Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Team Telekom: Naivety is the best form of defence?

As we recover from the ‘shock’ revelations of Bjarne Riis concerning the use of a range of banned performance enhancing substances in Team Telekom during the late 1990s, and the less heralded confessions of Erik Zabel, Udo Boelts and Rolf Aldag, the story has taken an interesting new twist. Not only may Jan Ullrich be stripped of his Olympic medals and Riis forced to return his 1996 Tour De France yellow jersey, but Walter Godefroot, team boss during the period in question, may be about to take legal action against the man whose book started the whole furore.

Godefroot emphatically denies organising or financing any doping in his team - rather different to denying it took place, and not inconsistent with Riis’ claim that he paid for his own EPO. Jeff D’Hont, the former team masseur whose recent book has prompted the string of sheepish confessions seen in the last few weeks, now looks set to be sued by Godefroot for his troubles.

Riis alleged in his own confession that former boss Godefroot knew what was going on but chose to turn a blind eye to the foul play. With the sensational results scored during these years by riders including Riis, Ullrich, and Zabel, it is easy to see why Godefroot may have chosen not to act. The team rose from a small provincial German outfit to Tour De France winners in relatively no time, and with constant pressures from sponsors to get results he’d have been hard pressed to take a stand.

Placed alongside the recent confessions of former Telekom doctors Andreas Schmid and Lothar Heinrich, the doping would on the face of things seem to be institutionalised in appearance. Whether an overall team manager can claim that he was simply naïve and hope to escape sanctions will be an interesting feature as the case almost inevitably makes its way through the legal process, further soiling the reputation of the sport.

Godefroot left T Mobile at the end of the 2005 season, and the new regime is avowedly anti-doping. He now works as an adviser at Astana, the team born out of the wreckage of Manolo Saiz’s scandal hit Liberty Seguros outfit and which employs much of the infrastructure from the possibly even murkier Phonak squad. If there were such a thing as guilt by association then there’d probably be few left standing in the sport, but Godefroot’s line of defence that he was too busy dealing with day-to-day events to know about the shady practices rampant in the late ‘90s looks pretty limited.

‘All things said, I wasn’t close to them’, he said of the riders who have admitted their offences. You would perhaps expect that a Directeur Sportif responsible for selecting riders based on fitness and form for some of the biggest races in the calendar would have his finger on the pulse, but he retains the right to remain innocent until proven guilty. Whether or not he can show that he was more of an administrative than a sporting manager will pretty much determine his future in the sport. If the UCI are consistent in their policies as applied to riders then Godefroot would be suspended merely for being 'under suspicion'- as things stand, he looks set to be in France in July with Astana.

This new cloud hanging over the sport does at least seem to have a silver lining. Both Riis’ CSC squad and the ‘under new management’ T-Mobile are leading the way with their innovative approaches to testing and ‘zero tolerance’ doping policies. It is to be hoped that Godefroot will prove to be one of the last of a dying breed, should the mud that D’Hont has slung his way actually stick. Naïve? Time will surely tell.

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