A FRENCH inquiry into sports doping has uncovered proof that 1998 Tour de France champion Marco Pantani and runner-up Jan Ullrich used the banned blood booster EPO to fuel their performances.
France’s senate, after a five-month investigation focused on fighting sports doping, released a report yesterday that confirms what many riders have long said: use of the banned substance EPO was rife in cycling in the late 1990s, before a test for the drug had been developed.
Pantani was suspended in 1999 from the Giro after failing a random blood test, and his career was damaged by several doping investigations. He died in 2004 at 34 of an accidental drug overdose.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, has admitted to blood doping and last year was stripped of his third-place finish in the 2005 Tour.
The 1998 Tour de France was notable for the major scandal that emerged with the discovery of widespread doping on the French Festina team. The subsequent police crackdown led to seven of the original 21 teams either withdrawing or being ejected from the Tour.
Other star riders whose positive doping tests were disclosed by the senate report include double stage winner Mario Cipollini, of Italy, and Laurent Jalabert, of France. Kevin Livingston, an American who finished 17th in that year’s Tour, also tested positive for EPO, according to documents included in the senate report.
Third-place finisher, American Bobby Julich, last year admitted to his own EPO use during the 1998 Tour. In 1999, Lance Armstrong won the first of his seven straight titles, of which he was stripped this year after admitting to using banned substances for all of those victories.
Senators took pains to point out that the 1998 Tour de France disclosures represented only a few pages of the 800-page report released yesterday, which mainly focused on establishing the size of the sports doping problem and identifying ways of improving anti-doping measures.
The senate inquiry heard from 138 athletes, drug testers and officials from 18 sports, including rugby and football. The report comprises 60 proposals for improving anti-doping measures, including establishing “truth and reconciliation commissions” within each sport; making sure that all sporting events taking place in France fall under the watch of French anti-doping authorities; and testing for a wider range of illicit substances.
Senators also propose taking disciplinary power away from sports federations and giving it to the French anti-doping body AFLD. The positive tests disclosed in the senate report were uncovered via retrospective testing in 2004 and 2005, by French anti-doping authorities seeking to perfect their test for EPO. The results had since been stored without the identities of the riders being released.
Senator Jean-Jacques Lozach, one of the report’s authors, said retrospective testing is one of the ways authorities can stay ahead of cheating riders. “Given the performance of Chris Froome, the winner of the 2013 Tour de France, there were doubts expressed and suspicions raised. In light of today’s controls, these suspicions are not legitimate or justified,” Lozach said. “Who knows if, in three or five years, these doubts won’t be justified or legitimised by retrospective controls.”
Brian Cookson, the head of British Cycling who is challenging Pat McQuaid for the presidency of the sport’s governing body UCI in September elections, called the senate report “a terrible indictment of the people responsible, and those with the most responsibility for the culture within the sport are the UCI.”
In a statement, Cookson pledged to implement a fully independent investigation into doping in cycling.
“We owe it to those who chose to ride dope-free and to the fans to understand the mistakes of the past and make sure they are not repeated,” Cookson said.
Another former French pro whose positive doping test emerged yesterday said senators risked tarring a cleaner new generation of cyclists with the disclosure of 15-year-old doping revelations.
Jacky Durand, who won one stage of the 1998 Tour as well as the prize for most combative rider, said that, in his day, “we needed to ‘salt the soup,’ as the older riders said. Our sport is much cleaner today. I want people to understand that”.