A new blood doping ring surfaces. Where does cycling stand?

by Caley Fretz


In one of the most spectacular and depressing images in the history of the anti-doping effort, Austrian cross country skier Max Hauke, 26, sits in the crook of a sofa, surrounded by police, with a stunned look on his face and a blood bag hooked up to his arm.

The image is pulled from a video, shot last week. A police officer, who has since been suspended, did as we do in this era: pulled out a phone and hit record. Through this lens we find ourselves on the inside of a doping raid, uncomfortably close to this young man with a needle in his arm, still wearing an athletic base layer, surrounded by uniforms. He is sad and he is terrified. And we see it all.

Last weekend, recently retired pro cyclist Stefan Denifl was pulled into the same investigation. He provided a “comprehensive doping confession,” according to Austrian media, and was then released from custody. Then Georg Preidler, another Austrian cyclist, buckled under the pressure of knowing his dope doctor was in custody. He admitted he had pulled blood out of his body for use later. He says it never went back in.

A doctor, Mark Schmidt, has been arrested, and some 40 blood bags seized. He previously worked for the Milram and Gerolsteiner pro cycling teams.

Blood bags? Sad young men with needles in their arms? Where are we, inside the Postal bus in 2003?

Maybe we haven’t moved on quite as far as we thought.

We thought we’d fixed it

Modern cycling is predicated on a story of rehabilitation. Rebirth, almost. We killed the old days, bad days full of needles and hanging bags. We killed them with a Reasoned Decision, cultural change, and with a Biological Passport that scared riders straight. This is the story we tell, and it is not false. It’s probably not true, either.

Ask a cycling reporter: Who was the first clean (or simply cleanest) winner of the Tour de France since the start of the EPO era in the early ‘90s? I have asked this question of many of my colleagues. The answer is generally the same: Cadel Evans, 2011. We are guessing, of course. Pure speculation, but informed speculation. That year was shortly after the full implementation of the Passport, and nobody knew yet how sensitive it would be, or how to get around it. USADA’s reasoned decision, exposing Armstrong and Postal, was a year away, but most already knew the truth was coming. 2010 featured a pile of EPO positives, and Franco Pellizotti and Tadej Valjavec were both successfully sanctioned based on irregular blood values caught by the Passport, without ever testing positive. 2011, in contrast, was highlighted by Riccardo Ricco, who nearly killed himself with a bad transfusion in February of that year. But he was the anomaly. He missed the memo.

There was a sense, in the peloton and just outside it, of change. Something different, and better. There is some data to suggest the same, found in the aggregation of climbing speeds, and some anecdotal evidence, too. Around that time, journalists stopped being the enemy for many riders. The atmosphere at team buses changed. The whole sport felt different.

The Reasoned Decision came in late 2012. Now we could see inside; we knew what had happened. Light shone into the dark, and the cockroaches scattered, so we thought. 2013 was the year of the admission. Michael Rasmussen, Michael Boogerd, Thomas Dekker all held sorrowful press conferences. The French Senate released results from retests of blood from the 1998 Tour; at least 18 riders had EPO in their blood. Mario Cipollini, Laurent Jalabert, Kevin Livingston, Abraham Olano, Marco Pantani were on the list.

Surely, knowing what we now knew, seeing the changes we saw, those old days could never return?

A little optimism

I honestly, hand on heart, do not believe the bad old days are back. But there is certainly experimenting going on. And of the three ways we have to stop it, only one seems to be working.

There are three key arms of the modern anti-doping effort. The first is standard blood and urine testing, which has caught a dozen or more cyclists every year in the last decade. The second is the Biological Passport, which analyzes data from blood and urine tests over time, looking for changes that would indicate doping. The third is the use of human intelligence – investigations led by media and police.

Two of those three have not been particularly effective lately. Individual tests never were in the first place; the Passport has had its teeth ground down to nubs.

Just ask any of the dozens of dopers who have held those tearful press conferences in the last two decades or so: You have to be an idiot to get caught by traditional testing. You have to screw up, or your doctor does. You have to take too much, or forget a glow time. There have been a few improvements to testing in recent years, but that inglorious truth remains.

The biological passport can be a highly valuable tool. It was frequently used to sanction riders once upon a time. But it was dealt a series of legal blows, the highest profile of which came with Roman Kreuziger’s acquittal. That case, and a handful of others, set a precedent that makes it difficult to use the passport to actually sanction anyone. The only recent exception to that rule is Spaniard Jaime Roson, banned for four years for passport abnormalities a month ago — a lone bright spot in half a decade of decaying strength of the passport itself.

