The never ending prosecution of Katja Schumacher
By Timothy Carlson, Special to VeloNews.com
This story originally appeared as Timothy Carlson’s weekly column onthe website of our sister publication InsideTriathlon. Because the issue of doping seems to transcend sportingdisciplines, we decided that Mr. Carlson’s column was worthy of a seriouslook from interested parties outside of the sport of Triathlon. – Editor
“No, no!’ said the Queen. “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!’”
“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.
“I won’t!” said Alice.
“Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.
This case was never meant for Hollywood.
Unlike the usual John Grisham courtroom tale, in which the bad guys are put in the slammer and the good guys get a joyous acquittal after two hours, the curious case of the Katja Schumacher testosterone positive at Ironman Germany seems destined to drag on forever without a real resolution.
Despite the January 29 ruling by the German Triathlon Union that testing procedural errors and illegally copied signatures on her original DTU ban invalidated actions against her, the 36-year-old three-time Ironman winner seems caught in a Kafkaesque web of extralegal nuance and innuendo that won’t let her go.
While Schumacher, winner of Ironman Europe in Roth (1998) Ironman Florida (2001) Ironman Germany in Frankfurt (2002), joyously wrote on her website the day after the January 29 decision that as a result of the hearings, she had “never been legally banned,” and implied that the testosterone positive was thus invalidated.
However, the next day DTU officials announced that Schumacher had taken a “deal” which merely reduced her maximum one-year suspension to 10 months.
The DTU allowed a strong implication to remain that Schumacher had gotten a reduction of her sentence on a technicality. The implication also remained that Schumacher’s positive for a 23.9:1 ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone remained valid and unchallenged – despite an admission by the testing lab that the samples arrived “improperly sealed.”
Ironic in the extreme, partly as a consequence of fighting the charges vigorously and publicly arguing points in her defense, Schumacher’s victory in the DTU hearing was followed immediately by Ironman Germany CEO Kurt Denk slapping her with a lifetime ban and a refusal to grant her second place prize money. In contrast, Denk said he would welcome back disgraced triathlete Nina Kraft when her two-year ban for EPO use at Ironman Hawaii elapses.
Denk contends his complaints against Schumacher were separate from her doping test results. He charged that Schumacher “questioned the integrity of his race volunteers” when she theorized that her race day drinks might have been tampered with. He also became angry, arguing that Schumacher questioned the integrity of a new Ironman Germany sponsor, a sports betting concern, when she speculated that one motive for spiking her drink might be a wager.
Denk says it was for those remarks that he banned Schumacher for life from his race.
Furthermore, Denk, after consulting with the DTU, interpreted Schumacher’s “deal” as a legal admission of responsibility for her illegal levels of testosterone and a tacit admission that she was guilty of a doping violation. Thus he erased Schumacher’s name from her second place finish from the results and gave her $5,000 prize money instead to Nina Fischer.
Schumacher, who only wanted to get back to the sport she loved, is considering whether it would be worth the lawyers’ fees to fight for her modest $5,000 prize. While winning in court, Schumacher had been blindsided in the court of public opinion by two powerful entities who, in their zeal to rid the sport of drug cheats, refused to bow to due process. Paula Newby-Fraser, a friend of Schumacher, was outraged.
“The procedures of this case have been nothing short of appalling,” said Newby-Fraser. “When you start throwing up the facts on how the case was handled, up, the whole thing stinks. Her sample arrived at the lab with a broken seal, yet they didn’t reveal that to her until three days before her hearing. That alone should have thrown the case out. Then they proceeded to test her B-sample without her legal representation to observe – a right granted under ITU and WADA rules. Then, when her case is supposedly dismissed by the DTU, why does Kurt Denk write on his web site the day after the decision his own personal opinion on her guilt? The race director should stay out of this and leave it to the federation. Yet he bans her. The implications of this are huge. All athletes must abide by federation rules in order to compete. So why can a race director declare a ban on his own? I wonder why the DTU, which is supposed to do everything in its power to assure its athletes get fair representation, abandon her? Why did Kurt Denk stand so ready to crucify her before any channels of justice were available to her baffles me.” And while the results remain gray and the reasoning murky, the case reveals an anti-drug fervor sweeping the world that most resembles the Arthur Miller play “The Crucible”- a parable of the dangers of McCarthyism – in which the women of Salem who refused to sign false confessions to practicing witchcraft were executed, while those who did were forgiven, allowed to live and praised for their “honesty.”
