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Could a weak Spanish doping verdict cost Madrid the Olympics?

Madrid is campaigning to host the 2020 Olympic Games, but that plan may be jeopardized by a court ruling that levied only minor sentences against a doping ring whose conduct outraged Spain.

Last week, a Spanish court caused dismay and outrage among the public by imposing lenient sentences and ordering evidence destroyed in one of the world’s biggest doping scandals. But the verdict could also prove costly to the country as a whole: by undermining Madrid‘s campaign to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

Eufemiano Fuentes, the leader of a widespread and complex doping scheme used by top global athletes to enhance their performance, last week was sentenced to a suspended one-year prison sentence and a four-year suspension from working as a doctor. Another cycling coach was sentenced to a four-month suspended prison term, while three more were absolved.

The judge also ordered the destruction of 211 blood samples belonging to 36 cyclists and athletes that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and other international bodies wanted to use to identify those responsible.

There is little doubt that Dr. Fuentes and his aides charged thousands of euros to their clients to hide illegal performance-enhancing practices such as blood transfusions, hormones, and drugs. Police uncovered the complex scheme, known as Operación Puerto, in 2006.

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Two courts freed the doping ring in the past and only after seven years did a judge convict them for endangering public health – as opposed to doping, which is still not a crime in Spain nor in most countries. As a result, Fuentes’s customers can’t be tried, nor could a judge open an investigation that is the purview of sporting authorities, not courts.

Still, the verdict has shaken public opinion in Spain and elsewhere because of the body of evidence and confessions – including from athletes – that incriminated top world cyclists like Santiago Botero of ColombiaTour de France winner Jan Ullrich of Germany, and Tyler Hamiltonof the US.

Madrid 2020 at stake?

And the consequences could be dire, not only because it cements the international reputation of Spain’s laxity in the fight against doping, but because it could deny Madrid the chance to host the 2020 Olympics.

Athletes all over blasted the court decision, from Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal and dozens of active and retired athletes who say cheaters were given a free pass, to Nicole Cooke, British cycling gold medalist in the Beijing 2008 Olympics, who over the weekend publicly demanded that her country’s Olympic representatives vote against Madrid’s 2020 candidacy.

“I think it’s a mistake that the names of cheaters weren’t revealed because they should at least get the antipathy from other athletes and feel ashamed when facing society,” Mr. Nadal said.

“I have no doubt this will hurt Spain and its candidacy,” says Alberto Palomar, a law professor in Universidad Carlos III of Madrid and an expert in sports law.

The verdict only worsened Spain’s reputation as a doping haven where authorities cover up cheaters. Three time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, for example, was initially mentioned in Operación Puerto, but later cleared. But his 2010 Tour title was stripped after traces of a performance enhancing drug were found in his blood, an accusation he still denies.

The list of alleged Spanish sports cheaters is long and includes other Olympics medalists, which has earned Spain its infamous doping label, one that nonetheless experts say has been exaggerated.

Spanish officials are scrambling to show the world that the court’s decision does not reflect the country’s zero-tolerance against doping.

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“The trial didn’t allow us to intervene from an administrative point of view,” explained last week Ana Muñoz Meriño, director of Spain’s Anti-Doping State Agency, which is in the process of filing an appeal. “Now we can start working,” she said, “so that the evidence can be handed over to identify those who turned to the doctor who was endangering public health. Operación Puerto is not over.”

‘Politics, not legal rigor’

But the popular outrage over the verdict and the order to destroy the samples are “about politics, not legal rigor,” Dr. Palomar says, pointing out that the issue boils down to the difficulty of meeting society’s expectations in terms of fighting doping, and the ability to legally do so.

“The problem is the high expectations for this trial. Legally speaking, there could have been no other outcome,” said Alberto Palomar, a law professor in Universidad Carlos III of Madrid and an expert in sports law. “Whether the verdict is compatible with public opinion is another issue. People want immediate results, but the legal world is about legal guarantees.”

From the onset the scandal has catalyzed Spain’s anti-doping struggle. In 2006, the obvious legal loopholes that were exposed from the police investigation forced the government to pass a new anti-doping law.

Police found evidence incriminating football and tennis players, boxers, cyclists, and athletes. But Spanish law – like that of most countries – does not penalize doping like sporting regulations do. Nor were the athletes not coerced to cheat. Thus the doping ring could only be prosecuted for endangering public health, and Fuentes’s clients couldn’t be charged – they only testified as witnesses.

But as a result of Madrid’s failed attempt to win the 2016 Olympics to Rio, in part due to a perceived laxity toward doping, the government intends to pass a new law later this year to bring legislation in-line with WADA standards, in an effort to boost Madrid’s renewed candidacy for 2020.

That said, Dr. Palomar said, Spain’s anti-doping legislation and efforts are by far superior to those of Brazil or China. Spain is among the five top spenders in the world when it comes to doping controls, with more than 9,000 tests every year.

Blood samples

The court’s refusal to let global sporting authorities gain access to the evidence also touched a nerve, but again, that would have been the case in most countries, says Palomar.

“The unverified blood samples were confiscated by judicial authorities, not sporting agencies and thus can’t be used to open a new legal proceeding, in Spain or any other Western country” because it would violate basic legal rights, Palomar says.

Legally speaking, the confiscated blood samples are useless because they would have to be contrasted with DNA samples – which Fuentes’ customers would have to volunteer – to confirm who they belonged to.

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Without preliminary confirmation of criminal activity, courts do not have the authority to grant access to the blood samples and other evidence because doping was never part of the trial and it would violate the rights’ of those involved.