Ausgabe 18/2009

Telekom Cycling Scandal Widens Commission Report Alleges Systematic Doping at German Hospital

An expert committee has finished its two-year investigation into doping practices at a German hospital specializing in sports medicine. The findings allege that members of the T-Mobile cycling team used performance-enhancing drugs for years -- under the guidance of two doctors.

By and

The eighth stage of the Tour de France, on July 9, 2006, led from Saint-Méen-le-Grand to Lorient on the Atlantic. With the tallest hill at only 294 meters (965 feet), the 181-kilometer (113-mile) ride through Brittany is a breeze for a professional cyclist. On that day, Serhiy Honchar, a then-member of the T-Mobile team, was never in danger of losing his yellow jersey.

His team physician, Lothar Heinrich, was absent during that stage. Instead of attending the race, Heinrich drove to the airport in Rennes that afternoon to catch a flight to Basel, Switzerland, where he landed at 5:00 p.m. By 7:05 p.m., he was sitting in another plane, on an Air France flight to Bordeaux, via Orly airport in Paris.

During his short layover in Basel, Heinrich had rented a car and drove across the Rhine River to the nearby University Medical Center Freiburg, located just across the border from Switzerland in the southern German town of Freiburg. He had brought along seven blood samples, which were likely taken from cyclists on the T-Mobile team.

Riders on the team had apparently given themselves autologous blood transfusions a week earlier, at the beginning of the Tour de France, in a bid to illicitly enhance their performance. Now their blood counts had to be tested. One of Heinrich's assistants, who had gained access to the hospital's central laboratory, performed the blood analysis on that same evening, while Heinrich was on his way back to France.

By that time, in the summer of 2006, doping allegations had already done serious damage to professional cycling. Shortly before the tour, reports on a doping laboratory run by Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes had resulted in the suspension of German cyclist Jan Ullrich and one of his fellow members of the T-Mobile team. Fuentes's customers are believed to have included the two men and 56 other professional cyclists from Italy, Germany and Spain.

Despite the commotion and seemingly genuine expressions of shock over the revelations, the doping continued at the T-Mobile team. What Heinrich and Andreas Schmid, as well as riders on the team, did that summer could be described as insane or simply criminal. Only someone who is part of the world of professional cycling could understand it.

The T-Mobile team no longer exists, nor does a competing German team sponsored by the bottled water company Gerolsteiner. In recent years, a growing number of doping cases has taken the sport to the point of moral and economic bankruptcy.

How the Telekom team and its successor, the T-Mobile team, arrived at that point is detailed in a new report by an independent expert commission appointed by the University of Freiburg, which also describes how the seven blood samples were brought to Freiburg in July 2006. The report, which is more than 60 pages long, details the acts of deception and manipulation committed by team members over a period of close to 12 years, from 1995 to 2007. The document leaves almost no questions unanswered when it comes to the systematic and all-encompassing use of performance-enhancing drugs within Germany's most successful professional cycling team. Perhaps fittingly, the document, with its account of the demise of a German sporting legend, is entitled "Final Report."

The authors are Hans-Joachim Schäfer, a lawyer and former chief justice of the Social Court in the southwestern German city of Reutlingen, Cologne biochemist Wilhelm Schänzer and Heidelberg pharmacologist Ulrich Schwabe. Following the publication of a SPIEGEL cover story on the subject in April 2007, the three men were appointed to conduct a thorough investigation of the accusations made by SPIEGEL against physicians at the renowned hospital.

The men pursued hundreds of leads. They examined the hospital's cash flows. They reviewed files compiled by the Freiburg public prosecutor's office and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), both of which are investigating former T-Mobile team physicians Heinrich and Schmid. They also scrutinized receipts for drugs and travel expenses and ordered laboratory tests of 58,000 blood samples taken at the hospital's sports medicine department between 1995 and 2007.

Finally, the three men interviewed 77 witnesses. They would have liked to interview many more, but a number of professional cyclists, like Jan Ullrich, Matthias Kessler, Andreas Klöden and Udo Bölts, did not comply with their request for an interview.