In the passport’s first three years, for example, 26 riders were busted for EPO using its data. That’s according to the CIRC report, released in 2015, which was supposed to shed even more light on cycling’s dark past. Six were due to passport abnormalities. Twenty weren’t direct sanctions. Rather, the passport was used to increase testing on those individuals, and they were caught with one-off tests. That includes riders like Danilo Di Luca and Thomas Dekker.

That sort of targeted testing is still valuable. But without the ability to directly sanction athletes based on passport values alone, the innovation that did truly change cycling ten years ago has lost much of its strength.

None of the five cross country skiers, nor Denifl or Preidler, were picked up by the passport. Denifl’s “comprehensive doping confession” is believed to include details of blood transfusions. Estonian skier Karel Tammjärv, who was picked up in the raid, has already explained how easy it was to avoid detection. “Blood was given to me each morning before the race and the blood was taken again immediately after the race,” he said in a press conference. “So there would be no trace for the doping control officers, I was told.” Cross country skiing is also on the Passport.

What’s working? Police action.

The bright spot amongst all this doom and gloom is the increasing efficacy of government and media investigations, aided in large part by actual laws against doping. The latest doping ring may have echos of Puerto, with some 40 bags of blood seized from a doctor who has ties to old pro cycling teams, but there’s an important difference, as pointed out by my colleague Andrew Hood: Doping is against the law in Germany and Austria, and, in 2006, it wasn’t illegal in Spain. Fake prescriptions were illegal, but possession and consumption by athletes were not. That means those blood bags are state’s evidence, and can be used in the prosecution of crimes. We may actually find out whose blood is in the bags found in Germany.

Thus far, nine people have been arrested in the German/Austrian anti-doping probe. Two raids were performed, one in Seefeld, Austria, where Max Hauke was caught on video, and another in Erfurt, Germany, where Dr. Schmidt was based. The probe is being led by a Munich prosecutor, Kai Gräber, who is head of an office specifically tasked with digging up doping offenses. “We expect that several athletes, including from other sports, can be identified here as well,” Gräber said, noting that the arrests so far are a “drop in the ocean.”

He has Dr. Schmidt in custody in Munich, and Schmidt’s lawyer has indicated that his client is willing to cooperate. That means naming names, since the blood bags all have codes on them. Gräber then plans to obtain, by court order, the DNA of implicated athletes.

Imagine, for a moment, if that’s how Puerto had gone. Authorities seized 211 blood bags in that operation, and only a small handful were ever tied to a name. The evidence was shuffled through Spanish courts until the statute of limitations passed.

An athlete has to be an idiot or wildly unlucky to be caught by one-off testing. The biological passport struggles to pick up on microdosing, either of drugs or autologous blood transfusions. But governments? They have leverage. They can induce cooperation where WADA can’t. They can dig and dig, get court orders, raid houses and doctor’s offices.

That starts with making doping a crime. A bill, H.R. 6067, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last summer that would do just that, inspired by the Russian doping scandal, another scandal kicked off by an investigation, not a positive test. It hasn’t moved from subcommittee.

A lifetime ban is one thing; years in jail is another.

Which brings us back to Max Hauke, in that hotel room in Tyrol, his arm resting on a white towel on a mustard pillow with a needle stuck into the crook of his elbow. He rubs his lower leg nervously, looking sad, a bit terrified, and above all overwhelmed.

Austria updated its anti-doping laws in 2015, increasing the focus on an athlete’s entourage by making complicity in doping a crime. Hauke and others picked up by the operation can now be compelled to testify, too. “For investigations you need witnesses,” the Austrian sports minister Gerald Klug said in 2014. “In the past, many witnesses just didn’t appear for a hearing. In the future, they can be obliged by a criminal court to testify.”

Most European countries have made doping, or aiding and abetting doping, or moving doping products, a criminal offence. It’s not the jail time that matters, really. It’s that putting these laws on the books brings the full weight of governmental investigations into sport.

Max Hauke already talked to investigators. So did Stefan Denifl. And Georg Preidler, voluntarily, because he feared investigators would get his name out of Dr. Schmidt. And they would have. Because now, more than ever, anti-doping’s most powerful tool has little to do with blood or urine and everything to do with the tools of criminal investigation.

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