reaction is to want the positive result to be erroneous.
There are facts in his favour. Bol had 26 anti-doping tests last year and only this one has returned a positive reading. The timing is also strange. EPO improves performance by stimulating the production of red blood cells and regulating their concentration, which together aid endurance. Why take EPO at the end of a season, with no competition in sight?
So far, Bol’s lawyers have been given only a summary sheet of the test which found he was positive – indicating an elevated reading in only one of five testing bands. They have not seen the full results. EPO is produced naturally by the kidneys and can also be replicated synthetically and consumed via injection. It is possible that the test is a false positive or merely reflects unusually high levels of naturally occurring EPO. In addition to the B sample testing, Bol has asked to have his initial sample reanalysed.
But there are also facts that stand against him. Because synthetic EPO can only be injected, there is no chance it was consumed by accident – unlike some other performance-enhancing drugs. Since EPO testing became widespread in the early 2000s there have been just a handful of false positives cases. The odds are not in Bol’s favour.
Guardian Australia approached Bol’s representative, James Templeton, for comment. No response was received.
So as Australian athletics fans hold their collective breath and await the outcome of the B sample (testing will begin in early February) and any subsequent legal proceedings, there is a distinct tension. We’ve been through public doping scandals before, with Lance Armstrong and so many others. Bol is entitled to due process, but given the history of doping in sport, few want to be duped. With Bol’s incredible story, the plausibility of his denial, the light he provided in Tokyo during dark times, this all feels like a bad dream. Maybe a negative B sample will wake us up and Bol can continue along his journey towards a gold medal in Paris.
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There is some precedent. In 2003, the Kenyan-American middle-distance star Bernard Lagat returned a positive A sample. Testing of his B sample came back negative and he returned to competition, winning two world titles a few years later. Perhaps Bol is the next Lagat? But for every Lagat, there are numerous athletes across a range of endurance sports who have tested positive and positive again. Testing procedures have improved significantly since 2003.
The tension underlying Bol’s predicament is summed up in two tweets on his account. His most recent post, on 20 January, is his statement in response to the positive test, denying he has used performance enhancing drugs. “My career, hopes and dreams are literally hanging in the balance over these next few weeks,” he admits.
Above it is a tweet he pinned at the end of the Tokyo Olympics, of fellow Australian Olympians cheering him on from the stands with homemade signs. “Turn Up The Pete!” reads one. “Un-Bol-lievable”, says another. Bol offered a simple caption: “Australia, thank you”, followed by a love heart.
It is hard to see a middle-ground ending to Bol’s saga. He is either a doping cheat or an Australian hero wronged by an erroneous lab test, waiting for his name to be cleared. It is either a tragedy or a farce.