Hajo Seppelt Interview: Lingering questions about the Contador positive
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Monday, March 28, 2011

Hajo Seppelt Interview: Lingering questions about the Contador positive

by Shane Stokes at 3:27 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Doping
Clenbuterol traces, unusual delays and suggestions of plasticizers

Hajo SeppeltOn Thursday, the UCI announced its decision in relation to the Alberto Contador situation, opting to take the case further to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The Spaniard tested positive during last year’s Tour de France, was expected to be given a sanction of between one to two years, but was cleared in February by the Spanish federation RFEC.

The UCI has decided that it is not happy with the process, stating that there is a perception that outside political pressures may potentially have impacted upon the RFEC’s competition committee. This is a view shared by the German journalist Hajo Seppelt, who specializes in doping matters in sport and who was German sports journalist of the year in 2007.

Seppelt first commented on the case in October when German television station ARD dealt with the issue on the Mittags Magazin programme. He said that they contacted UCI president Pat McQuaid hours before the announcement and received a denial that Contador was being investigated. The positive test was subsequently announced, with the news being transmitted by Contador’s spokesman in a late-night press release.

Its timing plus the fact that it came hours before the Elite world time trial championship led some to conclude afterwards that the news was rushed out to pre-empt any release of that information by ARD.

At the time of the programme, Seppelt also said that he had received information that Contador’s sample had shown a surge in the level of plasticizers.

“Other values have appeared that are ten times over the higher value from so-called plasticizers [such as di-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) – ed.], which are used in blood bags,” he said then. “These values were measured one day before the positive dope control. These blood bag softener values could indicate that autologous blood doping may have been performed.”

There are other sources for plasticizers in day-to-day life, although an increase in levels is felt by some experts as being worthy of scrutiny. Since then, there was little more said about the issue. Scientists are still working to validate a test for plasticizers; McQuaid has also said that for now, Contador only has to answer the question of Clenbuterol. He has said that the issue of plasticizers does not form part of the UCI’s appeal to CAS.

For his part, Contador has denied receiving any transfusions and has said that he is willing to allow his samples to be frozen and tested in the future. The next few months will reveal more details about the case, and show if suggestions of blood doping are unfounded.

Seppelt’s account of the whole saga is an interesting one, as it reveals the timeline for the positive, shows how long it took for it to be confirmed, and talks about the UCI’s handling of the matter. He recently spoke to VeloNation about the issue, revealing new details. His statements include one that ARD was notified about the case at the beginning of September, weeks before the announcement, by unnamed people who were concerned by the fact that no announcement had been made. He says that the UCI initially denied all knowledge of the case, hours before it was officially confirmed.

He also comments on the handling of the case by the Spanish federation and the media, and explains why he feels it is inaccurate for the case involving German table tennis player Dimitrij Ovtcharov to be compared to the Contador situation. The Spanish rider’s legal team has used this as one of the elements of its defence, but Seppelt believes that the two cases are very, very different.

Part one of this two part interview now follows; part two will appear on this website soon.


VeloNation: Firstly, the UCI has announced that it would appeal the Alberto Contador case to CAS. What is your reaction to that?

Hajo Seppelt: My belief is that they had no choice – they had to do it. If not, their credibility would have been affected.

Alberto ContadorVN: Were you surprised by the decision of the Spanish federation to clear him without any sanction?

In general, I would say that it doesn’t surprise me in the world of sports. International or national federations - not only those in cycling, but especially in cycling - try often to protect athletes in such a way as has been done here. That’s especially the case for Spain, and it is perhaps not surprising for people who are involved in the world of sports. This is not the first time that federations try to protect athletes.

I believe Contador was already protected some years ago in the case of AC, his initials, and the Fuentes case. [Operacion Puerto]. (Editor's note: Contador has denied ever meeting Fuentes)

VN: There was the situation where the country’s prime minister commented just before the decision, as well as two political parties, saying he should be cleared. There was also one of the highest judges in the country who said that. Even prior to the whole RFEC assessment, its own president said that he hoped Contador was cleared. Do you think is unusual that these statements are made when a body that is supposedly making an independent assessment has to make that decision?

HS: Well, normally a prime minister wouldn’t say that in this situation. At the time, when I heard about it, I felt that this decision was already done, that Zapatero already knew that they would clear him. My feeling was that a politician would never say that if he didn’t know that a decision was already made.

For me, it was surprising in that I don’t see any proof for the story of the contaminated meat. I didn’t hear that they presented a bill for the buying of the contaminated meat. You know that the Spanish farmers have been very annoyed and angry about that…I read a lot of articles that people claim that Contador’s position was not credible, because there hasn’t been any contaminated meat in Spain for years.

The judge concerned gave a lot of quotes before the announcement, essentially saying that the WADA code and the country’s national laws clashed, and under the country’s constitution, that there was no choice but to clear Contador…

HS: It is interesting that they refer to the Spanish constitution. They don’t have to refer to that in this situation, they have to refer to the international sports rules. That is my understanding. It is not a question of state law, it is a question of sports law.

As you know, you have to find proof to make clear that the substance which was found in your body came into it in a way you couldn’t influence, a way you are not responsible for. But as far as I know, he didn’t present at this time any proof of that.

They believe him, and then they argue that the amount of the substance was not enough to enhance the performance. From my point of view, that is a also a completely strange story.. We have learned from Spanish experts in this case that if you eat steak [that has been tainted] this would mean that the amount of Clenbuterol you have in your body would be much, much higher.

It wouldn’t be 50 picograms, it would be far more than that. So as I was saying in the Germany interview, this amount indicates for me that there was another story as to how the Clenbuterol came into his body, which brings the connection to the plasticizer story.

