A Spanish court on Tuesday reversed a decision to destroy blood bags seized as part of the Operation Puerto doping scandal, which may allow authorities to identify more sportspeople implicated in the high-profile case.
A major embarrassment for Spain, the case centres on disgraced doctor Eufemiano Fuentes who was found guilty of giving performance-enhancing blood transfusions to top cyclists, and also admitted to having worked with unidentified footballers, tennis players and boxers.
Fuentes was found guilty of endangering public health in a 2013 trial, but the judge at the time refused to give anti-doping authorities access to the 211 blood bags seized in 2006 from his apartments, and ordered them destroyed on privacy grounds.
On Tuesday, a court in Madrid reversed that decision, ruling that the bags be handed over to entities such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
"The stated aim is to fight doping," the court said in a statement, adding that there was "a risk that other sportspeople could be tempted by doping."
So far only cyclists, including 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich, have been publicly named as being Fuentes clients.
But former cyclist Jesus Manzano, a whistleblower in the case, claims to have seen prominent footballers being treated by Fuentes.
Tuesday's decision means that WADA, the International Cycling Union (UCI) and other anti-doping entities will be able to analyse the blood bags and identify other sportspeople who may have used the performance-enhancing transfusions.
Disgraced doctor absolved
Separately, the Madrid court also absolved Fuentes of endangering public health, on the grounds that the blood he used for transfusions was not medicine and thus did not come under the remit of that offence.
Fuentes had been given a one-year suspended prison sentence and was banned from practising as a sports doctor for four years.
He had been accused of endangering public health but not incitement to doping, which was not a crime in Spain at the time of his arrest in 2006.
The case - and the judge's decision to destroy the blood bags - caused severe reputational damage to Madrid's ultimately failed bid for the 2020 Olympic Games and did little to dismiss accusations that Spain is a soft touch on doping.
"It is unfortunate that the evidence used in this proceeding is not now being made available to anti-doping organisations to further the fight against doping," the International Olympic Committee said in a statement at the time.
A lawyer representing cycling governing body UCI described the operation as "the biggest doping network the world has ever seen".
Even tennis star Andy Murray waded in.
"Operation puerto case is beyond a joke...biggest cover up in sports history? Why would court order blood bags to be destroyed? #coverup," he tweeted at the time.
"It's embarrassing for Spain," added former WADA head Dick Pound.
"Everybody knows we will be able to uncover quite a bit more doping if the examples are made available."