Monday 16 September 2019

Roche named in drug investigation

Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

THE name of the 1987 world champion and Tour de France winner Stephen Roche has appeared on a list of high performance athletes, removed from a clinic in northern Italy, that is currently being investigated by Italian police.

THE name of the 1987 world champion and Tour de France winner Stephen Roche has appeared on a list of high performance athletes, removed from a clinic in northern Italy, that is currently being investigated by Italian police.

The list, seized by order of judge Pierguido Soprani from the University of Ferrara and published on Monday in the Rome-based daily La Repubblica, includes two other former world champions Gianni Bugno and Maurizio Fondriest, five Italian Olympic cross country skiing champions, two athletes, a canoeist and five of Roche's Carrera team-mates.

The paper claims the athletes were part of an extensive blood-doping programme and used the banned, oxygen-boosting hormone erythropoetin (EPO) in 1992 and 1993, under the guidance of the Professor Francesco Conconi at Ferrara. Conconi was the Carrera team doctor in 1986. His assistant, Giovanni Gratzi was the Carrera doctor when Roche rejoined the team in 1992.

Contacted by the Sunday Independent on Friday at his new home in Antibes, the 40-year-old Dubliner expressed concern his name had appeared on the list but denied ever using EPO or other banned performance-enhancing substances. ``I phoned Gratzi yesterday to ask him what the story was. He said, `No, no Stephen there is nothing to worry about. The lists have come up, your name is in there but rest assured we have never done anything so don't worry about it.' I said, `Is there anything in there about blood levels or haematocrit (the amount of red blood cells)' and he said, `No Stephen, it's (your name) in there as part of a group of people being treated but don't worry about it.'

``But I do admit I am a bit disturbed by my name being put into that list. The only connection I can make is the Carrera connection with (Guido) Bontempi and (Claudio) Chiappucci - that's the only connection and I was doing the blood tests the same as everybody else. But I know in my heart and soul that nobody can pull out a blood test tomorrow and say, `There you are, he has fifty something haematocrit - that I know will never happen, so I am not that worried. But it does worry me image-wise to be mixed up in this because I always felt that nothing could ever come out about me because I was always clean.''

The story has made headlines in Italy all week. ``Italy's finest on the list of Conconi,'' lamented the La Gazetta dello Sport. ``Who were we supporting in the 90s?'' La Corriere dello Sport asked. ``Fifteen years of medals covered in muck,'' headlined Le Corriere della Sera.

Bugno (``I was only ever tested by Conconi''), Fondriest (``We are being branded with guilt by association'') and Chiappucci (``I never worked with Conconi'') have denied the allegations. But Gianluigi Barsottelli, another of the cyclists named, admitted that he had used the drug to La Repubblica and said he had been monitored by an assistant of Conconi's from 1986.

Francesco Conconi, ``Il Professore,'' has been the leading authority on sports medicine in Italy since the late 'seventies. His clinic at the University of Ferrara, was financed by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) from 1980 until October of 1998 when, after a two-year investigation of his work, Conconi was charged with ``the administration of products dangerous to health.''

The latest revelations date to an international conference on doping in sport held at Lillehammer in 1993, where Conconi announced that as part of his ongoing research for CONI to find a method of detecting EPO, the drug had been administered to 23 amateur sportsmen aged from 23 to 57 over a period of two years. The experiment was given a file, ``EPO'', and stored at the university but when it was opened recently by the Italian police, the ``amateurs'' were slightly more talented than first announced.

World champions, Olympic champions 22 of the 23 names in the file were top-drawer sportsmen. The 23rd, the 57-year-old, had taken the drug before a veterans' cycling race where he had performed brilliantly to finish second behind the former world champion Francesco Moser. The 57-year-old's name? Francesco Conconi.

Roche denies he was part of the experiment. ``The one and only time I met Conconi himself,'' he says, ``was in 1986 when I first joined Carrera. They wanted to make sure everything was okay before taking me on and I was brought to Ferrara and put through the Conconi test, the VO2Max test.

``After that, Conconi gave me a training programme based on his work with Moser and I went away and looked at it but it didn't really correspond with my own training so I basically adapted things he showed me like interval training with the heart monitor into what I had done myself and that was the only time I ever met Conconi as regards the tests or anything else that was done.''

Who did you work with at Carrera in 1992?

``The team doctor was Giovanni Gratzi but I always had my own doctor in Germany, Dr Muller-Wolfhart, who had a team close to him that advised me on different things such as amino acids, minerals and that kind of stuff. I did blood tests for the team because they were more or less compulsory. When I was riding the Giro (Tour of Italy) or whatever, my tests were always done at the same time as the team. There was a sample sent to Ferrara where Giovanni (Gratzi) was working and a sample sent to Germany to my German doctor.''

And Gratzi worked at Ferrara?

``He did, yes.''

He worked with Conconi?

``He was supposed to have been one of his right-hand men. His idea was to work alongside Conconi in Ferrara to learn everything he could to put to his own benefit later on.''

So you worked with him in '92?

``He was the team doctor but I was still in Germany. If you remember I met Muller-Wolfhart in 1988 and was with him from that day on.''

But Gratzi was the team doctor in '92 and '93?

``Yeah.''

I am just trying to figure the link between what has come out this week and the team? Six Carrera riders are mentioned in this report?

``Yeah, well I've actually made a few phonecalls myself to find out how my name was linked because if you look at the names, they are all Italians except for myself and (Rolf) Sorensen (from Denmark). And Sorensen puts himself down as an Italian because he breathes the life there - so I'm really the only foreigner in there. The only link I can put on it is the Carrera link because I was with Carrera in '92 and '93 but I know that nothing else can come of it because I told you on our last meeting that I know where I stand.

``When I heard my name was mentioned, I got the paper and looked at it and saw that my name was in there and said, `Shit, what do I do? Do I ring them up and tell them to take my name out of there unless they've got proof or what do you do?' So I said I would just find out what the story is because I have been distanced a little bit from all of that because of business in the last few months. But I was very surprised to see my name in there because Conconi ... I met him once, only in passing.''

And with your work with Gratzi? This reference to the use of EPO? Was there ever a question of using EPO or ever a question of anything blood-related with Gratzi?

``No ... apart from the blood tests. Giovanni always appreciated the work I was doing with the German doctors, he thought it was very good and very original. And I was at the end of my career, remember, so for me there was no real big deal.

``I was under no pressure to get results or anything else so ... the goings-on in the team, I wasn't really concerned about because I was coming back into the team as an older rider and it's difficult to tell old dogs new tricks. But there was never a problem there with myself and Giovanni. Giovanni is a guy I always appreciated for his knowledge and the way he looks at things so I don't know.

``You can guess maybe that things might have been going on or whatever but I know that Giovanni was for me one of the cleanest doctors, even though I'm not saying ... I'm not cleaning his slate for him or anything else but for me Giovanni is a very good sports doctor.''

The link with EPO? You are named as one of the 22? Have you used EPO? Where you aware that any of your team-mates were using EPO?

``That's a classic question. I am not going to get into what people were doing or not doing. All I can say is that I have had a very, very clean career. I sleep easily at night. I know everything I took, I know that nothing will ever come out about me any time, anywhere. The thing going on about EPO and all the other stuff at the moment ... I think basically they should tear up the past and set down the new rules and regulations that actually stand up and give credibility back to sport.

``Everyone feels now that any exploit from an athlete, no matter what discipline he is in, is always drug-related. You have got to give credibility back to the sport and the only way of doing it is hammer the nail home and put down your own so that everything from now on is clean. You can go on forever about the past. There will always be questions over what any athlete has done in the past.''



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