Friday, January 30, 2009

It's not about the blood - what is Operacion Puerto?

I wrote this a few months ago, no on wants to publish it, but it has made some waves, positive ones .....

The background.

In May 2006 a cd of police documents, what we now know as Operacion Puerto, was leaked to Spain's number one cycling journalist, Carlos Arribas of the daily paper El Pais. The leak subsequently sent the cycling world into turmoil as the extent of the Liberty Seguros program of rider preparation was revealed. Liberty Seguros quickly pulled its sponsorship of Saiz's team as they raced in Italy mid Giro Then other names began to emerge, such as Ullrich and Basso and in the wake of those revelations that year's Tour de France favourite list was cut to shreds. At the centre of the storm was the Spanish doctor (hormone specialist) Dr Eufemiano Fuentes.

The revelation that police had been engaged in surveillance of Fuentes, Saiz and others seems to have emerged because of the intersection of two seemingly unrelated concerns for Spain. One was an ongoing investigation by the Spanish Guardia Civil into the importation of counterfeit or prohibited medicines from sources such as factories in China selling EPO and a wide array of hormone based substances. There have even been hints that there has been an Australian connection to this investigation as investigators sought to trace back the trail of IGH1 which had been entering Spain. It was this illegal importation and subsequent supply that The Guardia Civil were interested in cracking.

In late 2005 this investigation intersected by chance with the disaster that arose for Spanish cycling after Roberto Heras's 2005 Vuelta a España, positive for EPO. The repercussions for Unipublic, the race's organisers, other sponsors and the Spanish state were enormous. Spanish cycling was in real crisis following the Heras positive. He was their one real option of a rider who could conquer the Grand Tours and he was in disgrace.

The evidence of Manolo Saiz given to the Guardia Civil provides some insight into both how the Vuelta disaster came to be and why the Liberty team became entangled in the ongoing investigation into importation.

When detained by the Guardia Civil Manolo Saiz said that he had known the Fuentes since his stint with ONCE in the early 90's. Saiz said that after Fuentes left the team they had occasional personal contact but that it was, in 2004, with his signing of Roberto Heras that the relationship recommenced on more than a friendly level. Saiz said that on his arrival at Liberty from US Postal Service, Heras asked that he be able to have Fuentes as his personal doctor. Heras wanted to deal directly with Fuentes and at first Saiz said no as it didn't seem the best way to manage the team. After much insistence on the part of Heras, Saiz gave in but it seems he decided to try and manage the relationship as best he could. Saiz was insistent in his evidence that it was Heras and other riders in his team who had also previously been in Kelme that pushed for the Fuentes connection. There of course was no love lost between Saiz and Kelme's Vicente Belda during the previous years as Siaz had been instrumental for pushing through the Pro Tour and Kelme's exclusion from it.

With the 2005 Vuelta positive of Heras the Guardia Civil decided to follow the leads and see if their was any link between the EPO being used by cyclists and their investigation. This of course was not the only lead that led them to the trail to the consulting rooms of Fuentes. The year before the Vuelta had been hit by two positives for blood transfusion. The first to break was that of Hamilton, who tested positive following his close September 11 time trial victory over his soon to be teammate again Floyd Landis in Valencia.

The second, the post race revelations concerning Hamilton's teammate Santi Perez. Phonak of course was directed by Kelme's ex Alvaro Pino. Other than the Kelme connection what is interesting is that two out of the three incidents that led the Guardia Civil to stake out Fuentes involved ex US Postal riders – Heras and Hamilton. The files also suggest another link from Hamilton to his friend "Nick" and "Nick's friend". This little mystery has not received the attention that the reference to "Valv Piti" has received by the cycling world. And of course, seemingly outside of the Fuentes affair, the next doping incident to really rock cycling was that of another ex USPS rider, Floyd Landis.

These events involving Heras, Hamilton and Perez drew the Guardia Civil closer and closer to their stakeout of Fuentes.

