Spain doping case decision threatens to expose more athletes

Madrid (AFP) - A Spanish court reversed a decision Tuesday to destroy blood bags seized as part of a major doping scandal affecting cycling and other sports, which may allow authorities to identify more athletes implicated in the case.

A major embarrassment for Spain, the so-called Operation Puerto case centres on disgraced doctor Eufemiano Fuentes who gave performance-enhancing blood transfusions to top cyclists, and also admitted to having worked with as yet unidentified footballers, tennis players and boxers.

Fuentes was found guilty of endangering public health in a 2013 trial, but the judge at the time refused to give anti-doping authorities access to the 211 blood bags seized in 2006 from his apartments, and ordered them destroyed on privacy grounds.

On Tuesday, a court in Madrid reversed that decision, ruling that the bags be handed over to several entities including the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

"The stated aim is to fight doping," the court said in a statement, adding that there was "a risk that other sportspeople could be tempted by doping."

So far only cyclists, including 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich, have been publicly named as being Fuentes' clients.

But former cyclist Jesus Manzano, a whistleblower in the case, claims to have seen prominent footballers being treated by Fuentes.

- Disgraced doctor absolved -

Tuesday's decision means that WADA, the International Cycling Union (UCI) and other anti-doping entities should be able to analyse the blood bags and identify other athletes who may have used the performance-enhancing transfusions.

WADA head David Howman gave a cautious welcome to the ruling.

"We are dismayed that it took so long... but we will now partner with the other parties that have been granted access (to the blood bags) to determine our legal options vis-a-vis analysing the blood and plasma bags," he said in a statement.

Separately, the Madrid court also absolved Fuentes of endangering public health, on the grounds that the blood he used for transfusions was not medicine and thus did not come under the remit of that offence.

Fuentes had been given a one-year suspended prison sentence and was banned from practising as a sports doctor for four years.

He had been accused of endangering public health but not incitement to doping, which was not a crime in Spain at the time of his arrest in 2006.

The case -- and the judge's decision to destroy the blood bags -- caused severe reputational damage to Madrid's ultimately failed bid for the 2020 Olympic Games and did little to dismiss accusations that Spain is a soft touch on doping.

"It is unfortunate that the evidence used in this proceeding is not now being made available to anti-doping organisations to further the fight against doping," the International Olympic Committee said in a statement at the time.

A lawyer representing cycling governing body UCI described the operation as "the biggest doping network the world has ever seen".

Even tennis star Andy Murray waded in.

"Operation puerto case is beyond a joke...biggest cover up in sports history? Why would court order blood bags to be destroyed? #coverup," he tweeted at the time.

"It's embarrassing for Spain," added former WADA head Dick Pound.

"Everybody knows we will be able to uncover quite a bit more doping if the examples are made available."