A Spanish court has ordered that the 200 bags of blood seized in the Operation Puerto police raids in 2006 must be released to the sporting authorities for drug testing.
This follows a successful appeal by the International Cycling Union, Italian Olympic Committee, Spanish Cycling Federation and World Anti-Doping Agency against a 2013 decision to destroy the blood bags.
That decision followed the conclusion of lengthy criminal proceedings against the doctor at the centre of the doping scandal, Eufemiano Fuentes, and four co-defendants.
Judge Julia Patricia Santamaria gave Fuentes a suspended one-year sentence for endangering public health and handed Jose Ignacio Labarta, an official from the Kelme cycling team, a four-month suspended sentence.
But those sentences have now been overturned by the appeal court as it has decided no offence was committed under the laws at the time of the raids a decade ago.
The other three defendants in the original trial, including Fuentes’ wife, a former Spanish Olympic hurdler who tested positive for drugs shortly after the 1988 Olympics, were acquitted.
The decision by the appeal court in Madrid to acquit Fuentes and Labarta will surprise many but not as much as the decision to release the blood bags, which belong to 35 different athletes and have been stored in a freezer at Barcelona’s anti-doping lab for a decade.
Most anti-doping experts had given up on ever getting the chance to discover who they belong to, although it remains unclear if any sporting sanctions will result from the tests as the statute of limitations for doping cases in 2006 was eight years.
The appeal judges said they were overturning the 2013 decision to destroy the blood bags in order to help the “fight against doping, which undermines the essential ethical value of sport”.
They added that destroying the blood bags might “create the danger that other athletes may be tempted to take drugs, sending a negative message that the end justifies any means”.
This decision means the remarkable Operation Puerto story has at least a few more chapters in it.
The tale started in 2004 when Spanish rider Jesus Manzano gave an interview to Spanish newspaper AS about his doping regime at the Kelme cycling team - a regime that almost killed him at the 2003 Tour de France.
Manzano’s claims about Fuentes, a gynaecologist turned sports doctor used by Kelme and other sports teams, ultimately led to a criminal investigation that used police raids and wire taps to uncover a huge doping operation.
The disputed blood bags were found at Fuentes’ clinic in Madrid shortly before the start of the 2006 Tour de France, which immediately ruled out a number of the sport’s biggest names, including Italy’s Ivan Basso, former champion Jan Ullrich of Germany and American star Tyler Hamilton.
The cycling authorities’ investigations ultimately saw 56 riders implicated but only six were sanctioned, as most of them simply retired.
In 2010, a related investigation into Fuentes’ activities called Operation Galgo caught a number of track and field athletes, including world steeplechase champion Marta Dominguez.
She was initially acquitted in 2011 but was banned in 2015 for blood doping by the Court of Arbitration of Sport.
The real interest in the remaining blood bags, however, will be if they finally uncover the long-rumoured links Fuentes had with other sports, specifically football and tennis.
Fuentes has repeatedly said, via his lawyers, that he will consider selling his story about working with other professional sports teams after this appeal.
As well as his one-year suspended sentence, Fuentes was given a small fine and struck off the Spanish medical register for four years.
Those sanctions are now squashed and he will be able to practice medicine again, although he may not need the money as the Panama Papers revealed he has a number of offshore accounts from his time in cycling.