Puerto ruling doesn't close door of doubt on cyclists

Updated: March 12, 2007, 7:42 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

Case dismissed.

In the prime-time courtroom drama of our imagination, those two words have an unequivocal meaning: The cops and lawyers didn't have the goods.

They're the bad guys for accusing you in the first place. You're off the hook.

But cycling fans seeking that kind of theatrical clarity from the news that a Spanish judge has closed the "Operacion Puerto" doping investigation are going to be disappointed.

Jan Ullrich
Mark Venema/Hyperphoto/WireImage.comIn the wake of the Puerto scandal, Jan Ullrich called it quits.

All that's certain about Puerto is that it's stuck open no matter what the judge has to say. There's not enough WD-40 in the world to oil those hinges and push the door shut.

Here's a dose of reality TV:

The case is being dropped after nearly a year because the judge has decided there's no way to connect the necessary evidentiary dots under the Spanish public health laws in place when police raided two Madrid clinics last May. According to VeloNews.com, the Spanish media reported that the judge determined blood doping took place but ruled prosecutors couldn't prove it directly endangered riders' health.

A new anti-doping law instituted in February that prohibits prescribing or dispensing blood-doping products would have made prosecution easier, but can't be applied retroactively. (Prosecutors plan to appeal, of course.)

As you may or may not recall, the actual defendants in Puerto weren't elite road racers but rather doctors, team directors and staff, plus a mountain biker. However, riders' names that appeared in the documents were leaked wholesale on the eve of last year's Tour de France and resulted in mass suspensions, including Tour favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich. An entire team led by peripatetic Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov (who was never named in Puerto) was forced off the starting line because so many of its members allegedly were involved.

Puerto will continue to hang over the Tour de France. Fifty-eight riders (and roughly another 150 athletes from other sports) were said to be implicated in all. Nearly all those riders have now been cleared, either by the Spanish court itself or by national cycling federations. However, Tour director Christian Prudhomme said in January that race officials reserve the right to bar riders they consider suspect.

Some names of alleged rider-clients that surfaced in Puerto subsequently triggered ongoing doping investigations in their home countries. Now the UCI, cycling's international governing body, wants to use the Puerto evidence to conduct its own probe. Its ability to do that might be contingent on whether Spanish authorities actually turn over documents and/or their ghoulish stash, including bags of blood allegedly coded with the names of riders' pet dogs.

When that happens, if ever, what are the chances anyone's going to be able to prove anything? Picture the doubts that riders' defense teams -- perhaps rightfully so -- would raise about the validity of tests on blood from the long-stored, dubiously labeled supply in the Puerto blood bank.

There has been some testing already. A few months ago, the Madrid court asked a Barcelona lab to analyze some of the blood evidence. Tests by the World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited lab reportedly showed traces of the red blood cell booster EPO in eight of the bags. But -- get this -- the Barcelona lab in January declared it wouldn't continue testing until the court paid the 25,000-euro tab.

Riders probably couldn't be charged in relation to Puerto unless and until their DNA is compared with the blood in the bags. (Matching canines with owners apparently didn't meet the legal standard.)

That would entail their cooperation in giving DNA samples. To date, 1997 Tour champion Ullrich, who is under investigation by prosecutors in his native Germany, is the only rider known to have done so. The official comparison still hasn't been made. Ullrich recently retired, unemployed and apparently unemployable.

"It's crystal clear that there was a pattern of doping behavior that doesn't meet the tests of a positive test, wasn't direct possession, but was there doping going on? Absolutely."
-- T-Mobile general manager Bob Stapleton

The news that Puerto would be closed leaked this weekend. That was appropriate as nearly every aspect of this probe has oozed out into European media reports before it should have, at least by American standards. It was one giant "A sample" put out there before the "B" could confirm it.

Puerto didn't advance the plot; it muddied things. It inspired frustration in many and confidence in no one. After all these months, journalists, fans and even people directly involved in the sport are no closer to knowing how valid the case is, or was, against individual riders.

Closing the case won't put an end to the debate about whether it's right that Puerto-tainted riders -- most prominently, Discovery Channel's Basso -- are competing professionally again.

Just about everyone wants Puerto to amount to something. The news out of Spain provoked one of the more surreal episodes in the twisted saga. Teams competing in the prestigious Paris-Nice stage race in France, some of whom will forever be "linked" to the Puerto documents, deliberately delayed Monday's stage start in protest.

One person who does have clarity on Puerto is Bob Stapleton, the American wireless entrepreneur who is now general manager of the German T-Mobile team.

Stapleton took on a team weakened by years of competitive underachievement and the recent firing of Ullrich, its leader and a national sports icon. He had this to say last month when I interviewed him about the team's new internal blood testing program:

"The problem is, what's the standard of law that's appropriate for sport? Right now, the standard is a positive drug test or direct possession -- you're caught with drugs. What's happened is, there's a lot more money that goes into doping than anti-doping. All the products are engineered to avoid detection. So you're only going to have a positive test if something unusual happens, a mistake is made. And there's enough money in it that you can isolate the athlete with layers of people so that you're very unlikely ever to catch them in possession. So you have to decide, is that really the basis for innocence or guilt?

"Our view and what we've done on our team is, we're going to cast a big net. ... Our view within the law of our contracts is that if you're involved in anything that's inappropriate or harms the team, or harms the brand, any form of conduct, be it a systematic doping process like Puerto, we're going to take action. I think that's fair.

"I can only speak about the information we've seen relevant to T-Mobile athletes out of Puerto. ... There were 44 pages produced around the start of the Tour [de France]. There was another supposedly 450 pages that are in the hands of different authorities. I've seen seven of those pages. And for me, it's crystal clear that there was a pattern of doping behavior that doesn't meet the tests of a positive test, wasn't direct possession, but was there doping going on? Absolutely.

"My personal opinion is that [Ullrich] should never race in a T-Mobile jersey. ... T-Mobile acted in good conscience with good facts and did the right thing. I knew Jan personally. I supported him personally when he had his involvement with Ecstasy and his first trials and tribulations, and I'm not particularly judgmental about him. But for me that trust is fundamentally broken. T-Mobile spent a lot of money with every intention of making him a success. He didn't follow his part of that bargain. For me, it's that simple. I don't want to see him have a terrible life. But there's no way back for us."

One very smart cycling fan I know calls these unresolved cases "a Rorschach test for your predilections." If you believe most top cyclists are dopers, Puerto is powerful ammunition; if you're skeptical of authority, you'll give the athletes the benefit of the doubt.

And if you're in the great gray middle, you're getting uncomfortable with the drafts blowing through this and other stuck-open doors.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.

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