Friday, April 27, 2007

Career Hanging On By A Strand...

Defending Giro d'Italia champion Ivan Basso's career is on hold as he awaits an appearance before an Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) investigating panel next Wednesday in Rome.

The panel has reopened an investigation into alleged ties between the 29-year-old Italian and Eufemiano Fuentes, the infamous sports doctor at the center of the Operación Puerto scandal in Spain.

Basso was among nine riders barred from participation in the 2006 Tour de France when notes seized in the police raids that marked the Puerto investigation appeared to link them to an apparent doping ring headed by Fuentes.

While eventually fired by his CSC team, Basso had been initially cleared of suspicion last September when CONI closed the case because of lack of evidence. The panel reconsidered that decision, however, when German prosecutors linked nine bags of blood seized from Fuentes's property to 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich.

Basso's future may hang by a strand - so to speak. Now Basso's future may, too, be decided by the results of a DNA test planned for the coming weeks.

When Basso signed with the Discovery team last November, he and the team issued a statement promising to submit to a DNA test "if this is requested in a national judicial or disciplinary investigation." At the time, neither seemed likely, since CONI had dropped its case and a Spanish judge was poised to close the criminal case because that country had no specific statute barring doping for sport. (That has since changed. - Editor)

Discovery, heavily criticized in some quarters for hiring Basso last fall, responded to CONI's decision by suspending him pending the outcome of the investigation. In doing so, the U.S.-sponsored team has followed in the footsteps of Basso's former team, CSC, who suspended him prior to the 2006 Tour after he and dozens of other cyclists were initially implicated in the Spanish doping affair which has dragged on for nearly a year.

Last September, Basso was elated after his last appearance before CONI investigators.

CONI official Ettore Torri told La Gazzetta dello Sport that he hopes Basso will submit a DNA sample in order to settle doubts in the Puerto matter, but the test isn't the panel's sole option.

"I will ask Basso to put himself forward for a DNA test, and I hope he comes back with a positive response," Torri said. "If he does not, we will push forward all the same. The test would be useful but not conclusive. I believe there are enough ways to bring a conclusion to this."

Basso, who has protested his innocence and denies any links to Fuentes, can prove his detractors wrong "if and when he provides a DNA sample," said Torri.

According to Thursday's La Gazzetta, CONI's anti-doping authorities have received seven bags of blood believed to belong to Basso, together with SMS messages allegedly sent from Basso's mobile phone to Fuentes.

“The Puerto Nine” (From top, L-R) Jan Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla (T-Mobile), Ivan Basso (CSC), Francesco Mancebo (AG2R), Joseba Beloki, Isidro Nozal, Australia's Allan Davis, Sergio Paulinho and Alberto Contador (Astana-Wurth).

With Ullrich now gone, and Basso under a cloud, the use of DNA as a tool in the fight against doping has become reality, albeit a controversial one.

At a teams and riders meeting ahead of the Liége-Bastogne- Liége one-day classic this Sunday, several Spanish riders repeatedly said that too weight was given to rumor, innuendo and allegation and that all riders deserved to be regarded as "innocent until proven guilty."

French riders have had to adhere to strict anti-doping laws since the 1998 Festina drugs scandal - which was pivotal in the creation of the World Anti Doping Agency - and they called for transparency.

"There's no feeling of solidarity and we're not going forward together," lamented French professional Christophe Moreau, who is not implicated in Operación Puerto. "I want to believe that the riders implicated in this affair are innocent, but we have to act to remove the suspicion that still lingers."