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Commentary: What German anti-doping probe may tell us about cycling

A doping investigation involving Nordic skiers could expose the new techniques used to cheat.

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You may have seen the news coming out of Germany and Austria this week, that authorities uncovered a blood doping ring involving top Nordic skiers. Police conducted coordinated raids at Nordic skiing’s world championship race in Seefeld, Austria, and arrested five skiers and four others. The raid provided the world the new image in the fight against cheating: Police video shows Austrian Olympian Max Hauke sitting on a chair while undergoing a transfusion.

The doping ring looks as if the skiers had taken a page straight out of the 2006 Operation Puerto playbook, with police discovering 40 blood bags, labeled with codenames and a list of ever-expanding suspects paying up to 15,000 euros for the full package. Cycling isn’t at the center of inquiries, but two Austrian riders — Stefan Denifl and Georg Preidler — have confessed to authorities that they, too, worked with the ring.

But unlike the Puerto investigation, which was muddied for years due to Spain’s lack of anti-doping laws in 2006, both Germany and Austria have firm laws against doping on the books. That could give police and prosecutors full prosecutorial powers to pursue the evidence and look deep into the doping ring. Puerto took years to reach any conclusions. Yet in Austria, nine people have already been arrested. With witnesses cooperating with authorities, it’s a safe bet that more information will come forward.

“We assume this was only a drop in the ocean,” Austrian prosecutor Dieter Csefan told ARD. “We expect that several athletes, including from other sports, can be identified as well.”

Now, the fact that Denifl and Preidler — two middling pro riders who both had stints on WorldTour teams — are involved with this probe is hardly a reason to assume the worst about pro cycling. Yes, the news raises some all-too-familiar questions about how rampant doping is in today’s peloton. Is this definitive proof that the peloton is juiced? Far from it.

The biggest implication that this investigation may have on cycling — and all sports that adhere to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code — centers on the real power of WADA’s biological passport program. Introduced in 2009, first in cycling and later adopted by other endurance sports, the biological passport was hailed as a game-changing weapon in the struggle for clean sport. The UCI has banned several riders outright based on abnormalities in their biological profiles, most recently with a four-year ban involving Spanish rider Jaime Roson last month.

And the biological passport is one of several tools WADA has to battle cheating. Ranging from a no-needle policy, increased out-of-competition controls, to stricter bans, a reduced TUE list, and the whereabouts program, WADA has an arsenal of weapons. These tools, combined, help fans, journalists, and even riders sleep well at night. Cycling is perhaps the sport with the most anti-doping measures on the planet. Most everyone in pro cycling agrees that the peloton of today is massively cleaner than it was 15 or 20 years ago.

Yet Denifl and Preidler passed through this system and were not caught. Nordic skiing also adheres to the biological passport, yet the skiers appeared to pass through as well. These athletes were only implicated after being named in the probe, which raises serious questions about the power of WADA’s system. Do WADA’s weapons really work? In telling comments to CyclingNews, CCC manager Jim Ochowicz said there was nothing suspicious in Denifl’s biological passport numbers when the team signed him to a contract last fall.

In that respect, this scandal is yet more proof that police and prosecutors are the most reliable fighters against coordinated doping rings. They are armed with the full weight of anti-doping laws. Sport federations and the World Anti-Doping Agency, though they can impose sporting bans, simply lack the legal teeth to effectively tackle the doping scourge at its source despite the best of intentions from many within those institutions.

And that’s why this latest doping investigation — while unfortunate in many ways — should give us some hope. Drug testers often learn valuable information in the wake of major drug busts. We should hope that the investigators in Germany and Austria learn the methods used by the skiers and cyclists to sidestep WADA’s system, and share them with WADA. Drug testers can then develop new testing methods based on this information.

Information about these methods is already coming out. Speaking in a press conference following his arrest and confession last week, Estonia skier Karel Tammjärv revealed how he was convinced he could load up on oxygen-rich blood cells without being detected.

“Blood was given to me each morning before the race and the blood was taken again immediately after the race,” Tammjärv was quoted in ARD. “So there would be no trace for the doping control officers, I was told.”

The positive spin on this whole mess is that it may represent an important battle in the constant war against cheating. Manipulation of the biological passport has been whispered about for years. Could this investigation finally show investigators exactly how doctors us new methods or substances to cheat without triggering red flags? Could we learn exactly how Denifl, Preidler, and others sidestepped the system. We can only wait and see.

Until then, the recent news is likely to spark plenty of debate and hand-wringing from within the sport. Groupama-FDJ boss Marc Madiot was desolate that his rider, Preidler, was involved. Madiot has long pushed for a cleaner peloton and is a member of cycling’s anti-doping movement, the MPCC.

“The present situation confirms once again that we must stay vigilant,” Madiot told AFP. “I trust the authorities to carry out this fight. We’ve already made a lot of progress, but obviously, there are still some efforts to go.”

Preidler told investigators that he only had blood withdrawn and that he never had it re-injected for the purposes of cheating. In an interview with the Austrian paper Krone, Preidler expressed the same sentiment that we’ve heard for years. While doping methods may come and go, the desire to cheat, it seems, stays the same.

“I had success without doping, which is interesting,” Preidler said. “You always have pressure to perform, find contracts and worry about your job. At some point, the inhibition disappears. The doctors assure you that you will never get caught. It’s like a shell game. You know it’s a scam, but you play along.”

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