Retrospective: “Blood Money” – RIDE #33 (2006)
On 23 May 2006, a Spaniard who was an owner of a cycling team was arrested in Madrid. On the same day, raids on a clinic by police discovered 211 bags of blood being stored. It was the beginning of another protracted doping scandal that has had massive ramifications for the world of sport… or rather, professional cycling. After almost seven years of protectionism, accusations, rumour-mongering and stupidity, the Spanish judiciary finally put the so-called “Operacion Puerto” fiasco to a trial. In April 2013, a verdict was due to be given. Cycling remains the only sport implicated in the vast doping network of Dr Eufemiano Fuentes.
On the eve of the verdict, we revisit the story RIDE originally published about Operacion Puerto. Here is the story by Andy Hood from issue #33, released in July 2006.
Blood Money – the saga of ‘Operacion Puerto’ (originally published July 2006)
– By Andy Hood
A series of arrests in Madrid this May signalled the beginning of another sordid chapter of the ongoing battle against drugs in sport. The latest scandal offers a great deal of speculation about a bloody mess that has implicated cyclists, team directors and doctors.
The initial images that were broadcast on Spanish TV were enough to make the blood curdle. Police raids in the nation’s capital on 23 May 2006 brought in a haul of products that was suspicious to say the least. The list of items submitted for scientific examination included more than 100 bags of frozen blood, a cache of banned hormones and steroids, centrifugal machines used to separate plasma from valued red blood cells, refrigerators for storing blood and a coded list of more than 100 names of elite athletes.
Footage of the booty was beamed onto television screens around the world and cycling seemed to be heading into a tailspin not seen since the so-called Festina Affair of 1998.
The initial reports seemed damning enough. A four-month police investigation by the anti-drug arm of Spain’s Guardia Civil had allegedly revealed a sophisticated blood-doping ring involving not only cyclists, but athletes from football, athletics and other sports.
The suits lined up shoulder-to-shoulder to help with the investigation. Officials from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and the International Association Of Professional Cycling Teams (AIGCP) all vowed to help police any way they could and recriminations and denials came thick and fast.
Dubbed ‘Operación Puerto’ – using the euphemism of ‘door’ for the hidden cameras tucked away in the entrance of a clinic as part of a sophisticated surveillance program that also included police tails and phone taps – the investigation has already caused a tremendous amount of damage without any legal action beyond an initial round of five arrests.
The early victims went down hard: the Liberty Seguros insurance company pulled out of its annual US$8.5 million sponsorship, Manolo Saiz was forced to step down from day-to-day operations of his team, several riders were sidelined for alleged links to dirty doctors and Comunidad Valenciana lost its wildcard invitation to the 93rd Tour de France.
As RIDE went to press (in July 2006), however, no formal charges or indictments had been filed. In fact, because Spain doesn’t have a tough anti-doping law like France or Italy, those implicated might only see relatively minor civil charges levied against them, if any at all.
Behind the media hype there was still a lot of uncertainty about what might happen. No one will really know the answer until the Spanish judge presiding over the case has his say. And no one in Spain seemed to be in a hurry to indicate when that might happen.
The Initial Arrests
Thanks to pressure from Spain’s new socialist government, police had started to take a harder line on doping in sport. Part of that initiative is a tough, zero-tolerance policy that’s resulted in a new, anti-doping bill that’s ready to be enacted into law. This would bring Spain into line with France, Italy and other European nations where it is a federal crime to use doping products to enhance sporting performance.
Four months ago a Spanish judge approved phone taps and video surveillance of Madrid offices belonging to Spanish doctors Eufemiano Fuentes and José Luis Merino Batres. Fuentes, a former team doctor for ONCE (an earlier incarnation of the squad that began the 2006 season called Liberty Seguros-Würth) and Kelme (what has become Comunidad Valenciana), had been identified by ex-rider Jesús Manzano in his infamous tell-all interviews in 2004 while Merino Batres is a haematologist.
