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News Feature, May 14, 2009
Freiburg report details cycling's dark side
The findings of an independent commission have broken new ground on systemic doping on one of the sport's most successful teams. It has been revealed that two doctors from the Freiburg University Clinic ran an organised doping programme for the enormously successful German Telekom/T-mobile squad from 1995 to 2006. Cyclingnews' Susan Westemeyer reports.
A 63-page report issued by the commission this week lays out in detail the role played by Dr. Andreas Schmid and Dr. Lothar Heinrich in doping practices over the course of 10 years, which riders were involved, plus the doping products and methods used.
The issue returned to prominence last fall, when Patrik Sinkewitz said that he - and possibly others - had driven to Freiburg for illegal blood transfusions during the 2006 Tour de France, only days after team captain Jan Ullrich had been suspended for his connection to Operación Puerto.
The report found that doping within the team essentially began when the team was formed and continued relatively unabated through to 2006.
According to the report, doping at Team Telekom began in 1992 when the team hired soigneur Jef d'Hont, "known for his magic drink", a combination of drugs mixed in cola. Schmid, who began working for the team in 1988, manipulated the ingredients of this 'elixir' in conjunction with d'Hont.
The Belgian soigneur's book, "Memoires van een wieler-verzorger" ("Memories of a Soigneur") released in the same year Riis et al confessed their misdemeanours, outlines some of the practices undertaken during this time.
EPO first appeared in the team in 1993, with Schmid serving as the intermediary between those who sold the drug and d'Hont. But the report found that, "systematic EPO doping at Team Telekom under medical direction began at the training camp on Mallorca in January 1995." Both Schmid and Heinrich attended this camp, and over the course of the season riders were injected by either of the two doctors, soigneurs or themselves, out-of-competition
D'Hont left the team in 1996, at which point supply of doping products was conducted directly between the doctors and riders. Team members would call, email or SMS the doctors and shortly after received packages by mail, courier or directly at races. They were expected to pay in cash.
Doping continued from 1996 to 2001, unabated in the face of the Festina affair which disgraced the 1998 Tour de France.
In light of the scandal in 1998, team sponsor Deutsche Telekom established an anti-doping programme, but it was largely ignored. "While the official announcement of the fight against doping was announced, doping with EPO and growth hormones continued at Team Telekom under the responsibility of the Freiburger doctors," the report noted.
The commission was not able to provide any details as to doping practices from 2001 to 2005. Since the statute of limitations is currently eight years for doping offences, interviewed riders or team members did not give any information for this period. The commission saw no reason to assume that doping did not take place during this period, despite a lack of proof otherwise.
The main doping products used in these times were EPO, growth hormones and cortisone. An unnamed rider, who was with the team for at least the 2003 and 2004 seasons, testified that the full range of products was used in those two years.
But not all riders were affected. Newcomers or "outsiders" were not welcome. After winning two Olympic gold medals in 2000, track star Robert Bartko was given a contract, apparently at the insistence of the sponsor, but against the team management's wishes. He described himself as an "unwanted child" who had no contact with the doctors, received no training plans, and was gotten rid of as soon as possible.
The bitter taste of blood
In the fall of 2005, Patrik Sinkewitz signed a contract with the team and had his first contact with Heinrich that fall. He started blood doping with Heinrich in January 2006; blood was taken or restored approximately once a month.
The most notorious of those transfusions took place on Sunday, July 2, 2006. Sinkewitz's girlfriend at the time drove him from the team hotel in Strasbourg, France, to the clinic in Freiburg, Germany, for a blood transfusion. Only the day before the Tour started, Jan Ullrich, Oscar Sevilla and directeur sportif Rudy Pevenage had been suspended from the team for their involvement with with Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes as the fallout from Operaci˛n Puerto muddied the waters of the Tour de France.
The report notes that Sinkewitz gave various accounts of this episode, often claiming to have been the only rider involved. However, at risk of prosecution for perjury, he stated that teammates Andreas Kl÷den and Matthias Kessler were also in the car and received transfusions. The girlfriend, whose name was not given, also testified to that effect.
