PtG Comment 06.03.2019

Doping in Seefeld – It’s about intelligence

There is an old saying that doping is an intelligence test – only the stupid get caught. This might be so, but we should also question the intelligence of followers and fans of sports every time they get surprised when new doping scandals occur.

Once again, skiing has been shaken by a doping scandal. Nine people have been arrested in a coordinated raid in Germany and Austria, in Erfurt and Seefeld. Five athletes and four officials have been caught, one of the athletes was caught while he had a needle in his arm, possibly while getting a blood transfusion. We are told that the spiderman in the doping web now being uncovered, Dr. Mark Schmidt, have stored 40-60 blood bags of athletes in swimming, handball, football and cycling. This could be a new “Fuentes case”. However, we should hope for that the names of the dopers will be made public this time.

The German doctor Mark Schmidt, who practiced medicine (at least until February 2019) together with his mom, Heidrun Schmidt, has been a well-known figure in doping since 2008. Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl, after he was banned for two years in 2008 and suspended, accused former Gerolsteiner team doctor Mark Schmidt of supervising doping at the 2008 Tour de France.

"He oversaw the doping practices," said Kohl about Schmidt. According to Kohl, Schmidt advised him how to dilute his blood in a saline solution. Kohl finished third overall and won the mountains classification of the 2008 Tour de France. In other words, the name Mark Schmidt has been in circulation in doping matters for 11 years(!).

This time Mark Schmidt was arrested by police in Erfurt while Austrian police at the same time was raiding hotels in Seefeld, just before the 15 kilometer cross country-skiing event took place. Most shocking for the public was the arrest of the Austrian cross-country skier Max Hauke who was caught infusing blood at a hotel close to the skiing arena. Later, he and four others admitted to doping (two from Estonia, one from Kazakhstan and one Austrian) and for having been supervised by Mark Schmidt on how to conduct blood doping.

Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung revealed that Mark Schmidt went into disguise during the World Championship, pretending to be a skiing tourist, while helping his clients in Seefeld. German journalist Hajo Seppelt found that the president of the Austrian skiing federation, Peter Schröcksnadel, partied with former Austrian skier Christian Hoffmann at an event in Seefeld just few days before the doping razzia. Hoffmann has a 6-year doping sentence from the Austrian anti-doping agency for his involvement in blood doping in the 2000s and is well connected to Mark Schmidt.

Whistleblowers and police work

Once again, it is the information from a whistleblower that leads the police to taking action on doping. The police investigation of German and Austrian police and the raid in Seefeld is a result of intelligence work made possible after the ARD documentary “Doping Top Secret: Confession – Inside the mind of a doper”, a documentary on the Austrian cross-country skier Johannes Dürr, was aired on German TV ARD in January. The big doping scandal in Russian athletics in 2014 was started by the whistleblowers Yuliya and Vitaliy Stepanov, and the big Sochi scandal was ignited by the former director of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov. The picture is that we have to rely solely on whistleblowers and police to get rid of the cancer in sports, doping.

And once again, the allegations of doping from a whistleblower were brushed aside by the leaders of the federation under scrutiny. Neither the Norwegian coach in charge of the Austrian team, Trond Nystad, nor sports director Markus Gandler in the Austrian federation could see any reason to take action in January when the Dürr case blew. Nystad has now announced that he is stepping down because he feels he has been deceived and Gandler has been fired.

Peter Schröcksnadel and Markus Gandler was involved in the big Austrian doping scandal in Turin Olympics in 2006, when police Italian police raided Austria’s hotel rooms in a response to a tip-off that Walter Mayer was seen in the area despite being banned for his involvement in a doping scandal in 2002 (for which he received 15 months in prison). Later cross-country coach Walter Mayer, ski president Peter Schröcksnadel and then biathlon director Markus Gandler were cleared. Now their names surface again in a new big doping scandal. Why?

Every time somebody gets caught, it is said to be a solitary case. This is rarely true. You have to be a group of people to dope, at least when blood doping.

The police raids in Austria and Germany this time were carried out by the department of organised crime. This is a good indication of the severity of doping and shows that this is not only about sports. We are dealing with serious crime. It also proves that when the push comes to shove, old school police methods matter rather than fancy speeches by sports leaders. Sports leaders all around the world have fooled themselves and others for a long time now. It’s time to change their intelligence to police intelligence in the fight against doping.

More than a Russian problem

The Seefeld case also demonstrates that doping is not only a Russian phenomenon even though the past years, we have been exclusively focused on what happened in Sochi in 2014 and about the Russian state-sponsored doping.

Paradoxically, Dürr was one of the few athletes (one of five) that was caught doping during the Sochi Games, and what happened in Seefeld was in fact an indirect result of what went on in Sochi. But this time, the Russians are not the ones under scrutiny.

The nature of doping has changed the past decades. We have gone from well-organised doping in the hiding, state-sponsored doping or doping orchestrated by private teams to doping through false TUEs and individuals seeking help from criminal networks. However, the biggest challenge in the present fight against doping is that it is almost impossible to detect blood doping and other forms of doping without catching the sinners in the act. You can often fool the doping controllers.

The change of methods and the unlikelihood of being caught may have created a class boundary in world sports, and maybe increased the chance of seeing the likes of Max Hauke in the future, athletes who never manage to climb the result lists without experimenting with doping. We will still see doping as an intelligence test for these athletes.

However, if it is almost impossible to detect some forms of blood doping, athletes on the top of the podium could also very well be doped, but they will never be caught because they are part of a protected system with lots of resources, that the second-best athletes are not entitled to.

And this is where another problem comes up. In the German documentary on Johannes Dürr, he says that in the end, he realised that he had to dope in order to climb the result lists. Many have refused to accept this claim, saying that this is only a way to place responsibility for his actions on others in the sports environment. But, at the same time, statements such as these should be (also this time) an eye-opener or explanation to how elite sports works these days and also on how power relations in sport are. It is most often the mid-range athletes or the smaller nations that are caught. Why is it so?

There are large differences in the budgets of for instance the Estonian, Kazakh and Norwegian national skiing federations, and like nuclear weapons, which nowadays are considered as the ‘poor man’s solution’ to world power, doping is seen as the only way for some nations to gain power in the world of sports.

In other words, the class barrier in Nordic disciplines and other sports could be contributory to creating a doping problem in itself. In that case, we have to study the underlying structures of the world of sports and not simply the attitudes of athletes. The athlete’s behavior is reflecting the dispositions of his or her leaders.

Every athlete is fully aware that doping is bad and most of those who are caught doping started with a bad taste in their mouth. I wonder if we would have seen a police raid taking place at the Norwegian hotel instead of the hotels where the Estonians stayed if Norway had been the smaller nation, and Estonia the big wealthy winter nation?

Doping is not a question of us or them. We are all part of the same mess which makes these cases so difficult and explosive.

And I am convinced that athletes, sports leaders and media are well aware of suspicious activities in their environment and that many of us only pretend to be outraged and shocked when raids like the one we saw in Seefeld are unfolding.

And this is the actual problem. We should all do an intelligence test when it comes to doping.