One sick cyclist, 14 banned drugs and a four-year ban: Michael Fitzgerald Q&A
Late last week, news broke on Twitter about Michael Fitzgerald, a West Australian cyclist that had received a four-year sanction after using a long list of banned substances. Former CEO of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA), Richard Ings, described Fitzgerald’s list of doping offences as “one of the longest I have seen”, adding that the list was “a veritable rolling pharmacy.”
Fitzgerald’s ASADA sanction alleges the use of no fewer than 14 banned substances or methods. The usual suspects are there: EPO, several testosterone variants, the infusion of red blood cells. But so are a handful of others that aren’t as familiar in cycling circles.
On the surface, it looks like the laundry list of a semi-professional cyclist that has tried everything to get an edge. As is sometimes the case with doping, however, there’s more to the story.
In a brief statement to CyclingTips last week, Fitzgerald explained that he took the banned substances in a years-long bid to recover from a bout of chronic illness that began in 2009 and lasted nearly seven years. It took until 2016 for Fitzgerald to learn the cause of his lengthy illness: autoimmune hepatitis.
Fitzgerald’s story is complicated by the fact that he was prescribed the banned substances by disgraced doctor Dr Anish Singh. In 2017 the Medical Board of Australia disqualified Dr Singh from the profession for 10 years for “careless, incompetent and improper” conduct and for “inappropriately and without proper therapeutic indication” prescribing a range of medications, including steroids, human growth hormone and stimulants.
To understand the circumstances leading to Fitzgerald’s ban and the issues surrounding it, we spoke with Fitzgerald himself. The Q&A that follows is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for fluency and clarity.
CyclingTips: Tell me about the journey you’ve been on the past few years with your illness.
Fitzgerald: I was riding and racing from a really young age. I started getting colds and flus really easily and very regularly. And then at the end of 2010 I got what we found out to be Hepatitis E — we only found that out in 2016.
After three or four months with that [in 2010] I woke up in bed one day and I pretty much couldn’t move. Couldn’t move my fingers, couldn’t move my hands — just as if you were completely immobilised. From then on, the next 12 months were basically ‘what the hell’s happened to cause this?’
So I saw a lot of doctors and jumped through the hoops for anything [that would help]. I was struggling to get out of bed, struggling to get to the toilet and get to the fridge; to do anything for myself at all. And then I was put on medication I think called clonidine, a sedative, and for some reason, within a week that made me up and moving again.
I’d been off the bike for so long and lost 10 kilos and had hair falling out and was turning yellow and things like that. I thought I’d try and get back and ride and just enjoy it and get a bit of fitness back and after a few months go and do a few club races. And then all of a sudden I got sick again for another six months and the search began for another medication. I’d find something else that worked for a few months on and off.
And that’s been about it really. And then in the middle of 2016 I was finally diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis and ever since then I’ve never felt better in my life.
What’s been the treatment since that diagnosis?
I take a medication called prednisolone, a corticosteroid. Pretty much my whole life I was bad at school and always feeling tired and weak. All of a sudden I can study and work and get twice as much done. So it’s fantastic.
You were saying before that you couldn’t get up and move around. Was it pain that stopped you? Weakness?
More weakness. On a bad day, you could be on the couch and the remote control could be 30 centimetres away and you couldn’t move your hand to reach it. It’s just horrible.
What was that whole period like psychologically, not knowing what was going on?
Looking back it was really really difficult. You’re going from riding every day and you see your mates and you see your family, to being stuck in bed.
The first month people come and visit you and see how you are but after that I guess it just becomes difficult and it’s a bit of a pain for them. So you end up spending a lot of time on your own and it’s really really depressing.
You can’t look after yourself or do anything and then you get back up and get riding and get out with your your mates and it’s really good when you can get back into it.
How did you start using these banned substances?
I went to lots of different doctors and tried to get different opinions for everything and most of them just said ‘We can find anything wrong so we don’t really know what to do’. So they didn’t do anything. And then this one doctor goes ‘Well, I guess we’ll try and treat the symptoms of what’s going on and try and improve you where we can’.
And then I had blood tests probably, when I was sick, almost weekly, just trying to work out what was going on. When you’re lying in bed and depressed all you want to do is just be able to get up and even walk down to get a coffee or something like that. You just want anything that’s going to give you any sort of quality again.
Was it Dr Anish Singh that you saw?
Ah, yes. But with all the things that he’s gone through I just don’t want to make his life any harder when this is my problem.
How did you get involved with Dr Singh? Did someone recommend him to you?
My GP at the time — he was very sick as well. He was helped by this doctor, by Dr Singh. I heard about that and I’ve gone ‘I’m not getting any help elsewhere’ so I thought ‘Well, I’ll try him and see if I get any joy there.’
When did you first see him?
I was getting recurring colds and flus and he’s an immunologist. I went to see him to go ‘Is there any solution to colds and flu?’. Things like that were lasting two, three months.
Would that have been in 2009?
Yeah, 2009 yeah.
