The Unbelievable Truth

"The unforgivable recurrence." The title of the Team's tennis page is particularly scathing on this day of October 5, 2005. Mariano Puerta, 9th player in the world, is tested positive for the second time for etilefrine, a powerful cardiorespiratory stimulant used to treat hypotension. "This drug increases cardiac output, thus increasing the volume of blood circulating in the body. Etilefrine makes it possible to be more quickly in action: the activity is greater, as is the desire [1]," explains sports physician Jean-Pierre Mondenard. It's a real bomb in the world of tennis, especially since the player is a recidivist. An even bigger task, the check-up was carried out after the final of Roland Garros against Rafael Nadal . The case is also making a lot of noise in the country. This is nothing less than the biggest doping case since Diego Maradona's positive test for ephedrine during the 1994 World Cup. A new Argentinian player caught in the net? A cold shower for some and a conspiracy for others? "The fact that the n°8, the 9, the 10 and the 11th in the world ranking are Argentinians must be a hindrance! [2] We are going to prove that this is false. All this is an invention", insisted Jorge Brasero, Mariano Puerta and Gaston Gaudio's agent. "Argentinean players grow up with the idea that they have a whole people behind them," Gilles Simon reminds us in his book published this year [3].  When Argentinians are tested positive, everyone tells them: "it's because the rest of the world is against us. " Fifteen years later, Jorge Brasero regrets his polemical remarks. "It was a real scandal. The journalists and the cameras fell on me. I wanted to kill myself," [4] he confesses.

Episode 1 - Through the storm

Episode 2 - The Man Through Whom the Scandal Comes

Episode 3 - La Puerta Del Cielo (The Gate of Paradise)

In the meantime, it's a real soap opera that starts in the press. This October 5th, the Team advances a first version of the player's defense. According to his close entourage, the latter would have taken a medicine to cure... a flu! Will to delay? The player comes out of his reserve and categorically denies having taken drugs. "The newspapers can say anything without proof. I didn't take anything that I shouldn't have [5], he retorts while he is in Tokyo to play the Japanese Open. I'm very angry because this is a very sensitive subject and nobody called me, neither the ITF nor the ATP. [6]» The latter is questioned by journalists but makes no comment. "As is customary, we are waiting for the case to be judged by an independent court, consisting of three independent members, chosen from the list of judges of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, to make a statement on the case [7]".  And this last one is particularly serious. Mariano Puerta risks a life suspension for his repeat offense and can only escape this sanction if he can claim "mitigating circumstances". The case being so delicate, he surrounds himself with a big man to defend him, Eduardo Moliné O'Connor, vice-president of the Supreme Court of Justice during Carlos Menem's term of office as president, but also vice-president of the Argentinean Tennis Association... and member of the ITF between 1987 and 2005 [8]! The situation is most curious, but we can assume that the eminent lawyer resigned from his position before representing his player against this same ITF... And even from his position at the Argentinean Tennis Federation... Before this ad hoc court, the accused pleads inadvertence. Just before the final of Roland Garros, he would have settled in the restaurant of the players with his wife, the actress Sol Estevanez, and several other people of his entourage. The hour of the match approaching, he would have slipped away to change his clothes, not thinking of seeing them again before the end of the final. His girlfriend would then have changed places and poured water into her husband's glass with a few drops of Effortil, a medicine used for menstrual pain and containing etilefrine. Mariano Puerta would then have learned that the final would be slightly delayed. He would have returned to the restaurant table while his wife was out of the bathroom for a while. The player would have poured the contents of a water bottle into his glass, which still contained some Effortil residue. This is how the banned substance would have "inadvertently" spread through his body. A most astonishing combination of circumstances...

