Austria: Vienna, European capital of doping
11 August 2009
A spate of doping scandals has hit Austrian sport in recent times, particularly the high profile case of cyclist Bernhard Kohl. In repsonse to this trend, the national anti-doping agency has had its work cut out and has found itself embroiled in a battle with Humanplasma Laboratories.
No one can forget the East German women athletes of the 1980s: those extraordinarily muscled swimmers with the deep voices, the hefty javelin throwers who broke all of the records and the sprinters that were unbeatable over 100 metres. That was during the Cold War, and the fight against doping was not a part of sports as it is now. Twenty years later, the controversy has flared up in another central European country and this time a member of the European Union, whose athletes were always on the podium in major international competitions. Austria, homeland of sports heroes in skiing, swimming, athletics and cycling had been cast adrift on an ocean of doubts, reports Le soir.
It all began with a story that electrified the world's media: on 15 October, 2008, Bernhard Kohl, the fresh faced cycling ace, who had won best climber and a prestigious third place in the the Tour de France of the same year, was proved guilty of doping. He had taken the third generation form of erythropoetin (EPO) otherwise known as CERA, having mistakenly assumed that it was undetectable and invisible to anti-doping authorities.
In June of that year, Kohl's admission to the French sports newspaper L'Equipe that he had been doping since he was 19 years old sparked an outcry in Austria, where it was widely believed that his case was just the tip of the iceberg. The new anti-doping agency NADA, which was founded a month later, quickly revealed the full extent of the problem. Doping was engrained in a huge range of disciplines: not just cycling, but also winter sports – which have a quasi-religious status in Austria – football, athletics, and even triathlon. The confession of the queen of this discipline, 25-year-old Lisa Hütthaler, who was the first to be caught in the new anti-doping net and punished with a two-year suspension for taking EPO, led investigators to two ringleaders behind the scenes – Bernhard Kohl's former manager Stefan Matschiner, and a pediatric oncologist Andreas Zoubek.
The nerve-centre of Austrian doping
A short time later, the media returned to the tale of another sorcerer's apprentice in the shape of Walter Mayer. The feisty trainer of the Austrian national cross-country and Nordic skiing teams had been caught during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 in possession of blood bags and syringes, but had nonetheless re-emerged as the Austrian coach in the subsequent Olympics in Turin in 2006, where an Italian police search of the Austrian delegation's chalet revealed the same practices that had been discovered four years earlier. On the run from police, Mayer escaped from Turin in the dead of night and drove to the Austrian border where he crashed into a police roadblock, before being immediately relieved of his coaching duties by the Austrian Ski Federation (öSV).
However, Mayer was just one link in a complex organization. In January 2008, an exclusive report on the German TV channel ARD uncovered the nerve centre of Austrian doping, when it revealed that the Viennese laboratory, Humanplasma had supplied blood bags to 30 high-level athletes which included such illustrious cyclists as Denmark's Michael Rasmussen, the Netherlands' Michael Boogerd and Russian Denis Menchov. Each of them had spent a minimum of 2,500 euros per consultation, while the use of a cutting edge centrifuge, developed by Matschiner, had in part been financed to the tune of 20,000 by Kohl himself. In spite of all this, the Humanplasma case was closed with no further action on 8 March, 2009, because the anti-doping law could not be retroactively applied.
In Austria, a rumour began to spread to the effect that sorcerers' apprentices in the dressing room were protected by high-profile political figures who enabled them to escape criminal prosecution. The multiplication of doping scandals in the wake of the Walter Mayer affair began to provoke a crisis of conscience. Accused of negligence by its European counterparts, the Austrian government finally adopted an anti-doping law on 8 August, 2008. All of the athletes who had been previously caught red-handed remained exempt from prosecution. The Secretary of State for Sports at the time made his position clear: "Austria has to catch up and do more to clamp down on doping, which has not been sufficiently criminalized in the past."
The anti-doping agency cracks down
The NADA anti-doping agency, which had its budget increased from 600,000 to 1.3 million euros, began to work hand in hand with a special detective unit, the special doping commission (Soko).
In spite of a lack of resources and staff, NADA has made rapid progress in revealing the organization that surrounded the Humanplasma lab. In the 12 months since it was founded, it has identified more than a dozen implicated pharmacies, and 15 of the 30 pharmacists, therapists and trainers that have been arrested are now behind bars. Close to 400 different substances have been discovered: analgesics, ephedrine, EPO, blood bags, testosterone, growth hormones and insulin. Over 300 athletes who were customers of these dealers are now under supervision and have been invited to testify.
Andreas Schwab, who referred the Kohl case to "Soko" now has other priorities: training and prevention in the 14 to 20 age group, which has been deemed to be strategic, because the real problem of doping affects 700,000 amateur athletes for whom the temptation to resort to the unsupervised use of prohibited substances may have drastic consequences. Insisting that those who are already involved in doping "are a lost cause," Schwab wants to ensure that a new generation of athletes gets the message: "Young athletes have to understand that doping can shorten your life" – and you might be thrown out of sports first. That is what happened to Lisa Hütthaler, the triathlete whose career was already interrupted by a doping conviction, received a suspended sentence of three months on 26 June for attempting to corrupt an employee of the NADA anti-doping laboratory. She had offered the technician a bribe of 50,000 euros to falsify the results of second test in her favour.
As for Berhard Kohl, the 2009 Tour de France went ahead without him. The 27-year-old's career is also at an end. Disappointed Austrians had no interest in this year's race, and the national broadcaster öRF so no reason to bother with a live transmission of the competition.