Cycling: Colombia, champion of doping?
Since 2016, Colombia and its cyclists have won three major Grand Tours (Italy, France, Spain). Its passengers are international leaders and true national heroes. However, doping cases are on the rise, especially in the context of local competitions. The list of positive Colombian cases is one of the longest in the world and the methods used to fight this scourge of the sport are limited. Investigation.
In America, Colombia represents the undisputed bastion of cycling passion. And for good reason, the country is a true factory of champions, capable of competing with the best riders in the international peloton.
If Colombia has a long tradition in this area dating back more than 70 years, Colombian cycling is now experiencing a golden age. In 2019, young Egan Bernal became the first Latin American to win the Tour de France, the most important race in the discipline. The “escarabajos” (beetles, the nickname of the Colombian riders) have managed to conquer each of the three Grand Tours in the last six years (Tour de France, Giro de Italia and Vuelta de España). In the 21st century, only three other countries have succeeded: Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom.
However, when it comes to local racing, Colombia is facing a big challenge right now. On the day of publication of this report, the Colombian Cycling Federation (FCC) counted. 32 penalties are taken for doping. Between January and September 2022, seven riders were suspended for anti-doping rule violations.
“We cannot continue like this,” said Luis Fernando Saldarriaga, a renowned trainer, who notably took under his wing Nairo Quintana (winner of a Giro and a Vuelta) and Sergio Higuita (winner of a Tour of Catalonia). “Cycling with potential must also be irreproachable from an ethical point of view”, insisted the coach, who met at the Bogotá velodrome.
Luis Fernando Saldarriaga knows what he is talking about. He is the sporting director of Manzana Postobon, one of the historic teams of the country that won the invitation to participate in the Tour of Spain in 2017. However, two positive tests ended it after the withdrawal of sponsors.
Of the 32 riders authorized by the Colombian Cycling Federation, seven of them are also on the list of suspensions by the International Cycling Union (UCI).
Nairo Quintana’s case recently hit the headlines. The 32-year-old Colombian, idol in his country, was recently disqualified from the Tour de France 2022, losing to his sixth place, for a medical infraction. The cyclist used Tramadol, a painkiller that has been banned from competition since 2019, but is not considered a doping product. The climber appealed the punishment to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
An insidious incentive to fall into doping
France 24 obtained the testimony of a Colombian runner who is currently suspended for doping. He agreed to tell his story on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. This professional cyclist claims that his sports director encouraged him to dope.
He said that before a race in Colombia, his main trainer summoned all the team members. The goal: encourage them to take EPO (Erythropoietin).
The team’s technical director gave them this speech: “Okay boys, here’s the topo. These products are recommended to me by doctors and cyclists who have already used them.”
First surprised, the witness agrees to receive the injection after some hesitation: “What made me take this decision? I need money to feed my family.” This is the beginning of the nightmare.
According to this cyclist’s testimony, his sports director offered him and the rest of his team to dope themselves with EPO for a race.
A few days later, our witness tested positive and was suspended for several years. Desperate, he asked his sports director for support. Her response left her speechless: “I was expecting her to be there for me and say ‘Okay, I’ll help you’. What did she do? She washed her hands!”
He discovered an unknown side of his coach: “If you want to play hard, we will play hard. You have a family after all”, the coach indicated in a thin threat. According to our witness, this coach is one of the most famous in Colombian and Latin American cycling.
Our cyclist has no choice but to accept the punishment and be sidelined. This was the beginning of a dark period: in the depression, he planned to retire. Finally, the hope of one day being able to continue competing and become famous will be reborn.
“It was a moment of great agony. I cried a lot. I had a kind of depression, I cried all the time. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat because I thought this was the best moment of my sports career. I am shining. I made a lot of sacrifices to get here but, because of one mistake, because I trusted the wrong people, it all fell apart.”
The challenge of fighting doping in Colombia
The National Anti-Doping Organization (NADO) is the armed arm of the Colombian Ministry of Sports in the matter of doping. Its strategy is currently focused on out-of-competition testing, as cheaters now have the ability to hide their use of doping substances on D-Day.
NADO coordinator Orlando Reyes explained: “They are able to inject treatments with prohibited substances before the competitions so that when they take place the substances are almost undetectable or present in concentrations that so small as to be difficult to detect.”
According to Orlando Reyes, 60% of doping controls are carried out in competitioncompared to 40% during tournaments.
But the desire to resist these practices runs up against a major obstacle. In 2017, the Bogotá laboratory lost its accreditation to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The center is the only one in the country to benefit from such recognition. This certification makes it possible to do ad hoc tests for the athlete’s biological passport, a document that allows athletes to be monitored throughout the year to detect any anomalies.
According to the AMA, the center of Bogotá no longer meets international standards. Therefore, Colombia must now send its tests to certified laboratories abroad, such as those in Salt Lake City in the United States or Montreal in Canada. With the increased risk of damage to the tests during transportation.
How does the trafficking of doping substances work?
Among the 32 people currently under sanction from the Colombian Cycling Federation for violating anti-doping regulations, one conviction states: “Administration or attempted administration” of a doping substance. The sanctioned man is Jhoann Robayo.
Jhoann Robayo is the only person authorized by the Colombian Cycling Federation to “administer or attempt to administer” doping substances.
France 24 spoke with the runner at his home in Bogotá. Today, he presents himself as a sportswear manufacturer and a former cyclist. However, he admits having sold doping substances in the past: “You ask me, I get it. I am a trader after all. That’s natural for me. I was sad but that’s how it is.”
His sanction began on March 26, 2019 and will end in 2023. A four-year ban that did not completely banish him from his sport. With his clothing brand, he sponsored the women’s cycling team where he won the 2020 Tour of Colombia thanks to the Ecuadorian Myriam Núñez.
According to Jhoann Robayo, selling doping substances is part of his past. However, he said it is still “easy” to get them in Colombia. And outside: in Argentina and Chile, “there is no doping control” and the “market is wild”, he said.
According to several independent sources interviewed by France 24, there is a system of corruption in Colombia that allows penalties for doping to be reduced in exchange for large sums of money. However, none of these sources agreed to testify openly during our investigation.
If you have information about doping in Colombia, Latin America or Europe and want to contact us, you can write to us at this email address in complete confidentiality: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This survey has been translated from Spanish. Find the original version here.