Former Supreme Court Justices Julio Nazareno and Eduardo Moliné O'Connor
On the right, Eduardo Moliné O'Connor (Mariano Puerta's lawyer)

On August 3, 2020, nearly 15 years after the events, Mariano Puerta confessed to Sebastian Torok, a journalist with the Argentinean daily La Nacion, that the story, which was detailed before the judges, was a genuine lie. He thus tells a new version of what really happened. The former world No. 9 says that before each season he used to buy his vitamins for the coming season. But on his way to a challenger tournament in Chile, he notices that he forgot to buy caffeine and ginseng. He tells his fitness trainer, Dario Lecman, who tells him that he knows a friend who works in a laboratory who can make them cheaply. Mariano Puerta accepts the deal. Dario Lecman is a character with a sulphurous reputation. A former weightlifter and winner of the Pan-American games, he withdrew from the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 because of a hamstring tear. The former Argentinean under-secretary of sports confessed at the time to having doubts about the injury. "How can he be injured like that so few days before the competition? he said suspiciously. We will have to investigate. » [9]. In 2004, during the Athens Olympics, the athlete returned to Argentina before the competition for "personal reasons". There were rumors that he had taken the powder to escape a doping control.... "I had a problem with my father who suffered from Alzheimer's disease. But I wanted to compete so badly, even if it meant doing shit (sic) that I came back, he admits after the publication of Sebastian Torok's file. I slept badly, I talked to my father on the phone for hours, I was bad. " [10] It turns out that the athlete in question did participate in the weightlifting event in the under 94 kg category and did not shine. Once his career was over, he began working with Mariano Puerta, helping him regain his fitness during his first suspension. "I have always had blind faith in him and my team," he says  when the sulphurous nature of his trainer is put on the table. I never thought he would do anything that would hurt me, because anything that was bad for me would be bad for him. It would be shooting himself in the foot. [11]" Strange way to defend the integrity of a staff member!

One of them, Jorge Brasero, Mariano Puerta's manager, remembered with Sebastian Torok that particular time, when all the player's entourage went from the top to the catastrophe so quickly. "We were doing so well, it seemed unreal,  he recalls. After the Roland Garros final, we went back to Buenos Aires. We talked to all the press, I stayed three or four days partying, then I went back to Paris. I was floating three meters above the ground, I couldn't believe it! All of a sudden the doors opened, I started to develop Mariano's contracts, everyone came looking for me. But while I was on vacation, I got a call to tell me that Mariano had had a positive check-up. I couldn't believe it! ».

Fifteen years after the events, Mariano Puerta also spoke to the Nacion journalist about the moments that preceded the coup de grâce of his career. "I had just signed a huge contract with Lotto. Everything was perfect, my wife, my family. Then my mother told me that she had received a lot of letters and sent them back to me. It was a Friday in August, I see that I received these letters. I see one in the pile that is a little strange. I open it and there my pressure drops. I am tested positive! (...) I had no idea what they were talking about! It was chaos, I had no right to make a mistake because it was the red card if not for me... Now I had to try to find out where the substance came from. I had to go to the US Open, my manager called Guillermo Pérez Roldán (editor's note: his new coach) to inform him, he was given the option not to go, but he stayed with me until the last tournament of the year. Chaos! »

Positive control does not rhyme with provisional suspension. While waiting for his judgment, Mariano Puerta continues to play even though he admits that he is not in the mood for tournaments. But the worst is yet to come, as the Team reveals the identity of the person who passed the positive test that was mentioned in its columns a few days earlier: "Roland Garros was Puerta", says the October 5th edition on the front page. The player accuses the blow. "I felt like I was being watched a lot. It was as if all eyes were on me, he recalls to Sebastian Torok. I'll never forget: on our way back from Tokyo, our plane made a stopover in Frankfurt, and as I walked to change wings at the airport, I walked past the magazine stalls and saw myself on the covers of European newspapers. I felt bad." Now that the affair is making a lot of noise, tournament organizers are obviously uncomfortable with the idea of exposing an alleged cheater to the public. During the Masters Séries de Paris Bercy, Christian Bimes, President of the FFT, fulminates. Discretion must be cultivated, Mariano Puerta will play on the annex court. The latter loses in the first round, it is a general relief. According to him, Mariano Puerta did not imagine at that time that the vitamins in question could be the problem. It was on his way to a meeting with his lawyers, a few days before the Madrid tournament, that this hypothesis was raised. "They said, "You give us your truth, but the dates are coming up and we have to start thinking about a strategy." They ask me: "Are the bottles of food supplements you have now the same ones you used in Paris? " I tell them yes, I gave them the bottle and left." The Argentinean then explains that the cup fell out 10 days later. Of the 40-capsule bottle, 7 contain traces of etilefrine...

