Bad Blood Report Suggests Doping in German Football

Blood doping is not a problem in soccer -- that, at least, is the position of the German Football Association. But a new study identified anomalously high levels in blood samples taken from hundreds of players.

Joachim Löw, the manager of Germany's national team, watches on with team doctor Tim Meyer (second from left) in 2006.
AFP

Joachim Löw, the manager of Germany's national team, watches on with team doctor Tim Meyer (second from left) in 2006.


Soccer has largely been spared the doping scandals that have plagued other sports, such as cycling and weight-lifting. Indeed, the German Football Association (DFB) continues to argue that blood doping -- the practice of artificially boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream to enhance athletic performance -- is simply not an issue. But new evidence suggesting anomalously high levels in blood samples taken from players in German professional football during the 2008/09 season calls that claim into question.

The results appeared in a 2011 study by Tim Meyer, the doctor for the German national team, which has so far only been published in medical databases. The scientific study has not been made available to the general public, and the DFB failed to launch an investigation into the results.

The levels shown in the study are exceptionally high: up to 18.5 grams per deciliter of hemoglobin, and hematocrit up to 54.9 percent. In many endurance sports, there are set limits for these blood parameters, often at 17 grams per decileter for hemoglobin and 50 percent for hematocrit. That means that results like those found in the Meyer report would cause the world governing bodies for cycling, triathlon and track and field to at least begin further investigation.

Meyer and his co-author, Steffen Meister, looked at the blood of 532 players. They took samples four times: in pre-season training, in the fall, in the winter and in the spring. The values of 467 professionals were included in the report. SPIEGEL ONLINE can reveal the summary of the investigation and Steffen Meister's dissertation on the topic. The values are completely anonymous. On enquiry, neither the DFB nor the respective clubs wanted to go into particulars.

Meyer and Meister looked at the changes in blood values during training and competitive matches in order to come up with a "football-specific normal value." The process looked at numerous players from 17 clubs from the top two levels of German football -- the first and second divisions of the Bundesliga professional soccer league -- as well as one team from the then-newly established third division.

'Football-Specific Reference Ranges'

The clubs participated in the study voluntarily, and individual players could also choose not to participate. This was made clear to the players when the values were measured, and they gave a maximum of four samples throughout the season. Theoretically, each player could have withdrawn from the study at his own discretion. Despite that, six players before the season started and two in the fall had "hematocrit values of more than 50 percent." In addition, "hemoglobin elevations of more than 17 grams per deciliter" had been noted in a total of nine samples.

Steffen Meister himself wrote in his dissertation of different "football-specific reference ranges," whose maximum levels lay at 50 percent hematocrit. Doping researcher Perikles Simon says values of hemoglobin above 18 and of hematocrit over 52 were "very, very high." Accordingly, such values are "clinically relevant and in need of further monitoring, or it would at least suggest doping in an essentially healthy professional."

Following a request for comment from SPIEGEL ONLINE to numerous current and former Bundesliga clubs, Andreas Rettig, the managing director of the body responsible for running the DFL, sent an email on Thursday to all teams. In it, he quotes a presentation by Tim Meyer in which the DFB doctor makes assurances that the study in no way considered the question of whether there were doping abnormalities. Therefore, specific -- and doping-relevant -- parameters such as reticulocyte concentration were not recorded.

"Nothing more can be determined in retrospect, and (further investigation) would also not be covered by the consent (given by) the players," Meyer is quoted as saying in the explanation, which reads like a pre-emptive answer for clubs raising awkward questions.

Facing a Burden of Proof

Meyer argues in the letter that the anomalous values could be explained by normal variations and were not evidence of doping with the red blood cell-boosting hormone erythropoietin (EPO). This is essentially true: High values do not automatically mean doping has taken place. But doping expert Fritz Sörgel nonetheless considers the actions of the DFB questionable. "With such divergent values, the athlete together with the team doctor faces the burden of proof that it is a genetic abnormality and not doping," Soergel says. "Why should football be an exception here? With such values there is not much to discuss in other sports."

Even DFB doctor Meyer himself writes in his study from 2011 that the values may indicate blood doping through EPO or other methods. Nevertheless, to this day no one has followed up on the results; they were neither made public nor registered at the National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA). NADA declined to comment to SPIEGEL ONLINE when contacted on Thursday.

The DFB has been downplaying the subject of doping in football for years. Those in charge repeatedly argue that football is not an endurance sport and so not a fit for blood doping. Meyer also told SPIEGEL ONLINE that urine samples, not blood tests, "are still the basis of the doping controls. That is valid in football probably even more than in some endurance sports."

This argument can now be seen in a different light. Doping expert and sports physician Simon believes the values measured are striking: "I have seen higher values in individuals who were not doping, but they (only) remained that high for four weeks, or they had been ill."

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