One woman leads a crusade to cleanup cycling in Germany
Sylvia Schenk, a lawyer and former Olympic runner, is trying to rid sports of drugs by getting sponsors to force athletes to submit to testing.
(Page 2 of 3)
Schenk made the German Olympic team at age 20, competing in the terrorism-plagued 1972 Games in Munich. Later, when she turned to law, the first firm she applied to turned her down, telling her that, sooner or later, her maternal responsibilities would interfere. Determined to fight sexism, she became a labor-court judge and later a local councilor in charge of women's, legal, and sports issues.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Still, neither that nor the warnings of her husband, a European record-holder in the 800 meter and now a regional sports official, prepared her for what she would encounter. "I have a basic trust in people. If I had thought, 'They're all crooks there,' I would never had gone to [the] cycling [federation]," says Schenk.
When she first arrived at the governing body in 2001, things looked promising: A test had just come out for detecting erythropoietin (EPO), a blood-boosting hormone used illicitly by endurance athletes to increase their oxygen capacity. Schenk promised to bring "transparency" to the sport.
It would be no easy task, since some see cycling as particularly prone to drug use. For one thing, prodigious sponsorship money can tempt riders to take something that gives them an edge. For another, young riders are often exposed to artificial enhancements gradually. Sponsors will lavish them with vitamins. Zealous trainers put drops of painkillers in water bottles.
"Soon, they start thinking, 'If I want to achieve something, I have to take something,' " says Gerhard Treutlein, an antidoping expert at Germany's University of Heidelberg. "A doping mentality develops that isn't limited to legal products anymore."
Older riders often remain in the sport to become trainers and masseurs, adding to the cycling world's insularity. "The first lesson athletes get is, 'Don't get caught,' " says Mr. Treutlein. " 'If you get caught, shut your mouth and accept your punishment. Then we take you back in the family.' "
Schenk eventually ran into the wall of silence – hard. Three years into her tenure, she says she learned that the federation, without her knowledge, had let rider Christian Lademann race at the 2004 Athens Olympics after an unusual blood-test result that the German national team's doctor said could have been caused by EPO. She believed the rider should have been kept home pending a probe. "When I tried to fire the person responsible, the entire organization said, 'It isn't that bad; we don't want to make a big fuss about it," says Schenk. "That was against my principles of 100 percent transparency, so I resigned."
Others say she had no choice: She had lost the support of the board and had to leave.
A year after her departure, while still a board member of the International Cycling Union (UCI), she lashed out at the group for lax oversight. She was effectively shut out of meetings until her term expired. Critics fault her for being calculating and uncompromising. "Sylvia Schenk had personal ambitions to become the president of the UCI," says Pat McQuaid, who did become UCI president. "When she saw she didn't get the support of the UCI, she attacked it."