Prosecutors announce new dope charges
By VeloNews Interactive — Copyright AFP2001
Marco Pantani learned Wednesday that he is again the target of a fresh criminal investigation – just weeks after receiving a suspended jail term for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Italian prosecutors said the 31-year-old 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner, is being investigated over the abnormal red blood cell levels — hematocrit — revealed in a test prior to the penultimate stage of the 1999 Tour of Italy. Those test results forced him out of the race and derailed what appeared to be a certain win and a promising season.
Prosecutor Bruno Giardina said on Wednesday that Pantani had been charged following a series of interviews conducted last week.
In December Pantani was given a three-month suspended jail-term after an Italian court found him guilty of similar charges related to an elevated hematocrit level discovered following a serious fall in the Milan-Turin classic in 1995. In that case, emergency room doctors testified that the Italian climber’s red blood cell count was 60.1 percent, far higher than the average of 45 reported in studies of healthy athletic males in their 20s and 30s.
In 1997, the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, established a maximum allowable level of 50 percent in attempt to at least curb the use of the drug Epogen, recombinant erythropoietin. The hormone produced by the American company Amgen triggers production of red blood cells by the bone marrow. That in turn gives athletes greater endurance because of the increased capacity of their blood to transport oxygen to muscles.
Two new tests have allowed more definitive detection of the drug, but neither was in place in 1995 or even in 1999 when Pantani was ejected from the Giro. Instead, prosecutors are relying on test results, arguing that elevated levels are an indicator – although not proof – that a rider has taken EPO. In the last case, prosecutors relied on a complete blood profile which one expert said suggested with “near 100 percent certainty” that Pantani had used EPO. To conclude otherwise, the expert remarked, would require a set of circumstances “heretofore unknown to modern medical science.”
In July of last year Italian politicians passed a law forbidding “the procuring, administering, absorbing or favoring the use of medicines not prescribed for illnesses and therefore destined to alter athletic performances.”
Pantani is being charged under provisions of that law.
VeloNews technical editor Charles Pelkey contributed to this report.