Puertos Abiertos

In May 2006 Operacion Puerto broke when El Pais published details from the leaked Guardia Civil files. Not only were Liberty Seguros embroiled, but so was Hamilton, Perez, a host of Kelme riders and two of the main challengers for that years Tour de France – Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso. All of this is old news. We are all now too familiar of the stories of blood bags and nicknames and the speculation that still continues over them. Bags of the evidence have come to light regarding Fuentes and the methods he practiced. The riders both implicated and suspected and the subsequent disciplinary proceedings against many of them have all been in the news.

But the point that is often forgotten in the fog is as far as the Guardia Civil investigation was concerned the cyclists were never suspects. Sure there were bags of evidence implicating various riders in the Fuentes scheme, bringing to light for the first time the details of planning and administration that went on to help produce some 'great' rides. But never was any cyclist charged or likely to be charged with a criminal offence in Spain as a result of Operacion Puerto.

The interest of the Guardia Civil was and has always remained the importation of products from predominantly China and their distribution and administration throughout Spain. The Guardia Civil believed that Fuentes was probably in collaboration with other sports doctors implicated in doping practices and that these doctors and groups that they formed constituted independent but interrelated criminal groups – acting independently but related by their object of providing medical assistance to cyclists.

The conclusion reached by the Guardia Civil was that Fuentes and his gang developed and were involved in the practice of doping which they described as the integral preparation of the riders based on illicit methods using medicines in a manner contrary to Spanish health laws. Put simply the illicit preparation methods of Fuentes used products which were imported into Spain without passing the normal controls applied to the importation of medicines, they were using the medicines for purposes other than those that they were designed, and that many of the products used were beyond their use by date. As the story of Pantani's relationship with Fuentes suggests the practices themselves also raise public health concerns. It is on this basis that the Guardia Civil sought to pursue the charge of endangering public health.

The evidence and the riders.

The cyclists were never themselves under investigation in Operacion Puerto. There was never any plan or suggestion that the cyclists mixed up in the Fuentes practice would be prosecuted in Spain. In part this comes about as a a result of Spanish Governmental policy which seeks to address the doping question by attacking it at its source – the manufacture, importation and distribution of doping products. It is the endangerment of the cyclists health through the administration of dangerous, misused, illegal or out of date medicines that Spanish law seeks to prevent.

But having said that what the cycling world was faced with as a result of the leaking of the investigation was that thousands of pages of evidence and the blood in "siberia" (the Fuentes code for frozen blood) came to light. This material was such that national cycling federations and the international governing body, the UCI, could only ignore it at their peril. In accordance with the WADA Code obligation law enforcement authorities and sporting bodies are under an obligation to share information on doping with other relevant national and international bodies. But even if Spain refused to share the information – which it has not; the Operacion Puerto documents are now so widely available that any federation could have access to them even without the cooperation of the Spanish authorities.

The problem for the federations has been essentially that although much of the evidence concerning the cyclists is prima facie damning the question remained whether or not there was sufficient evidence to obtain a finding of doping. This has been the outcome of many of the disciplinary cases, such as that of Allan Davis – no case to answer or charge not proved. However these legal processes which have been pursued are the only available relevant legal avenues available to the riders in respect of the evidence arising from Operacion Puerto.

The case of Allan Davis illustrates the difficulties of dealing with the evidence, of maintaining confidence in the system, and more importantly how in reality Operacion Puerto has escaped the bounds of law and take on a life of its own within the current 'race wars' being waged by the UCI and race organisers. Whatever has become of Operacion Puerto it is important to always recall that the cyclists were not really cleared of their involvement in the Spanish criminal investigation as they were never suspects in that investigation. This is the importance of the letters from the Spanish judicial system that many carry to prove their 'innocence'. As far as Spanish law is concerned the riders have never needed to prove their innocence.

The Appeal

In 2007 the Investigating Judge Serrano shelved the inquiry. His finding was that he did not have enough evidence to obtain a prosecution against anyone involved as doping was not then a crime in Spain. The endangering public health charge had somehow lost its legs and as a result Puerto for all intents and purposes in Spain was over.

