When Spanish police raided Eufemiano Fuentes’s residence in May 2006 finding doping products and bags of blood, the sport of professional cycling was once again turned on its head
The ramifications were felt far and wide as Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani and many other names that had been at the top of the sport in the last decade were implicated in the Madrid-based Doctor’s doping network.
Fuentes has since become synonymous with cycling’s ‘dark arts’, as much a by-word for scandal as Festina and Lance Armstrong; but there have often been whispers about the other clients who Dr. Fuentes dealt with. Of the 186 blood bags seized from his clinic in Madrid, how many belonged to athletes from other sports?
Fuentes has stated himself in an interview with a Spanish newspaper that only 30% of his clients were cyclists, so why has cycling been the only sport which has handed out bans to those involved with Fuentes and the police raids that were codenamed Operacion Puerto?
The answer is a tough one to determine. It’s believed that somewhere there lies a mythical list of Fuentes clients which includes footballers and tennis stars. Cyclist Jesus Manzano – the whistleblower who kicked off Operacion Puerto, in much the same way Floyd Landis did with Lance Armstrong – has told Channel 4 News that prominent footballers visited Fuentes.
It is reported that in 2007 FIFA president Sepp Blatter requested to see the documents from Puerto, but no investigation has ever taken place in football or any other sport.
Now, this week Eufemiano Fuentes stands trial for endangering public health. Many had hoped this would be a day when Spanish authorities could strike a blow for clean sport and the extent of Fuentes’s shadowy network of clients would be laid out for all to see. It seems that the Spanish authorities had other ideas though.
In the run up to the hearing, it was announced that the much-anticipated trial would focus only on cycling. This prompted David Howman, the head of the World Anti-Doping Authority to complain to the Daily Telegraph that:
“We have been banging our heads against a brick wall to get access to the evidence that was gathered. It is not only frustrating and disappointing but it also means that many athletes who might be dirty have been allowed to compete.”
At the trial itself today Fuentes again repeated the claim that he treated footballers, tennis players, athletes and boxers. Despite these allegations being made in a 3-hour cross examination the defendant was not asked to elaborate upon these claims.
If Fuentes is accused of public health offences, rather than specifically doping (which Spanish legislation didn’t cover in 2006), then it seems bizarre to only focus on one third of his clients. In turn, it seems that claims from the defendant and the main whistleblower in the case have been investigated when they relate to cycling but ignored when it comes to other sports. If you were of a cynical disposition you may say it was beginning to look like a cover-up. But why would this be?
Some have suggested that, with Madrid bidding for the 2020 Summer Olympics, the last thing Spanish authorities want is for a doping scandal to explode in their faces ahead of the decision in September. The trial also allows Spain to present itself as tough on doping, even if this image does not hold up when you scratch the surface.
Other more shadowy allegations, aired by former FA head Lord Triesman in a Parliamentary select committee hearing in May 2011, involve a doping ring and some “fairly senior people in Spain”.
Could it be that cycling is an easy target? It is far simpler to prosecute Fuentes and focus on cycling – a sport already mired in doping scandals – than seek to open up new scandals in sports which have the perception (fair or otherwise) of being clean.
It may be that cycling has disproportionately more dopers than any other sport, but it is also a sport that conducts far more doping tests than others. Sports journalist and author Daniel Friebe pointed out on Twitter that whilst cycling had taken 4613 out-of-competition blood tests on athletes in 2011, in tennis the number was only 21.
Eufemiano Fuentes’s trial is expected to continue for the next month at least, with witnesses including Tyler Hamilton and Alberto Contador. Whether anyone from any sport except cycling is feeling the heat in the coming weeks remains to be seen.
One of the oddest elements of the recent Lance Armstrong/US Postal doping case is the number of people who have concluded as a result that doping should be permitted in cycling.
A recent six-year study by experts found numerous merits to decriminalising drugs in wider society, but I’m still sceptical about doing the same for performance enhancing drugs in sport, for the reasons I outline below:
What do you mean by ‘drugs’?
