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Doping Scandal Grows in Proportion

Apparently it is too much to hope for a doping free season.  Over the past month several doping scandals have made headlines.  First, the FIS released the news that the urine sample provided by Russian sprinter Natalia Matveeva following the World Cup classic sprint in Whistler on January 16th tested positive for EPO.  Despite initial reports that the B-sample would be tested within a week at the WADA lab in Quebec, no additional information has been forthcoming.  Matveeva is provisionally suspended pending the outcome of tests on the B-sample.  The Russian sprint coach has denied that Matveeva has taken any performance enhancing drugs.

On a larger scale, the scandal involving the Austrian laboratory Human Plasma continues to grow.  Human Plasma initially came under scrutiny last year following allegations by WADA that the lab supplied “dry blood” to athletes for doping purposes.  Austrian officials launched an official investigation, and Human Plasma also faced an investigation in Italy on possibly facilitating doping at the 2006 Olympics in Torino.

Austrian and German media published a list of dozens of athletes, including prominent cyclists, biathletes and cross-country skiers, who supposedly visited the lab on Sunday mornings for doping purposes.  Until recently, the main result of the investigations has been a number of lawsuits.  Human Plasma sued the president of the Austrian Ski Federation’s disciplinary committee, Arnold Riebenbauer, last January, for spreading “untruths.” And four biathletes, Christoph Sumann, Daniel Mesotitisch, Ludwig Greller and Uschi Disl, have filed libel suits against “unknown persons” related to the accusations.

In January 2008, German broadcast network ARD reported that two-thirds of the names on the list were German biathletes and cross-country skiers.  The network later admitted to fabricating this information.

Just last month, after a year of investigation,  Austrian prosecutors dropped charges against two unnamed doctors who allegedly used the lab to systematically assist athletes dope, citing a lack of evidence.  But the scandal refused to die, and last week the Austrian newspaper Kurier reported that 120 athletes had been linked to Human Plasma.   Immediately following, former middle distance runner and cycling manager Stefan Matschiner was arrested, under suspicion of distributing drugs to several athletes, including Estonian ski star Andrus Veerpalu.  Veerpalu was accused of staying at Walter Mayer’s house in Ramsau  and of being a customer of Human Plasma.  Mayer is the Austrian ski coach who was involved in the Salt Lake City doping bust.  He showed up four years later in Torino, despite being banned from the Olympics.  Mayer fled, leading police on a car chase. Mayer has been consistently linked to doping activities.  

Austrian skier, Christian Hoffman, who was prevented from starting at the World Cup final in Falun due to abnormal blood, has also come under attack.  Last year’s Tour de France King of the Mountain, Bernard Kohl testified that both Hoffman and cyclist Georg Totschnig were customers of Human Plasma.  Kohl was stripped of his third place finish in last year’s Tour and faces a maximum five-year prison sentence after admitting to blood-doping and other offenses.  Kohl told the press that he visited Human Plasma for transfusions, and also took a new generation of EPO type drugs supplied by his manager, Matschiner.  Austrian triathlete Lisa Huetthaler also named Matschiner as her supplier of EPO.  Matshiner has admitted to helping Kohl, but initially denied supplying drugs.

According to VeloNews,  Kohl said the last blood transfusion he undertook was in September though he did not say where. If the last transfusion is found to have been done at Human Plasma, the laboratory itself could face legal action.  Up until last August, blood doping was not illegal in Austria.

Kurier claims extensive evidence of a comprehensive doping program at Human Plasma involving biathlon, cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, swimming and cycling. 

Veerpalu has denied any wrongdoing and Mati Alavere of the Estonian Ski Team told media that Veerpalu never stayed at Mayer’s house in Ramsau.

Mayer has been imprisoned as a new investigation unfolds.  He was originally detained in March for buying EPO from a pharmacist, and his detention has just been extended as more facts are revealed.  Mayer has now been tied to Human Plasma – according to Kurier, Vienna University Professor Paul Höcker, a specialist in transfusion medicine, and head of two branches of Human Plasma, stayed at Mayer’s house on many occasions between 2002 and 2005.  Human Plasma has also been connected to Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes of Spain, who has featured prominently in earlier doping scandals.  

Kohl, with Matschiner’s help, received three treatments at Human Plasma, and along with several other athletes, purchased a transfusion machine that was kept at Matschiner’s house.  Hoffmann, and Danish cyclist Michel Rasmussen have denied reports that they helped pay for the machine and received treatments at Matschiner’s home.

