U23 World Cyclocross Championships, Tabor Czech Republic.  © Joe Sales

Pawel Szczepaniak can breathe a sigh of relief after the vitamin mix-up. © Joe Sales

This was published on April 1, 2010 and was an April Fools’ story.

Following an emotional interview published in Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws (and discussed previously in Cyclocross Magazine) in which disgraced U23 World Championships winner Pawel Szczepaniak revealed what prompted him and his younger brother, second place finisher Kacper, to use EPO before the World Championships in Tábor, the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency have taken the unprecedented action of throwing out the case and restoring the two Polish riders’ titles.

“There was no talking about EPO or doping,” Pawel told the paper. “The person in question was talking about vitamins. I found the idea great and convinced my brother.” The young Polish rider said that, in addition to his belief that he was injecting vitamins twice a week during the lead-up to the championships, rather than the banned blood booster EPO, the only reason for his use of illegal drugs was his interest in helping his family.

The older Szczepaniak added that he continues to believe he and his brother took only vitamins, but lacked sufficient resources to pay for testing of B samples that might clear his name.

In a joint press release UCI President Pat McQuaid and WADA President John Fahey responded to the interview with the announcement that the two organizations would not continue with the case.

Yummy dinosaur multivitamins. Via flickr by Ken Wilcox.

Yummy dinosaur multivitamins. Via flickr by Ken Wilcox.

“It is clear to our organizations that Pawel and Kacper Szczepaniak were simply confused about the nature of their medical care. Mistaking banned substances for routine vitamin injections is a common error that should not be held against these two talented young men,” said the unusual release.

The document explained that, given the extenuating circumstances Pawel discussed in the interview, WADA could find no fault with the two brothers. “Given both their family situation and their inability to cover the costs of testing their B-sample,” it read, “we feel there is no choice but to withdraw the case against these two upstanding young men.”

As news of the decision spread across Europe, there was a huge outpouring of support for the Szczepaniaks.

Tom Meeusen, the pre-race favorite who finished fourth, told reporters that he sympathized with the pair. “Kacper is a teammate with me on Fidea,” said Meeusen, “so I’ve known for a long time that this prosecution is unwarranted. Any of us could accidentally inject a banned substance twice a week without knowing it.”

The young Belgian star added that he was convinced they had earned their victory. “Given my performance throughout the season, if all those two did was take a little EPO by mistake, I should have had no trouble beating them. So I know they were the deserved winners regardless, and I am very happy with the UCI’s decision to make that clear to the world.”

Arnaud Jouffroy, who finished third behind the two Szczepaniak brothers at Worlds, and was temporarily awarded the championship following the revelation of the pair’s positive test results, echoed Meeusen’s sentiments. “When I first heard about their positive [result for EPO],” he said, “I was angry. But now that I realize they believed they were taking vitamins, and only did it to help their family, the rainbow jersey they were going to give to me is tainted by this unjust prosecution of two innocent brothers. I see that I deserved the bronze medal and will gladly accept it.”

Jouffroy added that he fully supported the UCI and WADA’s decision. “It was an honest mistake,” he said. “Actually, I wouldn’t even call it that. They did the right thing , and I look forward to personally delivering the rainbow jersey to them in Poland soon.”

Former World Champion Sven Nys, who serves as the athlete representative on the UCI’s Cyclocross Commission, told Cyclocross Magazine that he also agreed with the UCI’s decision. “I try to be involved with younger athletes and to be a role model whenever I can,” said Nys, who was spotted training with World Champion Zdeněk Štybar in Majorca, Spain, last season. “So I was disappointed to hear the news that they could lose their victory. They are two very nice people, so I am gratified that the victory will be restored. It is impossible to think such nice individuals could have been guilty of using doping products. I am sure the injections were simply vitamins and the laboratory equipment used to for the [doping] control simply malfunctioned.”

Reached for comment following the UCI’s announcement, McQuaid said that he simply couldn’t justify an action against two of the sport’s most sympathetic figures.

“Growing up in Dublin we didn’t have much,” said the former Irish National Champion, at times choking back tears. “I also turned to cycling to support my family. So I know exactly where the Szczepaniaks were coming from. How can we prosecute them? They are heroes!  If only more young men and women had the courage that they do.”

“After all, who hasn’t made a sporting error?” added McQuaid, referring to his ban from the 1976 Olympics after participating in a race in apartheid-era South Africa, which was long the target of international sporting bans.

The UCI has not announced a timetable for the return of the World Championship jerseys and medals to the Szczepaniaks.

“We want to have a special ceremony honoring these two young men for their accomplishments in the face of adversity” said McQuaid. “But we need some time to organize it, and since we are deep into spring classics season right now, there’s not much time just at the moment. I expect to see justice done by the end of May.”