News for January 17, 1997

Doping widespread according to riders

Doping has become commonplace in professional cycling in recent years, two retired riders have told a French newspaper.

Gilles Delion, who quit at the end of last season, was once informed by a French team director ``that you couldn't be among the world's best 50 riders if you didn't take EPO, and it's been that way for quite a while'', according to an article in Thursday's French sports daily L'Equipe.

Performance-enhancing EPO (erythropoietin) is a substance that stimulates the production of red blood cells which transport oxygen around the body.

All French teams are now involved in doping, Delion was reported as saying.

Delion was regarded as a very promising rider who never quite made it despite winning the Tour of Lombardy in 1990 and a stage of the 1992 Tour de France.

Delion said he saw riders looking for ice cubes in hotels to keep the vials containing EPO cool.

``I also saw a rider take EPO,'' he said. ``I wasn't shocked because I knew such things happened but usually, the riders would lock themselves up in the bathroom.''

Another rider, Nicolas Aubier, who retired at the end of last season aged 25, because he felt the sport had been debased by doping, said he was forced to use prohibited substances.

``Frankly, I can't imagine a rider belonging to the top 100 and not taking EPO, growth hormones or another product,'' he told L'Equipe.

Aubier said riders taking EPO needed injections every two days.

``By listening to conversations in hotel corridors, you can figure out who's taking some,'' he said. ``The problem is that the use of doping products has become so general that anybody not taking anything is regarded as abnormal,'' he added.

L'Equipe's Doping Articles

The following draws heavily on the first of four reports on drug use in cycle racing that appeared in l'Equipe of January 14.

Three months that changed everything

October 25: Flavio Alessandri, former doctor to the Italian national team reveals to a journalist that he had collaborated in an inquiry into doping in cycling being conducted by Sandro Donati, a member of the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI). According to Alessandri the file prepared by Donati was presented to the president of CONI, Mario Pescante, as early as February 9, 1994. CONI denies this happened.=20

October 26: The vice-president of the Council [of CONI?], Walter Veltroni, is questioned by the Italian Assembly and promises to look into the disappearance of the Donati file.

October 28 and 29: Pescante says he has found the Donati file but pronounces its findings as "too generalized". However a judge is given the task of investigating the charges brought by Donati -- that there has been black-market trafficking of erythropoietin (EPO).

October 30: The first findings of the Donati report are made public -- they centre on EPO use, but the identity of most of the riders involved is kept secret.

November 8: On the eve of the presentation of the 1997 Giro a delegation ofItalian riders led by Gianni Bugno and Maurizio Fondriest calls for blood controls for all riders.

November 19: Giacomo Costa, a doctor and the president of CONI for the province of Trento says that a world-class woman skier has died because of EPO use. (It turns out to have been Manuela Di Centa, who won five gold medals at Lillehammer).

November 25: An anti-doping commission of CONI interviews Donati for the first time who amplifies on his allegations, in particular against Professor Francesco Conconi.

November 29: Olympic medallist kayak canoeist Daniele Scarpa accuses his doctor, Dr Mazzoni, the former team doctor of the Gewiss cycle team, of givinghim several injections while disguising the name of the product. Mazzoni denies all this. A judicial inquiry is opened.

December 12: A court in Lucca summons Ivano Fanini, president of the Amore e Vita group on suspicion of involvement in financial irregularities. He makes a sensational counter-accusation: "A search planned by the Italian police of the 1996 Giro was scuppered because an important CONI official tipped off the teams."

January 2: A former Amore e Vita professional, Fabrizio Convalle, tells CONI's anti-doping commission that he had bought on the black maarket and taken EPO. He cites the name of Dr Michele Ferrari who refuses to present himself to a CONI meeting in Rome.

The flight from Athens

In April and May last year it was rumoured that a pharmacy in Tuscany had disposed of vast quantities of EPO to the cycling community. A unit of the Italian police, the NAS, made the connection with the imminent start of the Giro d'Italia in Athens and decided to make a surprise investigation.=20

The Giro began in Athens on 18 May to get back to Italy, at Brindisi, on the morning of the 21st. It is there that the police planned to make their swoop.

On the morning of Monday 20th a member of NAS phoned CONI to check on the race timetable. After the phone call a CONI official left immediately for Greece where he met up with a dozen teams and warned them that they should expect a welcome from the police when they arrived in Italy. A strange strategem then ensued. A convoy of cars loaded small refrigerators and set off the long way round back to Italy -- by way of Albania, Montenegro and Croatia -- getting back across the border in northern Italy unchallenged.

