One woman leads a crusade to cleanup cycling in Germany
Sylvia Schenk, a lawyer and former Olympic runner, is trying to rid sports of drugs by getting sponsors to force athletes to submit to testing.
Isabelle de Pommereau
FRANKFURT - For years, Germany culivated national pride through bicycle racing. The triumph of German teams across Europe triggered a nationwide craze. Sponsors lavished riders with money, and some, like Jan Ullrich – who in 1997 became the first German to win the Tour de France – emerged as national icons. But a problem loomed. Many cyclists were taking performance-enhancing drugs. "Everybody knew about it," recalls Nikolaus Brender, editor in chief of ZDF, a publicly funded German television station. "But nobody said anything."
Enter Sylvia Schenk. A former Olympic runner turned lawyer, she was serving as councilor for women's affairs for the city of Frankfurt. In 2001, she became the first woman elected president of the powerful German Cycling Federation. Since then, she has helped spearhead a shake-up in cycling's – and the German public's – attitudes about the use of illegal drugs in sports.
She became one of the first high-ranking cycling officials to break the code of silence on the issue. Though Ms. Schenk resigned in 2004 to protest what she saw as the federation's attempt to cover up a potential drug scandal, she has crusaded relentlessly ever since.
Today, the drug issue draws almost daily headlines, sponsors are pulling money from long-established races, and parliament has adopted aggressive antidoping laws.
"There's a strong awakening to the problem of doping in many aspects of society – politics, athletes, sponsors, and the media," says Peter Danckert, head of the German parliament's sports committee.
Schenk sits in the vanguard of a growing group of activists worldwide who are bringing new attention to a decades-old problem, working to rid pelotons and dugouts of an alphabet-soup of banned substances.
While steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs remain widely used, enough public and private agencies are cracking down that some experts think the '00s will go down as the decade in which authorities finally began to subdue sports doping.
The next big test will come this summer with the Tour de France, now under way, and the Beijing Olympics. China plans the most aggressive antidoping controls in the history of the Games, but has a reputation as a top supplier of anabolic steroids.
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Schenk is a slight woman with the energy befitting a former world-class athlete. She bounds up and down the steps of her office building. Her choice of transportation around Frankfurt is, fittingly, a bicycle.
Schenk made the German Olympic team at age 20, competing in the terrorism-plagued 1972 Games in Munich. Later, when she turned to law, the first firm she applied to turned her down, telling her that, sooner or later, her maternal responsibilities would interfere. Determined to fight sexism, she became a labor-court judge and later a local councilor in charge of women's, legal, and sports issues.
Still, neither that nor the warnings of her husband, a European record-holder in the 800 meter and now a regional sports official, prepared her for what she would encounter. "I have a basic trust in people. If I had thought, 'They're all crooks there,' I would never had gone to [the] cycling [federation]," says Schenk.
When she first arrived at the governing body in 2001, things looked promising: A test had just come out for detecting erythropoietin (EPO), a blood-boosting hormone used illicitly by endurance athletes to increase their oxygen capacity. Schenk promised to bring "transparency" to the sport.
It would be no easy task, since some see cycling as particularly prone to drug use. For one thing, prodigious sponsorship money can tempt riders to take something that gives them an edge. For another, young riders are often exposed to artificial enhancements gradually. Sponsors will lavish them with vitamins. Zealous trainers put drops of painkillers in water bottles.
"Soon, they start thinking, 'If I want to achieve something, I have to take something,' " says Gerhard Treutlein, an antidoping expert at Germany's University of Heidelberg. "A doping mentality develops that isn't limited to legal products anymore."
Older riders often remain in the sport to become trainers and masseurs, adding to the cycling world's insularity. "The first lesson athletes get is, 'Don't get caught,' " says Mr. Treutlein. " 'If you get caught, shut your mouth and accept your punishment. Then we take you back in the family.' "
Schenk eventually ran into the wall of silence – hard. Three years into her tenure, she says she learned that the federation, without her knowledge, had let rider Christian Lademann race at the 2004 Athens Olympics after an unusual blood-test result that the German national team's doctor said could have been caused by EPO. She believed the rider should have been kept home pending a probe. "When I tried to fire the person responsible, the entire organization said, 'It isn't that bad; we don't want to make a big fuss about it," says Schenk. "That was against my principles of 100 percent transparency, so I resigned."
Others say she had no choice: She had lost the support of the board and had to leave.
A year after her departure, while still a board member of the International Cycling Union (UCI), she lashed out at the group for lax oversight. She was effectively shut out of meetings until her term expired. Critics fault her for being calculating and uncompromising. "Sylvia Schenk had personal ambitions to become the president of the UCI," says Pat McQuaid, who did become UCI president. "When she saw she didn't get the support of the UCI, she attacked it."
In 2007, the dike of denial sprung a leak. Several prominent riders, along with trainers, masseurs, and doctors, confessed to having used or administered EPO in the 1990s. Significantly, Germany's two biggest TV stations pulled their coverage of the Tour de France mid-race in protest of the doping issue.
For Germany, it was a fall from grace. For Schenk, it was something of a vindication. "The fact that now a few cyclists were so under pressure that they saw that the only chance to save their skin was to confess ... made it clear you can't push the issue under the table," she says.
The issue became a cause célèbre. The German government doubled its antidoping budget. "The publicity surrounding the cases had a better effect than all the arguments we had for years," says Hans Geyer, founder of the German Sport University's antidoping laboratory in Cologne. "Politicians woke up. The public woke up."
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Schenk glides up on her black Intra bicycle, looking elegant but sporty in a pants suit that could have been designed by Yves Saint Laurent. She flips down the kickstand. Her clients are waiting – five men in crisp three-piece suits.
The business motif is appropriate: If there's one word to sum up Schenk's current antidoping focus, it is money. Stop the money from flowing to those who take drugs and you stop the problem. She cites estimates that some athletes have spent up to €100,000 ($157,000) on doping during their careers.
"Obviously, you have to take the money out to make people think, and take away the financial means to dope," she says.
Sponsors seem to agree. Volkswagen withdrew its support of a major cycling event, the Lower Saxony Round Tour, after allegations surfaced of doping at the Tour de France. More recently, the government of the state of Rhine Palatinate called off a big regional race. "We feel compelled to send a clear message," the sport's premier said.
Schenk doesn't want to drain money from the sport; she just wants strings attached to the euros. In her roles as chairman of the watchdog group Transparency International and as a private lawyer, she advises firms on how to design underwriting deals with antidoping clauses. One example: Sponsors set aside funds for unannounced drug tests and hold other money in reserve to ensure the athletes remain clean.
More broadly, Schenk is heartened by what she sees as a moral awakening across Germany, spawned in part by recent corruption scandals in business. "The public's view has changed," she says. "The aspiration for morality, for real cleanness, is greater. And that has an impact on sport."
• The next installment in this series runs July 21.