In recounting the facts of the case, the principles involved see the events in such different light, it recalls the classic Kurosawa movie “Rashomon,” in which the truth is a multifaceted gem to be interpreted by wildly different points of view. As this case and others show, that in the drive to eliminate doping in sport, even the best science is subject to human error. And even the most well intended officials and athletes find their sense of the truth is subject to their own lenses of self-interest and depends on where you sit.
Just the facts, ma’am
On July 11, then 35-year-old Katja Schumacher finished second to Nina Kraft at Ironman Germany in Frankfurt. While Nina Kraft’s time of 8:58:37 was outstanding and put in her the exclusive women’s sub-nine hour club, Schumacher’s time of 9:20:28 was entirely unremarkable for the Heidelberg athlete.
In fact, Schumacher’s finishing times at Germany’s premier Ironman events in Roth and then Frankfurt had varied little over eight years – 1997 (3rd) 9:20:27; 1998 (1st) 9:27:43; 2001 (6th) 9:45:06; 2002 (1st) 9:15:32; 2003 (5th) 9:41:48. In other Ironman events, Schumacher was also the model of consistency. In the 2000 Ironman Switzerland she finished fourth in 9:30:35, in the 2001 Ironman South Africa she was third in 9:59:45, in the 2001 Ironman Florida, was won in 9:25:27. She, like many other pros, struggled at Ironman Hawaii, finishing 12th in 1998, 15th in 1999, and 14th in 2003 with a Kona PR of 9:50:55. The apex of her professional career came in 2001-2002 when she won the Ironman Florida in November 2001, won Wildflower and the California Half in May 2002 and won Ironman Germany in July of 2002.
Injuries slowed her career for two years, until she started a modest comeback in 2004 with a 5th at Wildflower and a 6th at Half Ironman Florida followed by her runner-up at Frankfurt.
Up to this point, Schumacher enjoyed a low-key popularity and modest endorsements. She was well-liked within the often-catty world of German Ironman athletes. As a multiple Ironman winner, she received starting money from Denk at Frankfurt.
“People could see how much I enjoyed the sport and I shared that with the public,” she said. “I started as an age grouper and I never lost that love and excitement for the sport and everyone could see it.”
Like many other Germans, Schumacher favored training in California and became a regular on long rides and runs with Paula Newby-Fraser in the legendary 8-time Ironman winner’s pullback from dead-serious competition.
But on July 11, 2004, Schumacher’s world started to turn upside down when her number was randomly drawn to be tested after Ironman Germany – the male and female winners and two men and two women of the remaining top 10 finishers were tested.
On August 17, a reporter sent Schumacher an e-mail notifying her that a German triathlete had tested positive at Ironman Germany. The results of the A-sample – and the 23.9 to 1 ratio of epitestosterone to testosterone – were revealed to a major Frankfurt newspaper before the DTU informed Schumacher, a violation of protocol. Schumacher’s A-sample positive was 24 times the average human ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone and four times the legally permissible ratio of 6-to-1. In 1988, the infamous Ben Johnson tested at a 10:1 ratio at the Seoul Olympics and had to forfeit his world record and gold medal performance in the 100-meter dash. Schumacher had been tested 20 times previously in her career without a positive.
Schumacher said she never knowingly took any illegal substances, declared she would appeal the ban, and enlisted the support of two powerful allies. The first was Professor Werner Franke, who with his wife Brigitte Franke Berendonk received in May 2004 the Distinguished Service Cross from the Ministry for Science, Research and Art at Baden-Württemberg for their long-term dedication to the fight against doping in sport.
Berendonk, a former Olympic athlete, joined with Franke and the pair was instrumental in unmasking the horrors of the East German doping machine. Franke, a prominent molecular biologist, heads a cancer research program at the University of Heidelberg.
“Professor Franke won’t help anyone he believes is trying to get away with cheating,” said Schumacher. He made her sign a document recognizing Franke’s policy.
“We are in the business of finding the truth. So if you’re guilty, we will tell it. So guilty people shy away from us and I don’t represent them,” said Franke.
The second ally was prominent attorney Michael Lehner, famous for his aggressive defense in court. Interestingly, Schumacher asked Frankfurt promoter Kurt Denk for the name of a good lawyer, a natural reaction since Denk had recommended Schumacher to several sponsors in the past. But in this case, Schumacher recalled, Denk said that he only knew his own personal lawyer and added that it would be a conflict of interest for Schumacher to be represented by the same attorney. However, Denk’s main sponsor, Opel, who also sponsored Schumacher, recommended Lehner. Lehner also represented German 5000-meter runner Dieter Baumann, who offered the infamous “toothpaste defense,” claiming his toothpaste had been spiked with illegal drugs.
