The Man Who Knows Too Much

Sport Monthly, March 2003

When Italian long-jumper, Giovanni Evangelisti, fouled on his first attempt in the final at the 1987 World Athletics Championships in Rome, the field judges grew more nervous that the athlete. The handsome distance they had already entered in the Olivetti computer for the hometown hero would now have to be removed. Italian athletics officials hadn't told Evangelisti of their plan to fix third place, but they had informed Italy's then national sprint coach, Sandro Donati. They should have known better.

Donati was at Stadio Olimpico and watched Evangelisti's following three jumps, all of them poor, yet all of them registering over eight metres. When Evangelisti scattered the sand on his final jump, 60,000 fans sighed disappointment - only to burst into wild applause second later as the scoreboard broadcast success: 8.38m. The bronze medal. Evangelisti was incredulous. Donati was livid.

He went to the police but investigations proved nothing as witnesses denied everything. Only after discovering video evidence did Donati manage to prove that judges had measured the distance before the jump. It was the first time in the history of the competition that an athlete was ordered to hand back a medal. The whistleblower lost his job as national coach and was considered a traitor by many Italians. But this traitor could live with it if it meant justice in sport.

Thirteen years later at Play The Game 2000, a biannual sports welfare conference held in Copenhagen, Donati was scheduled to deliver a speech on his 20-year fight against corruption and doping in sport. Fearing the content of that speech, perhaps, Donati's employer, the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), only granted permission for its head of research to travel after angry conference organisers and the chief executive of the International Federation of Journalists lent on CONI for an explanation.

What did they have to hide? This was an insider who wasn't afraid to talk - a man poised to reveal disturbing home-truths regarding unchecked corruption, not only within the Italian system, but throughout the global industry of sport. Home-truths which would show the betrayal of sports fans by champion cheats parading worthless medals and breaking honest records with dishonest tactics. "Champions" protected and assisted by coaches, doctors, scientists, sports officials and even governments, all playing their respective roles in a code of complicit silence aimed at attaining the fame, finance and glamour of success on the world sporting stage.

Few people have been prepared to sacrifice their country's reputation in an attempt to reveal the world problem - solitary voices get lost in the stampede of stadiums. But Sandro Donati's voice rang out loud and clear in Copenhagen, where he told the same enthralling but shocking story he told me recently at The Academy of Sport in Rome. It is the story of one man's fight to ensure that our champions are worth celebrating.

TEN MINUTES' TAXI from the city centre I find the Academy, a complex of playing fields, gymnasiums, offices and laboratories built in 1960 for the Rome Olympics. Dressed in a blue tracksuit, the 55-year-old Professor of Sport springs to his feet when his secretary shows me into his office. Short, slight and superfit, Donati's looks best describe his life - that of a lightweight fighter in a heavyweight arena whose only weapon against brute force has been intelligence, stamina and perseverance. He is a small man with a big conscience - a man who wanted simply to coach, until life hit a hurdle. 

The son of a farmer, Sandro Donati was born near Frascati on the outskirts of Rome and was a capable middle-distance runner as a youth, but soon realised his real interest lay in coaching. His dreams came true in 1981 when he was offered the job of national coach for the 800 and 1500 metre running teams. Having studied the science of coaching for seven years, four at the Academy and three at a French university, Donati was eager to mix qualification with passion in the pursuit of results.

Those dreams were soon shattered. A few days after the appointment he was approached by an Italian biochemist, Professor Francesco Conconi of the University of Ferrara, who briefed the new recruit on a blood-doping program which was apparently endorsed by the Italian Athletics Federation and CONI itself. Donati realised his skill as a coach would mean little, and was even more upset when he later learned that almost all his colleagues and their athletes had agreed to play a part in the alchemy. "It was totally devastating," says Donati. "He was convinced that I would be interested. He said we could take off 30-40 seconds over 10,000 metres, 15-20 seconds over 5000 metres, and 3-5 seconds over 1500 metres."