Puerta continues her story. Troubled by this revelation, he evokes the subject to Dario Lecman, on his return from Paris Bercy. "He discussed it with the friend who had made the pills. The latter told him that he had made the 100 pills from the bottle on 4 different days because he had had little time. One of those days, they could have been contaminated with particles...He may not have cleaned them properly. "This naturally brings us to the Argentinean's defense before the judges. What strategy should be adopted? "We couldn't do anything because the pills had been bought, I don't know how to say it, not in a very legal way.... There was no bill. My lawyers thought it was not strategically relevant to say what had happened, that the judges were not going to like it. » The judgment is rendered before the Christmas vacations. And logically, the implausible version of the 27-year-old gambler raises doubts among the three judges together, who do not rule out the possibility of a cover-up. "We are concerned that the evidence of the player and his wife regarding the contamination of the gambler's glass is unreliable, the judgment states. We are concerned that the account of the two is a speculative theory arising from the need to explain the positive test result" [12]. However, this version of events, with its unlikely timing, does not lead judges to be severe. In fact, the minute nature of the traces of the product found in the blood of the gambler finally tips the balance in his favor! "We accept the probabilities that the gambler was inadvertently contaminated with his wife's medication. The amount of etilefrine in his body was too small to have any effect on his performance," the court said. [13] The court then admitted the possibility of "insignificant fault or negligence".

Mariano Puerta will not be excluded for life but receives an 8-year suspension on the circuit. For the 27-year-old player, this means almost the end of his career. Another consequence is that all points earned since Roland Garros and his prize money of 593,000 euros must be returned in full. "I find it extraordinary that one would think it is satisfying to put an end to a person's livelihood under such circumstances. " said Mariano Puerta after the judgment. "I think it is an illogical sanction, reacted his former coach Andrés Schneiter shortly after the decision. During the trial, you prove your innocence, that the substance ingested is so light that it does not help the performance and you still get chopped up with an axe...[14]» Mariano Puerta does not logically stop there. He will appeal the decision and the case is referred back to the CAS. In July 2006, the CAS admitted the appeal filed by the player, arguing that the infraction committed was of lesser importance. The gambler's sentence was reduced to 2 years, until June 5, 2007. But why, more than 15 years after the fact, would he go back on this version and admit this deliberate lie? It will always remain a little obscure, but the current court retiree admits today... that he did not have a clear conscience. "I didn't reread my notes (editor's note: which explained this version) for years, he explains to Sebastian Torok. It's as if I wanted to cancel this thing out of my life, I hid it, trying not to go back into it. And when I reread the story of the glass, I didn't like it at all. It wasn't the way I wanted to be remembered. "But he doesn't seem to regret the strategy of his lawyers... simply stating that this lie had allowed him to reduce his sentence before the Court of Arbitration for Sport! "The people around me were smart. We all made this decision together. All this was weighed, evaluated. (...) They (editor's note: the judges) put a lot of emphasis on responsibility and negligence. I think the outcome of the SBT would have been different, probably worse if I had told the truth. (...) My career was at stake. I don't blame myself for that, just as I can blame myself for coming back on the circuit too soon after my wrist injury. [15]» Mariano Puerta thus gave Sebastian Torok his version of the story, to put behind him this troubled chapter of his life. Even if it means replacing a lie with a new one? Because his testimony presents a serious problem. Indeed, it differs from the other testimonies collected by Sebastian Torok from the actors of this file, close to the player.

Episode 5 to follow: Counter-investigation

[3] « Ce sport qui rend fou », Gilles Simon, Flammarion, 2020
[7] ibid

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