Operation Puerto and Doping in Spain
Was it really a surprise to anyone? No, I’m not talking about the Bradley Wiggins/Chris Froome “who will be the team leader at the Tour de France” squabble. I’m referring to Operation Puerto.
After seven years of winding its way through the Spanish courts, there was a ruling in the Operation Puerto case. Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was found guilty of endangering public health and given a one-year suspended jail sentence. He was also barred from sports medicine for four years and ordered to pay a $6,000 fine. However, here’s the real kicker - the judge in the case has ordered that the over 200 blood bags seized by the Spanish police must be destroyed! But before we go on, let’s bring everyone up to speed.
For those who may have forgotten (And I can’t blame you if you had - we’ve had so many juicy cycling scandals these past years it’s hard to keep track!) Operation Puerto was a Spanish police operation against Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and his network of associates. Doctor Fuentes was accused by Spanish police of providing an organized blood doping program for cyclists as well as numerous professional athletes in other sports such as tennis, soccer, and track and field. Let’s be clear - cycling isn’t the only sport with a performance enhancing drug problem - it’s just the most visible due to the recent Lance Armstrong confession.
What’s blood doping versus your ordinary pill popping or injecting type of doping? Blood doping is removing blood from a patient, turbo charging it with more red blood cells, which help carry oxygen and improve endurance and aerobic capacity. This all sounds very illegal doesn’t it? Well, it depends on where you live.
Spain’s first anti-doping law wasn’t on the books until 2006. Up until then Spain, though part of the European Union, didn’t have a hard and fast law on doping. In Spain athletic doping is considered an endangering public health issue - not a cheating-at-sports issue. So as long as it was done by a doctor it was okay.
This is not to say that Spanish riders were doped to the gills and got away with it. There was anti-drug enforcement being carried out that resulted in Spanish riders getting popped - case in point Alberto Contador. However, the Spanish government wasn’t enforcing the anti-doping - case in point the Spanish Prime Minister defending Alberto Contador.
It wasn’t until March of this year that Spain approved of an anti-doping bill that aligns with the World Anti-Doping Agency standards. In cycling terms - Spain wasn’t just off the back when it came to doping enforcement, Spain dropped out at the first feed zone and said “Screw it!” tossing the bike into a ditch Bjarne Riis style.
So why the big interest by Spain to “Just Say No” to doping? In a word: Olympics.
Spain is bidding on the 2020 Olympics and they can’t appear to be soft on doping if they hope to win the nomination. This new anti-doping bill is expected to become law this summer.
Before we move forward to 2020, let’s go back to February of 2012. Spanish Sport Minister Jose Ignacio Wert said, “We have a problem with doping and that’s why we have every intention of making sure Spain’s anti-doping law conforms with WADA’s anti-doping code.” Later this year Wert told the AP that once the bill is passed by Parliament, “The impression that (Spain) lacks toughness on doping will disappear.” But until then ...
Now we are dealing with technicalities and loop holes in the Spanish judiciary system that moves at the pace of an ice glacier not subjected to global warming. As mentioned earlier blood doping wasn’t illegal in Spain as long as the doping was performed by a doctor and carried out in a sterile environment. That was Dr. Fuentes’ “get out of jail free” card. He claims he did perform transfusions, but in a clean, safe environment.
However, anyone who read Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race” knows that wasn’t always the case. Hamilton had his blood drawn by Dr. Fuentes’ assistant, not a doctor.
As you can see, Operation Puerto has been a big, bloody mess from beginning to end. But now the judge wants to destroy the blood bags so that no athletes can be identified.
“The decision to order the destruction of all the blood bags is particularly disappointing and unsatisfactory for WADA, and the whole anti-doping community,” said World Anti-Doping Agency general director David Howman. It sure is!
The reason why the Spanish judge wants to see the blood bags destroyed isn’t clear. One possible reason is the original judge wouldn’t allow any evidence to be submitted that pertained to doping in sports, because doping wasn’t illegal in 2006. Therefore, if you follow that line of logic the names shouldn’t be made public - kinda like doctor/patient confidentiality. If you are trying to find the logic in that please don’t try - your head might explode.
Another possibility is that the judge doesn’t want to open a huge can of worms in another sport like soccer or tennis. When it comes to soccer, Spain are the reigning World and European champions - and FIFA is already struggling with corruption claims. It would be a huge national embarrassment to discover that a whole squad of Spanish athletes were doping. Spain could forget about getting the Olympics if it was discovered their national soccer team was dirty, or for that matter organized doping on a national level was going on underneath their noses.
Thankfully the Spanish Anti-Doping Agency is going to appeal the judge’s ruling.
Speaking to the AP, Spanish Anti-Doping Agency director Ana Muñoz said, “We know the truth that says that Dr. Fuentes is not a good doctor because he did some practices that are very bad for the health of athletes. But, on the other hand, it is necessary to know the names of the athletes.”
If these names are not made public the Spanish government is waving the white flag and admitting they lost to doping - they’d rather just sweep it away than to clean it up.
The only positive note out of this whole cluster known as Operation Puerto is that Spain is now officially in alignment with the rest of the world in regards to anti-doping. We’ll have to see how enthusiastically Spain pursues cheats. The world will be watching.