Finnish athletes had declared the use of blood-doping at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but Conconi was convinced his latest technique went one better. Half a litre of blood was drawn from a promising athlete, from which only the younger and stronger red blood cells were taken and refrigerated at -90°C. A few days before competition, athletes received a transfusion of their reinvigorated blood which immediately boosted their red blood cell count. It meant resistance, endurance, results. The only compromise was to the athletes health, one of the reasons Donati spoke out.

Donati insists that coaches have a major say in whether their charges choose to dope or not. He and his athletes refused to take part, a stand which, with the Los Angeles Olympics around the corner, earned the obstinate coach a summons to the boss's office. "The technical director asked me what I expected to achieve in Los Angeles and I said I was confident of having one or two athletes in the final," says Donati. To which his superior replied: "The final? What is the final? People aren't interested about an athlete in the Olympic final. People are interested in medals." It was a depressing awakening, an introduction to the culture of victory at any cost.

After Los Angeles, Donati was replaced as 800 and 1500 metre coach and transferred to the sprint distances, a change he believes was motivated by the Academy's desire to free up the middle-distance domain for doping experiments. "It was total corruption," he continues, "of both athletes and coaches. The athletes' level of training deteriorated because with doping it was easier to get results, and coach selection came down to choosing coaches who would accept doping. Honest coaches were finished, as was the memory of the connection between the quality of training and the level of result."

The sad aspect for Donati was less the corruption than the fact he was alone in fighting it. "There are two different types of coach," he believes. "Those who accept doping and those who don't accept doping but are inactive. Coaches are not experts on political, legal or medical problems. The fight against doping is a complex fight and I was alone because for other coaches the fight was too difficult … I discovered these extra capacities out of necessity. It's like if your wife has a terminal illness: you study the disease to make her life better. Internet, books, you might even form a society, and you become an expert out of necessity." Necessity is optional when it comes to doping.

Realising it was futile to fight doping from within the system, in 1985 the conscientious objector approached parliament, where, with the help of a friend's MP uncle, he managed to convince the Health Minister of the risks involved. The practice of blood transfusions became classified as doping and was outlawed in Italy. The International Olympic Committee promptly followed suit.

"Yes, it was a victory, but like all my victories it was a pyrrhic victory," says Donati. "I realised that the sports system had a great capacity for metamorphosis, and if it gets caught with its hands in the marmalade it either changes marmalade or hides it. Blood doping merely opened the road to EPO (erythropoietin - a synthetic blood-boosting hormone), because blood doping was a trial to understand the roll of EPO."

The long jump affair of two years later revealed that Donati's battle was not just against doping but against all forms of corruption in sport. "They used Evangelisti," he says, summing up another pyrrhic victory. He looks back on the event that cost him his coaching career with calm resignation. There is no trace of regret for having discovered what he did - in losing his job he was doing his job.

Moving to a disordered bookshelf, Donati pulls a copy of one of 14 books he has written on athletics. Featuring Ben Johnson on the cover, Worthless Champions was written in 1989 and described the ill-health of sport as well as the corruption he had encountered in trying to cure it. I would ask him for a loan if it weren't irreplaceable, for two weeks after the book's release the publisher was paid to stop its production. It is impossible to find even today.

It wasn't until 1994 that Donati tested his voice again. Using the benefits of his recent appointment as head of research at CONI, Donati began a study on the abuse of EPO in professional cycling. Offering informants anonymity, he wrote his conclusions - that cycling was spiked to the spokes and that Professor Conconi was behind the administration of EPO to cycling teams - in a dossier which he then gave to the president of CONI, Dr Mario Pescante. Incredibly, Pescante took no action. It was suggested two years later that Pescante had suppressed the report, charges the doctor denied until a commission of enquiry ruled otherwise and he resigned from office. Today, Pescante is a board member of the IOC and Deputy Minister of Sport.

Pescante's case was not helped by the fact that, during the four-year period from when he first received the report to when he finally left his post, certain accusations in Donati's dossier had proven well-founded. For example, cyclist Marco Pantani - or 'The Pirate' as he is known to his Italian fans because of his shaven head, bandana and earrings - narrowly escaped death after his haematocrit level (red blood cell count) fell rapidly after registering almost 60 percent above normal during an Italian road race in 1995. These were tell-tale signs of EPO. Pantani claimed his elevated blood levels were due to riding at altitude, and has since pedalled through a three-month suspended prison sentence (later over-turned), and won the 1998 'Tour De Farce' - the drug bust is more readily remembered than the result. In 1999 he was thrown out of the Giro d'Italia, however, again for an excessive haematocrit level.

