Presentation made by Dr. Fidel Castro Ruz, President of the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba, at a TV Special Program on the National and International Sports Movement broadcast live from the Cuban Television Studios on September 2, 1999, "Year of the 40th Anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution"
On August 9, upon the completion of the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, the Cuban government, through the National Institute of Sports, Recreation and Physical Education (INDER), announced that it would undertake an in-depth investigation into the doping charges raised against two members of the Cuban national weightlifting team, who were penalized and stripped of the gold medals they had won.
The goal of the investigation would be to clarify whether this was yet another dirty trick played against our country, or whether there effectively was some anabolic substance present in the body of the aforementioned athletes. If that were the case, the investigation would also look into the cause of this presence and the responsibility of the coach, the doctor or the athletes themselves. Moreover, consistent with our known the line of conduct, the results of the ongoing investigation into the weightlifters who had been stripped of their medals would, without exception, be reported to the national and international public in due course.
That investigation, involving intensive efforts, is now concluded, and we will immediately proceed to fulfill our promise.
Given that the charges and sanctions against our athletes were closely linked to and served as the basis for a colossal campaign against the athletes themselves and against the Revolutionary sports movement, I will speak clearly and frankly not only about the members of our weightlifting team, but also about Javier Sotomayor –-a world record holder, Olympic champion, world champion several times over, and one of the foremost figures in Cuban sports–- and about what happened with all of these athletes at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg.
This is how it all began:
On August 2, 1999, ten days into the Pan-American Games, at 5:25 p.m., I was informed from my office that Christian Jiménez, vice president of INDER, had sent the following message, which I will quote word for word:
"Humberto (Rodríguez, president of INDER and head of the Cuban delegation in Winnipeg) called and asked me to pass on an urgent message to the Commander in Chief.
"Everything seems to indicate that as part of a maneuver, they are trying to link Javier Sotomayor to a doping problem. This has not been made public yet.
"For this reason, tomorrow, the director of the Sports Medicine Institute (Dr.Mario Granda), Dr. Alvarez Cambras, and Dr. Quintero (the track and field specialist) will be leaving for Montreal, where the laboratory in charge of these tests is located.
"Humberto suggests that if we could demonstrate that this is yet another maneuver, we should make this information public tomorrow in the form of a condemnation.
"Humberto feels that this is the biggest and most desperate of all the maneuvers ever staged against us.
"In any case, he thinks we should wait for tomorrow’s contact to know the results and subsequently make them public."
According to the rules, such an information is not officially announced until the testing has been completed by the laboratory designated for this purpose with the urine samples contained in two bottles, A and B, marked with the athlete’s code. In Sotomayor’s case, the news, obviously leaked from the laboratory itself, immediately spread everywhere like wildfire as soon as the first sample was tested. On August 3, a France Press wire service dispatch reported from Winnipeg:
"The president of the PASO (Pan-American Sports Organization), Mario Vázquez Raña, refused to confirm on Tuesday if Cuban record holder Javier Sotomayor had tested positive in an initial doping test, but acknowledged the existence of a pending case and asked ‘our Cuban friends to be patients.’
"The bomb was dropped at the same press conference where Vázquez Raña announced the withdrawal of the gold medal from Dominican athlete Juana Arrendel, the Pan-American women’s high jump champion.
"When directly asked whether ‘Javier Sotomayor had tested positive’ in the first test, the president of the Pan-American Sports Organization, Vázquez Raña replied: ‘An athlete that is being studied tested positive. I cannot name names but you said it.’"
At that moment, pandemonium broke loose all over the printed press, radio and television media. The Council of State’s Stenography Department collected a total of 277 pages of news reports, wire dispatches, articles and comments relating the presence of a large quantity of cocaine, according to the Montreal laboratory, in Javier Sotomayor’s urine. They were all published in just six days, from August 3 to 9. And this was but an insignificant portion of what had been published around the world.
Except for the declarations made by his teammates and by people with many years of in-depth knowledge of this athlete’s career, habits, and behavior, whose unsurpassed chain of victories and awe-inspiring records have earned him the admiration of children, young people and sports fans around the world, not a single one of the wire dispatches or news reports issued by any media expressed the slightest doubt on the transparency of the doping test process, the objectivity and infallibility of the test, and the absolute fairness of an implacable and unmovable summary trial, which destroyed the life, honor and glory of an extraordinary athlete in a matter of hours.
