Spain woke Friday dismayed and disappointed to learn that Marta Domínguez, world champion in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, national icon, and 2009 European Athlete of the Year, had been arrested for her role in a doping ring – the latest in a series of drug scandals in Spanish sport.
Ms. Domínguez, who was aiming to make London 2012 her fourth Olympics, is one of 14 people arrested as part of Operation Greyhound after police found large enough quantities of banned substances in her home. The police said they suspect she was distributing drugs to other athletes. She was released late Thursday after being questioned.
The raids highlight the growing role of governments in the fight against doping.
Government authorities have been instrumental in a wide range of scandals, from shutting down the BALCO steroids ring in California to ousting 13 cyclists from the Tour de France later that year, and – this year – launching major investigations such as the joint US-Interpol effort to determine whether Lance Armstrong used illegal drugs.
Such investigations cast a much wider net than drug tests, meaning that athletes who have never tested positive can still be sidelined from competition – often along with the entourage of coaches, doctors, and others who abetted their doping.
And that's progress for the global antidoping movement, says Richard Pound, who led the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for eight years from its inception in 1999. Under his leadership, WADA worked with governments and sports federations to establish a more unified front against dopers.
"It doesn’t matter to me whether you catch Marion Jones, [Barry] Bonds, or [Roger] Clemens sticking needles in themselves, as long as you get them out of the competition," says Mr. Pound. "It’s kind of like getting Al Capone for tax evasion."
Zero tolerance for doping
Spain’s athletics federation suspended Ms. Domínguez, who is seven months pregnant and taking a year off from competition, from her post as vice-president Friday pending the results of the investigation. Domínguez’s coach and manager were also arrested, as was her sports doctor. Blood-transfusion bags were also confiscated during the 15 raids carried out Thursday following an eight-month investigation. Other arrests included doctors, pharmacists, and trainers, the Interior Ministry said.
The arrest “harms the image of Spanish athletics,” wrote the federation’s president José María Odriozola in a letter sent to Domínguez that was posted in the organization’s website on Friday. The federation also removed Alemayehu Bezabeh, a Spanish athlete of Ethiopian descent, from the country’s team that will compete in a European competition starting Sunday in Portugal. He was not among those arrested, but his coach was.
Spanish Secretary of State for Sports Jaime Lissavetzky said in a press conference Friday he was filled with “sadness and sorrow,” following the investigation. While not commenting on the case directly, since the court imposed a gag order, he said the arrests show “the system works” and that there would be “zero tolerance” in the fight against doping.
The head of Spain’s Olympic Committee Alejandro Blanco told Spain's official news service EFE on Friday that he was “stunned and very surprised. Of course we never expected this could happen.”
Spanish media said the investigation was triggered by the arrest a year ago of race walker Francisco Fernández, a former Olympic silver medalist, for possession of performance enhancing drugs. He denied on Friday he was the whistle blower.
'Now we have our Marion Jones'
Operation Greyhound comes just months after three-time winner of the Tour de France Alberto Contador came under scrutiny for his last title this year. That investigation is ongoing.
Spanish media quoted 800-meter European indoor champion Luis Alberto Marco as saying, “It’s a black day for Spanish athletics. It’s sickening. I’m repulsed by my sport when things like this come out.” Fermín Cacho, Olympic gold medalist in 1992 in the 1,500 meters said, “I am frozen to stone. I cannot believe it.”
Europe’s silver medalist in the 5,000 meters, Jesús España, was also quoted as saying, “It’s a well-known secret that is starting to be exposed.”
One comment posted in a popular sports daily seemed to sum up Spanish disappointment: “You screwed up Marta, you screwed up. You had it all. Why did you have to get into this mess. Now we have our Marion Jones. From idol to rubbish faster than a cock can crow.”