Police believed that Fuentes and Merino Batres were running an illicit blood-doping ring, using autologous transfusions (ie. re-injecting an athlete’s own blood ahead of competitions to boost performance) to avoid the ever-tightening net of doping controls.
The investigating officers were surprised, however, when Saiz – the sporting director and co-owner of Active Bay, the company behind Liberty Seguros-Würth – walked into a Madrid cafe just moments after police saw Fuentes and Merino Batres enter. That was a very big fish, and authorities decided it was time to swoop.
The next morning police searched six properties and arrested Fuentes, Merino Batres, Saiz and two others, ex-mountain bike racer Alberto León and Comunidad Valenciana assistant sporting director Ignacio Labarta.
Fuentes and Merino Batres were forced to post six-figure sums to be released on bail while the others were allowed to return home with the promise of staying in contact with authorities in the coming weeks and months.
With the anti-doping bill still unsigned some believed that Fuentes and Merino Batres, both licensed medical doctors, could only face relatively minor civil charges for “endangering public health” while the others likely won’t face any legal charges. Of course, it’s in the court of public opinion that the real crimes and punishment are being played out.
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The immediate fall-out
In the wake of the arrests and police raids, Spain’s exuberant media went into overdrive. There were reports of money being exchanged and of luggage retrofitted to hold “cold bags” to store and transport blood.
According to police sources quoted in the Spanish media, Fuentes and Merino Batres allegedly worked in tandem with top athletes to “cleanse and prepare” blood that would later be transfused ahead of competitions to avoid anti-doping tests. It was claimed that León worked as a mule between clients, who allegedly included Saiz and Labarta.
What was most tantalising to police investigators was a coded list found that supposedly held the names of upwards of 100 clients, who reportedly would pay up to 60,000 Euros (approx. AUD$70,000) to be “treated” by the doctors.
Denials came quick and fast. Saiz said he is only on friendly terms with Fuentes and vehemently denied his team was involved while the doctor himself, a scion of a wealthy family from Spain’s Canary Islands, said his “conscience is clear”.
“The blood was for private analysis,” Fuentes told the Spanish daily El País. “It was dirty blood, old blood, to throw away. And most of the medicines are old and worthless. I am not involved in blood doping.”
Despite the crocodile tears, it didn’t take long before heads began to roll. The first was the hasty decision by Liberty Seguros – the Spanish division of the American insurance giant Liberty Mutual – to pull the plug on its funding of the squad it began sponsoring after ONCE ended its long-term association with Saiz’s team in 2003. Confirmation of the contract termination came just two days after Saiz’s detention.
That in itself was unprecedented and seemed to foreshadow the imminent fall-out from Operación Puerto. Even in the darkest days of the Festina Affair or even more recent scandals involving riders at Cofidis and Phonak, no sponsor has ever walked away mid-season.
Liberty Seguros had stuck with the team through the EPO scandal last year when Roberto Heras lost his Vuelta A España title after testing positive for the banned blood booster. But they promptly added conditions to their contract with Saiz that would enable them to walk away without consequence if the team was implicated in another doping scandal. Liberty Seguros finally decided there was such a thing as bad publicity. “We stayed with the team through the Heras case and we reached a new agreement with the team with an emphasis on zero tolerance of doping,” said team liaison officer Fabio Selvig. “We’re an insurance company. We have to have people believe us.”
Names were leaked to the Spanish media and one magazine, Interviú, started to print them. Several riders linked to Fuentes quickly paid a very high price. Santiago Botero and José Enrique Gutierrez, fresh from finishing second in the Giro d’Italia, have both been sidelined by Phonak until allegations can be clarified.
“For me, the season is over. I don’t have objectives and I don’t have motivation for anything,” Botero said in an interview with the Colombian daily El Tiempo de Bogotá. “My morale and motivation is zero. I have trained seven months in Colombia, killing myself every day to train on the bike.”
Labarta’s detention had immediate implications for the team that had waited two years to get off the Tour de France’s black list following Manzano’s controversial interviews, and had earned a wildcard entry to the 2006 race.