As you know, I already mentioned that in the German interview some months ago that it made much more sense for me to believe that he used Clenbuterol in spring, some weeks or some months before, and then the blood was taken out. Some months later, when he reinfused the blood in his body, the Clenbuterol was still there. So this would be the reason why they found it in his body. This is a theory but this is what I believe.

This theory makes more sense for me. What I absolutely don’t understand is that at the time of Contador’s suspension it doesn’t have been a question of a decision to consider the level of plasticizers in his body.

Digging for details:

VN: You were one of the very first to know that there was a positive case for Contador. Can you explain how you learned about this story?

I can’t tell you that, but I can say that we have sources in the international world of cycling… Let’s say it like this…there are sources in the international world of cycling, particularly in Spain, who don’t like to play the game. They hate the way people try to hide the stories in cycling, they don’t take that any more.

VN: There did seem to be a large delay in releasing the news, with over a month passing between the positive test result and its announcement…

HS: We ourselves heard about it at the beginning of September…

Alberto ContadorVN: When it came, the timing of the announcement was very unusual. It was released late at night in Europe and, more importantly, just a few hours before the Elite time trial championship. It meant that it completely overshadowed the race.

At a guess, it seems reasonable to conclude that it was announced when it was as there was a chance that the news was going to be released by ARD. Do you think that is the case?

HS: Well, by the time of the world championships last year, we had already heard about it three or four weeks earlier. So we were completely sure that this was a case referring to Contador at this time. But as a journalist, you will know that if the story is maybe 99.9 percent clear, but not 100, you need to check. In the end we decided to confront the UCI people with our research, just to get a confirmation.

This was one day before the announcement came, or maybe it was only ten hours. It was a Wednesday, perhaps two o’clock in the afternoon when we were in Aigle.

When we went to the UCI we wanted to discuss a lot general topics about doping testing procedures. They have good people in that department, but also we wanted to drop the story there so that they knew that we knew it. We realised that no-one in the UCI administration in Aigle would have been allowed to talk about that. That is completely understandable, but that day we wanted them to deliver the information to their president as soon as possible that we knew about this case.

We went to this place and they said that they could not comment on anything, they cannot confirm it. They didn’t deny it, but they didn’t confirm it. They told us that we have to go and talk to [Enrico] Carpani

So we called him, but we didn’t actually tell him the name of the rider. We just said we know [about a big positive]. We asked him for the mobile number of Pat McQuaid, or asked him to tell McQuaid to call us back immediately because we wanted to talk to him directly. He said that if we don’t tell him the name, he won’t put us through to McQuaid. We said: ‘sorry about that, but we think this is really important.’

Half an hour later, I got an email from McQuaid. This email said ‘I don’t know what you are talking about, tell me the name of the rider.’ It was unbelievable.

Once again, I tried to get in touch with McQuaid. Finally he was on the phone, and I said, ‘let’s talk about this story off the record.’ I asked him, ‘okay, Mr McQuaid, what is your feeling about this story? We know that Contador is positive….’

His first sentence was ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ I told him, ‘it is surprising for me that you answer like this. I’m changing my mind, I would now like your replies to be official, on record, to ask you if I can quote this answer. He said ‘yes….eh, no.’ I don’t want to comment on this case, or on any other case.’

So at this moment, I realised that there was a official case. But as a non native speaker and because of possible mistakes in understanding - English, particularly with a slight Irish accent, is not my mother's tongue - and because of the very sensitive situation, I decided to say ‘okay, maybe I misunderstood something.’ Because of that, we decided not to run the story at this day. We went back to Germany, and then at three o’clock in the morning my news colleagues in the office woke me up to say that there was a news wire saying that Contador was positive.

The news colleagues didn’t know anything about our research. They thought that this was more or less a surprise to us. I told them that this wasn’t a surprise, that we had the story and that this was a reaction.

This was why we went on air the next day, doing interviews and telling people the story behind the situation.

VN: To clarify, when you spoke to Enrico Carpani and the people in the UCI, at that point in time did you mention Contador’s name, or did you simply say that you knew there was a very big rider with a problem?

HS: I mentioned the name in the UCI administration, but didn’t mention the name to Carpani, as he is connected to McQuaid.

We dropped the name at the UCI headquarters as we wanted them to get in touch with McQuaid to tell him. But when we moved forward to speak to Carpani by phone, I decided not to tell him the name as he is so close to McQuaid, that I didn’t want to talk to him about that. So I decided that it made more sense to confront his boss himself.

People told me later that Carpani was walking around in Australia the next day and was proud that he could destroy a story on German TV. I was not there so I don't know if this is true. But a colleague told me about a press conference in Australia where McQuaid said that we must have been idiots to think that he would tell us all the facts of the story. But that was not our aim. Our aim was just that he would confirm the story, not to tell us the details.

VN: Do you think that things would have happened differently if you had not gone to the UCI?

HS: I think this would have been announced much later, and with a better preparation. Maybe the decision which has been made [by the RFEC] would have been made in December, with all the reasons they mentioned now included and without any pressure from media.

Two days later I interviewed Contador in Madrid and he confirmed on camera that the recommendation to use the Dutch guy [the scientist Dr Douwe de Boer, who vouched for food contamination as a source] came from the UCI.

I was at the sports conference this month in London. Mr McQuaid was there and there was a small press conference after his speech. We had our camera with us and the camera was running. We asked him why did he lie last September to us. He answered that he didn’t lie. My colleague told him that we have an email from him saying that he didn’t know anything about a positive test, that we can send it to him. In front of a rolling camera, he said no, he didn’t send an email. It was unbelievable.

Click here for part II, in which Seppelt speaks about plasticizers, WADA, Spanish media, the Lance Armstrong investigation, the biological passport and why he believes the Ovcharov case is not comparable to that of Contador.


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