The compilation of the results, which was completed on April 16 and approved by all three members of the commission, has not been published yet, because various issues are still unresolved in Freiburg. They include questions relating to the analysis and the fact that much of the information the commission has compiled is likely to have legal implications, under both criminal and labor law. In addition, the statements made by Klöden, who has denied all use of performance-enhancing drugs until now, could lead to his suspension. The university's lawyers are currently examining the report.

According to the commission's findings, team physicians Heinrich and Schmid were the masterminds behind a system of deception that became increasingly professional over the years. In May 2007, after the SPIEGEL revelations, the two men admitted to having administered performance-enhancing drugs to Deutsche Telekom cyclists in the 1990s. Those actions are now statute-barred. However, the report claims that Heinrich and Schmid continued to procure and administer performance-enhancing drugs to cyclists until at least 2006.

The commission's conclusions also show that the two physicians wrote bogus medical certificates for cyclists, used shady connections to obtain drugs, deceived their superiors and covered up payments, all the while portraying themselves as champions of drug-free cycling. They exploited their hospital's excellent reputation to give themselves a veneer of respectability, while simultaneously supplying the cyclists with all manner of pharmaceutical concoctions.

The commission also found that Heinrich and Schmid often kept athletes in the dark over the side effects of their doping regimens. And when problems occurred, including blood coagulating in the sample bags, they apparently risked the lives of the athletes in their care.

The drugs were not supplied by the hospital pharmacy, but primarily by the Rathaus pharmacy in Elzach, a town in the Black Forest about 25 kilometers (16 miles) north of Freiburg. For the 2006 season, Schmid and Heinrich ordered roughly two-thirds of their drugs from the pharmacy in Elzach, for which they were billed a grand total of €20,855.51 ($27,530). The pharmacists, however, charged the two physicians only a 10-percent markup on their wholesale price, an illegal practice when it comes to dispensing prescription medication, according to an expert consulted by the commission.

Over the years, Schmid and Heinrich obtained a wide range of drugs which cyclists can use to enhance their performance. These included NeoRecormon, a drug containing a synthetic version of the naturally-occurring hormone erythropoietin (EPO), the human growth hormone medication Genotropin, the testosterone drugs Unestor and Andriol (not to mention Kryptocur, a testosterone spray), the corticosteroid preparation Diprophos and the iron preparations Kendural and Ferrlecit. The cyclists would order their drugs by sending the two physicians text messages or emails. In the orders, only the first letter of the substance would be used, and there were also code words for some of the drugs, including "Luft" ("air") for EPO.

To minimize the risks involved in taking the banned substances, Heinrich and Schmid even wrote fake medical reports for the athletes. In April 2006, for example, Schmid diagnosed T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz with an inflammation of the patellar tendon and asked the International Cycling Union (UCI) for special permission to use betamethasone, a corticosteroid. The UCI approved the request. As a result, Sinkewitz, whose patellar tendon was in perfectly good order, was able to use the cream, which is normally banned, for six weeks. The same tactic was used a year later, only with Heinrich making the diagnosis and signing the request.

According to the report, "for both doctors it was important that they themselves kept control over the supply of the performance-enhancing drugs." In one instance, Schmid dispatched a Deutsche Bahn courier with a refrigerated bag containing a performance-enhancing drug to meet Telekom cyclist Jörg Jaksche at the main train station in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg. The doctor had given the cyclist the code number for the delivery by telephone.

And when the hematocrit level in one rider's blood reached the critical limit of 50 percent during an EPO treatment and was not brought down by the administration of saline solutions and blood thinners, Schmid and Heinrich wrote the following comments on the analysis printouts: "Be careful, Bert"; "Okay, at 46 you can up the levels again"; "I don't know either why the centrifuge is showing 48 and the laboratory value is 52."

Schmid, at least, felt the occasional pang of conscience. One of his colleagues told the commission that Schmid felt "fearful and apprehensive" about his activities in the cycling world, and that he wanted to "get out" and devote himself to sports for the disabled. But despite his moral qualms, Schmid even continued his illegal activities after Ullrich was suspended in 2006 and a shocked public wondered what else Germany's premier professional cycling team was capable of.

  • Part 1: Commission Report Alleges Systematic Doping at German Hospital
  • Part 2: Bad Blood

© DER SPIEGEL 18/2009
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