News feature, October 28, 2006.
Operation Puerto: Riders clear for now, but possibility of sanctions remains
UCI disappointed at legal limbo, vow to reopen investigations when possible
By Shane Stokes
In the wake of the news that the Spanish federation had been forced to drop proceedings against riders implicated in Operación Puerto and that investigation has also been shelved against Italian Ivan Basso, the UCI has reaffirmed that this does not mean that the riders have automatically been cleared of the charges against them. A ruling by the Spanish court on October 7 prevented the Spanish federation from using court documents to open up cases against riders named in the investigation until such time as the court determined exactly what happened. There is a chance that other federations may follow suit.
It is expected that the trial will not be concluded until the middle of next year, raising the possibility that the result of the case will be known before or during the Tour de France. Should it be proven that there is substance behind the charges that Dr Eufemiano Fuentes ran a doping network involving cyclists and other sports people, it is likely that the UCI will instruct federations to once again open disciplinary proceedings against the riders in question.
Speaking to Cyclingnews on Saturday, UCI President Pat McQuaid explained how the current twist evolved in the long-running saga. "The situation with Manolo, with Basso and with the Spanish riders as well is all down to the current state of affairs with Operación Puerto," he said. "I can quite easily understand how the License Commission were unable take away Manolo’s license. They couldn't use the information that we had supplied to them due to the fact that the Spanish authorities have blocked us using those details.
"The Spanish federation are likewise in the position where they have been told that they can't use the information that they have been given, so therefore they have no option but to shelve the files. And the same applies to Ivan Basso.
"I am, to some extent, very disappointed with the Italian federation. I had written to them in recent days because I knew they were coming to that decision and I asked them to supply us with the complete file on Basso so that we could give an opinion to them as to what to do. But they didn't do that, they just went ahead and cleared him."
In the wake of what has been a very difficult time for cycling due to the Operación Puerto affair, the exclusion of many big names from the Tour de France and Floyd Landis’ positive test for testosterone, McQuaid said that he is greatly frustrated that the situation continues to drag on without a firm resolution. Riders can neither be cleared nor found guilty, putting the sport in an unenviable limbo vis-à-vis doping matters. However he says that sooner or later, a conclusion will be reached.
"None of this is by any means over - the files are shelved and when we have the ability to use the information that we have got, even if we have to wait until the end of the whole process, we will act. Once we get the complete information we can move forward on it."
For now, the legal limbo the sport finds itself in means that those implicated can compete once more. It is however uncertain as to whether the riders concerned will be permitted to ride for a ProTour team. The Code of Ethics suggests that those under investigation cannot race for such squads; McQuaid says that the AIGCP will decide what happens next.
"I don't know if riders can necessarily be legally prevented [from compete with a ProTour team]. However the AIGCP took the decision last Thursday that any rider who is implicated in Operación Puerto and who wishes to ride a ProTour team should, at least, offer his DNA to the Spanish authorities. That is a position which the UCI supports completely.
"For riders such as Ivan Basso, submitting DNA would therefore help clear things up, to some extent, even if it wouldn’t completely clear him from the investigation. But it would at least allow his fellow riders to accept him back into the peloton until he is finally cleared. That would be the [AIGCP] line really, and that is a line that I would support.
"It is unfortunate that we have to do this - legally you're talking about civil rights when you start talking about DNA, but we have got to bear in mind that we are talking about sport here and the credibility of cycling is at stake. And the riders need to realise that."
Although Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich and others claim their innocence and say that they have had no dealings with Dr. Fuentes, they have so far refused to provide the DNA samples which would show conclusively that their blood was not amongst the large quantity seized in the May raids. In fact, Basso’s lawyer has claimed that DNA testing is of limited inaccuracy, despite the fact that it has been used in countless criminal trials across the world.
Recent moves have been made to introduce such DNA testing as part of the new anti-doping measures being planned for the future. Even though this is at an early stage, McQuaid feels that pressure from within the sport could put pressure on the Operación Puerto-implicated riders who refuse to provide samples.
"It would be the AIGCP or the ProTour teams who would take action on this," he explains. "As things stand, there is possibly no action you can take against such riders, but I think that the feeling amongst the large majority of the teams is that it is unacceptable [to sign for a ProTour squad without providing a DNA sample.] Therefore any team that decides to try to sign such rider would be taking a risk."
The possibility of future sanction is something which he feels also needs to be weighed up. "Not only that, they would also be taking an additional risk that when this thing [the Spanish court case] does come to an end, the files will be opened up again. It might be next June or July or August, but when things are opened up, the rules of the ProTour Code of Conduct state that the rider has to be suspended once more.
"In addition to that, the team will have to continue to pay him until such time as the whole thing is finished. I feel that teams have to take all those things into consideration before they make any decision in relation to signing these riders."
When asked about Tyler Hamilton, McQuaid says that he is in a similar situation. "His case falls in under the same circumstances, because he has also been named as being implicated in this. For the moment, he can race again, but he is in the same boat as the rest of them as regards what team he could possibly ride with."
WADA intervention likely
The UCI’s frustration with the delay in reaching a conclusion to Operación Puerto means that the governing body recently contacted WADA in order to request the agency’s assistance in the matter. McQuaid said that the World Anti-Doping Agency has indicated it will look into things.
"I wrote to them last week and asked them to get involved, in the context that they work with governments," he states. "They have responded and have told me that they will make contact with the authorities in Spain and try to assist us in the situation.
"I would hope that this will speed up the process. The Spanish authorities have to realise that they are putting the sports authorities in a very, very difficult position. It is not good - the credibility of our sport is at stake, and they need to take decisions which assist us.
"Yet at the moment, they don't seem to care less about the sports authorities. All they are concerned about is the civil investigation. It is they who put us in this invidious position, initially by leaking reports to the media about the whole affair, and by giving the names out. The teams acted before the Tour de France and since then we have done everything we can do prepare the files, to give them to the federations to begin the sanctioning process. But then suddenly, three months later, the Spanish authorities tell us that we can't use that information."
He asserts that this limbo is bad news for all concerned. "It is unfortunate, not just for the UCI and not just for the teams, but it is also very unfortunate for the riders were implicated. They are not given an opportunity to prove themselves innocent or to establish guilt at the moment.
"This is very much down to the Spanish authorities. They have put us in a really ridiculous situation. I don't know why this is happening, but from their end the whole thing hasn't been handled very well from the beginning, in my opinion," he concluded.