Operation Puerto

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For those interested in pro cycling one ‘Operation’ has been of massive interest and intrigue over the past 7 years – Operation Puerto.  Currently this case is in court – what have we learnt in the last couple of weeks and why should it be of interest to more than just cycling fans?


In 2004 former pro cyclist Jesus Manzano turned whistleblower on doping, detailing all the activities of his team.  Subsequently in 2006 the Spanish Police raided two premises in Madrid belonging to a Dr Eufamiano Fuentes after two years of investigation.  In the two apartments they found a total of 185 bags of blood and 39 bags of frozen plasma.  These blood bags all belonged to elite sports men and women, seeking to gain advantage by blood doping.  The news broke on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France.  As the first few names of cyclists filtered out there were mass withdrawals from the race, with several of the high profile favourites barred from competing.  Dr Michele Ferrari was Lance and his teams personal doping advisor, whilst Fuentes was available to anyone with the cash – Tyler Hamilton (who will give evidence shortly) called him the ‘Wall-Mart of doping’.  Unlike Ferrari, whose riders seem to pass all tests, several clients of Fuentes have failed rugs tests at some point.


Seven years on the case has got to court. Dr Fuetnes, his sister Yolanda, and four others: José Luis Merino Batres (haematologist) and cycling team managersIgnacio Labarta, Manolo Saiz and Vicente Belda have been charged with public health offences.  In 2006 doping, or aiding others doping, was not against the  law in Spain.


Gradually over the next few years names leaked out and several cyclists have been banned from evidence collected – Jan Ulrich (German), Alejandro Valverde (Spanish) and Ivan Basso (Italian) being the highest profile.  Valverde’s case was very interesting as he was caught through DNA testing.  Italian authorities collected a blood sample from him when the Tour de France entered Italy in 2008 and requested blood bags seized in Madrid to compare.  He was subsequently banned for two years.  Basso on the other hand was suspended for ‘intending to dope’, even though has been revealed he hadlinks with Dr Fuentes for 3 years.  He claimed to have only had three bags of blood removed from him but none re introduced, thereby not actually committing a violation.  In court he claimed amnesia as to their initially meeting date.  He also received a two year ban.


Evidence presented so far

In court Fuentes has testified along with several former cyclists.  Dr Fuentes did offer to give the names of all of the clients he worked with but apparently the judge told him this was not necessary.  Each client was given a code name, often based on their dogs name.  He has said that he worked with boxers, tennis players and football clubs alongside the cyclists. His justification for helping the dopers was for health reasons, to maintain their iron levels in particular through infusions of blood.

This is laughable because all of the other evidence indicates that health was not considered too highly: blood was stored incorrectly and even infused at the wrong temperature.  Several riders have testified as to having received ‘bad bags’: someone else’s blood or their own which was degraded.  In court a blood expert described many of the practices as extremely dangerous.

The list of drugs revealed by the cyclists is a veritable pharmacy.   EPO, steroids, Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1, has anabolic properties) , artificial haemoglobin, blood transfusions, Actovegin (calf blood extract), Synacthen (for adrenal stimulation), and Oxyglobin (veterinary use only) have been named.  Manzano claimed that the use of a cocktail of drugs including Oxyglobin lead him to collapse during a stage of the Tour, officially the cause was heatstroke.


What methods did they use to avoid detection?

This was before the biological passport was introduced, so the testing did not have to get round this (but other evidence this week has highlighted limitations in the bio passport).

One method – if the haematocrit count was getting too high and the testers were due a saline drip was used to dilute the blood (50 % used to be the target maximum haematocrit level allowed).

Several have talked adding a white powder to the urine to beat the EPO test.  This is rumoured to be a biological washing powder.  The enzymes in the powder may break down the protein EPO.

Otherwise the strategies were similar to those previously described – a small knowledge of how long to avoid giving a sample and resort to hiding if a tester came looking for you!


To come

I’m looking forward to the evidence of the current top stage race cyclist (and controversial) Alberto Contador (who may have been the code name AC) later next week.  I would like all of the names of all sports people released if possible, including clubs and teams.  It is said that the client list was around 200 with around 50 of those cyclists.  Of that 50 a fair few are known, many have since retired, some been suspended and others still live under the cloud of suspicion (such as Contador).


Much of what we read about this trial is not new.  It has been heard before but on a much smaller scale.  It does seem a critical point inn sport and cycling in particular where a page needs to be turned.  To do that all stories such as this need to be aired and no secrets remain.  Shaming heros is not nice but new ones will always emerge. Hopefully athletes who do not want to resort to doping.


I hope they will gather the names of the athletes from all sports and investigate all of them. It may be in the past but many of the current sports stars are still competing, and taking prize money, sponsorship and fame from clean athletes.


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Photo shows Ulrich Armstrong and Basso, Le Tour ’05.

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.