As a result, Sotomayor, a humble athlete who had turned down millionaire offers as well as his mother, his wife and children would be forced to contend for the rest of their lives with the stigma of a "hard addict" or a "heavy cocaine user," as he was shamelessly qualified by some of his executioners.
Our own people in Winnipeg, that is, the leaders and head technicians of the Cuban delegation were genuinely appalled. Amidst a hostile atmosphere of defamation and harassment unleashed against them from the very first day –-unlike anything ever experienced before at a major international sporting event, and on the eve of the World Track and Field Championship in Seville and the upcoming Olympic Games in Sydney— an atmosphere that they steadfastly and courageously withstood until the end, they could never have even imagined such a blow against their most prestigious athlete.
Although they were all absolutely certain of the impossibility that Sotomayor could have committed such a misdeed, the process of collecting, coding, transporting and testing the samples, the complete secrecy surrounding the identity of the athlete providing the sample, the total integrity and incorruptible honesty of those who direct and participate in the process, were something untouchable and sacred that no one would have dreamed of doubting.
There were also rigorous, inviolable regulations in force although our comrades witnessed incessant violations of all the established norms and noted that the regulations were obeyed in the same way that traffic signals often are. What the laboratory said had always been the last word, a kind of dogma or revealed truth. And there was the sophisticated equipment demonstrating the presence of cocaine in the samples of Javier Sotomayor’s real or alleged urine in the analysis of bottle B, a second, infallible and final testimony to the absolute truth.
No one had ever questioned the sacrosanct testimony of a laboratory. It was absolutely inconceivable, even when everyone was aware of the growing corruption and dishonesty that commercialism and mercantilism had brought to the world of sports. It seemed as if there were not, in fact, quite a number of possibilities of predetermining the contents of these samples, from the time the athletes check into the Olympic villa, where they ingest food and beverages that others prepare and serve to them, until the very moment when their urine is collected, handled, bottled, coded and transported to the laboratory, where there is even the possibility, judging by the irregularities seen in Montreal, of the sample being contaminated by a venal official who knows the identity of the providing athlete, having been informed by another equally venal official of the several who are privy to this secret, including the one who took the sample and filled out the first form with the athlete’s personal data and the number assigned to the samples, and then passed that form on to his or her superiors.
I have been told that volunteers carried out this task in Canada. It does not take much of a memory to learn by heart a six-digit number; it would be easier than remembering the phone number of an attractive young girl in Havana. With a name as well known as that of Javier Sotomayor, if someone were to bribe the person taking the samples, he or she would not have to make much of an effort to remember the code number. In a matter of minutes, the name and code number could be in the hands of anyone willing to pay for this service. In all fairness, it would be more likely for the information to be provided by someone higher up in the hierarchy, someone who has access to the pertinent codes, and among these individuals there are some who are known to be corrupt.
There was disorganization. All members of the weightlifting team reported, and I quote, that "in Winnipeg during the notification of the doping test, after the competition, they were directly handed water and soft drinks in the warm-up area. This was not done in the testing area, nor were they allowed to choose a drink at random from a refrigerator," as established by the rules.
They also reported that "the doping tests carried out on the Cubans were always done in a specific room, different from the place where the rest of the foreign athletes were tested."
Carlos Hernández, a weightlifter in the 94 kilograms category, winner of the gold medal, said that "after drinking the beverage he was provided his blood pressure dropped."
All of the weightlifting trainers noted that "the Cuban athletes were tested in a separate room and were also obligated to drink their sometimes warm beverages in a previously determined separate area."
Despite the evident hostility, arbitrariness, irregularities and tricks that our delegation had to endure every day, our people did not consider the aforementioned theories. The equipment pointed to the presence of cocaine. Therefore, although Sotomayor never would have consciously taken this harmful, shameful substance, the results had to be justified. He had returned to Cuba just after the competition, so there was not even the possibility of immediately taking another urine sample; cocaine is said to disappear in a matter of days, almost hours. The competition had taken place on July 30. It was already the evening of August 3. The "experts" at the laboratory and the PASO Medical Commission stated with presumptuous and arrogant certainty that the athlete had ingested a high dose of cocaine two days before. A number of people have assured me that if he actually had ingested such a high dose, Sotomayor would not have even been able to get out of bed, much less jump the 2.30 meters without touching the bar on the first attempt.
