By Hedwig Kröner and Susan Westemeyer
An absolute novelty has occurred in the world of cycling and its specific 'underworld' of doping, the sport's biggest problem. For the first time, a civil court in Switzerland has overturned the doping suspension of a professional cyclist - in this case, over one year after the cyclist was found guilty by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Cyclingnews spoke to the attorney of German cyclist Danilo Hondo, Michael Lehner, who said that Hondo's case would now be heard once again in front of a civil court in six months' time, but that Hondo was free to race again if he found a team to sign him.
"We took action to annul of the CAS decision at the highest Cantonal appeals court in Lausanne," Lehner told Cyclingnews on Saturday. "The UCI, WADA and Swiss Cycling had the possibility to reply to our arguments by bringing forward their own, but the court granted our proposed interim suspension measure. So all arguments have been taken account of already in this expeditious procedure."
The German jurist continued by saying that the decision was not final, but that "the procedure has a certain effect on the main trial - the court finds our arguments to be very conclusive."
So was he sure that Hondo's two-year suspension was going to be lifted? "I'm positive the suspension will either be lifted or reduced - in any case, Hondo will be able to race again as of April 1, according to the first instance, Swiss cycling." Indeed, the former Gerolsteiner sprinter was suspended by his team on April 2, 2005, and initially banned for one year before the Court of Arbitration for Sport increased the sentence to two years in January 2006.
"So the risk for a cycling team to take him on is not great," Lehner added. "Regarding the additional two-year ban from racing the ProTour: if a Swiss court questions the initial two-year punishment, then the additional ProTour ban cannot be legal, either."
When asked about the arguments he used in his appeal, Lehner said, "It was 40 pages long, but mainly consisted in the fact that only a very small amount of the banned substance was found in Hondo's body; an amount that small that it was well below the threshold of having any effects. Nobody knew how it could possibly have come into his body, let alone intentionally. But the core of the legal discussion is that way in which these sports trials are held - a two-year suspension with a reversed onus of proof, i.e. the athlete has to prove that he is innocent - can't be upheld in front of civil courts. I think that this was the main argument the court followed, too. In the decision, it is said that the athlete's intention [to take a performance enhancing substance] cannot be proven - maybe it was in a bidon or biochemically produced by his body itself."
With these same arguments, Lehner has been trying to fight the sports court's procedures for years, as he also acted as attorney for Olympic runner Dieter Baumann, who was found guilty of doping in 2000. "The proceeding is directed by the federations, by WADA, and I have been saying all along that it is contrary to normal law - so why should an athlete in sport be in a different position than any other citizen before a civil court? We are all against doping, myself in particular, but how can an athlete be punished this way?," asked Lehner, who did not exclude that the current decision could have a substantial impact on anti-doping regulations.
Danilo Hondo is thus searching for a new squad at this time, as his manager Tony Rominger has taken up talks with the UCI and several teams. Lehner confirmed that Swiss Cycling was going to return Hondo's license swiftly, and that the rider was going to return this week from Mallorca, where he has been keeping in reportedly excellent shape.
The team name that most often pops up in association with Hondo is his former team Gerolsteiner. Team manager Hans Michael Holczer has kept in contact with Hondo during the suspension, and has hinted that he would like to take the sprinter back. However, in a statement to Cyclingnews spokesman Jörg Grünefeld said, "We are aware of the interim decree of the Swiss court concerning Danilo Hondo. We have no details about the decision or about the reactions of the parties involved in this surprising decision. At this tme we cannot comment on this matter."
Another team name that has arisen is that of Hondo's team before he went to Gerolsteiner, Team T-Mobile. Hondo himself noted that "They only have 29 on their roster, and so a place would be free." T-Mobile spokesman Christian Frommert told dpa though, "Hondo is not a theme right now. You cannot reckon that he will ride for us again this season."