Early in 1997, the man the establishment couldn't shake believes an attempt was made to frame him. A urine sample of one of Donati's athletes, a hurdler by the name of Anna Maria Di Terlizzi, was found to contain the caffeine equivalent of 30 cups of coffee. The athlete declared her innocence and analysis of the B sample, performed by an independent expert, proved her correct. "It was a vendetta, an attempt to discredit me to the media," says Donati. "In that moment I realised there was general complicity. Now I was an expert on chemistry too, by necessity."


When the coach of Italian football giant A.S. Roma publicly declared in 1998 that doping was rife in the Italian league, Sandro Donati's phone rang almost immediately. The Public Attorney of Turin, charged with investigating the allegations, asked him what he thought, to which he replied that the question was not, "Is there doping in the league?" but "Is their dope-testing in the league?" Subsequent enquiries revealed that the Rome testing laboratory - which my host points out to me through his office window - failed to test footballers for either anabolic steroids or testosterone.

The laboratory was no stranger to scandal. Six years earlier Donati had noticed that, in comparison with the 20 other IOC-accredited testing labs around the world, the Rome facility was at the bottom of the list in terms of positive results. His superiors claimed the statistics proved there was little doping in Italy, but Donati once again spoke out. He was rescued in the resulting court case (he was sued for libel) by an Italian weightlifter, who declared that his steroid regimes had been assisted by the lab which had performed the tests only to help regulate his doses to avoid detection on competition dates. In light of the new allegations regarding football, the lab was closed down.

There were other positive results in the same year. Not from labs but from courthouses - results attributable to Donati's painstaking campaign. The Public Attorney of Ferrara investigated Professor Conconi, while his colleague in Turin investigated the managing director and club doctor of Juventus F.C., accused of supplying pharmaceutical products to players over a four-year period between 1994 and 1998, in which the club won three Italian titles and a European Cup. Both cases continue today.

By the time of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, Donati was still fighting the rise of worthless champions. Human growth hormone (hGH) had joined EPO as the drugs of choice. In-house blood tests carried out on the Italian team before departure for Sydney revealed 61 of the 538 members had exaggerated levels of hGH, some as high as 60 times more than what is considered a normal hormone level. None of these athletes failed drug tests at The Games, and five of them won gold medals. Italy, minus Donati, celebrated victory.

He was consoled little by claims that hGH use was widespread in other countries. He knew that already. Australian discus champion Werner Reiterer admitted to using hGH and testosterone. He also declared that many team-mates were doing the same under the condoning eyes of senior officials. Dr Wade Exum quit the US Olympic Committee decrying its "controlled doping program", and Robert Kerr, a Californian medical doctor, had already revealed that over ten years before the Atlanta Games he had supplied hGH to thousands of US athletes.

Donati had never considered doping to be an Italian problem only, but what could he do about the Italian athletes? Nothing. He was too busy defending himself in court. The names of the suspect athletes had been leaked to an Italian newspaper and he faced multiple law suits. "My history is a terrible history," says Donati, switching to slow but proficient English. He opens a folder full of denunciations. "An intelligent strategy of the powers-that-be has been to occupy my time by obliging me to defend myself … Feltrinelli and Mondadori (Italian publishers) have asked me to write books but I spend my time writing documents to defend myself, not books attacking others." In the last two years he's been sued ten times. "I've won seven but there are three to go, two in Milan and one in Turin. But I consider them already won. I'm not frightened. I'm an expert on law now, by necessity."

But if Donati was silenced, the world was talking. In the wake of the Sydney Games, the Canadian team pressed WADA - the World Anti-Doping Agency - to investigate the allegations against the Italian team. Canadian kayak ace Caroline Brunet had finished second in the 500 metre K1 final behind Josefa Idem, one of the five Italian athletes whose name appeared on both the gold medal tally and the leaked hGH list.

