Greyhound speeds anti-doping war
Spain had been slow to investigate athletes until this month's dramatic bust
It was a caricature of world steeplechase champion Marta Domínguez on her own website that led the Civil Guard to name their latest anti-doping crackdown Operation Greyhound. But the 35-year-old athlete- "the Palencian greyhound"- arrested earlier this month and accused of involvement in a nationwide doping network, must surely be feeling more like a hare these days, as she fights to protect her reputation as the queen of Spanish sport.
On Monday November 15, the day after Ethiopian-born Alemayehu Bezabeh had won the nine-kilometer Quintanar Cross Country run, one of the high points of the Spanish long-distance running calendar, half a liter of his blood was extracted by his coach, Manuel Pascua Piqueras. In doing so, he would not only bring about his own downfall, but set in motion an operation that would implicate some of the best-known, and well respected names in Spanish track & field.
They heard Pascua tell Bezabeh to return to Ethiopia for training before having the blood re-injected
The Civil Guard had been eavesdropping on telephone conversations between Bezabeh, a nationalized Spaniard, and Pascua. They heard Pascua tell Bezabeh to return to Ethiopia for training, and that when he returned in December, ahead of the European Cross Country Championships, he would have the blood re-injected. The half-liter of blood Bezabeh had extracted after his win in mid-November contained high levels of hemoglobin, which helps move oxygen around the body.
After seven months, this was the proof the police were waiting for, and they launched Operation Greyhound. Three weeks later, on the night of December 8-9, some 70 civil guards staked out addresses in Segovia, Madrid, Las Palmas, Alicante, and Palencia. During that night, they followed Bezabeh and Pascua as they drove to the Madrid monastery town of El Escorial. They were to meet with Alberto León, allegedly tasked with keeping tabs on the blood samples taken from athletes involved in the doping scam.
The three were the first to be arrested in an operation that would net 14 suspects that day. A large number of banned substances were seized, including EPO, anabolic steroids, blood bags (including Bezabeh's), and the equipment needed to carry out transfusions. There was also "abundant" documentation relating to doping practices.
Bezabeh maintains that he has never actually doped before, and that he had had blood extracted in the middle of November by "Dr León" (a reference to former cycling coach Alberto León, who is not a doctor) thinking that it was for a blood test. Supporting his innocence is the fact that in the last month alone he's been tested four separate times, (even once when he was in Ethiopia). He claims these tests will prove that he is clean.
Operation Greyhound is just the latest in a series of moves by the Spanish sports authorities to crack down on doping. But Spain has been late to act, only implementing effective laws last year in the aftermath of 2006's Operation Puerto, which concerned a blood doping ring based in Madrid. Then police found bags of blood reportedly belonging to around 200 athletes. The man at the center of the Puerto ring and also detained as part of the Greyhound case, Eufemiano Fuentes, has since been linked to soccer and tennis players, and athletes (his wife is Cristina Pérez, the Spanish 400 meters hurdles record holder), as well as around 50 cyclists. Alberto León was also implicated in Operation Puerto.
Bezabeh's trainer, Pascua Piqueras, age 77, a former physical education teacher, has been involved in track & field since the early 1970s. After taking over as head of the Spanish Athletics Federation in 1980, he pushed for greater professionalization in Spanish sport, and helped train the small group that helped put the country on the athletics map thanks to a bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Working alongside Pascua over the last two decades to create Spain's new generation of super-athletes has been Fuentes. The link to Marta Domínguez came after analyzing documents seized during Operation Puerto that led the police to identify one of the recovered bags of blood as belonging to her. Fuentes is still in the middle of legal proceedings for his role in Operation Puerto. Then there is the shadowy figure of Guillermo Laich, an Argentinean formerly resident in the United States, and an expert in the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, having worked with Robert B. Kerr, who is currently preparing the US Olympic team.
Laich studied in Germany, where he apparently learned a great deal about the methods used in the former East Germany. Ten years younger than Pascua, and 10 years older that Fuentes, he is seen by many as a key player in doping in Spain, and has introduced a range of techniques and procedures involving hormone treatment, muscular biopsies, serums, biological preparation, strength tests and transfusions.
These are the men who effectively turned the Spanish Athletics Federation into their private laboratory. And until Operation Greyhound, their achievements have been lauded by the Spanish media and the federation chief, José María Odriozola, who has been quick to condemn the activities of those at the top of Spanish sport. "I am another victim of all this and the people who have abused my trust will suffer the appropriate sanctions or see their contracts canceled," he said in the aftermath of the Operation Greyhound sting.
Throughout the 1980s, Spanish athletics garnered many notable wins. But by the end of the decade, after several cases of doping, many of which were kept quiet, Odriozola took over as president of the federation. He immediately set about dismantling the power base of Fuentes and Pascua. "I had many reasons to believe that doping was going on," he said earlier this month. Fuentes moved into cycling training, working with many of Spain's top teams, while Pascua continued working as an athletics coach. Once Puerto had established the links between Fuentes and athletes such as Marta Domínguez, a police investigation into doping in track & field was inevitable.
Operation Greyhound is the third major anti-doping investigation in Spain after 2006's Puerto and Operation Grial last year, following which Spanish walker Francisco "Paquillo" Fernández, a silver medalist at the 2004 Olympics, was banned for two years. In September, the International Cycling Union provisionally suspended Spain's Alberto Contador after a small amount of the muscle-building steroid clenbuterol was found in a blood sample taken during this year's Tour de France race, which he won for the third time. The 27-year-old Spanish rider, who has signed a two-year deal with Saxo Bank for the 2011 season, insists he is the victim of contaminated meat brought in from Spain during the race.
Meanwhile, Domínguez, who is pregnant, has been temporarily suspended from her position as vice president of the Spanish Athletics Federation. She has repeatedly insisted on her innocence, saying that she has never supplied drugs. She had planned to return to athletics in 2012 with the London Olympics in mind. But that decision will now have to wait until the outcome of Operation Greyhound.