Operacion Puerto: bigger than Armstrong?

Published 22 March 2013 By: Jacob O’Brien

Ivan Basso - Cyclist

2012 was a year of epic sporting battles, Mourinho's Madrid found a way to defeat the brilliance of Guardiola's Barcelona, the European Ryder Cup team overcame the odds during the 'Miracle at Medinah', and Bradley Wiggins conquered the French mountains to become Britain's first yellow jersey winner. However, while 2012 will be remembered for the accomplishments of the athletes on the field, it is possible that the most important contest of 2013 will take place in the court room of Spanish judge Julia Patricia Santamaría.

The trial of Dr Eufemiano Fuentes and his associates is the culmination of the seven year investigation by the Spanish authorities called 'Operación Puerto'. While currently lacking the Hollywood glamour of the Lance Armstrong revelations, the Operación Puerto trial has the potential to be considerably more explosive, encompassing major sports that have to date been relatively untainted by doping.

The current state of affairs can, as its root, be traced back to a simple case of a disgruntled sacked employee. In 2004 Spanish cyclist Jesus Manzano gave an interview to the Spanish newspaper AS in which he detailed the widespread doping practices engaged in by his former team Kelme and their team doctor at the time, a certain Dr Fuentes. Manzano claimed that he was given a botched blood transfusion during the 2003 Tour de France which resulted in him being airlifted to hospital. He later repeated these allegations to an Italian prosecutor.

Manzano's claims led to a full-scale investigation by the Spanish Guardia Civil involving wiretaps and raids on various properties in 2006.What they uncovered was a wide-ranging doping ring encompassing much more than just professional cycling. The raids on Dr Fuentes' properties unearthed nearly 200bags of blood, as well as a huge array of doping products and transfusion equipment. Perhaps most intriguingly, however, were a stash of documents containing doping calendars and code names which Dr Fuentes used to identify his clients. Many clients took a leaf out of the Harry Redknapp playbook, using their pet dogs as code names, cyclists Ivan Basso and Jörg Jaksche were 'Birillo' and 'Bella' respectively.

Over 50 cyclists were eventually identified from the code names and have been leaked to various news agencies such as Spanish radio station Cadena SER and Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport, however no athletes from outside cycling have been named. The list of cyclists publicly implicated reads like a who's who of early twenty-first century professional cyclists: Alberto Contador, Ivan Basso, Frank Schleck, Marco Pantani and Tyler Hamilton were all involved with Dr Fuentes. Despite this wealth of evidence only a handful of the cyclists caught up in the scandal have ever been banned as a direct result of Operación Puerto, and there have been suggestions that the Spanish authorities have been far from proactive in pursuing the matter.

All of this is relatively old news of course. The rampant doping culture of professional cycling has been well-documented, and the recent Lance Armstrong 'revelations' were far from surprising to anybody who wanted to diga little deeper over the past few years. The real interest to both anti-doping officials and the wider press isin those clients that have not been identified. Dr Fuentes has confirmed that he had over 200 clients, of which only the 50 or so professional cyclists have been publicly named. That leaves approximately 150 non-cycling clients who remain anonymous, and there is no shortage of officials and anti-doping bodies itching to get their hands on the client list.


The Trial

While the sporting suspensions and bans handed down have been underwhelming, there is hope that the criminal trial that began on 28 January this year might finally reveal the extent of the Spanish doping ring. The early signs, however, are that Judge Santamaría wants this trial to be about the defendants and not the athletes he treated.

This case has been closed twice by the Spanish judiciary, and was only reopened on the insistence of the Madrid provincial courts. As doping did not become a criminal offence in Spain until after Operación Puerto, Dr Fuentes and his four co-defendants are being tried for public health violations. On top of this Judge Santamaría has refused to allow prosecutors access to Dr Fuentes' computer, and has ruled that the defendant is under no obligation to disclose the names of his clients to the court.  The Spanish court are rightly anxious to protect the privacy rights of those athletes involved, more so given the fact that the procedures undertaken were legal at the time, however the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and various national anti-doping organisations have seen this as a lack of co-operation by the courts in the anti-doping fight.