In the war of words to gain the upper hand in public opinion, Lehner’s Bauman connection worked against Schumacher – most of the rest of the world simply thought the spiked toothpaste defense was preposterous. But Lehner remains a premier defense attorney for doping offenses and recently successfully represented world record 1500-meter runner Bernard Lagat of Kenya in a case in which his A-sample tested positive for EPO, while his B-sample, when examined under the supervision of a scientist representing the athlete, turned up negative.
Before the B-sample was examined at the WADA-approved lab in Kreischa, the DTU told Schumacher’s representatives they would examine her B-sample on September 1. Franke and Lehner then asked the DTU to delay the procedure to September 3, until Hans Heim, an associate of Professor Franke, could be there to monitor the process. According to Schumacher and Franke, the DTU ordered the lab to proceed without the observers.
“The DTU knew Katja was still in California,” recalls Franke. “They knew her lawyer Dr. Lehner had asked for a two days postponement so we could have our man, Hans Heim, a lab rat who knows as much about the science as they did, present. But they opened it anyway.”
Franke says the presence of a competent scientist representing the defendant is not just some pro forma rule.
“Lehner represented Bernard Lagat when his A-sample tested positive for EPO in August of 2003 just before the world championships,” said Franke. “In my opinion, that test is still subject to some pitfalls and must be subject to very detailed controls. When they opened the B-sample under our supervision, it came up completely negative and the case was dismissed.”
As for why the lab went ahead with the testing of the B-sample and the validity of a test when the urine sample’s seal has been broken, the significance is not clear cut to all sides. A person who works for the United States Anti-Doping Agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity and not specifically addressing the Schumacher case, told Inside Triathlon that the most common form of urine testing sample bottles are not like simple glass milk bottles with one top. They do have a seal, but that goes over the outer surface. The bottle itself contains an inner container, like a plastic bag, which actually holds the urine. He explained that the labs have gone ahead with the test even if the outer seal has been broken if they determine that the urine sample within the inner container has not been contaminated.
“These labs which have been approved by the IOC are of high quality and would not measure a sample they felt had been contaminated,” said the source.
Schumacher’s representatives informed her that there was precedent for strict interpretation of the unbroken seal requirement. Great Britain 800-meter runner Diane Modahl tested positive for an illegally high level of testosterone after the 1994 Cornwell games victory. But her sample, which was improperly stored at a high temperature, was judged to have developed testosterone from bacteria, not the athlete’s body.
All the scientific factors are complicated by the fact that Schumacher’s representative was not present at the testing of the B-sample.
“We wanted an opportunity to prove one way or another if it were my urine sample,” said Schumacher. “Dr. Franke wanted them to test for the presence of bacteria, but they refused. We also wanted to test the sample to see if it matched my DNA. But they refused.”
The USADA source said that a urine sample typically will not produce a reliable DNA sample.
Some accounts of the Schumacher case explained the DTU’s refusal to grant a two-day delay in the examination of the B-sample as “unreasonable delaying tactics” aggravated by Schumacher’s refusal to return from the U.S. to Germany to deal with her appeal.
Schumacher said the B-sample testing with representation closed the door on her desire to vindicate herself.
“After that, the chance to prove my innocence was taken away,” she said.
The DTU has so far not responded to Inside Triathlon’s request for comment on the case. In Schumacher’s case, however, the lab reported her A-sample tested positive for illegal levels of testosterone and mass spectrometry also revealed that Schumacher’s sample contained a compound of testosterone that likely artificially produced, said Franke.
“I asked Katja to make me a list of all the supplements she was using,” said Franke. “Three of them correlated very closely with that compounds found in supplements produced in California and Utah which are not subject to FDA controls. These states have what we call garage chemists who produce these things for the body builder community. And their other products are often contaminated. I said to her ‘Whatever you do in your triathlon, do not trust any of the American supplements. Most of them, more or less, are contaminated.’”
But, like everything in doping control, this information does not lead to a black or white conclusion, says Franke.
“In any case, using these supplements would never produce such a high number and does not explain the 24:1 ratio,” he said.
Franke has said that a 24:1 ratio could, in most cases, only be produced by ingesting testosterone within 24 hours of the test – in this case, on the same day as her nine-hour Ironman competition .
“Anyone who did that would have to be stupid and wish to be caught,” said Franke in a telephone interview.
