Jan Ullrich has remained silent about doping for years. Now he speaks – but there is no clear confession. However, it becomes clear in the escapades after his career.
After almost two decades of silence and a violent alcohol and drug crash, Jan Ullrich speaks for the first time about years of doping in his Telekom team. “I don’t know if you can understand that from today’s perspective. But back then it all felt completely normal,” the ex-cyclist told “Stern”.
Doping to maintain equal opportunities – this is how the banned substances were justified. “Without helping, the widespread perception at the time was that it would be like going to a shooting armed with only a knife,” added the 49-year-old.
Ullrich was the first and so far only German to win the Tour of France in 1997. The whole republic celebrated him like a pop star. Two years earlier he had moved to the top racing team Telekom and there he “learned pretty quickly that doping was widespread,” as he said.
Long before Ullrich, many of his former teammates had made doping confessions – he refused. He used to always say that he never cheated on anyone. The Rostock native also refrained from making clear statements like “I doped” in this interview. This final step may follow in the documentary “Jan Ullrich – The Hunted”, which can be seen on Amazon Prime from November 28th.
Lawyers advised silence
Ullrich involuntarily ended his career in 2006 and quickly became an undesirable person in cycling. The trigger was his connections to the Spanish doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, and his team suspended him immediately before the start of the tour. At that time and for many years afterwards, the athlete denied everything.
“I didn’t want to be a traitor. I didn’t want to come out with half-truths and certainly not with the whole truth,” Ullrich said, justifying it with legal constraints. “There were livelihoods hanging on it, families, friends. The lawyers told me: Either you go out and tear everything down, or you don’t say anything at all.” Criminal proceedings were underway against him at the time. “My lawyers advised me to remain silent. Advice that I followed, but the consequences of which I suffered for a long time.”
Doping inhibition threshold was low back then
In 2012, Ullrich was banned for two years by the International Court of Arbitration for Sports (Cas), and various successes between 2005 and 2006 were revoked. It was initially unclear whether the new statements had consequences for Ullrich’s previous victories – especially in the 1997 Tour. His 2000 Olympic gold should not be in danger because of the ten-year IOC statute of limitations for doping offenses.
Doping was normal in cycling and the inhibition threshold was correspondingly low. “The general attitude was: If you don’t do that – how are you going to survive in a race? Then you ride in the peloton and you know that you’re probably one of those who have nothing in it and that’s why you have zero chances,” said Ullrich .
Ullrich now regrets not having spoken out in detail about doping earlier. “From today’s perspective, I should have spoken. It would have been very hard for a short moment, but after that life would have been easier.”
Whiskey, cocaine, 800 cigarettes a day
So things turned out differently – and Ullrich privately slid deeper and deeper towards the abyss. In 2015 he moved to Mallorca with his family to start a new life. “But it didn’t work for me. On the contrary. In the end, the crash followed – it couldn’t get that deep, any deeper,” said Ullrich. Because of his alcohol escapades, his then wife Sara went back to Germany with their three children. Then the “total crash” began.
Ullrich drank “whiskey like water” and did coke, he says in the Amazon documentary, as can be seen in the trailer. False friends came along. “At that time, I came up with a few challenges. One was that I wanted to set a world record for smoking. Once I smoked 700 to 800 cigarettes a day. The guys around me, these hyenas, applauded,” recalled the ex-athlete.
At some point Ullrich ended up in a prison cell. This crash, “which almost cost me my life,” was the reason he turned his life around and now went public.
Ex-rival Armstrong as a great helper
A big help was his once greatest rival Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of seven Tour successes because of doping. “I was completely lost. Friends tried everything back then, they called my former teammates, my former coaches – no chance,” Ullrich told “Zeit Magazin” in a joint interview with Armstrong. “The only person who could reach me, they ultimately believed, was Lance. We weren’t in close contact at the time, I didn’t know beforehand that he was coming to me. I’ll never forget the fact that he got on the plane straight away .”
The American persuaded Ullrich to go through withdrawal so that he would not end up like the Italian Marco Pantani, who died of an overdose in 2004. “I couldn’t bear to lose another one of us,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But I love this man. It broke my heart that he was so unwell.”
After all the crashes, Ullrich is optimistic. “Thank God I came out of the whole thing healthy, I feel like cycling again, I want to see my children grow up. I’m hungry for life again.”
Palmares Jan Ullrich Interview “Stern” (paid) Interview “Zeit Magazin” (paid)