That invitation soon looked under threat as the story continued to churn in the headlines despite Labarta’s voluntary departure from the team. Tour boss Jean-Marie Leblanc met with Spanish authorities to try to get a line on the real story but, without waiting for any formal court action, the Tour revoked Comunidad Valenciana’s Tour invitation in early June. Team officials cried foul at the exclusion.
“It’s easier to kick out the poor one and throw them to the lions.” Labarta said he resigned because he didn’t want his presence on the payroll to affect the team’s future.
“We put all of the riders at the disposition of the UCI and the Spanish authorities to make controls and now that’s served up for nothing,” Comunidad Valenciana sport director Vicente Belda told EFE. “Labarta is left without a salary and I think we will be too in no time.”
Things weren’t much better for Saiz. Following his release from prison, he retreated to northern Spain to bunker down and wait out the storm. When Liberty Seguros pulled the plug it left money in the bank to underwrite the team for the remainder of the season, at least allowing it to continue racing. The riders at the Giro continued through the final stages of the race and showed up at the Bizikleta Vasca sporting only Würth logos on their outfits.
“It doesn’t really concern us what name is on the jersey,” said team sporting director Neil Stephens. “The wages are there, so we just kept going about the business of racing.”
The Australian was a rider with the Festina team at the time it was thrown out of the Tour de France in far from glamorous circumstances eight years ago. He is an affable character who was a very popular professional and has always been a close associate of Saiz. Stephens raced for ONCE from 1992 to 1996, before signing on with Festina for his final two seasons of a 14-year career.
After holding a public relations position with Liberty Seguros-Würth in 2005, he was enlisted by Saiz as a directeur sportif. He has little regard for the media and was quick to offer his opinion on Operación Puerto. “I believe the majority of what was said in the press was way out of proportion.”
It’s slightly ironic that the team Stephens has been so loyal to should be forced to race a number of major events without a sponsor’s logo on their jerseys. In his fourth season as a pro in Europe he was part of a formation called ‘Zero Boys’ that competed in white jerseys and found sponsors on a race-by-race basis. Three years later he would join ONCE.
Pressure was mounting on Saiz and in early June, Leblanc stated that the Spaniard was not welcome at the Tour de France. The company responsible for the Tour has the power to withdraw a wildcard invitation but it’s not the same for squads selected for the race as part of the ProTour rules. Only days before the decision to kick Comunidad Valenciana out, Saiz decided to stand down from day-to-day operations but retain 51 per cent ownership of the team.
Saiz had other tasks at hand. A few days after getting out of prison, he was on a flight to Kazakhstan to meet with government officials and business leaders about taking over as title sponsor. According to team officials, contacts were already in place for a consortium of Kazakh business interests to take over the team when Liberty Seguros was scheduled to end it sponsorship in 2007 (with an option for one year) but when the insurance company pulled the plug, the Kazakhs didn’t hesitate to step in.
The man at the centre of the intrigue was Alexandre Vinokourov, a national hero who is friends with the prime minister. Vinokourov helped grease the landing for Saiz and a deal was quickly struck.
“When I learned that Liberty had quit, I told Manolo that I can take care of all this in three days,” Vinokourov said. “And that was the case. He went to Kazakhstan to sign the contract. It wasn’t a surprise to me because I knew we had support over there.”
Doping scandal be damned, Saiz had a new sponsor for at least three years “with better conditions” than before with Astaná, a consortium of five Kazakhstan industry leaders. The name is taken from the nation’s capital. The UCI has not yet decided whether or not to extend the ProTour licence to the new sponsorship.
The weeks passed following the images of bloody bags being broadcast and it was difficult to say what the ramifications of the event that began on 23 May would be. The football World Cup bumped the story off the front pages and everyone was waiting for word from the Spanish courts.
French authorities were demanding that the names on the alleged coded list be released before the Tour de France while others were trying to keep up pressure on the investigation.
But there was a troubling question: had anyone broken any laws? Some were worried that nothing would ever come from the investigation besides some salacious headlines. What was sure is that Operación Puerto had already caused a lot of blood to be spilt.
– By Andy Hood, @EuroHoody
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