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More questions than answers

MADRID -- In May 2006, Spanish police uncovered one of sport's most sordid doping rings in history. Almost seven years later, Operation Puerto has gone to trial, but details are only slowly emerging from a Madrid courtroom.

Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, a Spanish sports doctor, along with cohort Jose Luis Merino Batres, one of Spain's leading hematologists, were implicated in a blood-doping ring that spanned Europe.

Up to 200 cyclists, including 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich and 2006 Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso, were linked in a scandal that made headlines across the world and involved a cornucopia of banned doping products, such as EPO and human growth hormone, as well as a highly elaborate system of blood extractions and re-injections.

Fuentes kept track of his clients via his infamous codebook, replete with nicknames and numbers linked to his clients. He often picked the names of riders' dogs to ID the dozens of blood bags stored across apartments in Spain. Basso was "Birillo" while Michele Scarponi, an Italian rider who served a two-year ban, was known as "Zapatero."

The doctor, it appears, charged dearly for his services, with Basso testifying this week that he agreed to pay Fuentes 70,000 euros during the 2006 racing season.

Now, seven years later, Fuentes is finally on trial (Batres, in his 70s, is said to be suffering from Alzheimer's and is not being charged), but it seems no one is any closer to the real story.

Operation Puerto is being hyped as the first doping trial in history, but anyone expecting to get the full story of a sordid international doping ring has been far from satisfied over the trial's opening weeks.

Only four cyclists have served bans for links to Fuentes, yet there are nearly 200 bags of blood and plasma still frozen in a Barcelona lab under guard of Spanish authorities. No one knows to whom those bags belong.

In its third week of testimony, and through a parade of current and retired professional cyclists, what could be the trial of the decade is stuck in a legal quagmire.

The crux of the problem is that when Spain's Guardia Civil uncovered an international doping ring in May 2006, there was no anti-doping law on the books.

A law that did make it a federal crime in Spain to dope entered the books in early 2007, but judges reviewing Puerto evidence were handcuffed to applying only laws that existed at the time of the raids. In fact, a previous judge twice tried to close the case entirely. It was only appeals from Spanish prosecutors, working with lawyers from the World Anti-Doping Agency, that kept the case alive.

Fuentes has admitted he worked with a variety of stars from all types of sports, but only top cyclists were initially linked to the raids in 2006.

On the first day of testimony in late January, Fuentes said that his hundreds of clients included not only cyclists, but also footballers, track and field stars, tennis players and even boxers. When he offered to name names, Julia Patricia Santamaria, the presiding judge of the case that continues through March, hit the brakes.

She's made it clear from opening day of testimony on Jan. 28 that what was on trial was not doping but rather the narrow question of "endangering public health." She even ruled that information stored on Fuentes' computers could not be used as evidence as it crossed the line on privacy issues.

That meant anything that was not directly linked to how Fuentes may have stored, transported and identified bags of blood meant for re-injections into athletes would be legally off-limits. That's raised hackles of journalists, fans, officials and even Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal, who are universally calling the trial a farce for not divulging the full list of clients.

Despite the judge's intentions, some new information has come to light. Following a hint from Fuentes, journalists have linked him to the Spanish first-division soccer club Real Sociedad in San Sebastian during the early 2000s, including the 2002 season when it came within two points of winning Spain's hyper-competitive La Liga title. The team has denied having worked with Fuentes.

The Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport last week identified sprint star and 2002 world champion Mario Cipollini as one of Fuentes' first major clients, reporting that he worked with Fuentes from 2001 to 2004.

Now, after some seven years of legally wrangling, Fuentes and five other defendants are finally facing their day -- or in this case, weeks -- in court.

So far, it's been a tap-dance around the issues.

Fuentes and his legal team have chosen a unique legal strategy. Rather than deny that the doctor performed the transfusions, they are insisting he undertook them in a safe and legal manner, going so far as to say that the transfusions improved the health of fatigued athletes.

The Spanish doctor testified that no illegal doping products were involved, only the extraction and re-injection of blood. Fuentes said that banned products, such as the blood booster EPO, found in apartments during the police raids in 2006, were for "personal use," arguing that the EPO was meant for his daughter, who was suffering from cancer.

During his testimony, Fuentes argued that the blood transfusions were for "health reasons" and that athletes were only re-injected with their own blood when their hematocrit levels became "dangerously low."

Fuentes' house of cards began to crumble this week, however, when former clients offered up some chilling testimony.

Jorg Jaksche, a German rider who retired after he served a two-year ban tied to Puerto, said Fuentes gave him EPO and other banned performance enhancing drugs as well as blood transfusions. He said it was obvious what was happening.

"No one forced me to dope," Jaksche testified. "It was just expected as part of the job."

Jesus Manzano, a Spanish rider on the former Kelme team, gave riveting testimony Wednesday, outlining how he felt ill after botched blood transfusions. He recounted an episode when he fell ill after an injection in 2002. Manzano also passed out during a stage in the 2003 Tour de France and was airlifted to a French hospital following a morning injection of oxyglobin, a blood substitute. He also outlined how Fuentes would give him doses of EPO.

"I was treated with EPO in 2000, 2001 and 2003 by Eufemiano," Manzano testified, detailing how he was given a white powder to help mask the drug in urine samples. "The white power was on the penis to deteriorate the urine. That way we didn't get positive for EPO."

Things will be interesting next week. Ex-pro Tyler Hamilton, a former teammate of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, is scheduled to testify on Feb. 19 via video conference. Hamilton tested positive for blood transfusions in the 2004 Vuelta a Espana and later admitted he was a Fuentes client despite denying it for many years. Hamilton is expected to provide more details about how the doping ring operated.

Alberto Contador, who tested positive for traces of clenbuterol in the 2010 Tour de France and had his yellow jersey stripped, is set to testify in the Madrid courthouse on Feb. 22. Manolo Saiz, the Spanish manager of the former Liberty Seguros team for which Contador rode until 2006, however, is calling Contador, who denies working with Fuentes, as a defense witness.

How much truth comes out remains to be seen. There are likely dozens of athletes across Europe who are sleeping uneasy this month as the long-awaited trial unfolds.

Andrew Hood is covering the Fuentes trial in Madrid for VeloNews and Velo magazine.