Thursday, June 3, 2010

Puertas Abiertas - Second Installment of It’s not about the Blood!

The second instalment of It’s not about the Blood! Operacion Puerto and the end of modernity.

Puertas Abiertas

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 year's Tour de France – Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso. All of this is old news. Most that follow cycling are now all too familiar with the stories of the blood bags, the 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 and criminal proceedings against many of them have all been in the news ( 2009).

Many seem to believe that there is something else that Spanish justice needs to resolve, other than the prosecution of Fuentes and Co., which will assist cycling's renewal. This is the continual line pushed by the media, the UCI and WADA. But the point that is often forgotten in the fog is that as far as the Guardia Civil investigation and the Spanish courts are concerned the cyclists have never been 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 (for examples see Hardie 2004b & 2004c) but never was any cyclist charged, or likely to be charged, with a criminal offence in Spain as a result of Operacion Puerto.

In this context the consistent media reports of riders being cleared of any involvement by the Spanish judiciary are meaningless. The cyclists were always witnesses and in some ways possibly the victims of the network focussed around Fuentes. The approach of the Spanish courts is abundantly clear even from the reports in the cycling media. For example one report has even sets out in detail the questions that Investigating Judge Serrano intended to ask cyclists when giving evidence ( 2006d). The questions point to the status of the cyclists as victims rather than perpetrators. The questions were:

1. Is the witness still a professional cyclist?
2. For which teams has he ridden since 2002?
3. As a professional cyclist, does he know the doctors Eufemiano Fuentes, Yolanda Fuentes, or Alfredo Córdova? Has he received blood transfusions? If so, in what laboratory and with whose authority?
4. During his career as professional cyclist, has he ever been sent by his doctor, manager, or other person to the laboratory of Dr. Merino Batres in Madrid?
5. Has he ever ridden for a team for which Manolo Saiz was technical director or manager? Did he receive blood transfusions during that time?
6. Assuming that he had suffered health disadvantages as consequence of the treatment by the doctors Fuentes and/or Córdova and/or the actions of Saiz, has he suffered any damage that he could claim in this process?

Their status as such is further illuminated by the comments made by one of the accused Merino Batres who told the police:
"Poor Mancebo, I believe that we swindled him a bit. He didn't need the transfusions for anything. He had such a high natural Haemotocrit that we couldn't do half as much for him that we did for the others" (Author’s translation).

Batres recounts how Mancebo was swindled by Fuentes and himself to the tune of 50,000 Euros in 2005 alone. As a result of being caught up in Puerto, Mancebo’s income fell from 1,000,000 euros in 2006 with the French team Ag2r to a low of 10,000 Euros when he was riding in Portugal during 2008 (Arribas 2009).

In these circumstances instead of pursuing the riders what Spain has sought to do is to deal with the public health issues arising from doping in sports and to deal with the supply of doping substances flowing into that country from what is regarded as a part of the new (and by implication ‘clean’) cycling world. The interest of the Guardia Civil was, and has always remained, the importation of potential doping products 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. These groups were interlinked with those seeking to import, manufacture and distribute the substances. Simply put, Spain has gone after the dealers and the pushers and not the end users or the victims.

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. 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. The January 2009 appeal decision in Puerto has highlighted the grounds upon which the case against Fuentes and his cohort will proceed (Audienca Provincial de Madrid 2009a). These include that the practice endangered public health in:

that they did not extract blood and conduct transfusions in adequate premises;
that they did not transport blood in adequate recipients;
that the identity of the donors were not adequately recorded;
that there did not exist a system to guarantee that the blood was stored at the correct temperatures or that the fridges and freezers had adequate back up electricity in the case of black out; and
that the operation of extracting and transfusing blood was conducted in a clandestine manner.

As the story of Pantani's relationship with Fuentes suggests these practices of preparing cyclists raise other important public health concerns. It is on this basis that the Guardia Civil and Spanish justice continue to pursue the charge of endangering public health.

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