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Parents of Laurens Sweeck describe 'nightmare' of Mertens doping investigation

After being acquitted by the Royal Belgian Cycling Federation (KBWB-RLVB) last Tuesday the dark shadow of a possible doping ban has been taken away from young Laurens Sweeck (Corendon-KwadrO). His parents Christine and Stefaan reacted to the news with an open letter in which they explain the seven-month long nightmare their son and his family went through.

Sweeck is a talented 21-year-old Belgian cyclist. Despite his young age, he managed to win among the elite riders in the highly contested Belgian cyclo-cross scene. He also finished as runner-up at the 2015 U23 cyclo-cross world championships in Tábor. His twin brother Diether and older brother Hendrik are also cyclo-cross riders.

When news broke about investigations from the Leuven police into the affairs of Doctor Chris Mertens, the case was soon highlighted by the possible treatment of blood with ozone therapy. Several blood bags were said to be found in the doctor's back office and DNA tests were to lead the investigators to Mertens' clients.

No definitive evidence of doping was found, but still the prosecutor delivered his information to the Flemish sports authorities. The information featured the names of cyclo-cross riders Bart Wellens, Tom Meeusen and Laurens Sweeck. That's when the KBWB-RLVB decided that, according to the UCI-rule 9.2.002, the national team was no longer allowed to select the riders who were involved in this case. For the cyclo-cross riders this decision had a major impact as they could not be selected for the Hoogerheide cyclo-cross World Cup and the World Championships of the following week. They appealed the decision at the Belgian arbitrary court for sports (BAS-CBAS). The BAS-CBAS decided the UCI-rule didn't apply.

A month later, on the eve of the 2015 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad news broke that road cyclist Greg Van Avermaet, Wellens and Meeusen were soon to be heard in the case by the KBWB-RLVB. Sweeck had already been heard by the Flemish community. He was accused by the Flemish doping authority NADO of breaking the no-needle-policy by possessing and using Vaminolact infusions. In his hearing Sweeck explained that in 2011 and 2012 he orally used the amino acid supplements for infants which are not on the doping list. In contrast to the other names in the case Sweeck wasn't judged by the Royal Belgian Cycling Federation but by a doping commission of the Flemish Community since he was regarded to be a non-professional athlete.

While Van Avermaet, Meeusen and Wellens were all acquitted, a decision in Sweeck's case was postponed several times before the Flemish community eventually concluded that it was up to the KBWB-RLVB to make a call. The NADO learned that since June 9 Sweeck was qualified as a professional athlete by the International Cycling Federation (UCI). On that day the UCI added Sweeck to the list of riders who were to fill out their whereabouts. Because of that different status Sweeck should be allowed to appeal at CAS which is not possible after a decision from the Flemish government. That's why they handed over the case to the Royal Belgian Cycling Federation. Just like with the other riders in this case, the cycling federation quickly decided that, due to a lack of direct evidence, Sweeck was to be acquitted.

Shortly after being acquitted the parents of Laurens Sweeck published an open letter on the website of the Sweeck brothers. They wanted to inform readers about how they experienced the seven months between the first accusations and the final decision. The whole letter can be read here in Dutch, and below are transcripts in English.

Open letter

"We are very relieved that today our son Laurens was informed that the Royal Belgian Cycling Federation closed its file concerning doctor Mertens without any legal effects, making it possible to leave all accusations behind as of today. Undoubtedly this message doesn’t hold much news value nor much sensational value but we want to inform everybody who was involved or interested in the big Dr. Mertens case what Laurens as an athlete and we as parents experienced in this period.

"Hell broke loose on January 19 when our son received a phone call at 1:30pm - between our first and main course – that took away his right of participation in all national selections, even though the KBWB didn't have a judicial file in its hands and without them or us knowing any details of accusations.

"With any hearing in any investigation, without having knowledge of any official complaint, the most promising of our three sons turned from one second to the other into a doper. We received this message – in speech – one hour before the official announcement of the cyclo-cross world championships in Tábor.

"The next five days – until the hearing by BAS-CBAS – were like hell. The media storm broke loose, everywhere we read and heard accusing stories of which we had no knowledge. The chaos in our heads was not to be overseen. There was no time nor need to eat or sleep. It became an endless in-and-out of people who were concerned about Laurens or had a relentless interest in the 'doping file' of Laurens Sweeck. A file for which the sinner had to await no less than four weeks before receiving access himself.

"Ever since January 19 our son became a living playing ball, the latest prey in the hunt on Dr. Mertens. Bewildering media scenes, bizarre statements in a months-long ongoing saga... trying to provide accounts became part of our life, day in, day out, day after day, after day...

"It became a hellish task, not only for the targeted athlete and his family but also for his cyclo-cross team of which Laurens is the leader. We want to spare you details about what the impact was for grandparents.

"Can we – as mother and father – have our thoughts about the way this judicial investigation has been done... about the 'public indictment' without ever being judicially heard? Can we be appalled by the incredibly timed media circus which burst out and of which the sensational value was rated higher than the truth? Being judged as a doping sinner without having any personal knowledge of an existing file? All minimal rights of defence of the accused sportsperson in this case were integrally trampled. Try to imagine our perspective?

The parents describe that they learned that the Mertens case was finalized with files of 19 sportspeople but no Laurens Sweeck at the end of October 2014. Two months later the case received an addendum 'Laurens Sweeck' after a successful spell of races from the latter.

"Apparently the young, promising athlete Laurens Sweeck was an interesting sounding name in the big list of clients from Dr. Mertens. In the extremely selective investigation he had to be added to the long list of buyers of amino acids... and be chosen as eye catcher. At the most timely moment media receives access in the judicial files while the inflicted person isn't even aware of its existence!

"Can we – seven months later – stand still and try to understand which rules were followed and which laws were broken. Which institution, community, federation or media group can call itself a true and fair winner in our story? Maybe the winners are the patients of which their names were never mentioned in this case or those of which a file was never created?

"A lot of respect for Laurens, for showing mental strength in the past few months day in and day out and for the good, consistent results he noted down as a rider in these demanding times of accusations.

"Laurens is heading for the 5-day long Tour de Namur with his brothers and his team. We asked him to fully focus on his beloved sport this week. There’s nothing he wants more and so do we. As long as he doesn't have to put energy into an explanation for a doping sin that was never one.

"Our son was and is a clean rider. The only thing he has to do now is use his pure power and natural talent to answer with the legs and pedals. As parents we're hoping, from the bottom of our heart, that he receives fair chances to do so.

"From now on we will try to pick up our daily habits, our normal life... A life that for the major part is targeted towards the cyclo-cross sport. Hopefully future sportive successes can salvage the pain of what we want through.

"Thanks for taking the time to read our story. We thought that today for a brief moment we also had the right to speak out."

Christine and Stefaan

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