Nevertheless the damage rolled on as riders implicated, who had been cleared by their federations or national anti doping agencies, found it difficult to obtain a ride in a top tier team. Some of course were sanctioned – Ullrich and Basso the highest profile. Others, particularly those from Spain ended up either retiring or racing as refugees in Portugal.

In the end the sanction imposed on most of them has not been that meeted out by the courts, nor their federations, but it has been that dealt to them by the management and sponsors of the Pro Tour teams and the race organisers.. As the case of Allan Davis shows retribution for involvement in Puerto is not legal in the way we used to think about such things. Whatever the legal outcome retribution takes the form of an inability to obtain a contract with a decent team notwithstanding the ASADA finding him as having no case to answer. Some like Davis held out hopes that the Spanish Court of Appeal may give them some hope. But its reopening of the case has only confirmed the position that it is not the riders that the law is interested in.

In February 2008 the Spanish Court of Appeal reopened the case. The Court found that there was sufficient evidence for the endangering public health charge to be pursued and they directed judge Serrano to reopen his investigation into that charge. However, it may be that the most important finding of the Court of Appeal was that the cyclists had never engaged in fraud in respect of their employers or sponsors. This decision is important for riders such as Davis in so far as they continue to suffer at the hands of sponsors who fear the sullying of their good corporate names. The Court of Appeal finding suggests in fact that these very same sponsors have been all to well aware of the practices within their respective teams for too long – and thus are not in a position to have either their name sullied or to be defrauded.

The implication of this finding is clearly that the Court of Appeal felt that it was not only the sponsors that had knowledge of the fact that there had been a number of doping cases in cycling in recent years and that doping existed within cycling. This finding of the Court of Appeals undermines somewhat the rhetoric of cheating and fair play that pervades the discussion around doping in cycling in contemporary times and the situation whereby it is only cyclists who are taking the blame for the problem. For all the talk of cultural change in cycling, there is still little acknowledgment from the various levels of the sport's administration that they too were a part of cycling's old ways.

The Puerto files refers to various media reports, that of Roux, Manzano, Heras, Hamilton and Perez in particular. All of this suggests that widespread use of performance enhancing substances in cycling was common knowledge. Drugs in cycling have a long history. As we know it was Simpson's death that brought the health and safety of the cyclists into focus as anti doping controls developed during the 1960's. Even at the time of the Festina affair the ethos behind anti doping measures was health and safety. Only recently as that focus shifted to the rhetoric of fair play and cheating to be monitored by a bio-political passport regime.

Puerto also reveals a new post Festina 'post-modern' approach to the organisation of doping. Festina became criminalised because of the seizure of various illegal substances in poor old Willy Voet's team car. The riders, including Neil Stephens were held in police detention for days, almost blind Eric Zulle even being deprived of his glasses. The Festina affair exposed the old team based practices of preparation where team doctors themselves were responsible for the team's doping program. In the aftermath of Festina that system began to break down and it seems that is was replaced by a more networked and outsourced preparation system. Operacion Puerto exposes the outsourced network model that has existed in cycling in great detail. It also suggest that Liberty returned to a more team based approach as Saiz was aware of the dangers to his rider's health, not to say the team's reputation, if they were allowed to do their own thing.

Fuentes, Pantani and Chaba

The effect of Fuentes' practices on the health of the riders is one of the issues raised by the continuing post-appeal Guardia Civil investigation. Although there have been suggestions that the Guardia Civil may have investigated the links between Fuentes and Marco Pantani and Jose Maria Jimenez the references to these two riders in the Puerto files have not been widely speculated about in the media. The files call into question the assumption by Matt Rendell in his book, "The Death of Marco Pantani", that in his final year il Pirata was not doping.

