WADA has questions as Spanish court revives Operacion Puerto inquiry

WADA chief Howman says "every possible block has been put in the way" of discovering who besides cyclists might be implicated in Operación Puerto

MADRID (VN) — Alberto Contador will be among those who will give testimony to a Spanish court after it opens hearings into the Operación Puerto doping scandal on Monday, seven years after it erupted in 2006.

The trial in Madrid will do little to boost the credentials of a sport still reeling from Lance Armstrong’s admission that he cheated his way to a record seven Tour de France wins. And some skeptics — among them director-general David Howman of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) — want to know why only cyclists are on the hot seat.

Spanish police raided several apartments and a laboratory in Madrid on May 23, 2006, seizing around 200 bags of blood. A number of top cyclists were implicated, among them Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Contador, and Italian Ivan Basso.

On the same day, police arrested doctors, sporting directors and trainers suspected of taking part in the doping scheme.

Beginning Monday, five people will have to answer charges of committing an “offense against public health,” including the suspected mastermind of the network, 57-year-old doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.

The others are Fuentes’ sister Yolanda; former Liberty Seguros cycling team director Manolo Saiz; former Comunitat Valencia cycling team chief Vicente Belda; and Belda’s deputy, Jose Ignacio Labarta.

The case against the network’s alleged blood expert, doctor Jose Luis Merino Batres, has been provisionally closed on the grounds that he has Alzheimer’s disease.

The five defendants are charged with endangering public health rather than incitement to doping, which was not a crime at the time of the arrests. A Spanish anti-doping law was not passed until November 2006.

The distinction between the two charges is likely to be pivotal.

The prosecutor, who is seeking a two-year prison sentence plus a two-year professional ban for the accused, will have to show the performance-enhancing blood transfusions put the riders’ health at risk.

Fuentes, who has always described himself as a doctor who simply wanted to help athletes, flatly denies this.

In his written defense, a copy of which was published by the Spanish daily El Pais, the Canary Islands doctor said the blood and plasma were stored in “ideal conditions.”

“None of the athletes in this case have been been harmed,” he said.

Former cyclist Jesus Manzano, scheduled to testify on February 11, is expected to argue otherwise.

Manzano, a former rider on the Spanish team Kelme, for which Fuentes was then the head doctor, was sacked after the 2004 Vuelta a España after being discovered with a woman in his hotel room.

He subsequently disclosed the extent of doping in the Spanish team, claiming that he received blood transfusions and was taken to hospital during the 2003 Tour after collapsing on the stage to Morzine in the French Alps.

Another witness will be Contador, winner of the 2007 and ’09 Tours, who has returned to competition after serving a ban for the banned substance clenbuterol, which he blamed on a contaminated steak.

The 30-year-old Contador, due to appear February 5, was initially linked to Operación Puerto but was later cleared of any involvement by a Spanish judge and the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

Although a number of top cyclists were implicated in the affair, initial reports, as well as Fuentes, have said that other athletes — primarily tennis players and footballers — had been involved.

Those statements were later retracted, and the investigators’ final report contained a list of 58 clients, all cyclists.

However, WADA director-general Howman says that all evidence — not just that leveled against cyclists — should be handed over to his agency, which is a party in the case and has fought hard to bring it to court.

“It’s not just other cases in cycling but in a range of sports,” Howman told The Guardian newspaper. “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 need to know what those sports are and who those athletes are so the information can be handed over to agencies who can do something about it.

“Every possible block has been put in the way. We want people to share that information through Interpol or some other means so that everyone can benefit from it. We were told it wasn’t just one sport. But we’ve never been given the follow-up data. This has so far proved to be a very unfair caricature of one sport, where there were others involved.”

Of the cyclists implicated, only six have suffered sporting sanctions: Valverde, Germans Jan Ullrich and Jörg Jaksche, and Italians Basso, Michele Scarponi and Giampaolo Caruso, who was later acquitted by the international Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

The investigating judge, Antonio Serrano, closed the case twice, in 2007 and 2008, on the grounds that the doping-related allegations were not illegal at the time and that the small amounts found of blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) did not constitute a health risk.

The Madrid provincial courts obliged him to re-open the case.

But Manzano said last week that he had little hope that the case, scheduled to last until March 22, would provide many answers.

“I don’t have many hopes with the judges having opened and closed the case so many times,” he told The Guardian. “There are 100 bags of blood that nobody knows who they belong to, and many other things, a lot of [doping] products. There are things we will never know.”

Spain now is preparing a new anti-doping law, aiming to harmonize its legislation with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s anti-doping code.

 Editor’s note: Agence France Presse contributed to this report.