The doctor accused of masterminding a vast doping network that snared dozens of cyclists went on trial in Spain on Monday along with four alleged conspirators. Trial witnesses include Alberto Contador, the Tour de France winner in 2007 and 2009, who returned to competition last year after a two-year ban for a separate doping case which he denied. The trial in Madrid will do little to boost the credentials of a sport still reeling from Lance Armstrong’s admission that he cheated his way to a record seven Tour de France wins.
Police busted the Spanish network in 2006 when they seized bags of blood and other evidence of performance-enhancing transfusions, in an investigation dubbed “Operation Puerto”. Among the five defendants facing charges of an “offense against public health”, the most prominent is the suspected mastermind of the network, 57-year-old doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. The other four are his sister Yolanda; former Liberty Seguros cycling team director Manolo Saiz; former Comunitat Valencia team chief Vicente Belda and his deputy, Jose Ignacio Labarta.
Fuentes, in a dark suit and blue tie, and the other four defendants were swarmed by reporters as they arrived at the Madrid court for the start of the hearing, but made no public comment. Monday morning’s closed-door hearing dealt with procedural matters and judge Maria Santamaria then adjourned the trial until Tuesday morning, when Fuentes was due to be the first to testify. The five are charged with endangering public health rather than incitement to doping, which was not a crime at the time of the arrests. A Spanish anti-doping law was passed only in November 2006. The distinction between the two charges is pivotal.
The prosecutor is seeking a two-year prison sentence plus a two-year professional ban for the accused. He will have to show that the blood transfusions put the riders’ health at risk. Fuentes has denied putting athletes’ health at risk. Witnesses such as former cyclist Jesus Manzano, scheduled to testify on February 11, will try to refute that. Since 2004 Manzano, a former rider on Spanish team Kelme of which Fuentes was the head doctor, has alleged generalized doping in the team and says he himself underwent transfusions of adulterated blood.
The 30-year-old Contador, due to appear on February 5, was cleared of any involvement in the Puerto affair by a Spanish judge and the sport’s world governing body the International Cycling Union. In a separate case, Contador was later banned for two years after testing positive for the prohibited substance clenbuterol, which he blamed on a contaminated steak. A case against the Puerto network’s alleged blood expert, doctor Jose Luis Merino Batres, has been provisionally closed on the grounds that he has Alzheimer’s disease.
Investigators listed 58 cyclists implicated in the scandal, although initial reports had implicated other athletes such as tennis players and footballers. Of those listed, only six have suffered sporting sanctions: Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde, Germans Jan Ullrich and Joerg Jaksche and Italians Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi and Giampaolo Caruso, who was later acquitted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The investigating judge, Antonio Serrano, had closed the case on the grounds that the alleged acts of doping were not illegal at the time and that the small amounts of blood-booster EPO that were found did not constitute a health risk. The Madrid Provincial Courts obliged him to re-open the case. The trial is scheduled to last until March 22.