Longstanding tensions between France and Spain over the issue of doping in sport came to a head mid-February when the Spanish government threatened legal action against a French television channel for a skit using puppets that poked fun at pumped-up Spanish athletes.
The sketch was shown two days after Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador had been stripped of his 2010 Tour de France win and banned for two years. Late last year former French tennis champion Yannick Noah accused Spanish athletes of using "magic potions." Culture and Sports Minister José Ignacio Wert called the Canal+ show "intolerable" and "unsportsmanlike" because of the satirical suggestion that Spanish athletes "don't win by chance."
Responding to the widely perceived attack on the country's honor, Wert acknowledged that Spain has "a problem with doping" but was careful to distinguish this from "a problem of doping." The minister explained that the problem "with doping" refers to the lack of World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-backed legislation in Spain. Bringing the country up to speed with others had reached the floor of Congress last year but parliament was dissolved before the bill could be passed. Wert said that legislation meeting the requirements of WADA would be approved soon.
"There are as many controls in Spain as there are in other countries and approximately the same number of positive tests," Wert said. "But we suffer from an international image problem because some cases of intense media interest have emerged and this has placed us in the firing line."
The issue of doping is particularly sensitive in light of Madrid's 2020 Olympic bid application to the International Olympic Committee on February 14 - the capital's third attempt.
Spanish athletes are enjoying a sustained period of international success: Contador is part of a generation that includes Rafael Nadal, Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso, NBA star Pau Gasol and the national soccer team, which is the World and European Champion. The perceived accusation from France is that their performance is directly a result of systematic doping.
Spain has been at the forefront of international ire in the fight against doping since the Operation Puerto investigation was launched in May 2006. That probe implicated at least 50 cyclists, and a number of doctors and cycling team officials were arrested. But Spanish authorities failed to ban any riders linked to the scandal, even though other countries used evidence gathered in the probe to suspend leading cyclists such as Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde and Jan Ullrich.
France and Spain's grudge goes back to the 1998 Tour de France, and the Festina scandal. The Festina team was kicked out of the Tour when medical team member Willy Voet was arrested at the French border after customs officers had seized banned substances, including the blood-boosting drug erythropoietin (EPO). The team's riders later admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs. Top rider Richard Virenque was banned for nine months, while team director Bruno Roussel and Voet were fined and given suspended jail sentences. All the Spanish teams pulled out in protest at the subsequent raids carried out in search of illegal substances.
France made a great show of cleaning out its stable, and was responsible for introducing the first EU anti-doping legislation. French cycling introduced the concept of two-speed cycling: slow riders who were clean; and fast riders who, by definition, must be using illegal substances.
Since then, there has been a widely held belief that Spanish cycling remains marred by systematic drug abuse. France sees itself as the victim in the war against doping.
"We are accused by some of envy," says Stèphane Mandard, lead sports writer for center-left daily Le Monde. "But we are also accused of being anti-French when we deal with people like Virenque or Jeannie Longo." On February 8, French anti-doping authorities raided the home of cycling legend Longo, a winner of multiple Olympic medals who was still competing at age 53. The police were investigating allegations that Longo's husband, as well as a friend, had purchased EPO on her behalf. Longo has never tested positive.
Mandard says that Spain's angry response to the accusations from across the Pyrenees is to be expected: "It is a release mechanism, a way of dealing with a problem that is there, and has been for some time, and that the media and the politicians don't want to deal with; we're no longer dealing with censorship here, but rather self-censorship."
It should not be forgotten that sports medicine was practically invented in France, thanks to General De Gaulle's insistence that French athletes play an outstanding role in the Olympic Games. A vast network of specialists was created to improve performance not just through training, but through drugs and blood transfusions. The Soviet bloc soon realized the importance of sport as a means of soft power. By the 1990s, with sport a major global business, there were no limits to what athletes would do to win.
Mandard uses the recent Nadal-Djokovic Australian Open final to illustrate his point: "Five-and-a-half hours of high-speed full-on tennis, coming on the heels of a four-hour semifinal just two days before. Is it possible to perform like that on water alone?"
Mandard says that the International Tennis Federation and Uefa European soccer authorities still do not carry out surprise tests. "In any event, attempts to control doping will always be at least one step behind. These days, the only way to detect a banned substance is through surprise testing. But tennis and the major soccer leagues refuse. They have a lot of money and power, which means that the Champions League and the World Cup are not properly supervised."
Anti-doping experts say that Spain's recent sporting success must be seen in the context of high-level networks that are tolerated by government and protected by legal loopholes. As long as the country continues to win at the international level, Mandard says that nobody is interested in doing anything about doping. "Doping is an integral part of high-level sport, and the doping industry has moved on each time the national authorities do something about it: from France to Italy, from Italy to Spain and England."
Following Operation Puerto, Jaime Lissavetzky, the former head of the Spanish Sports Council, made it clear that his priority was the success of Spanish athletes, not eradicating doping. Cycling medic Manolo Saiz, who was arrested in Puerto, only made matters worse for himself when he suggested that what was going on in cycling was far from unique, and questioned the spectacular performance of Pau Gasol, the golden boy of Spanish basketball, in the NBA. Similarly, when Athletic Bilbao's Carlos Gurpegi and Barcelona's Pep Guardiola tested positive for performance enhancer nandrolone a decade ago, there was national outrage.
Spain's permissive attitude toward doping may be rooted in the country's desire to shine internationally, a way of making up for the dark years of isolation under Franco. Successive governments have highlighted the role of athletes in projecting a positive image of Spain, symbols of the country's social and economic progress.
"One of the reasons that athletes are not subject to the same rules as everybody else is that they occupy a privileged place in society," says Belgian anthropologist Mathieu Hilgers. "And because of this privileged position, they owe a debt to society, and are obliged to repay that debt by being role models and setting an example of how to successfully achieve and compete in a competitive society. As a result, the athlete constantly faces the danger of being sanctioned by society if he or she fails. The existence of anti-doping regulation reinforces the myth of competition taking place under equal conditions."
Back in 1988, the Spanish sports minister traveled to Paris to refute accusations that Perico Delgado, the first Spaniard to win the Tour, had used banned substances. More recently, former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero publicly defended Contador, as has his successor Mariano Rajoy. World steeplechase champion Marta Domínguez, arrested as part of the Operation Greyhound anti-doping investigation in 2010, was found by police to have used illegal techniques to win medals, although charges against her were dropped. Far from harming her image, she has been able to launch a political career and is now a member of the Senate.
Two decades of success in just about every major international sport, have established Spain as an international brand, and have also done much to boost Spaniards' sense of confidence. For the moment it seems that to question the integrity of Spain's athletes is to question the very integrity of the country.