Subsequent comments by Dick Pound, WADA chairman and IOC stalwart, summed up why an investigation would be inconclusive. "I have no idea what the effect of major physical training might be on hormones," he told Associated Press. It was a disturbing statement, considering his position, but one which finds defence in the fact that hGH and many other performance-enhancing substances are produced naturally in the body, making it more difficult to watchdog those who top up the tank artificially.

Donati puts it more bluntly than Pound: "Athletes use drugs that can't be found in tests. Anti-doping finds a few positive results by chance. Tests recognise anabolic steroids but can't tell if testosterone is natural or external, can't recognise hGH, and are still very uncertain on EPO." A bleak picture when you add the abundance of masking drugs which camouflage steroids.

Can spectators be excused for thinking that the science of doping has advanced at a greater rate than the science of anti-doping? "No," corrects Donati. "Doping is not advanced. Pharmaceutical science is advanced for the treatment of the sick. Sports doctors then use these medicines with athletes." He claims pharmaceutical companies overproduce and profit from a multiple-million dollar trade in medicines being sold for non-medicinal use, offering as evidence a statistic on EPO: 99 percent is sold under medical prescription - of which just a third is justified by the number of genuine patients requiring the drug.

But if pharmaceutical science can be harnessed to cheat, why can't it also be harnessed to catch cheats? Donati suggests a prevention program, like the one now operating in pro cycling, could be introduced to Olympic competition. Any athlete registering inflated haematocrit levels would not be branded a doper but would be sidelined in the interests of safety until those levels returned to normal. Where there's a will there's a way. But is there a will in this case?

The answer to this question opens a can of worms, and formed the basis of Donati's speech last November at Play The Game 2002. This time his attendance was uncontested by his employer, because, while Donati was still throwing punches, he was also throwing in the towel. Gatherers listened to Donati declare the war on doping in top-level sport to be futile, while blaming the unarrested diffusion of doping on athletes, coaches, doctors, sports officials, sports institutions, governments and the media - every one of which has some vested interest in promoting champions rather than exposing them.

The fight was over because after 20 years it had left its protagonist with more questions that answers. Why did it take Sandro Donati to notice the Rome lab's inconsistencies and not the IOC itself? Why does Professor Conconi have a seat on the IOC's medical commission when he stands accused of doping by the Public Attorney of Ferrara? Why is Italian cross-country skier and Olympic champion Manuela Di Centa on the IOC board whilst also being on the Public Attorney of Ferrara's list of athletes "treated" by Conconi?

"Why doesn't international sport ask for her removal?" inquiries Donati. "Because there is a general complicity. They accept Manuela Di Centa and she accepts them." How could Pescante lose his presidency of CONI only to become the Deputy Minister of Sport? "This is the demonstration that there is a very strong connection between sports institutions and governments," suggests Donati.

A war is well and truly over when even the pyrrhic victories start drying up. In the aftermath, Donati explains that it has never been his intention to simply put mud on individual medals, Italian or foreign. This has merely been collateral damage in a war of greater scope - the attempt to show the global web of complicity behind the sports machine's rapacious search for success, a web in which the athlete plays less of a role than often thought. In fact, clean athletes often declare the situation hopeless not because their opponents have a chemical advantage but because of sports federations' lethargic commitment to root them out.

Nine-time Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis suggests that drug abuse is rife in track and field events. "It isn't really about drugs, it's about lies," he told a US newspaper. "The commitment to find drugs is not there. There are much better ways to test than they are doing, but … they don't want to catch anyone in the first place."

 
Perhaps if there were more people with Donati's courage, the fight wouldn't be over and the world may have understood. As it is, Donati flew a white flag in Copenhagen and justifies its colour thus: "I'm alone and in continual danger in the face of political, sporting and economic power."

 

OUR CONVERSATION is interrupted by the Italian national anthem blaring across the academy grounds. "Ah," smiles Donati, "nazionalismo. We must talk about that." Evangelisti provides the perfect example. "In this story there is the key to everything," says Donati. "Why did it take a little man like me, in a little office, to speak up, when 60,000 people saw that the jump was short? Because people want to believe in romance, in epic victories. They think they have a right to an emotional history and sports officials provide that emotion. It's very simple. Behind the top sports results there are sporting officials and governments. Everybody is interested in champions and heroes because heroes are symbols of national supremacy. It is a good subject to give to people.

