The Operation Aderlass doping investigation picked up steam on Wednesday, when it was announced that Bahrain-Merida Pro Cycling Team’s managing director, Milan Erzen, had been implicated, along with a duo of the team’s riders. Erzen is a figurehead of the triathlon and cycling communities in both his native Slovenia and Bahrain, and has been aiding in the training program of Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa since 2013.
Bahrain’s younger prince—who competes in triathlon as an amateur—was crowned Ironman XC (Executive Challenge) World Champion with a 9:19 finishing time in Kona last year. On the website for the Bahrain 13 Triathlon Team, Nasser is listed as the world champion in the military division. It’s unclear whether he was initially entered into the military division and then switched post-race. (His time would’ve put him third in the military division.) While the exact nature of his military service is uncertain, he is officially listed as a “royal general” in Bahrain’s army.
The Aderlass (“bloodletting”) investigation—being spearheaded by German state prosecutors with cooperation from multiple European countries—made international headlines in February, when raids at the Nordic Skiing World Championships in Seefeld, Austria, and in Germany led to nine arrests. A video went viral of a skier receiving a blood transfusion as police raided his hotel room. The investigation is centered around German doctor Mark Schmidt, who has been accused of doping athletes for more than a decade. As programs like the Biological Passport have become more refined and made it harder to use performance-enhancing drugs, Schmidt and the athletes he oversees have resorted to the old-school method of transfusions to super-oxygenate an athlete’s blood.
Erzen, who denied any wrongdoing, is one of several Slovenians associated with the Bahrain-Merida team to be implicated as the investigation has shifted its focus toward cycling. Rider Kristijan Koren and Directeur Sportif Borut Bozic—both Slovenian—were named in the investigation and were suspended at the start of the on-going Giro d’Italia. Links emerged between Erzen and Schmidt this week, when French newspaper Le Monde first reported that Erzen used a Croatian intermediary to attempt to buy a centrifuge from Schmidt. Centrifuges are used to oxygenate an athlete’s blood, which is then transfused intravenously before competition.
Erzen has formed a close relationship with Sheikh Nasser over the past six years and spends considerable time in Bahrain. In 2015, Slovenian website Portal reported that Erzen had relocated to Bahrain to act as Sheikh Nasser’s cycling coach. The prince seems to have an affinity for Slovenians. Six of the 25 riders on the Bahrain-Merida squad hail from Slovenia, as does triathlete David Plese, a member of Bahrain Endurance 13. (Sheikh Nasser is the primary financier for both teams.) The nature of Plese and Erzen’s relationship is uncertain, although they were pictured together after last year’s Ironman 70.3 Dubai, and Plese has also relocated to the tiny island nation.
Erzen is also quoted as being the race director of Ironman 70.3 Slovenia on Ironman’s website. A spokesperson for Ironman said that he is not the race director of that event and never served in that role, stating, “[Erzen] was in the release and initially quoted as the race director when the event was announced [in December 2017] but never ultimately performed in that role. It seems he had helped get the event to Slovenia but ultimately that was the extent of it.” Erzen is featured in the 2018 Ironman 70.3 Slovenia race guide as the event’s general director, along with his welcome letter to athletes.
The specifics of the financial arrangement between Ironman and Sheikh Nasser are unclear, but Ironman has hosted a 70.3 in Bahrain since 2015. Both Ironman and Bahrain Endurance 13 declined to further comment for this story.
In March, German prosecutor Kai Gräber stated that Operation Aderlass was looking into 21 athletes with links to Schmidt and that transfusions had been performed at events as far-reaching as the Honolulu Marathon. He also ominously warned: “We have here an exciting story with a lot of twists, and the final chapter has not yet been written.”