Operation Puerto: 2006, A Judicial Odyssey

The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it’s full of stars!

So says Dr David Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 A Space Odyssey as he gazes into the mysterious black monolith. Spanish police must have had a similar feeling in 2006 as they reached into the special refrigerator humming in Madrid that belonged to Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and found it full of bloodbags belonging to star names of sport.

Six years later the trial has finally started. What will happen?

This is not a doping trial
If you take nothing else away, remember that doping was not a crime in 2006. Therefore the police and judicial action has been slow and non-priority. If they uncovered a vast doping network they didn’t find anything illegal. So the trial starting today is not a doping trial. It is instead a matter of public health: was Fuentes endangering the health of athletes with unlicensed medicine? He of course says no, but the prosecution will bring forward witnesses like Jesus Manzano who fell seriously ill several times and claims this was directly the result of blood manipulation.

Athletes as witnesses
To repeat this trial will see cyclists called as witnesses. No rider is on trial for doping, instead their testimony will be used to help prosecute, defend and assess the operations of Fuentes and his colleagues.

Protection Part I
What is surprising though is that if doping is not a crime it took so long for the information to be passed on to others. The Spanish authorities refused to cooperate with the Italians who asked for details on Alejandro Valverde. It was only when a request from CONI, Italy’s Olympic committee, arrived in Madrid when the chief investigator was on holiday that a junior unwittingly replied with the information which ultimately led to Alejandro Valverde being banned in Italy and this being made global. Tragically Valverde railed against this injustice although he has a right to be annoyed given he was caught when many others were not. Files of notes show many other names linked and the strength of the prosecution depended on nationality. The Italians nailed Valverde when the Spanish would not and similarly CONI got bans for Basso and Scarponi.

Campeonato de Europa… de Atletismo?

Protection Part II
It is said that Fuentes was not just working with cycling teams but also with track and field athletes, swimmers, rowers and some of the biggest names in Spanish football. But only cycling saw participants caught. UCI President Pat McQuaid has claimed the Spanish police and the country’s sports minister met to discuss the raids, alleging a conspiracy in an interview with the German media:

“I was told that only 50-60 of Fuentes’ clients were cyclists. Other sports were also mentioned, such as football, track and field, swimming and tennis”

I’m always reluctant when cycling tries to divert attention to other sports but this time the case in Spain will see pressure to look across all sports. WADA is part of the case and supporting the prosecution, here’s President John Fahey:

“It’s not just other cases in cycling but in a range of sports. The whole purpose of the exercise, and the reason we’ve been so resolute in pursuing this to court, has been to find out who those athletes are.”

We’ll see what happens. But note it’s not as if cycling has been forensically taken apart, it seems a lot of the Puerto bans came from Italy and the Spanish anti-doping efforts never pursued a lot of domestic cyclists named in the case either. So whilst we might want other sports to be accountable, this might also mean yet more cyclists trapped in the net. A lawyer familiar with the case spoke to Spanish paper AS to say:

“However, I am afraid we’re in for a big disappointment, because the view is that this won’t be a doping case, but one against public health, and I am convinced that the judge is going to limit a lot”

Procedure, not names
If this is a public health matter then it is not about who was involved. Instead this is procedural, a matter of how the doping was conducted:

  • nevermind if the substances were banned or enhanced performances, were they harmful?
  • what were the doses administered, did they exceed standard medical use?
  • was the practice of bloodbanking conducted hygienically?

Given this the judge might want to protect unwitting athletes from exposure as he attempts to find out if Fuentes was risking health. There is also an auxiliary angle with the money: did Fuentes pay his taxes and were those wiring money to him also complying with the law?

Fuentes’ Defence
Ironically Doctor Fuentes defence should be found in admitting to a large scale doping programme, only that he was so good at it that he carefully administered cautious doses and never harmed anyone. Indeed he could even try the provocative claim that his work was merely rebalancing the body chemistry of fatigued athletes, run down by training and competition.

