Operacion Puerto: Fuentes Verdict Casts Dark Shadow over Spain's 'Golden Era'

Clark Whitney@@Mr_BundesligaFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2013

Getty Images
Getty Images

In most of the free world, destruction of evidence is a crime. In Spain, apparently, there are exceptions.

On Tuesday, a Spanish court sentenced Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes to a one-year suspended prison term for endangering public health. He will also pay a fine of €15 per day for the next 10 months and will be barred from involvement in sports medicine for four years—although his suspension will not prevent him from general practice. All of Fuentes' computers and some 200 blood bags used as evidence in his trial will—barring an appeal—be destroyed.

In other words, the doctor who has been repeatedly accused of involvement in doping in cycling, tennis and football among other sports has been convicted of a minor offense, will pay a paltry fine and will not see a day of jail time. Any evidence that could at a later time be used against him or the athletes and associations with which he worked will be destroyed.

If this doesn't reek of cover-up, see a doctor.

Fuentes' investigation, known as "Operacion Puerto," was suspicious from an early stage. After a 2004 interview in which Jesus Manzano admitted to doping in his cycling team, Spanish authorities arrested Fuentes among several other doctors, seizing anabolic steroids, blood bags and machines used to manipulate athletes' blood. More than 50 cyclists were accused. Some admitted guilt, and many others were acquitted.

But, although Fuentes claimed in 2006 to have worked with football and tennis players among others, Spanish authorities never investigated his work outside of cycling. Moreover, although the convicted doctor offered to reveal the names of all his clients during his trial, judge Julia Santamaria insisted this was unnecessary on the basis that it would violate doctor-patient confidentiality. Once the evidence is destroyed, the world will never have proof of the true extent of Fuentes' involvement in sport.

Operacion Puerto will be remembered as a shocking example of a conflict of interest suppressing justice. Doping was not a crime in Spain in 2006, but the reckless nature of Fuentes' conduct saw him convicted for a trivial offense and given the gentlest of slaps on the wrist. A question of far greater importance is how Fuentes' involvement in tennis and especially football have affected the sports.

Ana Munoz, director general of the Spanish Anti-Doping Agency, pledged in March to do everything possible to acquire Fuentes' blood bags and related documents and to reveal all athletes who took performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) given by the now-infamous doctor. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) similarly pledged to perform an investigation to follow up the legal inquiry into Fuentes' misconduct. Judge Santamaria rejected both requests, instead ordering that all evidence be destroyed. The Spanish judge saved Spanish sports from what could have been an even greater humiliation.

There have long been reports of doping particularly in Spanish football, and many questions remain unanswered by Fuentes' trial. In February, former Real Sociedad president Inaki Badiola admitted that his club paid Fuentes over €300,000 per year for PEDs between 2001 and 2007, : "For six years, La Real paid for medicines and products in illegal money that at the time were catalogued as doping products and for this reason were obtained on the black market."

Links to doping are not limited to La Liga's smaller teams. In 2008, Le Monde journalist Stephane Mandard claimed the doctor showed him "medical records of players for Real Betis, Sevilla, Valencia, Real Madrid and Barcelona, with detailed doping plans for an entire season." Barcelona and Real Madrid sued, and because Mandard could not produce the documents he claimed to have been shown, he was ordered to pay €15,000 in damages.

According to cycling expert Mikkel Conde, Mandard's meeting with Fuentes took place at the doctor's office in Las Palmas. Conveniently, Spanish authorities only raided his Madrid office, neglecting the second location as a potential goldmine for evidence.

As recently as March, Fuentes claimed Real Madrid owed him money. The club later released a statement of intent to sue him on the basis that any debt was associated with travel expenses the doctor incurred for testifying in the trial against Le Monde.

If the Le Monde debacle wasn't enough to raise an inquisitive brow, statements made by Graham Hunter—author of Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World—in February of 2012 ought to be. Speaking on the Irish radio program Off the Ball, he admitted that Xavi had taken growth hormones to treat muscle fatigue, a practice he described as common at Barcelona over the past few years which is based on the practice of controversial Bayern Munich doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt. Hunter later retracted to these statements as a misunderstanding.

Numerous other slips have been made since Fuentes' arrest that have suggested the doctor's involvement in football and other sports. But in each instance, a lawsuit or retraction has promptly ended any further inquiry. The only way to find truth is for there to be a proper investigation, and that requires evidence. Sadly, the truth will forever be shrouded in mystery as soon as the evidence from Operacion Puerto is destroyed.

Has Spain's golden era of football been bolstered by unsporting practices? Or have three consecutive international titles come purely on fair merit? One way or another, the world deserves to know the truth.

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