By Braden Phillips
BARCELONA (Reuters) - For years considered a haven for drug cheats in sport, Spain is facing up to its chequered past and trying to clean its image with a beefed-up anti-doping law.
Legislators in the Iberian nation, home of such decorated champions as tennis player Rafa Nadal, Formula One driver Fernando Alonso and the world's best soccer team, have set up a new body to replace the national anti-doping agency (AEA) and armed it with enhanced powers under rules that took effect in July.
The Agency for the Protection of Health in Sport (AEPSAD) is an independent organization responsible for managing and carrying out doping tests rather than leaving them in the hands of national sports federations.
It will administer punishments such as levying fines and be able to suspend licenses and has already attracted warm praise from international officials.
"I think Spain's reputation is vastly improved with the changes they have made," David Howman, director general of the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"But now that the rules are in place, it depends on how they carry them out," he added. "They have to test the right people at the right time."
AEPSAD has already been flexing its muscles.
Right after the doping law came into effect, the agency conducted tests at the Spanish athletics championships that yielded three "adverse" findings, leading to the suspension of licenses until investigations have been completed.
"It's a reason for sadness, because it means an athlete did not want to respect the rules, but it's also a sign of work well done, well planned, designed to give results," then-AEPSAD chief Ana Munoz told lawmakers last month.
Now director general of the government's sports council (CSD), Munoz is credited with restoring credibility to the nation's efforts to tackle doping.
Among other moves, AEPSAD has intensified its testing program in soccer.
Up until last season, only one La Liga match was subject to testing per matchday, with one player from each team providing a urine sample.
Now, six games are tested and for the first time urine and/or blood samples are taken from two players from each team.
The analysis of blood samples is a much more effective means of detecting the blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO), among other banned substances.
Legal expert Manuel Quintanar has been named to replace Munoz at AEPSAD and is expected to continue the tougher line.
Along with a background in criminology, his law school thesis dealt with the subject of repentance and the justice system, an area linked to successful anti-doping probes in which athletes' confessions play a key role.
"I will always have my hand out to athletes who made a mistake. I ask them to be big enough to recognize their mistakes openly and bravely," Quintanar said at his presentation in Madrid this month.
"They have to understand that their role is fundamental to put the past behind us once and for all and to guarantee a credible future for Spanish sport," he added.
It was hoped Spain's enhanced drive to tackle doping would both improve the nation's tarnished image while helping secure the support of International Olympic Committee (IOC) members for Madrid's bid to host the 2020 Games.
The capital eventually came a distant third behind Istanbul and winners Tokyo in the September IOC vote in Buenos Aires but Howman and other officials are not certain the perception Spain has been soft on doping scuttled its candidacy.
"It's too difficult to say," Howman said. "There were many factors involved."
Up until passage of the new law, the use of banned substances in Spain was not a crime, although selling them did carry criminal penalties.
The result was a climate of virtual impunity, which cast a pall of mistrust over the nation and Spain became a sanctuary for dopers.
Lance Armstrong and members of his team relocated to Girona, northern Spain in 2000 to evade detection by French authorities, as revealed in the U.S. anti-doping agency (USADA) probe into the disgraced American cyclist.
Possibly the low point in Spain's doping history is Operation Puerto, a high-profile investigation that first came to public attention in 2006 and is still going through the appeals process.
More than 50 professional cyclists were implicated and the doctor at the center of the probe, Eufemiano Fuentes, told the court he also had clients in soccer, tennis, athletics and boxing.
At the end of the much-delayed trial in April, Fuentes was convicted of endangering public health, for which he received a one-year suspended sentence and a ban from practicing medicine.
Neither he nor his clients were charged with breaking doping laws because, at the outset of the case, doping was not illegal.
Worst of all to anti-doping activists, the judge ordered the destruction of around 200 blood bags containing samples from cyclists and athletes, basing her decision on what she believed might be violations of privacy laws.
The CSD and WADA, among others, have filed appeals so the evidence can be turned over for further investigation and the blood bags remain in frozen storage in Barcelona.
"We're waiting on the court of appeals but to be talking about this in 2013 is frustrating," said WADA's Howman. "So much time has passed and nothing has happened to make sure this evidence is used to tidy up sport."
(Editing by Iain Rogers and Alison Wildey)