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Vast doping scandal puts cycling at a fork in road

Spain implicated 58 riders on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France.

By Christa Case, Susan Sachs / July 3, 2006



BOSTON AND PARIS

The doping scandal that knocked the favorites out of the Tour de France Friday could mark a fork in the road not only for cycling's premier event, but for the sport as a whole.

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The unprecedented scope (implicating 58 cyclists) and dramatic timing of this crackdown may also set a new standard for other sports dogged by allegations of illegal drug use. It also shows that police investigations – rather than testing by sports authorities – have so far proved the most effective way to catch cheaters.

"Either this is the worst day in the history of cycling or it's the day when they finally start getting a handle on the problems," says Dick Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in Montreal.

After years of suspicion over widespread cheating in the sport, Spanish authorities claim to have uncovered a major doping network. Nine cyclists – including Italian Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich of Germany, last year's second- and third-place finishers – were withdrawn Friday by their team leaders. That creates a new list of favorites, including US riders George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer.

If the Spanish investigation's findings are correct, a significant number of athletes are reportedly paying up to 40,000 euros to boost their performance through the use of banned substances and methods. In addition to using EPO and other drugs, those implicated are suspected of blood doping – extracting an athlete's blood and reinjecting it later to increase endurance.

In late May, Spanish police arrested five individuals, including Spanish doctors Eufemiano Fuentes and José Luis Merino, head of hematology for a Madrid hospital. According to reports by the Spanish newspaper El País, said to be based on court documents, Mr. Merino used hospital personnel and vehicles to procure supplies used to treat and store the cyclists' blood. The police also found at least 90 bags of frozen blood or red blood cells, identified with numbers and date. They also found lists of code names, presumed to refer to the athletes, and payment status.

According to the International Cycling Union (UCI) ProTour code of conduct, signed in January 2005, athletes implicated in an ongoing investigation can be banned from competition.

The president of the UCI, Pat McQuaid, said Saturday that if the allegations prove true, "it means we lose these guys from the sport. That is terrible, but we must clean up our sport."

Some experts say that one of the key lessons of this scandal is that doping testing isn't rigorous enough. None of the top athletes implicated had failed a doping test. "If you're testing at the wrong times and for the wrong things, you'll get no results," says Mr. Pound, the WADA chairman. "And of course, you'll run around with your statistics and say there's no doping problem."

Dr. Jim Stray-Gundersen, an antidoping expert who has served as physician on several Olympic teams, agrees. He likens it to a cop trying to catch speeding drivers in a place where people are unlikely to speed, and sometimes without even turning on the radar. He says sports authorities could be doing "a much, much better job" catching athletes using banned substances and methods.

Pound, who says his organization has no jurisdiction over the testing procedures during competition, agrees. He says Tour de France riders are allowed windows of unchaperoned time between pre-race tests and race time, and also between the end of a race and post-race testing.

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