By Andrew Hood
Perhaps it was with no small measure of irony that Allan Davis – one of the nine riders kicked out of last year’s Tour de France for being implicated in the Operación Puerto blood doping ring – won stage three at the Volta a Catalunya on Wednesday one year to the day the scandal exploded on front pages across Europe.
The investigation into the alleged blood doping ring has since paralyzed cycling and the sport is grappling on how to tread the confusing and treacherous legal waters spawned by the scandal.
Despite the tough language coming out of the UCI that confirmed Puerto riders such as Ivan Basso should not be shown any clemency, it’s past time to bring closure to the Puerto scandal.
And perhaps the best and only way to do that is to cut a deal.
It’s obvious that Spanish authorities uncovered some very dirty business – that’s hard to deny in the face of overwhelming, yet albeit circumstantial evidence – but gaining a clear and accurate picture of who was really involved, what they were doing and then dish out racing bans is proving elusive.
Despite a year of collective hand-wringing, finger-pointing, choir-boy denials, tightened anti-doping controls and muckraking journalism, Puerto threatens to poison cycling’s marquee race for the second year in a row.
Can cycling afford that, with the Floyd Landis hearing unfolding like the OJ trial and the blockbuster admissions of EPO use by members of the Telekom juggernaut of the mid-1990s?
The problem with Puerto is that there is no end of the story.
There are close to 60 riders on the Puerto list. So far, we know three.
Basso shocked the world just days before the start of the Giro, after nearly a year of lying about it and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars, when he uttered in Italian: “Io sono Birillo.”
Michele Scarponi, an ex-Liberty Seguros rider also set to start the Giro, fessed up that he was “Zapatero.” DNA matches to nine bags of blood in the Fuentes cache revealed that Jan Ullrich was “Hijo de Rudicio.”
What about “Santi Petri,” “41-42,” “Acalde,” “Sansome,” “Búfalo” and the other nicknames and pseudonyms?
Why should riders such as Davis and Oscar Sevilla, two riders who were kicked out of last year’s Tour, be allowed to race and win (Sevilla won Thursday’s stage at Catalunya and took the leader’s jersey) while Tyler Hamilton and Jörg Jaksche, two riders who might be on the Puerto list, not be allowed to start the Giro?
Riders are now being subjected to a slimy game of connect-the-pet-name-to-a-rider. Rather big names are being linked to the pseudonyms “41-42,” “Urko,” “Piti” and “Amigo de Birillo” with little real evidence other than a journalist’s hunch.
The uncertainty, ambiguity and absurdity of the Puerto scandal just beg for some sort of deal with the alleged culprits.
There seems to be no resolution coming out of Spain. The Spanish judge overseeing the case recently shelved the investigation to end any chance of legal action and the Spanish cycling federation has already dismissed the possibility of sanctions against its riders.
Because the Puerto scandal erupted before new anti-doping legislation was signed into law, Spanish officials can’t prosecute riders implicated in the scandal because – at the time – they hadn’t done anything illegal.
Only Fuentes and hematologist José Luis Merino Batres faced charges of “endangering public health,” but those were dropped when it appeared Fuentes and Merino stored their bags of red gold in accordance with existing health laws.
As a result, the entire Puerto mess has been dumped on the front door of the UCI.
The complete Puerto dossier now totals some 6000 pages. That’s a big pile of evidence and UCI president Pat McQuaid admitted it will take months before legal staff can dig through the new papers, meaning that won’t happen until the end of the 2007 racing season at best, if not into 2008.
The key piece of the Puerto puzzle is the nearly 200 bags of plasma and blood in the hands of Spanish police. Ullrich’s DNA match opened the door for the Basso case to be re-activated and further profiling offers the best chance to clearly identify several key Fuentes clients.
The practical solution would be to require DNA tests for riders on the Puerto list to be matched against the bags.
The legal issues aren’t so cut and dry, however. The UCI has no legal authority to force the DNA testing. So far, only Italian and German officials have shown the judicial backbone to force the issue.
