Tom English: Destruction of evidence adds to scandal

Deco, pictured in action against Celtic, has tested positive for furosemide, a banned diuretic. Picture: SNS
Deco, pictured in action against Celtic, has tested positive for furosemide, a banned diuretic. Picture: SNS
Share this article
Have your say

GIVEN his Champions League triumphs with Porto and Barcelona, his Premiership-
winning years with Chelsea and the 75 caps he won for Portugal, Deco, at his best, was a thoroughbred footballer who was fond of the turf – as in hurling himself on to it at the merest suggestion of contact.

The horse-racing reference is apt because yesterday it was announced that Deco tested positive for a banned diuretic called furosemide after playing for his club Fluminense in Brazil on 30 March. Furosemide helps weight loss and is considered one of the main masking agents for other doping products. Though some athletes have tested positive for furosemide in the past – most notably the Jamaican sprinter Steve Mullings in 2011 – the drug is best known in the racing world.

As horse-racing attempted to come to terms last week with the seismic Godolphin doping scandal, furosemide was name-checked as one of the sport’s most controversial products, a quote by John Gosden, the English champion trainer, being used to explain why this substance, banned in racing in the UK but not in America (although that is changing) has caused such anxiety. “There’s no doubt that it (furosemide) improves a horse’s performance,” said Gosden. “One basic reason is that it reduces body weight (via fluid loss). It also reduces pressure on the capillaries, so there’s no doubt that as a drug, it helps horses to run faster.”

If his B sample supports the findings of his A sample then Deco the wonder-horse is in some serious trouble. But he’s not alone. There’s a lot of strife about at the moment. The steroid scandals that have rocked flat racing. The Vijay Singh saga. An 800 metres European gold medallist stripped of her title because of abnormally high haemoglobin levels in her blood. An Olympic 1500m champion facing a lifetime ban after a positive test. An Olympic silver-medal discus thrower banned for using steroids. This has all happened in recent days and weeks and on Tuesday you had the outcome of the trial of the doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and the storm that greeted it, best illustrated by a tweet by Andy Murray that called it the biggest cover-up in the history of sport.

Fuentes was convicted in Madrid on Tuesday of endangering the health of his athletes when helping them to transfuse their own blood – as well as supplying them with performance-enhancing drugs. Judge Julia Santamaria gave Fuentes a one-year suspended prison sentence and banned him from practising medicine for four years. This all goes back to Operation Puerto and the 2006 raid on Fuentes’ properties.

Fuentes had 200 clients, about 50 of them being cyclists. In the trial, Santamaria laid down strict rules that only the bike riders could be discussed in court. All the other sports he was involved with were not to be mentioned despite Fuentes having freely admitted that he worked with footballers, tennis players, boxers and track and field athletes. Think again about that tweet from Andy Murray.

First of all, huge credit to Murray for helping to shine a light on all of this. We live in a world where publicists and image consultants would rather poke out their own eyes than see a big-name client comment on something as controversial as the trial of a doping doctor, but Murray has stepped up. It wasn’t just what he said that was powerful, it was the likely reasons behind why he said it. He suspects that some in his own sport may have doped and that they are going to get away with it and he’s almost certainly correct on both counts.

Santamaria has ordered the destruction of 212 blood bags seized in the Puerto raid. This is evidence that she wants to get rid of in the name of “privacy” despite pleas from the Spanish Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency. There is an appeal to her decision, but if it fails all the evidence that could uncover one of the most widespread doping programmes in the history of sport will be obliterated. A scandal on top of a scandal.

No wonder that Dick Pound, the former head of Wada, said the other that day that Spain now runs the risk of being deemed a haven for dopers. The fact is, though, that the country has had that status for years. Tyler Hamilton, the American bike rider and a client of Fuentes, once said that during his doping years on tour he could have cycled the length of Spain with an EPO syringe taped to his forehead and no sporting authority in the country would have bothered him.