Unscientific observers of sports subjected to drug testing have expressed the opinion that such a high ratio indicates something must be wrong with the test or that the sample was obviously contaminated if someone like notable drug cheat Ben Johnson only scored a 10:1 ratio. But a drug testing source explained that Johnson probably just stopped using the drug a little too late and that he had already fallen far from his maximum ratio by the time of Olympic testing. The source also said that a U.S. cyclist recently tested at a similarly high ratio and admitted he was illegally taking testosterone, providing an example of a cheater who tested at a similarly high ratio.
But, like everything in doping control, this information does not lead to a black or white conclusion, says Franke. While ignorance of contaminated supplements is not a valid legal defense, Franke said, “in any case, using these supplements would never produce such a high number and does not explain the 24:1 ratio.”
Franke has said that a 24:1 ratio could, in most cases, only be produced by ingesting testosterone within 24 hours of the test – in this case, on the same day as her 9-hour Ironman competition. “Anyone who did that would have to be stupid and wish to be caught,” said Franke in a telephone interview.
And, adds Newby-Fraser, “If Katja were taking such a whopping dose of testosterone, why didn’t she have the decency to have a spectacularly fast time?”
Unscientific observers of sports subjected to drug testing have expressed the opinion that such a high ratio indicates something must be wrong with the test or that the sample was obviously contaminated if notable drug cheater Ben Johnson only scored a 10:1 ratio, But a source familiar with international sports drug testing explained that Johnson probably just stopped using the drug a little too late and that he had already fallen far from his maximum ratio by the time of Olympic testing. The source also said that a US cyclist recently tested at a similarly high ratio and admitted he was illegally taking testosterone, providing an example of a cheater who tested at a similarly high ratio.
Which leads to the second line of questioning by Schumacher. “If my urine sample was in fact not contaminated and I had that high a ratio, I wanted an explanation why it happened,” said Schumacher. “One possibility, which I did not want to believe, was sabotage.”
In seeking answers, Schumacher was led to speculate on sabotage by Paula Newby-Fraser’s experience at the inaugural Ironman Germany in Frankfurt. “In 2002, Paula said she would refuse a drug test at Frankfurt because the special needs bags were uncontrolled,” said Schumacher.
In response, Denk said he took Newby-Fraser’s 2002 complaints to heart and hired off duty policemen to guard the special needs area. “It was no longer a problem in 2004,” said Denk. In addition, Denk said he closely questioned all volunteers and the policemen in the area and none of them could recall Schumacher dropping off a special needs bag in 2004.
In addition, in interviews on her plight, Schumacher further speculated on possible motives for sabotaging her race day nutrition. Maybe, Schumacher said, someone had a bet on the race, citing a new Ironman Germany race sponsor – a sports betting company.
“This is ridiculous,” said Denk. “There is only $5,000 at stake for her second place finish. And the biggest bet on the race was 150 Euros.” In addition, says Denk, “Aside from the winners, no one knew who would be tested. No one knew that Katja would be tested. We test both winners and two each men and women. The places are drawn from a lottery revealed after the race.”
Ultimately, those remarks sealed her fate with Kurt Denk. “I received hundreds of emails from volunteers asking why Katja is accusing us,” said Denk. “Some volunteers said if Katja were to race here again, they would no longer volunteer. Finally, I can put on a race without Katja Schumacher, but I cannot put on a race without my 4,000 volunteers.”
Just one week before her final DTU hearing on January 29, the DTU informed Schumacher that the laboratory in Cologne reported that the seals on two of the six tests were not properly sealed. “We asked for that information four months ago,” said Schumacher.
With no testing done to verify if the samples the lab tested were truly Schumacher’s, another question is raised. What if the two samples with broken seals were switched? In retrospect, some ask what if Schumacher’s sample was switched with Nina Kraft’s?
Which brings the Schumacher narrative to her final moments in court on January 29, 2005.
The first matter of business was to rule on the validity of the signatures of the September DTU order to suspend Schumacher. Investigation showed that the signatures on the order were not original. They were like Donald Rumsfeld’s bogus signatures on condolence letters to the relatives of American servicemen killed in Iraq. They were copies, scans. They were not legally valid.
In some courts, the matter would be closed at that point. But DTU officials said that they could reconvene and issue another ban based on the evidence. If so, then Schumacher would have to return to court to challenge the ruling again, only four months later.
Before the matter of the broken seals on the post race sample could be addressed, Schumacher consulted with her lawyer and looked at the options. If she waited for the DTU to return to court four months later, her existing one-year ban would be just two months from its conclusion.
