Doctor did give drug to Irish star, judge concludes

 

Between January and July of 1993, Irish cyclist Stephen Roche was regularly administered doses of the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin (better known as EPO) by the doctor of his Italian cycling team, Carrera, according to an Italian judge.

EPO was not banned by the sport's authorities in 1993 but it was later banned after tests to detect its use were developed.

Ferrara-based Judge Franca Oliva has this month issued her 44-page, formal motivazioni (written explanation) in relation to her decision last November in what is known as the "Conconi trial".

In the dock in the trial were Prof Francesco Conconi and two assistants, charged with the systematic doping of elite cyclists and skiers who had "consulted" Prof Conconi's biomedical Study Centre in Ferrara.

The Conconi trial, the fruit of a five-year investigation, finally concluded last November when all three defendants were acquitted due to the implementation of the Statute of Limitations. Given that the most recent documented evidence of doping malpractices presented in court was from August 1995, the Statute of Limitations was applicable by February of last year, nine months before the final verdict.

In her motivazioni, which has just been made public, Judge Oliva makes it clear that while the formal acquittal was the correct legal verdict, she nonetheless remains convinced that the defendants were guilty of the original charges, namely, "the carrying out of fraudulent acts intended to achieve, via the artificially effected improvement of athletic performances, a different result from that obtained from the correct and honest participation in events such as the Winter Olympics, World Championships, Giro d'Italia and Tour de France".

Only Prof Conconi and his two assistants, Dr Ilario Casoni and Dr Giovanni Grazzi, were charged with doping offences in the trial. This was partly because the prosecution's case was based on the terms of 1989 legislation, which made it difficult to pursue charges against individual athletes. That 1989 legislation was replaced three years ago by a new measure that specifically defines a broad variety of doping practices by athletes or others as a felony.

The most substantial item of evidence heard by the Ferrara court consisted of a series of computer files that were sequestered from Prof Conconi's medical centre following a police raid in October 1998.

In relation to the cyclists, these files contained detailed annotations of the athletes' oscillating blood counts as well as the dates and amounts of EPO administered. Judge Oliva bases most of her conclusions on the expert medical analysis of these files that was heard in court.

In relation to Stephen Roche, she examined the contents of files relative to the medical checks and controls carried out between January and July 1993 by Dr Grazzi, team doctor to the Carrera cycling team, on Roche and four other cyclists - Italians Guido Bontempi, Claudio Chiappucci, Mario Chiesa and Dane Rolf Sorensen.

Judge Oliva concludes: "One cannot but arrive at the conclusion that Dr Grazzi was effectively involved in the direct dispensing of EPO to Bontempi, Chiappucci, Chiesa, Roche and Sorensen".

Earlier in her motivazioni, Judge Oliva had complained of a "total omertà" (silence), commenting: "[The court\] was faced with a total omertà on the part of the athletes, even in the face of the most obvious and incontrovertible evidence.

"It is all too easy to link this conduct to a strong urge both to protect themselves from penal incrimination and, probably even more important, to protect their public personas as champion athletes."

A spokesman for the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) - cycling's world governing body - said EPO was not on its list of banned substances in 1993 "because it was not known about". However, it is currently on the UCI banned list. The substance has the effect of increasing the level of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

In 1997, the UCI introduced a test that measured the thickness of a riders' blood - or haematocrit, as it is known - because EPO use thickens the blood. If a rider's haematocrit was above 50 per cent, he was banned from competing on health grounds.

In April 2001, the UCI introduced a urine test that detected if EPO had been used by a rider and the drug was added to the banned list at that point.

Stephen Roche is not the only famous name in the list of 33 atheletes named in the court indictment. Also on the list are cycling world champion Maurizio Fondriest, Giro d'Italia winners Eugeni Berzin, Ivan Gotti, Gianni Bugno and the late Marco Pantani, as well as Olympic skiing champions Silvio Fauner, Maurizio De Zolt and Manuela De Centa.

In her conclusions, Judge Oliva writes: "The accused have, for several years and with systematic continuity, aided and abetted the athletes named in the court indictment in their consumption of erythropoietin, supporting them and de facto encouraging them in that consumption with a reassuring series of checks on the state of their health, with exams, analysis and tests designed to assess and maximise the impact of that consumption with regard to sports performances. Therefore, on a point of law, the crime as originally charged against the defendants still subsists."