Up to 120 athletes may be involved in the systematic doping that involved a complex process.  Blood would be drawn from athletes at the lab, freeze dried, and stored.  It would then be delivered in secret to athletes just before competition, to be re-inserted into the body.  The delivery involved special vehicles and dead-of-night drops.  

This form of blood doping was thought to be going out of style with the availability of designer drugs like EPO.  The re-inserting of blood results in a higher concentration of red blood cells, and thus better oxygen uptake and higher performance.  It can also be very dangerous for athletes as the increased hemoglobin count causes additional stress on the heart.  The advantage of this type of doping is that if an athlete uses his or her own blood, it is impossible to test for.  The only indication is increased hemoglobin. 

Human Plasma has continued to deny any involvement with illicit activities.

Sources: Kurier, Langde.se, Earth TImes, VeloNews, Delfi, SI.com

Updated 4/09/09 8:41AM – The original article stated that Hoffman was prohibited from starting due to high hemoglobin values.  He actually was given a 14 day stand-down for having “abnormal blood.”  Details were not provided.

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Comments

  1. I cant believe how inter-connected this whole mess is….

  2. Cloxxki says:

    We have all seen mob movies. Most probably can imagine what it’s like to be part of that. Be all cool, superstar gangsters, and get really rich.
    How must it be, after a life in sport, to be deep underground messing with results, taking wins away from clean athletes? Must take a messed up, or more-evil-than-mob-boss hearts.

    Although the athletes cannot be excuses, I feel most unpleasant throught for the coaches (often former athletes) and “doctors”. Who do they think they are? Imprisonment hardly is sufficient punishment for cheating. So evil, so unfair.

    Go wax your skis with something that makes them glide faster than anyone else’s, be a hero in stead of a loser.

    If finally someone, and preferably multiple, persons would see long-term imprisonment over doping, hopefully we’ll have a situation where lab docs and coaches think not twice, but trice before cheating their pupils into fake results anyway.

    The way some athletes are welcomes back to the sport as heroes (Boonen, Museeuw, Zabel, etc), and others are doomed or even punished at the slightest hint of doubt (Rasmussen, Petacchi, etc), only adds to a situation where athletes think that getting caught won’t be the end of the world. The fans will take them back, the sport will put them on the podium.

    I’m so saddened when I read that formerly banned biathletes can come back, only to be caught again…

    What are they thinking, all taking EPO? That they won’t be caught? I thought the anti-doping was supposed to be one step behind all the time…

    There is so much performance to be gained with harmless, perfectly legal additives, but “everyone” is just going for the one thing they read about in the papers, EPO. Sure, EPO might make you a rocket, but today it comes with a brass band and fireworks. You attract attention. Stupid athletes, that want to perform like more talented, or smarter training ones…

  3. Great coverage, FasterSkier. I’m looking forward to Bobke, Phil and Paul mentioning nordic skiing during the Tour coverage on Versus. // That said, “There’s no such thing as bad press.” These skiers, and our sport, are getting ink b/c of their greed. Can we have another article interviewing Pete, Dave Wood (CAN) and some of the other head coaches, as to how many times our/their athletes (give these athletes ink – name names – heros and heroines all) have been tested and are proud to be clean. It’s a cut in pay for them, of recognition, and yet they do the right thing. We can never laud them enough.

  4. As a physician, I find it unconscionable that other physicians would assist in this dangerous practice. The risks mentioned at the end of the article are just the tip of the iceberg. Among other risks not mentioned is the potential for microinfarcts of various organs (brain, kidneys, and so on). Also these surreptitious “dead of night drops” open opportunity for fatal errors such as inadvertently delivering the wrong blood to the recipient. Such errors can (but rarely) happen in hospital settings with numerous quality check points. When this is done under the table you expose yourself to HUGE, potentially fatal risks. Shame on them.

  5. michael@high-alpine.com says:

    Hi, so having high hemoglobin count or a high hematocrit value is supposedly dangerous for risk of heart attack and possibly stroke, and EPO or blood doping give you a high value, essentially making your blood thicker. Is this true? If so, wouldn’t it also be dangerous to raise those values by using a hypobaric chamber or going to altitude? As a mountain guide living and working in Chamonix, France, I live at 1110 m (around 3400ft) and constantly go up to 3800-4000m(up to 13,14 and even up to almost 16,000ft on mont blanc). Becuase of this my hematocrit can go up higher than most Tour de Frnace racers. Last time I had a routine blood test for my high cholesteral, my hematocrit was 51.7%. I believe in most professional sports, if it is over 50%, you are sidelined and suspected of doping. So when my hematocrit goes up that high, do I risk health problems because of my thick blood?? Especially if I have genetically high cholesteral?