On the second day of the trial, Dr Fuentes answered the questions of two prosecuting lawyers with the poise of a seasoned politician, answering calmly and standing resolutely by his defence. Any transfusions were solely to protect his patients' health, he maintained, and the code names were purely to avoid media attention. Therein lies the frustration for the prosecution and anti-doping officials, Dr Fuentes is perfectly happy to accept that he carried out transfusions (a clear violation of doping regulations), as he merely needs to establish that he did not harm his clients' health by doing so. Lawyers on behalf of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), WADA and the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), who were all added as civil parties to the case after numerous applications, also questioned the star defendant, however he refused to answer, preferring to remain silent throughout. The onlystatement of real interest was Dr Fuentes' confirmation that his clients extended to other sports including football, tennis and boxing. He did not, however, name any names.

Since Dr Fuentes' testimony, various cyclists have taken the stand to explain their involvement with the doping ring. Jesus Manzano, the initial whistleblower, outlined in graphic detail the extreme measures taken to dope and avoid detection. Manzano informed the court that he and his teammates inserted powder into their penises to mask the presence of EPO, and that when he collapsed on a stage of the Tour De France his team prevented the hospital from taking blood tests for fear of what would be discovered. The American Tyler Hamilton has also testified against Fuentes, claiming that his urine turned black after receiving a hotel room transfusion during the Tour De France.

This all paints a damaging portrait of professional cycling. Unfortunately this is nothing new, Christophe Bassons, David Millar and Tyler Hamilton are just some of the cyclists who have written about the peloton's code of silence. The omerta ensured that any rider speaking out about doping was quickly ostracised from the highly political world of cycling, leaving many careers unjustly cut short. What is new, however, is the possibility that this culture may quietly exist in other mainstream sports.


Other sports implicated

In 2006 the French newspaper Le Monde published an article in which it alleged that Fuentes organized doping regimes for the Spanish football teams Barcelona and Real Madrid, the paper was later successfully sued for defamation in a Spanish court. It has also been alleged that after a 2010 arrest Dr Fuentes informed a fellow-prisoner that "If I said what I know, goodbye to the World Cup and European Championship," supposedly a reference to the successful Spanish national football team. Whether true or not, speculation has been rife ever since.

In light of this statement, recent revelations are even more intriguing. Shortly after the beginning of the trial Iñaki Badiola, who was president of Spanish football team Real Sociedad in 2008, claimed to have sacked two doctors after discovering that his predecessor had paid over £280,000 annually to Fuentes in exchange for doping products.

The fact that Sociedad's president at the time, Luis Astiazarán, is now the president of La Liga does not inspire confidence in those who doubt Spanish football's desire to tackle doping. The football authorities' worrying attitude to doping is further revealed in comments by Angel Maria Villar, the president of the Spanish FA, who in response to the Sociedad storystated:

"Thanks be to God, there is no doping. Well, very little, so little that the cases given are just an anecdote to an anecdote. In Spain, players take many tests each weekend, and nobody is found to be positive. That is the reality. The rest is just talk, talk, talk..."

The fact that there has been no positive tests does not necessarily prove anything, as was evident in the case of Lance Armstrong.

Fuentes' confirmation that he worked with professional tennis players is another admission that has provoked intense speculation. There have been very few doping suspensions in tennis, and in 2010 the retiring tennis player Christophe Rochus gave his controversial opinion about tennis that: "There's a lot of cheating. Simply, people don't like to talk about it. I simply would like to stop the pretending. This hypocrisy is exasperating."

