Cyclists Say USA Coaches Pushed Performance Drugs

Two former elite cyclists say they were coerced by American coaches into taking performance-enhancing drugs during a five-month period when they were teenagers. Their suit against USA Cycling is headed to trial.

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There's a common thread in the Daily News about sports doping. Athletes almost always make a choice to use illegal performance enhancing drugs. But a six-year-old legal case alleges something darker. The charges come from two former elite bicycle racers, members of the U.S. Junior National Team. They say they were given illegal drugs, without their knowledge, by team officials.

Now, there may be a trial over their claims that the drugs made them ill and ended their racing careers. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

Greg Strock filed his suit in 2000, Erich Kaiter followed in 2001. Yesterday, they showed up at the federal courthouse in Denver for the first public court hearing in the case. The two men, now in there 30's, allege that 16 years ago, over a five month period, they were given illegal performance enhancing drugs by Rene Wenzel, their coach on the U.S. National Junior Team, and by other team officials.

Wenzel also was at the courthouse yesterday. During the three hour hearing, Strock and Kaiter's lawyer laid out a case that conjured up memories of Eastern Block countries in 1970's where young athletes were systematically doped. Wenzel allegedly gave Strock and Kaiter substances in vials. He allegedly injected them, gave them pills, according to the former cyclists, teenagers at the time.

They trusted Wenzel when he told them they were getting vitamins and extract of cortisone. That was in the spring and summer of 1990. The next year Strock and Kaiter say they started getting sick. Both were hospitalized. Strock was diagnosed with Parvo virus and still deals with arthritis he developed as an 18 year old. Kaiter still battles lung infections and Crohn's disease.

Strock is now a medical doctor and it's his contention they were being given large doses of cortisone, which can suppress the immune system. Wenzel's attorneys countered by saying the story was full of half truths and hypotheticals. The plaintiff's were taking big leaps in associating the alleged substances and the illnesses.

Afterwards Greg Strock said the hearing brought back painful memories. The alleged doping started when he was 17. But Strock said he was glad for the chance to raise issues he says are significant to every aspiring athlete, their coaches, their parents.

Dr. GREG STROCK (Former Cyclist, U.S. Junior National Team): I mean, this was in my opinion, a serious exploitation of minors, and at that level and at that age the coach/athlete relationship is so strong and that was a significant manipulation and exploitation I believe.

GOLDMAN: Wenzel's attorney, William Senter disagrees.

Mr. WILLIAM SENTER (Defendant's Attorney): As it relates to Dr. Strock, he turned 18 May 30, 1990, right in the heart of this controversy. There comes a point and time in your life as a teenager and as an adult that you have to take responsibility and be accountable for the decisions that you make and the choices that you make.

GOLDMAN: According to Strock, Kaiter and two other junior riders who also signed affidavits alleging doping, there wasn't any choice. In an interview in 2000, Strock told the cycling magazine VeloNews, he was scolded if he asked about the substances he was given. It was made clear that if I wanted to excel as a professional, he said, I had to have absolute trust in my coaches and trainers.

It appears the case will be decided on much more complex issues. At the end of the hearing, U.S. District Judge John Kane said because of the scientific and medical intricacies, it will take him six to eight weeks to decide whether or not to order a jury trial. Both sides say they will welcome a trial so that they can tell their stories in full.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Denver.

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