Fuentes can claim innocence but WADA is putting serious pressure on the Spanish authorities to prosecute and evidence used in this trial can be used for doping prosecutions. Once the trial is over documents, notes, bank records and more will no longer be the sole property of the Spanish prosecutor and can be used by WADA and others for anti-doping prosecutions. There’s an eight year statute of limitations meaning the clock is ticking on a lot of the evidence.

A note to mention that it is possible for cyclists to get in trouble. Take Ivan Basso who said he never blood doped, merely that he started banking blood with Doctor Fuentes. He was still sanctioned for “attempted doping” but if it were to be proven that he had used banned substances or methods on other occasions then he could be charged again and banned, thus ending his career. The same is true of others too.

If it’s taken over six years to start, don’t expect a fast verdict. First we get about two months of verbal hearings with witnesses called for questioning. For example Tyler Hamilton is expected to explain how he fell ill after a blood transfusion, and blame this on storage errors. Big names including Alberto Contador will be present, either in person or by video link. After this two month period the case will go on and a verdict might not appear before the end of the year. If it does it is subject to appeal.

71 accredited journalists will be following the trial with over half coming from abroad. However they might get bored of the popcorn with the case dragging on and focusing on procedure.

Talking of the foreign media, note doping has since been made a criminal matter, in fact the Spanish have since made up for lost time and busted a lot of doping operations, from small time steroid use to international networks. Does Spain have more doping or is it just chasing the cheats better? Certainly other countries have not made as many arrests, in fact it is still not a crime in some European countries, nor the US, an asymmetry that’s readily exploited by sporting cheats and their enablers.

Fuentes might be on trial but strong questions should be asked of the Spanish media. Often capable of good investigative work, few seem to have wanted to lift the stone labelled Puerto to find out what dark secrets were hidden below.

The trial will focus on public health and won’t get to the heart of sports doping, in fact there’s been a consistent attempt to avoid looking too closely here. It’s not about the stars involved, only the medicine. As such the Operation Puerto trial looks more like a science documentary than Kubrick’s cinema. Those grabbing the popcorn in anticipation of revelations, scandals and gossip might be disappointed.

45 thoughts on “Operation Puerto: 2006, A Judicial Odyssey”

  1. What I still don’t understand is how Fuentes (and Saiz and Belda) are not charged with fraud or attempted fraud, because that is quite simply what they intended to do with the races, and the crime did exist at the time, very clearly defined, in Spanish criminal law. International media pressure could perhaps help the prosecutor consider this.

    • I was bemused that doping is not a crime, but surely the dopers can be done on some sort of match fixing/tampering if nothing else – by taking drugs aimed to change the outcome of a match?

      Also, if doping was not an offence in Spain, then even if they only doped in Spain, if they competed in another country (where doping was a crime) whilst under the influence of doping could they not be prosecuted?

      I think it was summed up nicely by an article I read, something like – Spain is trying to save it’s sporting reputation and sports stars.

    • Who has Feuntes defrauded? The people who paid him for advice/EPO/blood-banking got what they paid for.

      As to whether those people defrauded any event organisers, the police would have to link particular banned practices to an effect on participation in particular events, which might be very difficult. After all, just because Fuentes prescribed Hamilton EPO on a particular date doesn’t mean that he used that EPO before a particular competition.

      • Taking a performance enhancing drug out of competition allows you to make greater improvements in your training then if you did not (train harder for longer). So even if you do not take performance enhancing drugs during the competition, your performance will have been improved artificially by them.

        So as long as it can be proved that Hamilton took EPO, then he’s cheating in all competitions after.

        At least that’s how I see it.

      • Well said.
        Sports is sports, and it is up to the individual federations to govern the rules/enforcements. Not sure I’m down with the authorities being involved. Something about civil liberties, etc.

        • You wouldn’t have to prove that any event organiser has been defrauded (e.g. when awarding prizes), you just have to prove the intent was there, and that is obvious. If you read the transcripts from Fuentes phone conversations, you read things like “I need to de-freeze all the blood for the guys who are now doing the Giro d’Italia”. RCS could easily sue him.

  2. “There is also an auxiliary angle with the money: did Fuentes pay his taxes and were those wiring money to him also complying with the law?”
    If this is the case, and financial records, detailing bank transfers etc form part of the evidence, then surely it is a relatively easy step to identify those making the payments. Seems difficult to believe that a Madrid based sports doctor did not have local footballers or tennis players on his books.

