MELBOURNE, Australia — Only a day after retiring from professional cycling, Stuart O’Grady admitted to using a blood-booster during the scandal-plagued 1998 Tour de France.
The 39-year-old Australian rider, a six-time Olympian who wore the leader’s yellow jersey for a total of nine days in 17 Tours de France, announced his retirement earlier this week after the 100th edition of the famous race. He admitted he had used erythropoietin (EPO) for two weeks before the 1998 race, saying he had acquired it himself and used it without the knowledge of his team.
His admission in an Australian newspaper came after the French senate inquiry into doping in sport released its findings and implicated dozens of cyclists for suspicious tests, uncovering evidence that 1998 Tour de France champion Marco Pantani and runner-up Jan Ulrich used EPO to fuel their performances.
O’Grady, then riding for GAN, wore the yellow leader’s jersey for three days in the ’98 Tour.
“You win Olympics, Paris-Roubaix and now all of that is going to be tainted by this action and I wish it could be changed but it can’t,” O’Grady, who won the Madison gold medal at the 2004 Olympics and was a silver medalist in the team pursuit at the 1992 Olympics, was quoted as saying Thursday in News Corp Australia newspapers. “That’s the hardest thing to swallow out of all this – it was such a long time ago and one very bad judgment is going to taint a lot of things and people will have a lot of questions.”
O’Grady told the newspapers he just had to “drive over the border and buy it in a pharmacy” and used “extremely cautious amounts” of EPO.
The 1998 Tour de France was notable for the major scandal that emerged with the discovery of widespread doping on the French Festina team. The subsequent police crackdown led to seven of the original 21 teams either withdrawing or being ejected from the Tour.
“When the Festina affair happened, I smashed it, got rid of it and that was the last I ever touched it,” he said. “It wasn’t systematic doping, I wasn’t trying to deceive people. I was basically trying to survive in what was a very gray area.
“We’re humans who make mistakes. It was a decision I made at the time which I thought would basically get me through the Tour.”
Samples taken at the 1998 race were re-tested in 2004, and anti-doping investigators passed that information to the French government inquiry.
France’s Senate, after a five-month investigation focused on fighting sports doping, confirmed Wednesday that use of the banned substance EPO was rife in cycling in the late 1990s, before a test for the drug had been developed.
Pantani was suspended in 1999 from the Giro after failing a random blood test, and his career was damaged by several doping investigations. He died in 2004 at 34 of an accidental drug overdose.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, has admitted to blood doping and last year was stripped of his third-place finish in the 2005 Tour.
O’Grady rode for GAN in 1998. He joined Orica-GreenEdge last year, his fifth pro team, and rode his last Tour with the Australian team, which issued a statement about the veteran rider’s admissions.
“ORICA-GreenEDGE supports Stuart O’Grady’s decision to step forward and place the findings of the French Senate Report of today into perspective regarding his own past,” the team’s general manager Shayne Bannan said. “The team would also like to express its support in Stuart as a person and as an advocate for a clean sport. Like the majority of the riders in his generation, he was also exposed to the issues and wrongdoings of the sport and made some wrong choices in that environment.
“We would like to underline that in all of our interactions with Stuart, he has always been extremely clear about the right path for the sport and we believe that certain mistakes in the past shouldn’t be allowed to tarnish his entire career and his integrity as a person.”
O’Grady said that brief period before his second Tour de France was the only time he ever used EPO.
“It was for an extremely small percentage of my entire life,” he said. “I was lucky enough to win a lot of things, they can test my samples from Paris-Roubaix and my Olympic medals for the next thousand years, they’re not going to find anything.
“There is nothing more to hide.”
The Australian Olympic Committee on Thursday called for O’Grady to resign from its athletes commission.
“Members of our London Olympic team who elected Stuart to the Athletes’ Commission are entitled to be angry knowing they had supported an athlete who had cheated” AOC president John Coates said.
“Athletes’ Commission members are chosen for their qualities of integrity and leadership and by his admission Stuart does not deserve to be a member of that group.”
Coates said he supported the French Parliamentary inquiry and investigations into the 1998 Tour.
“This was a shameful period for the sport of cycling which has been well documented, that is no excuse for the decision taken by Stuart O’Grady, and one can only hope that cycling and especially the Tour de France is cleaner as a result of today’s revelations and the Lance Armstrong saga”.