The DTU presented her with the option in which they would waive all sanctions and pay court costs (but not her lawyers fees) – if she would agree to wait until June 2005 before resuming competition. She did this with the understanding that the original ban had no legal basis and she was never guilty of illegal doping. “I accepted a ‘deal’ because it was most important for me to be cleared of all doping accusations and to finish the process,” said Schumacher. “It all seemed great. I was very happy. My goal had been to get cleared and the case dismissed today. I wanted to get back to training and racing and not spend my time in court.”
Unfortunately, the both the DTU and Kurt Denk saw the decision very differently. “Herr (DTU vice president Reinhard) Wilkie published an untrue press statement,” said Schumacher. “He said ‘Katja Schumacher’s ban shortened from 12 to 10 months…’ This is false! I am not banned and never have been banned. They took it off the DTU website on Sunday after I told them to, but the damage has been done Newspapers wrote ‘Katja Schumacher convicted for doping.’”
Denk also issued a press release declaring that Schumacher would be banned for life from Ironman Germany and scratched her name from the results list and refused to pay her prize money. “I asked the DTU if she had been cleared of a doping violation, and they told me no,” said Denk. “So I had no choice but to remove her from the results and award the prize money to the next athletes.”
In the aftermath, Denk was very forthcoming about his position. “I felt sorry for Katja and through all of this, I tried to help her by recommending lawyers and urging her to return to Germany to deal with this problem,” said Denk. “And I could have ignored her comments if she had only speculated that sabotage might have happened. But as this went on, she said that her bottles had definitely been tampered with. I had no choice but to defend my race.” Consider another consequence, added Denk. “If any athlete can test positive and say ‘Someone tampered with my bottle,’ and get off, then there is no drug enforcement possible all around the world,” he said.
Confidence in the validity of the EPO test helped Nina Kraft to decide not to fight her case, accept blame and confess. But despite his anti-doping fervor, the scientist in Werner Franke says hold on. “From what we observed in the Bernard Lagat case, this test has problems,” said Franke. “And without qualified lab rats like Hans Heim there to hold the labs accountable, mistakes will be made.”
Yet in this era of uncertainty, the drug labs face the fact that if they don’t have certainty in their own tests, who will? It is almost a philosophical necessity to dismiss the doubters or those who challenge the tests.
Which leaves the sporting world, yearning for a drug-free era, facing more delays. If Franke is right about the supposedly bulletproof EPO test, what about the blood doping test which wrapped Tyler Hamilton in a dark cloud of suspicion? Maybe the Hamilton group will come back and poke holes in that test. And all the folks who lost faith in Hamilton will have a cloud of guilt to wear.
Certainly, sponsors have a tough line to walk. Hamilton’s sponsors at first defended their gold medal-winning star, and then dropped him. In Schumacher’s case, long time sponsor Wolfgang Schweim of Saucony has remained loyal to Schumacher throughout this controversy.
But on several levels, the court of public opinion, fueled by the ambiguous legal wrangling, goes on. Veteran German triathlon journalist Frank Wechsel, himself a physician, offers this observation. “For me, personally, the mistakes in testing procedures and the questions about the high ratios, which don’t make sense if she were cheating, are serious enough to make me think Katja is likely innocent. But among people in Germany who have been in the sport for 10 or 15 years, most of them say she is guilty.”
In the United States, Newby-Fraser says that most professionals and persons in the industry “don’t have any problem with Katja” and wishes fervently that her friend could leave it all in the past.
Another friend of Katja’s, Ahelee Sue Osborn, still the 35-39 age group record holder at Kona, wishes her Schumacher well. But there is a little seed of doubt; planted there long ago by another triathlete she trained with 15 years ago. “I stood up for Renee Goldhirsh when people were accusing her of using drugs,” said Osborn. “Finally, after denying it for months, she finally admitted it and was eventually banned for life. I was left feeling betrayed and a little bit hesitant to presume anything to this day.”
World Triathlon Corporation media relations spokesperson Blair LaHaye said that while individual race directors have the right to control who they will accept as entrants, the WTC will not follow Kurt Denk’s lead and will not ban Schumacher from the rest of their races.
Finally, in the realm, of speculation and loose talk, in the decade I have been covering the sport, I have heard whispers and jokes and accusations of drug use at one time or another about every single accomplished triathlete in the sport.
“The worst thing about it is that after all this, with all the mistakes that were made, I know I will never ever be able to absolutely prove I am innocent,” said Schumacher.