Austria on a clean-up mission after doping scandals

3rd April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Unthinkable just a year ago, the recent wave of arrests was made possible by a change in legislation in August, which made the possession and trafficking of doping substances punishable by five years in prison.

Vienna -- Austria, long seen as a doping paradise in Europe due to its lax legislation, is cleaning up its act with a series of major arrests, including that on Monday of presumed big fish Stefan Matschiner.

Matschiner, 34, the former manager of Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl, who was suspended last year for doping, was arrested overnight in Upper Austria by the new anti-doping task force, just hours after returning from the United States.

The Vienna prosecutor's office said he was detained "on danger of suppressing evidence and danger of illegal acts," adding: "There is a strong suspicion of traffic of doping substances."

This was not the first time that Matschiner's name was associated with doping allegations.

He was present at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin when the Austrian biathlon and cross-country squads were found in possession of banned substances and equipment and he was the manager of Danish cyclist Michael Rasmussen when he was excluded from the 2007 Tour de France for missing doping tests.

But Matschiner had never until now been considered a suspect.

This changed after Austrian triathlete Lisa Huetthaler, 25, named him as one of her main suppliers of banned blood booster EPO, in an interview with the daily Kurier last week.

Huetthaler, a former European champion at under-23 level who was suspended in October for two years after testing positive for EPO, said she was prepared to act as the chief witness to uncover the full scale of the Austrian doping network.

Kohl, who until now had always refused to name his EPO suppliers, could soon follow suit: he has announced a press conference for Tuesday evening.

Matschiner's arrest comes just 10 days after that of Walter Mayer, the man at the centre of the Turin Olympics doping scandal.

A close acquaintance of Mayer, Matschiner has always denied any link with doping circles.

But in an interview with national broadcaster ORF on March 27, the same day that Huetthaler's allegations appeared in the press, Matschiner admitted that he was close to Andreas Zoubek, a doctor at a Vienna children's hospital suspected of providing EPO to Huetthaler and other athletes.

About two dozen people were currently being investigated by the Vienna prosecutor's office, spokeswoman Michaela Schnell said Tuesday.

"It's obvious, this was a network," she said.

Unthinkable just a year ago, the recent wave of arrests was made possible by a change in legislation in August, which made the possession and trafficking of doping substances punishable by five years in prison.

Until then, it had only been deemed a minor offence.

The new amendment allowed the arrest two weeks ago of Austrian cyclist Christof Kerschbaum, the first ever athlete in Austria to be detained on doping allegations.

He has since been released but a Vienna pharmacist, believed to have supplied Mayer and Kerschbaum with banned substances, remains in custody.

"We have unfortunately gained a reputation in the last few years, as one of four, five, maybe six countries in Europe, where doping has become acceptable and where networks exist. I want to correct this," Sports Minister Norbert Darabos noted in a recent interview with Austrian television.

Austrian athletes should also face prison terms for using doping substances, and not only for possession or trafficking, he noted.

Thanks to the 2008 anti-doping amendment, the traffic of banned substances was now treated much like drug trafficking, "and I think this is a good thing," said Darabos.

The law is not retroactive however, meaning that Matschiner, Mayer and Zoubek can only be investigated for doping offences committed since August.

For this reason too, the case of Humansplasma, a Vienna laboratory suspected of helping perform irregular blood transfusions on dozens of European athletes, was closed on March 24. Blood doping was not illegal until the amendment was passed.

Philippe Schwab/AFP/Expatica

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