In an interview Sinkewitz gave German publication Der Spiegel in 2007, following the announcement of his positive control, the German rider provided an insight into the systemic nature of doping practices within the T-Mobile team. "The truth is, when you join a team as a new professional you encounter a system. As a young rider, older riders let you know how the business works," he said.
"You're ambitious, you train hard, you develop professionally and, at some point, you give yourself that extra boost. Things just keep getting better, you're successful, you get recognition, everyone likes you and everyone loves you. That's how doping becomes normal."
Kessler - by now riding for the Astana team - was suspended for two years due to a positive doping control in 2007, just months before it was announced that Sinkewitz had also failed an out-of-competition test in June that year. Both riders tested positive for testosterone.
Both Kessler and Kl÷den could be considered 'older riders' on the T-Mobile team - the latter having signed in 1998, the former in 2001. Sinkewitz arrived at the German squad in 2006. The report found there was no evidence that the other riders, none of whom were German, went with Sinkewitz and his girlfriend on that day in July 2006. It does not reach the conclusion that other riders did not engage in blood doping practices, however.
The clinic was also found to have performed internal controls on riders' blood, and not just on the three riders named to be involved in blood doping. Seven samples were tested on July 9, two of which were shown to have abnormal values, "which, with a high degree of probability, indicate a previous manipulation," according to the report. These samples were identified with the names of team staff members, not riders.
However, samples tested five days later also showed the same characteristics, leading the commission to assume "that the samples from the team workers actually came from cyclists and were registered under false names."
Of the seven samples, only four bore riders' names, one of Sinkewitz and three of unnamed riders, but these did not belong to Kl÷den or Kessler.
The end is nigh...
T-Mobile dumped general manager Olaf Ludwig and brought in Bob Stapleton during 2006. The American, who placed a heavy emphasis on anti-doping policies, officially assumed control of the team as of January 1, 2007. The report indicates that as of that date, "no doping activity could be found, but on the contrary, a stronger anti-doping programme was introduced."
That programme was to be run by Dr. Heinrich, but when he was named by d'Hont in May, 2007, the team quickly ended its association with the doctor.
Shortly after announcing that Stapleton would take over, T-Mobile's mother company, Deutsche Telekom cancelled any further sponsorship of the team after 17 years. The team has continued under Stapleton in two incarnations, the latest being Team Columbia-Highroad, which has made sweeping changes and operates under a new UCI racing license obtained by Stapleton.
Neglecting the duty of care
The report's authors - three medical experts - were especially horrified at the health risks the doctors imposed on riders in the team. Schmid and Heinrich were quick to provide the riders with doping products but slow to disseminate vital information concerning the products' possible side-effects.
They discussed the health risks involved, "but played them down." The report discusses at length the possible after-effects of EPO and other drug use, and notes even that the method of giving the transfusions was not up to medical standards.
Harshly criticised is the transfusion given to Sinkewitz during the 2007 Tour de France. The first bag of blood they used was clotted, and only about half of it could be injected. A second bag was then used, but about halfway through, Schmid abruptly concluded the transfusion, on the grounds the other riders were finished and ready to return to the team hotel.
At no point, the report noted, did the doctors inform Sinkewitz of the possible dangers such as a lung embolism or septic shock, but let him ride back to France without medical attention.
Heinrich and Schmid were not the only doctors mentioned in the report. Dr. Georg Huber was also found to have supplied testosterone to riders when he was team doctor the German national team from 1980 to 1990. Huber confessed to having supplied testosterone to two under-23 cyclists "for medical reasons" in 1987.
Sponsors Deutsche Telekom and T-Mobile International were not involved in the doping, the report concluded, or at least it found no reason to believe that the sponsors were involved. It notes, however, that the sponsor contract was not ended when the doping news increased, "but only when public opinion changed and there was no more good public image to be attained with Team T-Mobile."
The commission said at its press conference that it found no indication Jan Ullrich was involved in this particular doping programme. "We found nothing new against Jan Ullrich," said Hans Joachim Schafer, head of the commission. "I assume that Jan Ullrich was in Freiburg for the usual medical examinations, but was cared for elsewhere, if at all." Ullrich, however, was linked by DNA to blood taken into custody during Operaci˛n Puerto.
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