"Take, for example, a country planning to host the Olympic Games," he continues. "Not only are they willing to bribe to get them, but they are at the same time planning a lot of medals. Behind the organisation of important competition there is the organisation of success. But how is success possible in a world full of doping? By using doping."

But if sport provides victory, emotion, drama and dreams, it also provides tragic irony. It's biggest, perhaps, is that the medicines are making the healthy sick. Former East German athletes offer the most disturbing testimonies. Many blame intense steroid regimes for a loss of fertility, a rise in cancers and birth defects in their children. Others are already dead. Doping is thought to be behind the premature deaths of dozens of top cyclists and soccer players.

Doping's side-effects are apparent when Italian health insurers start knocking on Sandro Donati's door asking for advice on how to protect themselves from self-destructive athletes who are secretly doping. "We're talking about a world health problem which we put in the hands of the IOC. Shouldn't we give it to the World Health Organisation?" Donati says. He believes doping's menace to sport is less of an issue than its menace to the doped, who risk their health under sport's biggest misconception - that fans love a champion. "People love victory, not champions," he says. "They don't want to know Marco Pantani, they want to know that he can win. If they really loved Pantani they would ask him to stop, for his health's sake."

It is the gravity of these health issues that motivates Donati's new campaign against doping in amateur sports. "I'm not concerned with top-level athletes who have their private doctors, scientists and laboratories. I need to occupy myself with the average athletes who have no-one to defend them, who believe in top-level athletes and who'll risk their health to join them," says Donati. "Socially this is more useful. To cut the legs off doping we must separate the organisation of youth sport which can't be entrusted to coaches but to educators who ensure children enjoy themselves above all. It depends on governments. Do they want to create champions or a healthy population?"
    
Looking back on his 20-year fight, Donati is stoic and detached. "A good coach lost his career," he says. "Pazienza. I do other things that make me happy. I help people with multiple sclerosis and use my knowledge of training to slow down the effects of the disease. My only regret is to have approached the sporting system. Only now do I understand that sport has deteriorated lately, but it was already corrupt a long time ago. We thought only the dictatorial countries used doping and considered our transparent democracies clean and above this. That was simplistic and naïve."
 
Donati has done his best to protect his family from a battle which perhaps only his lawyer has thanked him for waging. "My mother is 82 and my father 81. They follow my story with preoccupation but also with pride and affection. But I don't tell them about the denunciations: they find out that I was in court when they read about the win in the paper and they ask why I never said anything. My children aren't very interested. They say, 'Dad, you've done everything you can. Can't you see that the enemy is too strong and too many?'"

Donati answers a persistent ringing on his mobile phone and tells the caller that he is talking to an Australian journalist and that they should call back later. "That was another journalist," he tells me. "I have two or three who call me about once a week to ask if I have a problem." Hundreds of local and international journalists, from The New York Times to the Arab TV network Al Jaziira, have made this trek into his office seeking interviews and information. "This is my defence: my public figure. A foreign journalist coming here is a guarantee for me. Protection."

In the same breath, a realistic Donati acknowledges that his job at CONI is a marriage of convenience for both parties, and that, while he works where he does, his employer can control his movements a little better whilst boasting a famous anti-doping campaigner in its ranks. He is certain that he's been used, just as much as he's used his position to further lofty aims that now lie in tatters. "I have been both a hero and a villain when it has suited other people's needs," he says. "But while I am here I have to speak out, because if I don't, they'll kill me off."

Our conversation has gone well into the evening. It is almost time for the Wednesday night Champions League fixture between A.C. Milan and Borussia Dortmund, a match I intend to watch back at my hotel in central Rome. Would Sandro Donati be watching? Could he still be a sports fan? "I watch sport, but I watch it like it's a show," he says. "I watch the Olympic Games but I don't bother to remember the names of the athletes anymore. It's like theatre - but I prefer the theatre because the relationship between actor and spectator is clear. In sport's theatre, both are still pretending it's real."