    • Exactly, it is not too hard to look. But who is looking? Perhaps people don’t want to look and having discovered the extent of the problem, shutting down Fuentes and his lab was enough without going after the stars and national heroes?

  3. The “It’s full of stars” quote only appeared in the sequel 2010, not in 2001 A Space Odyssey. It did appear in the post-film novelisation, however.
    I’ll get my coat.

  4. I remember reading somewhere that the Spanish parliament had decreed that only the cyclists involved were to be dealt with in the forthcoming trial, not athletes from other sports. Is this correct or am I in error? Barcelona FC and Real Madrid FC were rumoured as being among the Fuentes clients, along with certain highly decorated tennis players and various olympic athletes.

    I also think I am correct in asserting that the UCI was the only peak body that asked for the names uncovered, and that FIFA in particular had zero interest in the client list.

    It is grossly unfair that cycling must take the brunt if that is indeed the case. The Spanish do, however, if rumours are accurate, have World Cups and champions league trophies at stake, not to mention Grand Slam tournaments. That’s a lot of pressure.

    It would be nice to think that between this trial and the Padua (Ferrari) investigation in Italy, the other (european) shoe will drop following the reasoned decision, and while it is great that these things are being brought to light and cycling may have a chance to move forward, it is disheartening at the same time if cycling is left hanging in the wind to twist while the other sports busily point the finger while ignoring the same transgressions in their own sport.

    • Indeed, I heard a rumour that Fuentes was ready to confess to the whole lot (footballer, tennis players etc.) but backed off after death threats to him and his family.

      Just a rumour mind and I know inrng should be above rumour but it is pretty annoying…

      • No not only a rumor. He said that to Le Monde in December 2006. IIRC in the same interview he said he wondered why the police did not search his offices in Las Palmas with all of his files.

        Also a very curious fact, the list contained around 200 clients from all kind of sports, 58 got deciphered, only cyclists. That is a really strange coincidence, statistically nearly impossible.

        • Cycling is known by the world to be a ‘dirty sport riddled with dopers’ whereas most other sport’s reputations are broadly in tact, you can see why governing bodies wouldn’t want their best and brightest to be exposed but effectively they are 10 years behind the UCI. It’s odd to think about it but really the UCI is still a decade or more ahead of the other world governing bodies when it comes to doping, however backwards their stance may look.

          FIFA and the ATP won’t want their top competitions brought into disrepute so if they know doping is going on they are most likely to work quietly in the background to weed out dopers and improve controls without having a Festina stlye affair (much like the UCI did with Armstrong). If the ATP can move players away from doping without anyone noticing then they get to fight doping but also keep their reputation in tact. There has been rumours (and I stress that it is rumour and entirely unproven) for years that a particular top Spanish tennis player has been ‘injured’ so as to get notes for steriod injections and has had spells on the side-lines which nicely equate to 3 or 6 months ‘bans’. In fact that player was rumoured to keep getting ‘different’ injuries requiring steriod injections rather than the much more likely recurring injuries you’d expect but which wouldn’t have entitled them to additional steriods.

          This tactic of trying to encourage dopers to change their ways without making it public didn’t work for the UCI and I can’t see it working for anyone else. I’ll be interested to see where all other sports are in ten years time though. You never know but the UCI may be well ahead of it’s time.

        • Money brings power, and power is able to silence this sort of thing, especially in old world Europe. That the politicians, league officials and the court system would be complicit is hardly surprising.

  5. I’m doing some maths: “If it’s taken over six years to start” + “the case will go on and a verdict might not appear before the end of the year.” + “If it does it is subject to appeal.” = Could all this take it over the eight year statute of limitations?

    • Yes, imagine if the offences date from April 2006. If the case continues all year and then goes to appeal it could only end for good in 2014, so eight years after the events and perhaps beyond the timeframe to act. We’ll see but the clock is ticking on this one.

      • Well it looks like it from a sporting angle from where I’m sitting.

