Italian Mafia allegedly connected to doping scandals

Credit: Karen Levy /Allsport
It is generally accepted that drugs still exist in cycling, but would you believe that mobsters might be supplying cyclists with EPO?

In a report by French sports daily L'Equipe, an Italian drug official said the Mafia has a hand in the flow of EPO and other banned drugs into European cycling.

"Gangs that trade in doping are the same as those that trade in narcotics," Sandro Donati, a senior adviser to the Italian government on anti-doping issues, told L'Equipe.

"There is no longer a big difference between the two groups," Donati said. "When customs officers arrest them, they find them carrying both anabolic steroids and cocaine."

Donati spoke out forcefully against the cycling establishment, saying that cycling is not doing enough to control the use of banned substances among riders, and that until cycling adopts more stringent drug controls, the Mafia will continue to operate as an erythropoietin EPO for short supplier to riders.

That there is the slightest question that the Mafia is part of the performance-enhancing drug trade sadly points out that there is still a demand for illegal drugs in the professional peloton, despite the recent scandals and the international cycling organizations (UCI) improved testing procedures.

"Cycling has been taken into the hands of organized gangs," said Donati, who is also on the Italian National Olympic Committee and head of the committee's anti-doping program.

"In some cases, organized crime and the Mafia is in control, which means that the system is working for its own account, independent of the sport."

Italy is by no means the only country to be hit by drug scandals. Recently, the Australian Institute of Sport was hit by allegations that some its members were taking IGF-1 (Insulin like Growth Factor 1), a growth hormone that is undetectable by conventional drug testing methods.

And just this week, former Festina team doctor Eric Rijkaert released his tell-all book De zaak-Festina (The Festina Affair), in which he details the systematic doping program of Festina riders prior to 1998.

Festina was thrown out of the Tour de France in 1998 when team soigneur Willy Voet was caught red-handed just before the start of the race with a trunkload of EPO and human growth hormone.

Rijkaert believes that the Festina team was singled out in 1998, and that "many of the other top teams were using it, as well as in other sports."

His book also asserts that athletes are primarily responsible for drug taking:

"They are the ones that push, and they want the drugs. The doctors can be collaborators, but they are not the primarily responsible."

That a team doctor would so callously flout international competition rules on the basis that everyone else was involved and riders wanted the drugs makes it clear that the Mafia has a large pool to work with, if they are indeed involved in the EPO drug trade.

Perhaps the saddest part of the whole drug-use issue in sports is the clean riders who try to match up against their supercharged competitors.

Canadian Steve Bauer wore the Tours yellow jersey numerous times before he retired after the 1996 Olympic Games. Part of his reasoning for leaving the sport was the uneven playing field he faced, due to drugs.

"I knew some guys weren't clean, but I always felt that on my best days I could beat them," Bauer said.

"They were using mostly testosterone and growth hormones back then," he said. "EPO is a different story. It provides a tremendous boost in an endurance event like the Tour. It's like using high-octane fuel."

"I could see it was going to be tough keeping up with these guys," Bauer said.

The problem with stopping drug usage, apart from the athletes who are willing to cheat, is that so far there hasnt been a test for EPO.

However, in an Olympic year there is far more pressure to stamp out drug use, and an EPO test might not be far away.

In an early effort to clear the way for a comprehensive blood test program, Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates has asked the International Olympic Committee to confirm it will back bans resulting from doping tests conducted by the UCI during the Olympics.

This would clear the way for a universal anti-drug declaration by both international parties and eliminate any possible lawsuits by athletes trying to slip between the cracks.

If the expensive and, as yet unavailable, EPO test is ready for Sydney this fall, the Mafia might be out of a few paying customers.

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