Testimony from former professional racer Michael Rasmussen implicates Italian Mario Zorzoli, the UCI’s chief medical officer, as having been complicit to doping during the sport’s darkest period of cheating.
Rasmussen’s testimony was made public Thursday after a three-member panel of the American Arbitration Association for Sport rendered its decision in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case against Dr. Geert Leinders, imposing a lifetime ban for doping violations committed from 1996 through 2009, while he served as the chief team doctor for the Rabobank team.
The investigation into Leinders began with the discovery of evidence by USADA in 2012 during the course of its investigation of doping in cycling, including testimony from American rider Levi Leipheimer, who rode for Rabobank from 2002 through the 2004 season.
Rasmussen’s testimony implies impropriety within the UCI — specifically with Zorzoli, the UCI medical chief.
Rasmussen, who rode for Rabobank from 2003 through 2007, claims that he was approached by the UCI at the start of the 2005 Tour de France because a doping control test had showed a very low reticulyte count, which would suggest blood manipulation.
According to Rasmussen’s testimony, Leinders met with Zorzoli, and following the meeting, Rasmussen was assured by Leinders that “Rabobank was a team that had ‘butter on its head’ … meaning that all the problems, doping related problems the team had, would slide off. And he called me the most protected rider in the race.”
Rasmussen finished seventh overall at the 2005 Tour de France, winning a stage and winning the race’s mountains classification.
According to Rasmussen, in either 2004 or 2005, Leinders told him that Zorzoli recommended that Leinders should give Rabobank riders the banned hormone DHEA because “all the other teams were doing it as well.”
Zorzoli’s name also appears in the arbitration document under the testimony of Steven Teitler, manager of legal affairs for the Netherlands Anti-Doping Agency.
Teitler testified that UCI had provided him with the anonymous results of Rabobank riders’ blood tests from 1997-2008, and that he had discussed those results with Zorzoli. During those discussions, Zorzoli confirmed that when a blood test reflected a suspicious result, the UCI would contact a Rabobank team doctor, either Leinders or another doctor, to discuss the potential cause of the result.
Zorzoli told Teitler that the UCI kept in touch with team doctors so that “riders and staff would have the idea that UCI was basically on top of them and they had to be careful with what they would do in terms of doping.”
Asked for comment, UCI spokesman Louis Chenaille issued a statement via email: “The UCI is aware that the reasoned decision includes allegations made against UCI Doctor and Scientific Advisor Mario Zorzoli. The UCI is now waiting to receive the full file to look closely into these allegations, and whilst this investigation is taking place, Dr Zorzoli will not be involved in any matters relating to anti-doping. No further comment will be made at this stage.”
During his tenure with the UCI, Zorzoli’s name has been in the headlines on several occasions. He was suspended by the UCI in 2005 when it was discovered that he had supplied copies of Lance Armstrong’s medical records to L’Equipe journalist Damien Ressiot. Ressiot used them to link Armstrong to six of his urine samples taken at the 1999 Tour de France that showed traces of EPO.
In May 2014, Zorzoli was responsible for an expedited therapeutic-use exemption (TUE) that allowed Chris Froome to take a banned steroid, to treat a chest infection, prior to the Tour de Romandie, which he won.
Teams must normally apply for a TUE for their riders 21 days out, but if it considers the condition acute, the UCI may fast-track the procedure. An expert committee of at least three people, according to WADA rules, must still review the application.
However French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche reported on June 15 that the UCI lacked a proper committee to issue Froome’s TUE, relying solely on Zorzoli.
“The UCI does not have the committee of experts as has long been required by the World Anti-Doping Agency rules,” the newspaper reported. “It’s the sole responsibility of Zorzoli to grant these authorizations that — as in Chris Froome’s case — can aid performances.”
Le Journal du Dimanche added that WADA Director General David Howman was “concerned” about the UCI’s TUE process and asked it “to quickly fix the shortcomings identified in this case.”
The UCI responded on June 23, according to Reuters, that it was “working closely” with Howman to review its anti-doping rules, including those regarding TUEs.
“A completely revised set of rules is in preparation and will enter into force on January 1, 2015 in conjunction with the revised 2015 WADA code and international standards, including the international standard for therapeutic use exemptions (ISTUE),” the UCI said. “As an immediate measure, the UCI confirms that from now on, all TUE decisions will pass through the TUE committee.”
A May 2013 video of Zorzoli discussing the UCI’s strategy in dealing with new doping trends, can be found here, posted to the UCI’s YouTube channel.