Rendell documents Pantani's life during his last year in some detail. The plastic surgery, the outcome of the criminal and disciplinary trials and appeals, the visits to the psychiatrist and his doctors in Italy, the hospitalisations, the crack and cocaine binges, his retirement and final death on 14 February 2004. During this time it was thought that Pantani was, although using crack and cocaine after his retirement, for racing purposes, clean. Rendell recounts how doctors in Italy had warned him that racing itself might not be the best thing for his mental or physical health bu that racing doped was far more dangerous.

Nevertheless, it was in this same period, painstakingly documented by Rendell, that Puerto tells us that Pantani was also visiting Madrid and visiting Dr Fuentes. During Pantani's last season on the bike, the one immediately before his death, commencing late January 2004, Fuentes records set out an intense calendar of preparation including EPO (almost daily for over a month), IGF 1, T3 Levothroid, a hormone used in the treatment of menopause, and Insulin. The program lasted from late January until Pantani's retirement in June.

The coincidence between this program and Pantani's documented incidents of mental instability during his final year raise significant causes for concern as to the health implications of doping. In the context of the investigation into the charge that Fuentes endangered public health, it will be interesting to see if this coincidence or mis-incidence of events in Pantani's last year of life comes to light. And it should not be forgotten that another Fuentes patient who also suffered from depression and instability, Jose Maria Jimenez, died a little over 2 months before Pantani.

Why us?

In any conversation about Operacion Puerto there is always one point that comes up – Why cycling? Why us and not all those other sports that dope? Or that cyclists are the most tested athletes etc etc etc .... Whether details of other athletes were ever found by the Guardia Civil we may never know. If they did and why they have never come to light we can only speculate. But what we can say is that those other sports are far more established on a global scale than cycling is. And they have a different institutional sporting tradition to that of cycling. Unlike the others cycling now finds itself in the midst of a crisis of its globalisation. The change from a relatively small European based business into a global international media spectacle.

Cycling was always professional. The Tour grew out of the media's need to sell newspapers and doping quickly became the way that the "convicts of the route" managed to perform the impossible task set for them. Doping became a part of cycling culture as it operated outside the ethos of the amateur sporting world. Drugs became as one old Aussie pro put it to me the "tools of the trade". Like truckies on speed it was a way of getting the job done.

Cycling has always been run at a grass roots level, small groups, riders, managers, directors, like bands of gypsies. It was never big business – only recently did that occur. Only recently did cycling explode onto the world stage. The Armstrong years saw cycling develop into a global media product and with it a new level of scrutiny grew as the struggle to control the emerging global product intensified..

Cultural change in cycling is being driven by the fight over global cycling tv rights. This is what is at the heart5 of the battle between the Grand Tours and the UCI – a potential multi million dollar tv product in which the Tours which to retain their control over their race and the UCI wish to 'nationalise' or integrate into one grand package. In this situation rumour and suspicion serve as the cipher by which the battle is played out and points are scored against the other side.

In this context of cultural change it is ony the riders being subjected to scrutiny and not those who have managed the sport for many years and who it seem have kown what was happening the whole time. But it is only he cyclists who are risking losing their livelihood. There are exceptions such as with Fuentes or the odd director, but even they come back in one way or another.

True cultural change within cycling depends upon it being accepted that it was not just the cyclists involved in doping. It involves a recognition that the practice was widely known about and accepted by those in the know – administrators, sponsors and the media. But at the moment with the riders being criminalised and those others involved in the sport mouthing the mantras of 'zero tolerance' and 'cultural change' real change is impossible. What is needed is some process of truth and reconciliation within cycling. A moratorium on the old ways on the part of the riders and in turn a moratorium on the persecution of old events. Only with this recognition and by biting the bullet and accepting that we were all a part of the problem can we really have true cultural change in cycling. But none of this can happen when riders are turned into criminals and the organisers of the loggerheads continue to applaud this as they battle it out to be the top dog in a global cycling market. Operacion Puerto and cycling require tough political decisions to be made – by administrators, race organisers and cyclists; the solution will not come about through the law.

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