Remember, Basso would have been racing in the Giro this month if it weren’t for a stubborn German prosecutor who kept hammering away to get at the Puerto blood pouches to test against Ullrich. That later embarrassed the Italians to reopen the Basso file.
McQuaid should be lauded for not letting the Puerto die a quiet death and he’s taken a lot of heat from some within the cycling community for pushing a hard line on the Puerto case.
The inclusion of the World Anti-Doping Agency as a civil party to the case should bring some needed clout to speed along racing sanctions, but how long can cycling afford to wait? Any action by WADA could take months, if not years, to unfold.
Against this compost pile of ambiguity and uncertainty, there’s one very real option – cut a deal.
While it might seem unsavory for the UCI to offer an easy way out for blatant cheats, a one-time amnesty with a reduced ban would be the best practical solution to bring closure to the scandal that could haunt cycling for years.
Just look at what’s happened with the Basso case to see why a deal might work.
Basso dismayed everyone when he stopped short of a full confession by insisting he was only intending to dope in the 2006 Tour. McQuaid put it so succinctly last week when asked by VeloNews about Basso’s half-confession: “Does he think we’re a bunch of idiots, or what?”
Or, more likely, Basso has a good lawyer whispering in his ear. Basso will face a two-year ban — and perhaps lose his 2006 Giro title if evidence proves he doped last year — whether he admits to anything more or not.
So why assist Italian authorities? Basso has nothing to gain and even more to lose if he does.
We already know Basso is not the sentimental type. After all, he cynically signed a million-dollar deal with Discovery Channel and lied about his Puerto links for nearly a year, as long as he thought he was going to get away with it.
Human nature is such that when given the option for an easy way out of a prickly situation, most scumbags will slither towards the easiest exit. Since Basso now sees no offer, he’s clamming up.
Earlier this month, several representatives of Spanish riders quietly approached national officials about owning up on their Puerto collective pasts in exchange for a reduced ban that would allow them to return to competition in time for the 2008 Vuelta a España.
A deal is worth considering, but like any good DA, only a deal with conditions.
Here’s one scenario: offer riders a chance to come clean about what they did, proffering details on the who’s, what’s, where’s and when’s. Don’t require them to spill names and even let their respective doping infractions remain anonymous as part of a package amnesty.
The trade-off? A racing ban of 12 to 18 months, with the condition that they will be put on a watch list, they will be tested more often than a child molester on parole and any subsequent infractions will lead to a lifetime ban.
Leave the option of returning to the ProTour on the table. Why not? Let the marketplace decide if riders are too hot to sign with a big-time sponsor (several ProTour teams showed no gumption at all about signing Puerto riders this season).
Sound too soft?
Maybe. But the real intention here is to encourage cheats to come in from the cold and dismantle a doping ring, not publicly crucify athletes who are caught in the middle of what many contend is a corrupt and rotten system that encourages and promotes doping in the first place.
Things obviously haven’t changed since Affaire Festina of nearly a decade ago, so offering a chance for riders to unburden themselves might come as a welcome relief and garner some interesting results. Perhaps we could even find leads to uncover the other Fuentes rings in operation.
And throw this stick out there with the carrot: If they don’t come forward now and evidence later supports that they were indeed part of the Puerto ring, a lifetime ban straight up – second offense or not.
At one level, this type of deal making is repulsive, but considering the UCI’s relatively weak position concerning Puerto, a deal could stop the bleeding for everyone – pun intended.
While riders might take a deal if offered one, what’s sure is if there isn’t one, they will continue to resolutely look us in the eye and say they’re as innocent as a choirboy on Sunday.
In light of the recent admissions of EPO-use by riders on the mighty Telekom team of the mid-1990s, does cycling really want the prospect of another generation of riders coming forward to say, oh yeah, I was blood doping when I won the (fill in title of major race here)?
As sleazy as it might seem, cutting a deal might be the only way for cycling to clean its hands of this bloody mess.
Andrew Hood is VeloNews’ European correspondent