The specter of the infamous Operacion Puerto blood doping ring just won’t go away.
More than a decade following the scandalous headlines involving blood bags, PEDs and an international doping ring involving dozens of athletes, the ghost of Puerto is raising its head yet again.
According to a report in the Spanish sports daily AS, a Spanish court has ruled that critical evidence could be passed on to Italian anti-doping officials.
The news comes just as recently crowned world champion Alejandro Valverde has pushed back against questions pertaining to his own links to the Puerto scandal. The Italians outed Valverde after linking samples to a Puerto blood bag.
Earlier this week, journalists at Milano-Torino pressed the recently crowned world champion about his two-year ban in 2010.
“Operacion Puerto is something I shouldn’t even be asked about,” Valverde told reporters. “Whoever asks about Operacion Puerto has no idea.”
Valverde’s links to the Puerto scandal have made more than a few fans and media uncomfortable seeing the Spanish veteran in the venerated rainbow jersey. Unlike other repentant dopers who came clean about their pasts, Valverde has largely remained mute about his Puerto period.
In Valverde’s mind, he served his ban and that should be the end of it. Spanish fans and media have largely embraced Valverde since his 2012 comeback and many of his contemporaries congratulated the 38-year-old on his victory in Austria two weeks ago.
“It’s all in the past and I don’t even want to talk about it,” Valverde said. “I think I’ve demonstrated more than enough about who I am since then.”
Questions about Puerto persist, especially in light of news coming out of Spain this week.
The Spanish sports daily AS reported that the Spanish court overseeing the case ruled that blood bags and other evidence could be available for Italian authorities. It could be the last chance to reveal more names implicated in the Puerto scandal because the same court is also ordering that key evidence be destroyed as part of its formal closure of the case.
According to AS, both the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency have already had access to the blood bags and reported that WADA has been able to identify 26 men and three women associated with the Puerto ring. Due to the statute of limitations and fears of lawsuits, WADA has chosen not to reveal the information, AS reported. WADA officials were not immediately available for comment.
More than two dozen cyclists, track and field athletes, and other sports personalities are thought to be linked to the Puerto scandal. Only a handful of names have been released. In fact, Valverde is one of only a handful of riders to have served a ban due to links to the Puerto scandal. Others officially linked include Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi, Jörg Jaksche, Tyler Hamilton, Thomas Dekker, and Jan Ullrich.
Due to a statute of limitations, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI cannot pursue sporting bans against suspected athletes. Though there has been pressure to reveal names, so far authorities have chosen not to release names due to legal questions and fear of lawsuits. Spain also sees its hands tied due to other legal issues, and Spanish anti-doping authorities chose not to further pursue the case.
Whether or not CONI acts remains to be seen, but it’s an important development because it was CONI that intercepted Valverde when the 2008 Tour de France dipped into Italy for a stage to Prato Nevoso. Authorities acquired blood samples from Valverde that night following the stage in surprise controls when the Tour entourage spent the night on Italian soil. CONI later linked Valverde to one of the numbered blood bags as part of Fuentes’s cache of evidence.
Despite a court challenge, an eventual two-year ban stood and Valverde was sidelined during parts of the 2010 and 2011 seasons. He returned to competition in 2012 and immediately won a stage at his comeback race in the Santos Tour Down Under. Valverde rarely speaks about his ban and has since emerged as one of the most consistent performers across the peloton.
The latest development is important because CONI could use the evidence to chase other riders and athletes so far unnamed on the Puerto list. The report noted that CONI has not officially requested the information, but the ruling opened the door for the Italians to have access to the evidence.
More than a decade after it made headlines, the infamous Puerto legacy continues to linger.
On Saturday, Valverde will race in the Giro di Lombardia fully decked out in the rainbow jersey on a custom-painted bike.