The police, realising that their plans had been foiled, abandoned their Brindisi project.

The incidents were revealed by Amore e Vita directeur sportif Giuseppe Lanzoni and his boss Ivano Fanini. But the judge investigating the matter still doesn't know who the CONI mole who spilled the beans to the teams was, or what were the precious contents of the small fridges...

MAIN ARTICLE extracted and summarized

In Italy the news has proved a bombshell. Professor Francesco Conconi was summoned last Friday [January 10] by a special commission of inquiry of CONI.

According to the accusations agaainst him, the distinguished professor, the president of the UCI's medical commission, had been for a long time the nucleus of EPO doping. Also cited was Dr Michele Ferrari, once Conconi's assistant but now established on his own account [and training several riders despite ambiguous remarks about EPO use in 1994 after the 1-2-3 Gewiss victory in the Fleche Wallonne at which time he was the Gewiss team doctor]. For various reasons neither of them have shown up in Rome to answer the charges.

All this, which involves other medics, riders, team directeurs sportifs and others involved with cycle racing springs from Sandro Donati's report prepared three years earlier which disappeared and then resurfaced on October 28.

Donati is the former national athletic trainer, attached to CONI since 1985 who had established a solid reputation for his anti-drugs stance and for opposing the ideas put forward by Conconi in the 1980s. Says Donati: "He [Conconi] administered blood transfusion on the Italian athletes selected for the Los Angeles Olympics. As far as I was concerned, it was doping, but Conconi just considered it as blood sampling -- involving the separation of red blood corpuscles, refrigerating them at -80 degrees centigrade, then re-injecting them three days before the event. Later on Conconi moved on to the EPO phase, an artificial hormone that multiplies red blood corpuscles by millions. Then I said to myself: I either close my eyes and continue as a trainer or I denounce the system. I chose the second course."

Donati says that when he decided to take an interest in these matters as far as they concerned cycling it wasn't particulaarly to counter Conconi who was a colleague on the CONI scientific commission. Donati continues: "That made two years that I heard things. Two years when I got to know that EPO, sometimes associated with other hormones, was being used by very high proportion of professional cyclists. Meanwhile, all controls were proving negative. It's that that I wanted to incriminate: to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the controls and to attempt to make a move against these things."

Donati, to defeat "omerta" promised to keep the identity off those who spoke to me secret, furninshing them with false initials in his report. He spoke to doctors, newly retired pro bike riders, directeurs sportifs. Seven doctors and 21 riders made "confessions".

In several instances, the report argues, doping had caused death. It casts considerable doubt on the official casue of death -- "a classic heart attack" [crise cardiaque classique] of Polish rider Joachim Halupczok, the 1989 amateur world road race champion. "The deceased," says Donati, was looked after by a Belgian doctor who was known locally to be involved with doping racehorses. This doctor was also widely known for using EPO."

Another rider, a renowned Italian who is still riding had a very close brush with death in the 1993 Giro. Says Donati: "He was a victim during the night of a cardiac arrest caused by an overdose of EPO. His room-mate, woken by the rattles from his throat immediately summoned the team doctor, who injected a fluidifying agent into his blood. His pulse was beating at nor more than 25 a minute."

And what of the former world champion, now retired from the peloton, who had a series of very serious health problems involving urgent hospitalization after taking his title (evidence from a former rider)?

Some of those who gave evidence were prepared to do so without disguising their identity. Franco Cavallini, a former pro who is now an industrialist and is therefore economically independent enough to be able to speak says: "I wanted to improve my performances. Certain of my colleagues advised me to consult a doctor in Ferrara who had helped them to very good results. I expected him to advise me but he just gave me products. I know that some of them contained gonadotropin the subtance found in the analysis of Volpi [after he won th Leeds Classic in 1993]. All my salary went on these miracle flasks. I also wanted me to go on to injections 15 days before races."

According to Donati, Ferrara in north-west Italy is a major trafficking centre for EPO and has ramifications in the whole peloton [the original French says -- metaphorically -- that it's spreading gangrene in the whole peloton] affecting maybe 80%. Is it that easy to obtain this famous hormone? According to Donati: "the Vatican pharmacy, some Swiss pharmacies, above all near the frontiers, supply this product against a simple medical prescription although [in theory]it's strictly reserved for use in hospitals."

