Ewan MacKenna: 'The curious case of Sergio Ramos raises so many questions - and leaves us with no answers'
A leading cycling team are doing well at the Giro d'Italia when, as per regulations, testers show up and grab 10 of the group for unannounced doping controls. Two star riders quickly kick up a fuss about it, with the team's own medics arriving and taking over the situation while administering eight of the tests. Despite this being a massive breach of anti-doping protocol and ethics, the team's general manager still has the nerve to come out and blame those initially trying to do their job and keep the sport clean. The UCI say nothing; do nothing.
That same team have captured a Tour de France yellow jersey they won't be giving back, such is the domination in a key stage victory. Afterwards, some testers arrive and get hold of the captain - the glue, the workhorse - to get a sample. It comes back positive for dexamethasone, a hugely strong pain killer that has an anti-inflammatory effect, but also increases cognition and concentration. WADA's own rules show its allowed before the stage if reported, but there is nothing in the files. Yet the UCI never so much as release the violation news publicly, instead privately accepting it was all a mistake after the team doctor failed to record the injection in his notes.
This cycling team are chalked down as greats and heroes and head for the Vuelta. There a tester grabs the leader again, demanding he goes nowhere, not even for a shower, until he gives a urine sample as per rules. The rider refuses, has that shower, then gives the sample. It carries a potential four-year ban, but instead is brushed away with no details released.
This isn't cycling though. This is soccer. This is Real Madrid. So picture that.
So where's the same shock?
Where's the same anger?
Where's the same outrage?
And crucially, where is any semblance of accountability and responsibility for us to cling on to?
With the latest batch of leaks in Der Spiegel, we know again we've been duped.
That's not to say anyone doped - although how can we know when procedures aren't followed and transparency is completely avoided? It is to say, however, that rules have been repeatedly broken and there have been absolutely no consequences. Excuses are enough clearly, depending on who you are.
Take Cristiano Ronaldo and Toni Kroos throwing strops around a key part of their duty as professional athletes in February of 2017, when Real Madrid doctors took over blood withdrawals from the offical testers. The team's general director, José Ángel Sánchez, arrogantly put it down to a lack of "professional capability, skill or expertise" of those conducting the tests.
This when WADA guidelines state a breach occurs when there's "tampering or attempted tampering with any part of doping control. For example, intentionally interfering with a doping control officer". And this when UEFA rules state, as a must, that doping controls are to be "conducted by UEFA's own doping control officers, a group of 55 medical doctors from 27 countries".
That's only one of the incidents leaked and is damning enough, long before we go near Sergio Ramos in Cardiff, after the 2017 Champions League final. Contrast it with the case of Eric Molina in 2016, after the US heavyweight had been knocked out by Anthony Joshua in Manchester. He tested positive for dexamethasone too, and just like in this case, it was accepted that it was an oversight, with Molina saying he ingested it accidentally through a vitamin supplement. He got banned for two years though.
Ramos didn't, which allowed him again to pop up in hidden documents from April of this year after a domestic game, refusing the request of Spain's anti-doping agency AEPSAD, who said he could not shower before being tested. These incidents bring up so many questions. And leave us, as always, with no answers.
How could UEFA and WADA accept a soccer club administering doping tests to their own players? How could the Wales incident be put down to negligence around the club doctor being star-struck by the King of Spain's presence, causing him to mess up his notes at a potentially huge cost to Ramos and the club, and then not be sacked from a role of such importance?
Indeed, by case three and the shower incident, you have to laugh at the lot of it.
In terms of that, there's even a cycling precedent too. In 2009, before his Tour de France comeback, Lance Armstrong had testers call around and also broke rules by taking a shower while Astana team manager, Johan Bruyneel, was checking the tester's credentials with the UCI. He escaped the two-year potential punishment, but only after a serious investigation.
As for Spanish anti-doping, it took over five months for them to even notify Ramos and it quickly went away. "In the present case," they stated, "the result of the investigation proceedings did not establish any fact that would allow concluding that there was an act constituting an anti-doping violation."
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The instinct is to go for the man and not the ball in Sergio Ramos' case, but that's to make a mistake.
In his case, maybe it was an administration error from the team doctor that saw him fail the test, although what is interesting is that he was getting a big boost at the season's end when opponents were on their knees. Regardless though, it adds yet more weight to what we already know about his club, his country, and his sport. That part is crucial, for it's both grim reading and a massive insight.
We've been here before, sadly. Former Spanish sports minister Jose Ignacio Wert admitting the country had a credibility problem. Dr Eufemiano Fuentes saying his blood doping went far beyond cycling and on into the biggest soccer clubs in his country. Cyclists Jesus Manzano, Jorg Jaksche and Tyler Hamilton all backing him up, as they admitted seeing athletes from beyond their own sport in his clinic.
Journalist Stephane Mandard risking his career by claiming Fuentes showed him "medical records of players for Real Betis, Sevilla, Valencia, Real Madrid and Barcelona, with detailed doping plans for an entire season". The bloodbags from Fuentes' lab at first being ordered to be destroyed and, then, when that ruling was changed, being beyond the statute of limitations.
This is the context of the new Real Madrid and Sergio Ramos stories.
It's little wonder amidst such a culture, the likes of Ramos in the past has drawn glances. In 2015, to play against Barcelona, he spoke openly of the injection he took so he'd be fit. And, after his infamous tackle on Mo Salah in last year's Champions League final, he publicly stated that he was surprised the Liverpool player didn't get an injection at half-time.
It brings to mind the idea that a chair has four legs for a reason, for consider doping controls in soccer within a similar rationale. There's national anti-doping agencies, WADA, UEFA and FIFA. Together distributing weight and creating checks and balances. Or at least they should be, for the amazing thing is how many signed off on these cases against their own actual rules. In Ramos' case alone, we had Spain, WADA, and UEFA all happy to carry on regardless.
If they won't answer, and they refuse, we are left to wonder if anti-doping is there to give the illusion rather than the reality, acting as a PR agency for a sporting business that has become too big to fail.