    Any thoughts on this, especially by a doctor, like Sven–see above, would be much appreciated.

    I have to go to altitude to make a living, but can they illegalize it in sports. I think alot of nordic teams use this with great success. Thanks.

  6. Mike Trecker says:

    I also live at altitude as do many athletes outside of the small FIS bubble of central and northern Europe. My hematocrit at the last check was 52, but I haven’t had to worry about it according to doctors. A natural increase in hematocrit due to your environment is something the body can completely deal with, however, artificially inducing an increase in hematocrit through doping or blood manipulation is something the body is not prepared to deal with very well.

    Hematocrits above 50 in Europe are extremely rare and this causes all sorts of problems with the rules when athletes from around the world, such as Columbia, go to Europe to compete with “high” or “abnormal” hematocrit levels, when they are nothing of the sort. “High” and “abnormal” only apply to the European template which doesn’t fit well with the rest of the world.

    This is why the Union Cycliste International has been working on a blood passport program for the last couple of seasons. This program takes periodic samples to establish a true “base line” of personal chemical physiology and if the athlete were to show major deviasions, either up or down, they may be suspended. So far the program has tracked suspected dopers, but the UCI and their attorneys have yet to figure out a practical and less litigous way to bring this information to light and to prosucute the cheaters.

    One thing I can guarantee, the cheats are still winning races, perhaps not as much as they once were, but the will to win no matter the cost is still as prevalent as the honesty and pride of clean and fair sport. There are still slimy doctors, managers, athletes and coaches 100% willing to do whatever it takes to win, no matter the risk. I mean, Walter Mayer is still out there playing around, this guy needs to be tied to a post in the town square as a target for people to throw rotten food.

  7. Tim Kelley says:

    Is this a new variant of blood doping? I thought old school blood doping was to extract blood, store it and then use an IV drip to reinsert it. But this article mentions freeze drying the blood. Freeze drying means removing all (or most all) of the fluid in the blood. So, how is the blood re-hydrated before being put back in the athlete? Or is the “freeze dried” term above a typo in this article? Thanks.

  8. Mike Trecker’s comments above are accurate. There are many areas in medicine where the absolute number is less critical than the RATE at which you reach that number. For example, if a person develops a condition which causes a slow accumulation of fluid in the sac around the heart (pericardial effusion), it is surprising how much volume can accumulate before compromising the heart’s physiology. On the other hand, with a rapid accumulation of fluid in that same sac (such as may occur with trauma), even a very small volume of fluid can be rapidly fatal.

    I believe a similar principle can be applied to the rise in hemoglobin. I’m not a hematologist, but I did speak with a hematology colleague of mine not long ago with this very question in mind. There may be other “expert opinions” out there that I am happy to defer to, but my understanding is that if accomplished over time because of living at altitude, the body can accommodate. This is partly because there are other factors besides just hemoglobin production that are involved in the acclimatization process. However, a rapid rise in hemoglobin to can theoretically be dangerous, especially to polycethemia levels (Hct in the 60-80 range). However, I admit that negative side effects are probably unlikely if your hematocrit is in the 50 range–even if done artificially. However, if (because of a labeling error, or because you were in a hurry because you didn’t want to get caught), you accidentally get your teammate’s blood instead of your own…you may be fine, or you may be dead.

  9. FasterSkier says:

    Good question Tim – much of the information in this article was translated, so there may be some mistakes. My research shows that it is possible to freeze-dry blood, and reconstitute it. That said, other than my original translation, I haven’t been able to gather any more information on whether the Human Plasma dopers were using freeze dried blood, or just frozen blood. Given the fact that there was mention of a car with a cold storage box, it would seem as though the traditional frozen blood would be the method used. It certainly seems simpler.

  10. Tim Kelley says:

    Hi Topher, Yeah – you are right … it’s probably the translation. Thanks for checking! Well, I guess the good thing is that with this recent doping scandal, awareness and crackdown the year before the Olympics … this means there certainly won’t even be a remote possibility of any cheating going on in xc events at the Olympics next year! (Yes, the last sentence has a smattering of sarcasm. We’ll see …)

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