        Lets look at the evidence:
        Contador originally cleared by Spanish authorities
        Valverde only banned because CONI pursued it

        And then the circumstancial stuff:
        Spanish tennis players running around as fast and hitting the ball as hard at the end of 4 hours as at the start, while opponents are breathing out of their arses
        Spanish football teams successfully maintaining incredibly high tempo football for 90-120 mins

        Tell me that doesn’t paint Spanish sport in a dodgy light.

  6. Cycling here is (unfortunately) just the scapegoat.. what the spanish are afraid is the issue of Football.. they have since won two European Cups and one World Cup meaning billions in endorsments and prize money! Do not forget that only for 2012 Real Madrid and Barcelona grossed net profits over 1 billion euros.. and of course there is FIFA and UEFA, UCI are little lambs in front of them!!

    Just a shame that cycling is getting all the heat..

  7. Three things come to my mind, one of which regards financial reporting/taxes and has already been mentioned. Another is that there should be provisions in Spanish law that would automatically assume that certain medical procedures or activities done outside the bounds of licensed and regulated facilities be “a danger to public health”. I would think that transfusions and blood storage fall within this range, making the “but no one was harmed” defense only a mitigating factor during the sentencing phase. Thirdly, cyclists will be testifying about doping, which was not then a crime in Spain. But I’m pretty sure that perjury is a crime in Spain….making this all a bit more interesting.

      • Your previous article regarding EPO distribution of absurdly large quantities to markets such as Cyprus really opened my eyes to these issues. Much more is at stake here than catching sports cheaters, making even LA a small fish in this highly polluted sea.

      • According to Tyler H, EPO was available over the counter in Switzerland for many of his years on “the program”. This means no script was needed. Not sure when/if this changed.
        As an aside, I think motoman made quite a few trips to Switzerland.

  8. yeah its really unfortunate that cycling’s reputation is already in tatters so every other sport gets protected and cycling is the scapegoat. for all that we criticise the uci for what they aren’t getting right, they are so far ahead of most other sports in respect of drug testing and yet its still seen as a sign of how dirty the sport is that every so often someone gets caught.

    even with the limited facts made public, much should be made of the fact that even back in the dark days of cycling, only quarter of fuentes clients were cyclists. unfortunately the media always like to point fingers at some target and cycling is such an easy one even if others were named.

    would be great to see the rest of the sporting world catch up and likely show that cycling is now no dirtier than other sports with equivalent physical difficulty. tennis has had a bit of publicity recently for the fact that they have basically no out of competition testing and mostly only urine testing rather than blood.

    the supply issue might be the big thing that comes out of this – information about the practicalities of it all so it can be cut off and prevented rather than just catching cheats after the fact.

  9. I would like to see – a wikileaks-style file – with all the names – the transfers – all the dirt out there – I feel we have the right to know – even though doping was not a crime & appeals plays in favour of actual bans – I would like to know who the real champions are…
    I am based in Spain – in a time with serious social friction it is not like that some of the nations heroes will be revealed as cheats – sports and politics walk hand in hand – just see the two big football clubs past & present…

  10. yesterday on the Flemish TV it was said that the court case of Operacion Galgo will be more interesting. As during this investigation the spanish anti doping was already implemented.
    So this means that not only the dealers but also the athletes and their helpers can sentenced.

  11. Pat McQuaid referring to a meeting with Jaime Lissavetzky and Spanish investigators sometime in 2006:
    “I was told that only 50-60 of Fuentes’ clients were cyclists. Other sports were also mentioned, such as football, track and field, swimming and tennis”

    From the UCI’s Management Committee Meeting on 25~26 July 2007:
    ‘Mr V. Holecek questioned Mr Ph. Verbiest on the involvement of athletes other than cyclists in the Puerto affair. Mr Ph. Verbiest replied to him that Dr. Fuentes had publically stated that cyclists constituted a third of his “clients”. However, Mr Ph. Verbiest pointed out that in the file that had been handed over to the UCI, only the names of cyclists appeared as well as not yet decoded names.’

    Why did Mr Ph. Verbiest refer to the honourable Dr. Fuentes’ public statements but not what Mr P. McQuaid said he was told in 2006?

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