The actual costs of EPO use are an important consideration. [the precise meaning of the French is hard to follow here] "One can identify two levels of treatment," says a former rider. "The first level, to establish an appropriate programme of training, can be bought for about 10 million lire a year [approx. $6,500]. The second level whch consists in administering the products comes in at 15 million lire but it will be repeated a dozen times if the little [small-time?]rider can't keep up and quickly finds himself out of the game. The big players receive help designed to reduce the risks and to adjust the doses of hormone such that they aren't found positive at drug controls. The mall-time riders, by contrast, have to resort to self-service treatment and looking after themselves."

It's a strange world, says Donati, in which "An Italian directeur sportif who has procured doping products for 70 million lire reacted violently to Ferrini's [Ferrini is vice-president of the Italian cycling federation] denouncing the greater and greater use of EPO and the greed of Dr Michele Ferrari who he decribes as the "rider" who earns the second-largest amount after Miguel Indurain. What are the reasons for the drug pusher-directeur's ["narco-dirigeant"] anger? That Ferrini threatens to scare off potential clients.

There's no honour among thieves either -- or dodgy doctors -- Professor Conconi has said in public: "Dr Michele Ferrari decided a long time ago to take the path of businessman."

Donati notes that the trend is for a reduction in the use of anaboic steroids in favour of other protein hormones (ACTH and HCG) and soon the insulin hormone [?]. All these products have unfathomaable side-effects. They may include leucaemia, liver cancer and tumours. Alert to the risks the riders have reacted, disquieted about the risk to their health. The latest manifestation of this, scheduled for January 31, is aan interview to be given by Marco Pantani under the title: "We are only the victims".

Donati concludes by deploring a situation in which use of drugs ssuch as EPO has meant riders "arriving to climb the cols of the Giro or the Tour de France at high speed and using gear ratios suitable for the plains. All this becausemost of the riders are crammed with EPO, ACTH or testosterone."

"It's for this reason," Donati wrote in February 1994, "that this expose should be put before the authorities as a matter of urgency."

It has taken 33 months.

"Don't forget," says Donati, "you can die through using EPO."

Interview with Donati

Q Signor Donati, why have you chosen to denounce doping in cycling?

A Because it is currently the sport that is most menaced by it and is the field for scandalous experimentation by doctors and researchers. The interests that have grafted themselves onto the trade are enormous, and a whole herd of traffickers revolves around it. In six months last year, a pharmacy in the province of Pisa sold EPO worth more than 150 million lira [US$97,000]. But that's nothing to the shambles and corruption that's in place today. Take note that it suffices for some famous riders who've given an enormous sample of testosterone at the drug control to present it to a lab approved by the UCI where they'll get a medical certificate that absolves them.

Q Do you think that you'll put a stop to all this with your report?

A I'm not under any illusions. I'm only a grain of dust, a physical person, not a political entity or a multinational, and I've not sought to bear down on individuals. The repressive arm, that's the role of the police. For me, I just wanted to demonstrate that was a reality in order to alert the authorities.

Q You seem to have a grudge against Professor Conconi who gets special attention in your presentation.

A I'm going to be very clear. As far as I'm concerned Conconi is one of those who is most responsible for the use of EPO. Him and those who have put their signs to his work are particularly expert in the operation of "re-equilibration" between EPO and fluidifying agents to avoid the blood taking on the consistency of marmalade. Not that that prevents certain side-effects: for example vomiting and diarrhoea. But then that can be disguised as gastric poisoning. Moreover it was under the pretext of administering the "Conconi test", which I've scientifically proven to be useless, that he was able to practise blood doping [ie the original red cell augmentation technique] on my athletes. But the world of sport is a stupid and imbecile one and that's why Conconi and others have been able to rampage about with impunity.

Q It's difficult to follow what you say since the professor, who is president of the UCI's medical commission, has himself announced that he was on the point of perfecting a test for EPO.=20

A That makes three years that he's been putting over the same point, and under various pretexts there's always been delay in getting to the definitive point. It's necessary to realize that his biomedical research centre at Ferrara receives an annual subvention of 140 million lire [US$90,000] a year. It has an interest in that continuing. But there's not a word on the problem of viral heapatitis, thrombosis, iliac artery problems or blocked kidneys that spring from these practices.

Q What's the best way to struggle against doping today?

A For as long as penalties remain those imposed by the sporting authorities, we won't get away from it. The federations have shown that they are incapable of facing up to things. What's more corruption has invaded the sport. When an incident arises the reflex is to hide it. Doping must therefore become subject to legal penalties. A rider caught using anabolics must face the same penalties as any other delinquent. It's hard, but if police investigations aren't authorized on races, in team hotels and so on, we'll never get there, and EPO, which today has become the fourth-biggest selling pharmaceutical in the worldd, will gain yet further ground.