For the longest time, Spain has turned a blind eye to cheats and especially their own cheats. In 2010, the Tour de France winner and Spanish poster boy, Alberto Contador, was cleared of all doping charges by the 
nation’s cycling federation after a public campaign featuring loud support from the Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Zapatero. The prime minister, against all the evidence that showed Contador’s positive test for a banned drug, said there was no reason to sanction the cyclist. The Court of Arbitration for Sport begged to differ and upheld the two-year ban that Contador had been served with.

The case of another Spanish cyclist, Alejandro Valverde, shows the leniency in his homeland. Valverde was a doper in Fuentes’ programme but the authorities in Spain did nothing to sanction him until the Italian Olympic Committee did it for them and banned him for two years.

Santamaria’s judgment on Tuesday has caused outrage but it was hardly a surprise given Spain’s history in such things. Consider Fuentes. In the 2000-01 football season, Fuentes was chief doctor of Las Palmas in La Liga. After a match with Rayo Vallecano, EPO-filled syringes were found in the Las Palmas dressing room. Fuentes departed the club not long after and little else was ever said about the syringes.

Last autumn, Jesus Manzano, a former professional cyclist and another of Fuentes’ clients, said he saw “well-known footballers” at the doctor’s clinic. Why were they there? What were they given? Who was there from the tennis world? Could any of them explain why they were seeking the help of a doctor so heavily involved in doping?

Of course, they will probably never have to answer questions because they are protected by the law of the land. Anonymous and untouchable.

Fuentes has spoken cryptically about his links to football without ever revealing precisely who he treated for fear, he says, of violent reprisals. “I can’t tell,” he said once, when asked which football teams he was involved with. “I have received death threats. I was told that, if I told certain things, my family and myself could have serious problems. I’ve been threatened three times and it’s not going to happen a fourth time. There are sports which you cannot go against, because they have access to very powerful legal means to defend themselves.”

He has muddied the waters so many times, hinting once that he worked with the very top teams only to later deny any association with the elite football clubs of Spain.

What we do know is that Real Sociedad used Fuentes for a number of seasons in the early part of the millennium. We know it because their former president, Inaki Badiola, said so a few months back. Badiola took over the club post-Fuentes and found evidence that players had been doped. He immediately fired the doctors who were linked to Fuentes.

His revelation fell on deaf ears, to no surprise. Too often, this is Spain’s way. La Liga is the crown jewel and anybody who threatens it with talk of impurity gets buried. “Thanks be to God there is no doping – well, very little,” was the response of the president of the Spanish FA when Badiola said his piece. Angel Maria Villar went on: “In Spain, players take many tests each weekend and nobody is found to be positive. That is the reality. The rest is just talk, talk, talk. . .”

The president had clearly turned away on the day that Athletic Bilbao’s Carlos Gurpegi tested positive for nandrolone. Nobody is found to be positive – apart from Everton Giovanella of Celta Vigo, Francisco Borja Aguiretzu, also of Celta Vigo, Frank de Boer of Barcelona, Nauret Perez of Las Palmas and others. Villar must have been looking the other way when Luis Del Moral, another high-profile doping doctor who is now banned for life, asserted that he had in the past worked with players from Barcelona and Valencia. Of course, Del Moral is a disgraced individual and he might have invented the connection, but there was no will in Spain to discover the truth one way or the other. They dismissed Del Moral as they dismissed the testimony of Badiola as they tried to dismiss the cases against Contador and Valverde and in the same way they now want to dismiss Fuentes and the 212 bags of blood he gathered.

The Spanish Anti-Doping Agency, through their director general Ana Munoz, continue to fight the good fight in the hope of changing the decision to destroy evidence, but Munoz is up against a government in denial, a government that wants to suppress critical information in the battle to unmask the sporting cheats who may still be masquerading as heroes.

Andy Murray is right. It’s a cover-up on a massive scale. A sick joke.