No dope: no hope?

Spain has been accused of a culture of tolerance toward the use of illegal substances France claims that drugs explain Spain's sustained success in tennis, cycling and soccer

Alberto Contador, now banned for doping, on his way to victory in the final stage of the 2007 Tour de France.
Alberto Contador, now banned for doping, on his way to victory in the final stage of the 2007 Tour de France.P. PERUSSEAU (EFE)

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.

The imported ski star who sullied Spain's reputation, 10 years on

Johann Muehlegg
Johann Muehlegg
JOSÉ M. COMAS, Stuttgart

Johann Muehlegg went from hero to zero faster than a downhill racer. A decade ago, the German-born skier, who had taken Spanish citizenship, was stripped of his gold medal in the 50km cross-country event at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games after testing positive for darbepoetin, which boosts the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to muscles. He was subsequently suspended for two years, effectively ending his career.

Up to that point, Muehlegg was little short of a national idol, joining a growing pantheon of athletes helping Spain shine internationally. But everything changed that fateful day in Utah.

"I lost all credibility; nobody believed a word I said. I was unable to live a normal life, and that is why I quit sport completely," he says in an email sent from an unnamed location in South America, where he now lives.

Muehlegg had been picked to carry the Spanish flag at the closing ceremony of the Winter Games, but was replaced by María José Rienda Contreras, who finished sixth in the giant slalom. A German who defected to Spain in 1999 because he said aliens told him to, Muehlegg says he was shocked at the result. "I have passed more than 100 controls and never had any problems. It is more a problem of the machine than with my blood."

Spanish society turned on Muehlegg, with many questioning whether he should have been granted Spanish nationality in the first place. "The things that were said about me were terrible, so now I protect my privacy above all else," he says.

Muehlegg had met King Juan Carlos twice during his glory days, but the Royal Palace called off a welcome-home reception after the scandal in Salt Lake City. However, Muehlegg says that the king posted him a thank-you note four years ago saying he was "touched" after the skier had sent him a signed copy of his biography, Allein gegen Alle (or, Alone against the world) on the occasion of Juan Carlos' 70th birthday.

Muehlegg's family was also deeply affected by the furor after he was stripped of his medal. His mother, Magdalena Muehlegg, says that some 40,000 death threats were sent to the family home. "We suffered a lot, the German and Spanish media destroyed him. He was the best cross-country skier of all time simply because he trained every day to be the best. But nobody remembers that," she says sorrowfully.

The case continues to cast a shadow over the life of the family. Muehlegg's mother says that she is still contacted by the German and Spanish media every time a doping scandal is uncovered.

"When Operation Puerto was announced, once again, Johann's name was brought up," she recalls.

Such was the media feeding frenzy, Magdalena says that she even changed the name of the small hotel she still runs in the Bavarian town of Grainau. "Business fell off, people cancelled their reservations, or simply hung up when they found out who we were. I now call myself Eiban."

It wasn't just Muehlegg's family that was affected by his very public disgrace. "What happened damaged the reputation of all our skiers, who suddenly were all under suspicion," says Joan Erola, the Spanish ski coach at the Turin 2006 and the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, who was in charge of the country's under-20 team at the time of the Salt Lake City Games. Erola says he met Muehlegg in 1997 when the German was in the process of applying for Spanish nationality and was already part of the Spanish team, although not yet able to compete on its behalf.

Erola says that Muehlegg was in part to blame for what happened. "He had his own people who were training him, and they persuaded him to stop training with us. He decided to prepare for Salt Lake City with his own team, which included medical staff, who had nothing to do with the national team," he says.

Leaving aside the issue of aliens telling him to move to Spain, Muehlegg had already had problems with the German team: in 1995 he had accused the national coach of "spiritually damaging" him. His eccentricities made him an easy target for the media when things went wrong: he always carried holy water when performing in major competitions, and was often accompanied by a Portuguese spiritualist called Justina Agostino, who lived with him.

Erola says that regardless of his peculiarities, Muehlegg was respected within the team. "He was very professional, and had iron discipline when it came to training. He was very open and made a great effort to learn Spanish properly."

Although he denied it at the time, three years ago, on Spanish television, Muehlegg admitted to doping, answering the key question by saying: "Yes, like everybody else."

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