What I’ve been hearing from people is that Dr Singh was a brilliant doctor but at some point something changed and then he got a reputation for giving out stuff that other doctors wouldn’t. After that, a lot of athletes would seek him out …
I guess that’s part of my problem. Not taking away from the fact that what I did was wrong but I guess when someone gets a reputation like that it’s worthwhile investigating from ASADA’s point of view.
And you hadn’t heard anything about him or the questionable things he was doing before you saw him, right?
Yeah. I guess it was more like 2015 when my mum also saw him at the time. She’s got rheumatoid arthritis, another autoimmune disease. Unfortunately it runs in the family. I guess my serious concerns started when we were prescribed the same thing, the same lot of medications and we’re going ‘Ooh, shit this is a bit too much to be a coincidence.’
Soon after that I just stopped seeing him because it was just not worth it.
So how did it work with Dr Singh? You were prescribed these drugs and you tried them over a period of time?
It was different medications … trialling different medications here and there. And then others would be used when I was sick, just to try and, I guess, correct some hormonal issues and things like that. I think in 2011 I lost 10 kilos so it was pretty much ‘How do we stop wasting away?’.
[The drugs were] prescribed when I got a blood test and something was looking pretty average and that was pretty much all the time when I was lying in bed sick. But the times when I was actually riding, it was controlled pretty well by whatever the legal medication I was taking.
So were you racing while you were using these substances? Or was ASADA’s issue that you didn’t hand in your license while using banned substances?
No, I didn’t race while I was using it but I guess ASADA’s saying ‘Well, maybe there was something in your system still that was affecting you as well’. I’m not sure. I’m not sure if being stuck in bed and taking medication for that is going to give you a performance effect. I’m not an expert.
Just so it’s clear, when you were racing you would stop taking the banned substances, right?
How come you didn’t hand in your license?
At the time, when I was stuck in bed, I guess this was the last thing on my mind. I guess you’ve got everything else going on around it and you’re going ‘Well what’s having this card going to do for me, or not do for me?’ You’re not riding a bike, and you’re not doing anything and your stuck in bed … It was the least of my problems at the time. But looking back it would have been nice to have never actually had it [a license].
Can you explain your racing timeline for me? After that horrible year in 2011, when did you get back to racing?
I went back maybe mid-2012 just for a couple of races here and there, just club races and things like that. Then I got sick again at the end of 2012 and the first half of 2013. Nothing was working medication-wise and I went and saw a naturopath and they gave me all these herbal remedies and whatever else and I was pretty good for quite a while.
And then I got back racing after a few months, did a few club races and then went to the national championships and was, I guess, OK there [ed. Fitzgerald finished 25th in a group 3:14 behind race winner Simon Gerrans]. And then in, I think, February 2014 I got really sick again and then was sick again for another six months or so.
Then I went and did a few club races around Perth and things like that at the end of ’14 and then didn’t race again, getting sick again in the first half of ’15. Then I did a few club races again end of ’15, then I was sick again in 2016.
I guess after being sick in 2016 it was just too hard to yo-yo — get fit, go and race, then get sick again and have it all taken away again.
So you stopped racing at that point?
Yeah, I haven’t raced since probably the end of 2015.
You were racing with Satalyst in 2014 and 2015, on and off, right?
Yeah. The manager [ed. Wayne Evans] is a good friend and through all the problems he just kept me on the team and kept me part of it. And if I was healthy I got to go and do a race, go out with the boys — that really helped out when I was sick and unwell.
[Evans is] a good guy and he’s very very antidoping. I feel disappointed that I disappointed him by having a license at all.
You said to me in a message that you have an issue with one of the substances listed on your sanction?
I’ve got a problem with the last one on there, the red cells, which I was never given and was never even suggested to me.
I met with [ASADA] in April 2016 and I told them everything they could possibly want to know and everything I remember and I told them I had a thing called plasma infusion. So it’s blood but doesn’t have any red cells in it. Because I was having some huge problems with blood pressure being really low and fainting and things.
So ASADA’s … I think they’ve found a blood test to test for my blood type and then what they’ve done — this is just my opinion but I can’t verify it any way — I think then they’ve gone ‘Well, the only reason why you’d go and get that blood test is if you were going to take red cells’ which is completely untrue. And then they asked to see my hospital records.
This is, I think, 18 months after I admitted guilt for everything and along the line I’ve said ‘I just want to get it done, I want to get it over and be finished rather than having this hanging over your head all the time.’
And every time I’ve said ‘Where’s the case at? Is the anything I can do to help, to speed it up? Is there any information I can I give you?’ It was always ‘Oh no, this is how long it takes’ and things like that and ‘it’s very complex’ and things like that.
Then eventually they asked for my hospital records after 18 months and pretty much I’ve just said — it turns out to be the wrong decision now — ‘Well, if I give you my hospital records it’s only going to draw things out further than it already is. All I want is just for it to end whichever way it’s going to end.’ And so I didn’t give them my hospital records.
And from that they’ve assume you used the red blood cells?