Very basically, fans need to realise that ‘drugs in sport’ is not a catch-all term. There seems to be an myth that doping is akin to activating a cheat on a computer game – you stick a needle in an athlete’s arm and they automatically boost their attributes by 10%. The term ‘doping’ or ‘drugs’ can range from bulking up using steroids to manipulating your blood levels using EPO. Advocates of legalised doping need to be clear as to which drugs should be legalised – all of them? only some? – and realise that doing this would open athletes up to numerous health risks, which we will discuss later.
Making a ‘level playing field’.
The main argument for legalisation is that doing so would create a level playing field, whereby all athletes would start from the same place and have access to the same drugs. This argument is flawed for a number of reasons. Primarily – and it’s a kind of obvious thing to have to point out – human being’s bodies are not all the same, they react to different drugs in different ways. Some riders will find some PEDs help them, others will find the opposite. Former Armstrong teammate Tyler Hamilton said in a recent interview, “For me, growth hormone, when I tried it, felt awful. My legs felt sluggish. But some riders loved it, and that was their thing.”.
Verner Moller, a professor of sport and body culture at Aarhus University in Denmark recently advocated an “upper threshold” for the level of red blood cells in an athlete’s body. Moller used the argument that this would create a “level playing field”, saying
“Everybody would know what they can do, and it will be less important who has the best doping doctor. You would also see that we would get rid of those false positives, the bad publicity, the doping hysteria.”
Now, far be it from me to question a professor of sport and body culture, but this argument again ignores the physiological differences between athletes. If we set an upper threshold for hematocrit level (the percentage of blood which is made up of red blood cells which carry oxygen to the muscles) at, say, 50% this would not create a level playing field as people naturally have different hematocrit levels to begin with. An example from Tyler Hamilton again illustrates this well:
If Jonathan Vaughters’ is 48, he can only take a little bit of EPO, because it would be too dangerous for him, with testers, to raise his level any higher. Mine was in the lower forties, so EPO could help me more.
Moller’s argument that a threshold would also get rid of “false positives, bad publicity and doping hysteria”, also seems debatable. What would happen if the upper threshold was exceeded? Pro cycling actually did set a hematocrit limit at 50% in the days before EPO use could be detected by testing (a time when Lance Armstrong won his first couple of Tour de France titles, incidentally) and there is no evidence that cycling was any fairer then than it is now with stricter doping controls. This is also a time that, inarguably, had its share of bad publicity and doping hysteria too.
In addition to this, saying doping should be legalised is akin to asking someone to put their health at serious risk for spectator’s entertainment.
The anti-doping organisation Bike Pure have a handy list of the health risks associated with doping on their website. These include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, liver disease, sterility and depression through steroid use; whilst blood doping carries risks of septicaemia, blood clots, strokes, heart failure and increased risks of heart attacks. It’s surely beyond any person’s moral code to ask athletes to expose themselves to these risks for the sake of sport?
Taking a sentimental view
I watch cycling because I like seeing people haul themselves up a huge mountain on a tiny carbon-framed bike. I like watching people ride over 200kms and then out-think and out-pace their rivals in a sprint to the finish line. I like watch people ride through cobblestones and mud in Belgium and Northern France or be fast and smart enough to win a time trial. As we’ve seen with Lance Armstrong, those performances are instantly tainted when you find out they were done not solely through natural talent and training. Watching a whole peloton of people who could legally take drugs would not appeal to me at all. I generally find that those who advocate legalised doping or applaud Armstrong for doing what it took to win – such as sociologist Malcolm Gladwell – are not actually fans of the sport and are therefore lacking a deeper understanding of just why people love cycling. It’s beautiful, epic, romantic even, none of those adjectives can apply to doping. Cycling – when boiled down to its core – is about one person and a bike taking on everything else, and so it should remain.