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The Puerto quagmire going nowhere fast

Questions over Riis, unnamed riders, and other sports abound, but answers may be hard to come by

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MADRID (VN) — The opening day of hearings in the Operación Puerto doping case were not encouraging for anyone expecting revelations.

Instead, it was a media circus outside Juzgados No. 21 on a brisk winter morning in Madrid, with alleged ringleader Eufemiano Fuentes doing the “perp walk” in front of a seething mass of shoving photojournalists and TV camera crews.

After delays, due in large part to the more than 100 media who showed up to document the opening of the highly anticipated hearings, the five defendants did little more than show up before the court did what it’s been doing since 2006: delay the proceedings yet again.

After taking nearly seven years to reach court, yet another delay should not come as a surprise at the slow-moving hands of justice in Spain.

Six years of Puerto coverage >>

Tuesday will see the first testimony from alleged ringleader Fuentes, with Manolo Saíz, Yolanda Fuentes, Vincente Belda and José Ignacio Labarta all lined up in the coming days.

On Monday, all five lined up in front of cameras, none looking very happy to be there, though Belda seemed to have a chuckle at the media circus brewing around him.

It’s hard to say what will come out of the long-awaited hearings. The case has been hamstrung since its inception.

Because there was no existing anti-doping law on the books at the time of the May 2006 raids, the courts could only look at the international doping ring through the narrow prism of current law at the time.

That means that Fuentes and the other Puerto defendants are only looking at lesser charges, such as a risk to public health. Maximum penalties include two-year jail terms (served as probation for first-time offenders), minor fines and perhaps the loss of medical licenses for Fuentes. No athletes involved in the case will face any charges.

There are a few unknowns going into the hearings, however.

First, a new judge is taking over the proceedings. The previous judge had twice tried to close the case due to what he called a lack of evidence. Spanish judges have tremendous autonomy, however, so it will be interesting to see how the new judge, Julia Patricia Santamaría, will frame the arguments.

According to Spanish media reports, defense lawyers are not denying that doping practices took place. Instead, they are expected to argue that the 200 or so blood bags found by police raids complied with medical standards.

How far the judge allows testimony to go will be fundamental to what happens next.

The Puerto hearings are scheduled through late March, with several big names being called to the witness stand.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Puerto scandal from day one has been the lack of transparency.

There were more than 50 cyclists in Fuentes’ files, but only a handful served bans. Others escaped bans entirely, so there are probably more than a few pros nervously watching the proceedings in Madrid.

The UCI and WADA are also watching carefully. They will be waiting on the sidelines, keen to get their hands on police files when the court hearings are completed this spring. That could mean a new round of backdated bans for some still-active riders.

There are questions about other teams not outed in the initial raids, especially the fate of Bjarne Riis, now the manager of Saxo-Tinkoff. In his book, “The Secret Race,” Tyler Hamilton insists that Riis introduced him to Fuentes.

According to ESPN, Hamilton has written the Spanish court outlining his links to Fuentes. Other former Riis riders, including Ivan Basso and Fränk Schleck have had links to Fuentes (Basso served a two-year ban and Schleck admitted to transferring money to Fuentes’ bank account, but was not banned). It remains to be seen if Riis, who denies knowing Fuentes, is eventually implicated.

And there is the question of the “other” sports. Initial Puerto reports signaled links to soccer, tennis, and track and field, among others, but those were quickly hushed up.

If the judge presses Fuentes, the Spanish doctor might divulge his work beyond cycling. That could prove crushing, but also liberating for the sport that often finds itself singled out over its doping history.

There is also increasing political pressure, with a new central government eager to show that Spain can be tough on dopers — especially with Madrid bidding for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

Whether that’s enough to blow open the Puerto files remains to be seen.

One thing is sure about Operación Puerto: you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for a verdict.

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