I think so*. And then when I was given the papers for the ban it had red cells on there and I said ‘Well, I never took it and I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that I’ve intended on taking anything like that’. But they said ‘Well, if you gave us the hospital records back when we asked you wouldn’t have it on there’, essentially.
How did that first meeting with ASADA come about in 2016?
I was on the way to work and I just got a call and it was basically a lady that’s called up and said ‘I’m from ASADA, is there anything you’d like to admit to us?’ And I said ‘Yeah I’ve taken a lot of stuff while I was sick and I think it was banned.’ And she said ‘Well, OK that’s good because you’re admitting guilt and are cooperating with us.’
Later that day I met with them for probably three or four hours and then the next day I met with them for three or four hours again just to go over everything I’d possibly ever done. So I did a huge long statement about every medication, every time I think I took one, or I could remember.
How did they get their information? What made them suspect you? Was it from investigating the doctor?
Yeah. I think that what they did was that somehow they’ve got the doctor’s patient records and then they got every medical script that I’ve ever been given for the past probably 10 years or so and then they’ve gone and checked off every subscription dispensed or given to me and put everything on the ban, which I can’t complain about because they’re just doing their job.
So why did this whole thing take so long to come out?
I kept on emailing the investigator that I met with and all he said is ‘Oh well, I’ve turned it over to the legal department’ or the next level or something like that. And he said well it’s unfortunate but it’s out of his hands now. And then when I started talking to the legal department I didn’t really get much joy at all with that.
But each time I said ‘Well where’s the case? Where can I help to speed it up and get a resolution as fast as possible?’, all they said was ‘it’s very complex’ and ‘this is the time it takes’ and ‘we need to check this and that’.
I think it was almost two years to the day [ed. since his confession] it took them to actually issue me a paper saying ‘Oh you have a violation.’
When did you see that paper?
I think I got that end of November, December in 2017 as the statement saying ‘This is what we intend to prosecute and if you’ve got any objections please let us know.’ I let them know about the red cell doping at which they said … it was almost like they were going ‘Unless you can prove to us that you haven’t done it, it’ll stay there.’ And then it was May this year that they actually issued it.
Based on the information on the ASADA website, people are going to make their own assumptions about what you’ve done. What would you say to those people, to the people in the comments section that believe you’ve done the wrong thing?
It’s really difficult because before I got sick and had this I was probably one of those people that would be commenting and probably getting frustrated with them. I guess with any case there’s always two sides of the story and until you know why someone might have done something like that it’s difficult to judge and it’s easy to come to the worst-case conclusion without knowing the extra facts.
Is it accurate to say you were using these banned substances to try to get healthy rather than trying to improve your performance?
Yeah, exactly. You’ve gone from being fit and healthy and enjoying life and being able to almost feel bulletproof to being this shell of the person you once were, where you can’t look after yourself, can’t do anything and just wasting away.
Even my 88-year-old grandpa said to me just recently ‘I thought I was actually going to outlive you’, which is pretty scary.
So you don’t feel like these substances helped you at all once you got back to racing?
I guess without having done the same thing without them, without ever taking them, it’s hard to tell if it did make a difference. I’d like to think it didn’t.
At the same time your sanction was put on the ASADA website, two others were also added, those of Alex McGregor and Peter Carlin. All three of you are from Western Australia. Do you know why these have come out at the same time?
I don’t know why it came at the same time at all but I believe they’re both connected with Dr Singh. But I know in Alex’s case that he has been under a ban for quite some time and I’m sure you’ve heard that it’s had a pretty negative impact on his life.
Do you still get out and ride your bike these days?
Yeah, I ride to work most mornings and try and stay and fit. Part of the problem at the moment, with the medication I can take for the autoimmune disease, is it’s given me osteoporosis. The GP said ‘Well if you fall off you could break your hip like an 80 year old’ and I’ve gone ‘Oh, fantastic.’
I just try and ride, ride to work and ride with mates and maybe do a few group rides that mates are doing during the week and just enjoy it as much as I can.
Do you think at some point down the track you’d like to get back to doing club racing or are you not too fussed about that?
I’m not too fussed because I’m studying and working at the moment so time is pretty precious. If I ever want to race again I have to get a TUE form for the medication I take. I think it’s just far too difficult to go and get a TUE just to go and enjoy club racing so I don’t think I’ll bother.
What are you studying and what do you do for work?
I’m an accountant and studying chartered accounting. So yeah, trying to make something of my life at the moment. I need to make up for all the lost years of not getting anything done.
“In order to proceed with a possible anti-doping rule violation, ASADA conducts a thorough investigation to collect all possible evidence. Once complete, this evidence is then considered by the Anti-Doping Rule Violation Panel (ADRVP), which is independent from ASADA.
“During this consideration process, the athlete is given two opportunities to provide submissions to refute the evidence against them. If the ADRVP remains satisfied, the matter is then considered by the ASADA CEO, who makes a recommendation as to sanction to the sport.
“Upon receipt of the infraction notice from the sport, the athlete is then given the option of accepting the violation or contesting it in a hearing.”