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Cycling | International

Spain to maintain doping fight beyond Puerto trial



Spain's sports authorities have vowed to maintain their campaign to end the country's reputation for widespread doping as the long-awaited Operation Puerto trial reaches its midway point.

Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and four other defendants are facing charges that they endangered the health of cyclists by allegedly helping them to cheat through blood transfusions. But anti-doping watchdogs are also interested in the large amounts of evidence not being presented at Madrid's Criminal Court.

Spain's anti-doping agency says it will follow the World Anti-Doping Agency's lead by also requesting that the court finally hand over the more than 200 blood bags discovered in police raids in 2006 so they can be analyzed and help identify athletes who doped.

"When the trial finishes, this is not over. We will go to work," Ana Munoz, the head of Spain's anti-doping agency, told The Associated Press. "I am very aware of the doubts that exist abroad about Spain's anti-doping fight. I spend 80 percent of my time trying to change this image, not just with words, but with acts."

The Spanish agency has to wait until the trial is over to request the evidence since it was founded in 2008, after the police investigation began.

Fuentes' defense that his transfusions were risk free was challenged Friday by expert witness Yorck Olaf Schumacher, who said that the extraction of blood to be later re-injected into the same body can lead to "complications" that "provoke death."

But even if the trial ends with convictions, spots authorities will probably not be completely satisfied unless the door is opened to further investigations that target cheating athletes.

For years Spanish courts have denied Wada access to this evidence that could possibly open a floodgate of doping suspensions and reveal to what extent doping practices have spread beyond cycling and into other sports.

The Italian Olympic Committee, one of the trial's other plaintiffs, was the only sports body able to get access to some samples, leading to doping bans for Spanish cyclist Alejandro Valverde and Italian cyclist Ivan Basso. The other 50 cyclists implicated, including two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, have never been punished.

The trial is limited to the health risks involved in blood transfusions because doping was not illegal when the police began their investigations in the operation that Fuentes supposedly masterminded. Spain has since strengthened its laws and an even tougher anti-doping law is working its way through parliament.

The decision now resting in the hands of presiding judge Julia Santamaria on whether or not to release the massive hold of evidence to Wada and its Spanish counterpart could go a long way to improving Spain's image as a country that is lax on fighting the use of performance-enhancing drugs and procedures.

Any refusal would be a huge blow to Spain and Madrid in particular as it seeks the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games, in the hope of providing a boost to the country's weakened morale and slumping economy.

Wada president John Fahey said earlier this week that if the bags were not released a "monumental cloud" of doubt would remain over "hundreds of athletes in Spain."

The president of the Spanish Olympic Committee, Alejandro Blanco, shares Wada's concern.

"We hope along with the rest of the sports world that the conclusions that come out of the trial serve to clear up and investigate the indications of past doping," Blanco told The Associated Press by email. "I believe in the independence of the Spanish justice system. Above all we will respect the judge's decision."

The stakes are high for Spain, a country that since the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games has become a world power in various sports. Spain's football clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona have long been among the best and most followed in the world, but over the past decade Spaniards have also risen to the top of a variety of sports beyond the nation's unprecedented dominance of international football.

An entire generation of Spaniards have broken into the NBA, Rafael Nadal has established himself as arguably the best clay-court tennis player in history and helped Spain to five Davis Cup trophies since 2000, while two-time champion Fernando Alonso is one of Formula One's top drivers.

But the shadow of doping has begun to creep beyond the tarnished world of cycling with the trial already providing links to other sports.

Fuentes himself confirmed long-standing suspicions by giving testimony that he had clients also from tennis, football and boxing. Meanwhile, a former president of Real Sociedad told the Spanish press that, before he arrived, the football club had paid for its players to dope, signaling Fuentes as a "possible" source.

Madrid, which is competing with Istanbul and Tokyo for the 2020 games, will receive a visit from the International Olympic Committee next month. The issue of doping recently hurt its candidacy the Wada temporarily suspended its accredited lab- one of two in Spain along with Barcelona-for a mix-up in urine samples. It has since been reinstated, but the damage is done.

Munoz said that besides the outcomes of the Puerto trial, her agency is also eager to pursue all lines of investigation that she believes will come out from Lance Armstrong's admission to doping en route to winning seven Tour de France titles.

"The report on Armstrong is a watershed moment," she said. "It represents a revolution, a tsunami, that is going to help us a lot."



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