Blood samples in a Barcelona freezer could spark biggest doping scandal of all time
Life appeared to be going on much as normal outside Barcelona’s Biomedical Research Park last week. Doctors in white lab coats emerged periodically to puff on cigarettes. Joggers ran up and down the beachfront promenade across the road, enjoying the early January sun.
Somewhere deep in the recesses of the enormous, wood-encased facility, though, in a freezer in the anti-doping lab of the Institut Hospital del Mar d’Investigacions Mèdique, the clock was ticking on what some believe may be one of the biggest suppressed doping scandals of all time.
In the coming days – it is unclear when exactly but this month – Madrid’s Provincial Court is to release its verdict on the appeals lodged by, among others, the World Anti-Doping Association and the International Cycling Union (UCI) against the destruction of the almost 200 blood bags which have been stored here as part of the Operación Puerto anti-doping probe.
To say that the verdict is eagerly anticipated is perhaps over-egging it. Puerto has been going on so long that many people have forgotten all about it. It has been almost 10 years since a series of police raids uncovered, among other paraphernalia, hundreds of bags of blood and plasma in the offices of former cycling doctor Eufemiano Fuentes (or “Dr Blood” as Tyler Hamilton, one of his former clients, called him), and almost three since Judge Julia Patricia Santamaria issued her order to destroy them, handing down a one-year suspended sentence to Fuentes for endangering public health and inviting accusations of a cover-up. In the meantime, the IAAF scandal has assumed prominence, with the second part of Wada’s explosive independent report due out this week.
But the potential for Puerto to blow up into something far bigger, pulling other sports and athletes and administrators into its web, still remains. Just.
One man has dedicated most of the past decade of his life trying to ensure that happens. Enrique Gomez Bastida does not look very tough but appearances can be deceptive. A bespectacled Galician of just under 40, Gomez Bastida led the Guardia Civil’s operation in 2006 and, as well as his work in trafficking, has also worked in homicides and kidnappings, and spent six months in Afghanistan. “It was nothing special,” he says. “Standard police work.”
For the past two years Gomez Bastida has been director of AEPSAD, Spain’s anti-doping agency, in which capacity he is now waiting like the rest of us for the court’s decision. Sitting in his Madrid office in Plaza de Valparaiso, just around the corner from the Santiago Bernabéu stadium, a blue plaque from his time at the Guardia Civil on a shelf behind him, he sighs. “It’s going to be complicated either way,” he predicts of the ruling.
If the appeals are rejected – theoretically anyway – that would be the end of it. After 10 years and millions of euros, wire taps, police raids and feverish speculation, Puerto’s secrets could be destroyed along with the bags.
Almost inevitably that would invite more accusations, like the one from British tennis player Andy Murray at the end of the trial in 2013, that the Spanish authorities just do not want to know. “Case is beyond a joke,” Murray tweeted at the time. “Why would court order blood bags to be destroyed? #coverup.”
Murray was far from alone in criticising Judge Santamaria’s ruling. “It’s embarrassing for Spain,” the former Wada chief Dick Pound said. “Everybody knows we will be able to uncover quite a bit more doping if the examples are made available.”
The question is, though, what does “quite a bit more doping” look like? And, if the appeals are successful, which other sports might find themselves dragged into the murky waters of Puerto?
To date, only cycling has truly been nobbled: 56 riders were implicated in total, although only six served any kind of ban.
But Fuentes has frequently boasted of, working with athletes from other sports, including football, tennis (hence Murray’s indignation), athletics and boxing.
If implicated, football clearly carries the potential for a major scandal. Jesus Manzano, the former cyclist whose 2004 interview with the Spanish newspaper AS blew the whistle on Fuentes, said he often saw “well-known” footballers waiting to see the doctor when he went for his red blood cell top-ups, while plenty of clubs are alleged to have worked with him. In 2013, Fuentes even issued, via his lawyers, a series of questions he might be prepared to answer. One of the questions was: “How I prepared a team to play in the Champions League”.
Some have tried to connect the dots. In 2009 the French newspaper Le Monde was ordered to pay damages to both Real Madrid and Barcelona after claiming to have seen “preparation plans” for the two clubs drawn up by Fuentes.
Then there is athletics. A promising junior himself, Fuentes worked with Spanish track and field in the Eighties, marrying the former Olympic hurdler Cristina Pérez in 1988, shortly after she had tested positive. Pérez gave a rare interview in 2008 in which she described herself as a “Pandora’s Box” which, if opened, “could bring down sport”, hinting darkly at the truth behind Barcelona 1992.
Whether there is a smoking gun somewhere in those blood bags remains unclear, and even if there is, it is far from certain anything could be done about it. “There are various parties who have appealed separately,” Gomez Bastida explains. “The CSD, Wada, CONI, the fiscalia [public prosecutor], the UCI... And they have appealed various things, not just the release of the blood bags. So first of all we need to know if it’s a ‘yes’ to everyone or just to certain parties, in which case which parties and which parts?
“In terms of the blood bags it might be to limit it to straightforward identification of names, or contents. The bags might reveal a whole load more names, different nationalities, which could get very messy. Some of the bags are anonymous and we will never know to whom they belong.”
On top of which, there is the issue of Wada’s statute of limitations, which could prevent any sort of sporting ban. Wada’s revised 2015 code allows for 10 years to punish athletes guilty of anti-doping rule violations, but that applies only to cases arising from Jan 1, 2015. For cases like Puerto, the old eight-year statute of limitations applies.
It is understood that Wada’s lawyers are looking into possible ways around this. “There might be occasions or specific circumstances in which the statute of limitations started to run only at the end of a series of violations,” a spokesperson told The Daily Telegraph.
Either way, Gomez Bastida appears to be steeling himself for criticism. Spain has long endured a reputation as soft on doping, but Gomez Bastida insists that charge is not only outdated but unfair. “Sometimes I think criticism of Puerto is very unjust,” he says. “ There have been [allegations] the Spanish authorities are trying to hide something but the judicial system in Spain is completely independent.
“Anyway, it was the Guardia Civil that led the investigation and found the blood bags. No one else has found or seized over 200 blood bags. Not even 50. Not even 30.
“You might say they weren’t found elsewhere because they didn’t exist elsewhere but that would suggest that doping wasn’t happening in other countries pre-2006 and I think we all know that is not true.
“The reality is that it is very complex legally. It is very difficult to prosecute for doping offences in Europe. How many criminal trials can you recall in Germany, in Holland, in Norway, in the UK? How many convictions? In Spain, we managed it. Will all that be forgotten if the appeals are rejected?”
He sighs again. “Look, I won’t lie,” he says, “it would be a tough day if they are [rejected]. Hugely frustrating. I mean, by the end [of the trial], if I remember correctly, it appeared the documents weren’t anybody’s and the meds weren’t from anyone... and the 200 bags, it’s as if they didn’t even exist.
“Listen, they may not be from 200 people as some belong to the same person, but 80-100, surely yes? They must belong to someone.”
Indeed they must. After 10 years, could we finally be about to find out to whom?