Tour de France: Inside the Blood Doping Investigation

For years Spain has been considered a paradise for athletes open to doping. A 500-page investigative report describes the network surrounding Madrid sports doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. In addition to German cyclist Jan Ullrich, T-Mobile's Jörg Jaksche has also been implicated in a scandal that threatens to make a farce of the Tour de France.

Like many residential and commercial buildings in Madrid's exclusive Chamberí neighborhood, a security guard is always on duty during the day in the red brick building at 92 Calle de Zurbano. The doorman, at his desk in the building's spacious lobby, is wary of visitors and brusquely deflects questions about tenants, including hematologist José Luis Merino Batres.

Eufemiano Fuentes (center), accompanied by his mother and his lawyer after being released on bail.
AP

Eufemiano Fuentes (center), accompanied by his mother and his lawyer after being released on bail.

But the doorman wasn't as successful in getting rid of agents from the Spanish Guardia Civil, a military and civilian police force, when they showed up in the spring and wanted information about visitors to Batres's laboratory on the mezzanine level. Investigators from the UCO, a special police unit, installed cameras underneath his desk and above the barred entry door and ordered the doorman to keep their activities a secret.

The surveillance operation was somewhat less complicated at an unadorned, seven-story apartment building at 53 Calle Alonso Cano. In that building, only about 300 meters (984 feet) from the blood specialist's practice, the police were interested in an apartment occupied by a doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes. Residents of the high-turnover building hardly know each other; indeed, turnover is so high that a real estate company has hung a banner from the building that reads: "Viviendas en alquiler" -- Apartments for rent.

The police agents kept a close eye on both buildings for weeks. Then, in late May, during Italy's Giro d'Italia cycling race, they moved in and arrested the two physicians, Merino Batres and Eufemiano Fuentes.

The doping factory

They were charged with behind-the-scenes involvement in Spain's biggest doping scandal, an affair that has since spread well beyond the country's borders -- and in which, according to the 500-page investigative report, German cycling idol Jan Ullrich finds himself deeply enmeshed.

The police seized more than a hundred 450-milliter (approx. one pint) bags of blood, growth hormones, anabolic steroids and EPO -- in short, a full assortment of the tools of performance enhancement in sports.

Spanish prosecutors are convinced that the two nondescript addresses in downtown Madrid represent something akin to catalysts for the careers of about 200 athletes. The photos taken with the hidden police cameras are seen as important evidence in a case involving charges of "offenses against public health."

Spanish police seized over 100 bags of blood during the "Puerto" operation.
DPA

Spanish police seized over 100 bags of blood during the "Puerto" operation.

Of the fifty-eight professional cyclists mentioned in the investigation files, nine, including T-Mobile stars Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla, were removed from their respective teams for the Tour de France. Although no one has been charged and no sentences have been handed down, it is clear that the Spanish police's "Operación Puerto" ("Operation Mountain Pass") has shown a bright light on the clandestine structures of the international performance enhancement business. In the process, it offers detailed information into how top athletes avail themselves of a network of doctors, managers and prescription drug dealers.

The principal suspect, 51-year-old Eufemiano Fuentes, would never call his activities fraudulent. Last week Fuentes, who was released on a €120,000 bail, offered an insight into his understanding of fairness in athletics. In an interview on "El Larguero" ("The Crossbar"), a popular Spanish radio talk show broadcast daily at midnight, he described himself as a man of honor for whom nothing is more important than the health of his patients. "There is no offense, neither against public nor private health," say Fuentes's lawyers, in describing their defense strategy.

The bust

Fuentes sees reverse transfusions of one's own blood as therapeutic treatment for an athlete's overburdened body. In his view, it isn't the treatment that's wrong, but the rules and regulations governing the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Fuentes's principle is that anything that promises to enhance performance should be tried. And anything that can't be detected in tests for these substances should be permitted.

To circumvent the rules, Fuentes used a carefully worked out series of secret codes. According to the Guardia Civil, a star in the drug lists indicates the administration of a growth hormone, a black dot represents 1,000 International Units (I.U.) of erythropoietin (EPO) and a black squiggle stands for anabolic steroids.

French David Moncoutie of the Cofidis cycling team leaves a doping test center at the Tour de France in Strasbourg.
DPA

French David Moncoutie of the Cofidis cycling team leaves a doping test center at the Tour de France in Strasbourg.

During the weeklong surveillance period, investigators were shocked at the level of imagination with which the doctor and his associates went about their work. They deliberately chose detours when traveling by car, and the suspects were constantly changing mobile phones. When Fuentes was arrested, the police confiscated seven phone cards and three mobile phones. Because the network avoided using real names when speaking on the phone, investigators analyzing the wiretapped conversations needed a great deal of patience to trace the individuals involved in the operation, including Jan Ullrich.

The authorities were ready to move in on May 18. Fuentes's telephone rang at about 8:15 p.m. It was Rudy Pevenage, a friend and father-like figure to Jan Ullrich. "A third person won today," the caller said, clearly pleased. A look at the list of results at the Giro d'Italia identified this "third person" as Jan Ullrich, who won the individual time trial on May 18.

According to the Guardia Civil's report number CO.PP.4293/06, this code name proved to be Ullrich's undoing two days later. At 10:44 p.m. on May 20, investigators listened in on another telephone conversation between Pevenage and Fuentes, in which Pevenage said that he had "spoken with a third person on the bus. This person is interested in getting more, even if it's only half." Investigators are convinced that Fuentes and Pevenage were making arrangements to supply Ullrich with another concentrated dose of his own blood. This is an assumption that Pevenage and Ullrich vehemently deny.

But the evidence is not in their favor. One of the most incriminating documents in the investigation file mentions a "Jan" four times.

According to the document, this "Jan" paid €2,970 to be supplied with Vino, Nino, Ignacio and PCH. The investigators say that based on their "analysis of the documents and wiretapped conversations," they are convinced that these are code names for doctored blood, growth hormone, IGF-1 (a product similar to insulin) and testosterone tablets.

Those who have known Ullrich for years insist he is innocent. A close friend conjectures that cycling associates may have convinced Ullrich to turn to this supposedly safe method involving one's own donated blood "so that he could win the Tour this time around."

Jan Ullrich of Germany (right) is at the center of the blood doping scandal.
AP

Jan Ullrich of Germany (right) is at the center of the blood doping scandal.

But perhaps Ullrich also didn't expect to be dropped by his sponsor, T-Mobile. Based on the investigation file, T-Mobile officials reacted to the news about Ullrich by immediately setting up a crisis management team -- in contrast to 1999, when an insider told SPIEGEL about performance enhancement activities within Team Telekom. After publishing a story describing the alleged performance-enhancing methods, the magazine was unable to offer any evidence that could hold up in court and eventually suffered a legal setback.

At the time, team sponsor and T-Mobile parent company Deutsche Telekom showed no interest in looking into the allegations. Instead, it condemned concrete reports about ties between cyclists on its team and shady sports doctors like Michele Ferrari and Luigi Cecchini as nothing but unfounded slander.

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