With Novak Djokovic recently revealing that he had not been blood tested for around 6 months, there is clearly a problem with tennis's testing programme. Both Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal have in the past complained about the inconvenience of drug-testing, and while this does not necessarily suggest any guilt on their part, it does suggest a lack of understanding of the seriousness of doping within tennis. The International Tennis Federation have sought to address these concerns with the recent announcement that they will be introducing the Athlete Biological Passport in 2013.

Boxing is another big-money sport that Fuentes has confirmed his involvement with. Lamont Peterson, Andre Berto and Antonio Tarver have all tested positive in the recent past, and all three are already back in the ring. Peterson was even allowed to keep his IBF light-welterweight title, despite testing positive for synthetic testosterone. Victor Conte, the mastermind of the infamous Balco laboratory in the USA, gave his judgement in succinct terms when he said of the boxing authorities: "I don't believe they want to know how rampant the use of drugs really is. Testing in boxing is completely and totally inept."

It is simply naïve to think that cycling is the only sport with a doping culture, and the evidence being used in the trial of Dr Fuentes could be the key to discovering just how widespread that culture is.


Anti-doping authorities

As Judge Santamaría made clear in the first couple of days, it is unlikely that the Fuentes trial itself will bring the revelations that anti-doping officials are hoping for. Therefore it appears that the attention of anti-doping organisations has now turned to obtaining the evidence collected during Operación Puerto, so that they can pursue doping prosecutions against individuals and teams once the trial is over. WADA released a statement on 8th February 2013 in which it stated that it had been encouraging the Spanish authorities to release the evidence since 2006, and WADA director-general David Howman recently stated that "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."

Spain is one of the signatories to the UNESCO International Convention against Doping in Sport. Articles 13 and 14 of the Convention impose a duty on the Spanish government to co-operate with anti-doping organisations and to support WADA in their mission to fight doping. This duty of co-operation of course has to be balanced with the right to privacy of those athletes involved, and the Spanish court have previously made clear that no evidence will be released until after the criminal trial has concluded.

Article 20 of WADA's World Anti-Doping Codeimposes obligations on all anti-doping organisations to co-operate and work together, however too often this is not observed. Who will have jurisdiction over doping violations is often a matter of controversy, as was evident from the extended litigation between the UCI and USADA during the Lance Armstrong saga. There are a number of organisations who would have an interest in establishing jurisdiction over the Puerto evidence. The Spanish national anti-doping organisations, the international federations for the sports concerned, and the national sports federations could all feasibly claim to hold responsibility for results management.

Article 15.3 of the Code gives responsibility for results management and hearings to the anti-doping organisation who "discovered the violation". It is likely that WADA will want to keep jurisdiction within the anti-doping community and away from any organisations with vested interests in the sports concerned. For this reason WADA is attempting to obtain the Operación Puerto evidence and will presumably work alongside the national anti-doping organisations, to pursue doping suspensions against athletes incriminated in Fuentes' documents.



There are a number of anti-doping authorities who take their roles very seriously and are doing excellent work in the face of passive, and sometimes even active, resistance. However too often doping regulation is in the hands of the very same people who have most to lose by uncovering any doping.

Cycling has a well-earned doping reputation, and many look down on cycling as a dirty sport which is not worthy of comparison with other more clean sports. However recent developments have shown that the fact that there have been relatively few positive tests in other sports is irrelevant. The recent Australian Crime Commission report showed the prevalence of doping in elite Australian sport, and it is naive to think that the same thing could not be going on in other countries around the world.

Don't expect any bombshells during the trial of Dr Fuentes and his co-accused, however if WADA are successful in getting their hands on the Operación Puerto evidence then anything is possible.


Jacob O’Brien

Jacob O’Brien

Jacob works in the corporate and commercial department of boutique Manchester law firm Heatons LLP advising on all manner of matters including acquisitions and commercial advice. Recreationally Jacob enjoys football, cycling and running and follows most professional sports including cycling, cricket, football and rugby league. He has a particular interest in the international fight against doping in sport. Follow Jacob on LinkedIn.