Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Jaksche's blood-letting...

Not exactly the bombshell many had expected, Jörg Jaksche’s interview with Der Spiegel on Monday was nevertheless pretty disturbing stuff. He admitted to doping of various kinds throughout his career, from the late 90’s right through to his victory in the 2004 Paris-Nice for Bjarne Riis’ CSC team and beyond. The most disturbing feature of his candid revelations is the absolute matter-of-fact way in which he speaks of doping as a common and widespread practice across the sport.

His admissions also give insight into how riders fall into the clutches of these dangerous and illegal practices in the first place. To understand how and why this happens is crucial for anybody wishing to understand the prevailing culture in the sport, particularly those who are quick to point the finger of blame at riders who are faced with a choice to either sink or swim.

Jaksche spoke of the Omertá, or vow of silence, covering everybody from doctors, managers, assistants and riders. The reluctance on the part of riders to confess any indiscretions other than their own is, he says, an outward sign of this code. So whilst riders from Rolf Aldag to Erik Zabel have recently admitted their own offences, none have dropped their colleagues into the proverbial. Jaksche drew back from naming individual riders, instead turning his focus to the importance of the backroom staff. Former team manager Gianluigi Stanga and team-mate Alexander Vinokourov have both been quick to denounce him as a self-deluding mad man after a big pay-off in return for juicy gossip, and perhaps this is a predictable response.

Looking back through his career, he describes how as an amateur he never used anything stronger than caffeine or aspirin, but looked in open-mouthed amazement at the Italian Youth squad he often trained with, seemingly possessing physical strength and resilience from another planet.

Jaksche’s route to the hard stuff began when he turned professional with Polti in 1997, first injecting vitamin B12, and then EPO later in the same year. He described how on the first night of injecting the drug he was scared that he wouldn’t wake up, such were the stories he’d heard about how it thickened the blood. All of this, he alleges, was carried out under the gaze of team management and with the full support of team doctors.

He then described how he considered quitting in 1998, but was persuaded to stay on by a promise from German outfit Team Telekom to double his salary if he finished in the top 20 at the Tour De France. He describes how the recently discredited team doctors Heinrich and Schmid administered his ‘medication’ for a sum of 3-4000 Euros a year, even praising them for being more concerned with his general health and possible side-effects than the doctors he’d worked with at Polti.

Following Telekom, Jaksche moved to ONCE and joined Manolo Saiz’s ‘family’, where the doping culture, he alleges, was so advanced that at times he didn’t even know what he was taking! His first exposure to blood doping via transfusion came in 2005 under the supervision of Mr Puerto himself, Eufemiano Fuentes. He described the process as a ‘constant oil change’ and extremely demanding on the body, to such an extent that it limited the number of days racing he could do in any season.

Now 30, Jaksche clearly hopes for leniency in return for his confession, though it is hard to imagine him riding again at the highest level. If he is correct about the commonplace nature of the practices he describes then few will be surprised, so resigned are we to the scarcely hidden truths about this sport. The way in which riders enter the system as willing victims, gambling with their own health, is to me the most disturbing aspect of his admission. If the Omertá is ever to be breached, cycling needs a lot more Jörg Jaksche’s to step forward, and a complete re-calibration of its ethical compass.

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