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.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.