Final decision in Operacion Puerto: Blood bags ordered to be released

A Spanish court has ordered that the 200 bags of blood seized in the Operation Puerto police raids in 2006 must be released to the sporting authorities for drug testing.

This follows a successful appeal by the International Cycling Union, Italian Olympic Committee, Spanish Cycling Federation and World Anti-Doping Agency against a 2013 decision to destroy the blood bags. That decision followed the conclusion of lengthy criminal proceedings against the doctor at the centre of the doping scandal, Eufemiano Fuentes, and four co-defendants.

Judge Julia Patricia Santamaria gave Fuentes a suspended one-year sentence for endangering public health and handed Jose Ignacio Labarta, an official from the Kelme cycling team, a four-month suspended sentence.

But those sentences have now been overturned by the appeal court as it has decided no offence was committed under the laws at the time of the raids a decade ago.

The other three defendants in the original trial, including Fuentes’ wife, a former Spanish Olympic hurdler who tested positive for drugs shortly after the 1988 Olympics, were acquitted.

The decision by the appeal court in Madrid to acquit Fuentes and Labarta will surprise many but not as much as the decision to release the blood bags, which belong to 35 different athletes and have been stored in a freezer at Barcelona’s anti-doping lab for a decade.

Most anti-doping experts had given up on ever getting the chance to discover who they belong to, although it remains unclear if any sporting sanctions will result from the tests as the statute of limitations for doping cases in 2006 was eight years.

The appeal judges said they were overturning the 2013 decision to destroy the blood bags in order to help the ‘fight against doping, which undermines the essential ethical value of sport’. They added that destroying the blood bags might ‘create the danger that other athletes may be tempted to take drugs, sending a negative message that the end justifies any means’.

This decision means the remarkable Operation Puerto story has at least a few more chapters in it.

Operation Puerto came to light when police seized coded blood bags from the Madrid clinic of sports doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, who worked with several top cyclists.

In a trial in 2013, he was convicted of endangering public health and received a suspended one-year prison sentence for improperly performing blood transfusions on athletes. Fuentes also had his sports medicine license withdrawn for four years. A former cycling team director was sentenced to four months in prison, but also didn’t have to serve time. Both appealed the ruling.

More than 50 cyclists were originally linked to the case, including Alberto Contador, Joseba Beloki, Sergio Paulinho, Francisco Mancebo, Oscar Sevilla, Marco Pantani, Mario Cipollini or Roberto Heras. Among those eventually suspended were former Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich, Spanish Vuelta champion Alejandro Valverde and Ivan Basso, who later confirmed that his blood was among the frozen samples found.

Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal had to deal with unproven doping accusations made against him by a former French minister. To defend his integrity, he filed a defamation lawsuit against the person and asked the International Tennis Federation to make all of his anti-doping test results publicly available.

Fuentes was indignant that only cyclists had been named and said he also worked with tennis and football players. On 23 September 2006, former cyclist Jesús Manzano told reporters from France 3 that he had seen “well-known footballers” from La Liga visit the offices of Dr Fuentes.

Fuentes’ claims were supported by French newspaper Le Monde, which uncovered a list of the Spanish doctor’s clients, including the medical records of Real Madrid players, along with those of players at other top Spanish clubs. Barcelona are also alleged to have been involved after Luis Garcia del Moral, one of the doctors who helped supply Armstrong’s doping ring at the US Postal Service cycling team, claimed to have worked with the club at one point over the previous decade.