It is easy to understand the bitterness and anguish felt by our delegation’s leaders and technicians. They were convinced that this noble and prestigious athlete was innocent. He must have consumed some sort of infusion or tea. How could they know for sure? There was not even time to find out. The Commission was scheduled to meet the next morning for a decision. If there were no other alternative, they were prepared to sacrifice their honor and even their own lives to save the honor of Sotomayor and his right to continue competing, to participate in the World Track and Field Championship and end his colossal sports career with victory in Sydney. They remembered that in Atlanta, or somewhere else, the authorities had been benevolent towards distinguished athletes accused of doping, if some banal and harmless explanation could be found, like that of a medication or a tea bag.
That same August 3, at 10:30 p.m., they communicated their viewpoints to the illustrious president of the PASO Medical Commission, Dr. Eduardo de Rose, who had seemed concerned, understanding and friendly. Later, he would go on to attack Sotomayor and our technical personnel before the mass media with vulgar insults and sarcastic jokes. The gesture and motives of our technical team, whose influence and prestige were pivotal in the decision adopted, were altruistic, selfless and generous. For that reason, it hurts me to have to make this criticism.
However, at that point in time, they forgot that in Winnipeg they were not dealing with honorable people, that a dirty and ruthless political warfare was being waged against our athletes and our country, and that we could not take on this battle with tactics like these. They forgot that it was not a matter of technical arguments and justifications. What I will relate later on would be worthless if we do not have the courage to admit our own mistakes and make them public.
On August 4, at approximately 11:00 a.m., the following information was received at the Council of State offices:
"At the meeting of the PASO Doping Control Commission and the PASO Executive Committee that has just concluded, the decision was made to withdraw Sotomayor’s gold medal, with the doctors assuming responsibility for his ingestion of Peruvian tea (digestive tea)." In other words, they were assuming medical responsibility for his having ingested Peruvian tea.
"At 4:00 p.m. (Winnipeg time, 5:00 p.m. in Cuba), there will be a press conference where this measure will be made public by PASO.
"Later, Dr. Granda, director of the Sports Medicine Institute and Dr. Alvarez Cambras, director of the Frank País Orthopedic Hospital Complex, will also give a press conference to rescue Sotomayor’s image and make it clear that he is not at fault.
"Discussions at the meeting were extremely heated.
"Because Canada had won two silver medals in this sport (through a tie), those will now become two gold medals.
"Humberto insists that this must be an enemy maneuver considering Sotomayor’s experience and the fact that he has undergone over 15 such tests over the last eight months.
"Humberto wants us to pass this information on to the Commander in Chief."
This decision was made on the night of August 3 without consultations. It is true that at 6:00 p.m. that day, we had left for the Matanzas ceremony commemorating the attack on the Moncada Garrison, which began at 8:00 p.m. and ended in the early hours of morning. Because I had spent that entire day, from the morning onwards, reviewing the materials for the speech I planned to give, I did not even have time for breakfast. There was no chance for any communication throughout the day.
What had happened in Winnipeg? Our delegation received confirmation of the results of sample B at 7:30 p.m. (Winnipeg time), and when they met with famous Dr. de Rose at 10:00 p.m. (Winnipeg time), the ceremony in Matanzas was still several hours short of ending. We arrived back in Havana shortly after dawn on August 4, and had to quickly choose an excerpt from the speech in Matanzas for immediate release to the foreign press. It was not until the afternoon that we were able to attend to the reports coming from Canada.
In addition to the aforementioned message on August 4, we were informed that at 5:00 p.m. Winnipeg time (6:00 p.m. in Cuba), the technical group would be giving a press conference. They were consulting us on whether to abide by the line adopted in the morning at the meeting with the PASO Doping Control Commission. It was not until almost 5:00 p.m. (Cuban time) that we were able to attend to the news coming from the Pan-American Games. At that time, I quickly read the message referring to the morning meeting with the PASO Committee and the line pursued. I also had to urgently respond to their request for advice on the line to be followed at the press conference.
To better understand the instructions I sent, I should explain the following:
At the request of our comrades in Winnipeg, on August 3 at 2:30 a.m. Christian visited Sotomayor at his home, located at the Playa municipality in Havana City. There were already numerous foreign journalists with cameras and television equipment set up in the vicinity, stalking the athlete. They had been there for hours –-notice how quickly they moved–- having arrived before the end of the day on August 2, long before the press conference at which the PASO president was asked if Javier Sotomayor’s first sample had tested positive. The news was already vox populi in Winnipeg, but also among the foreign press in Havana.
Sotomayor was already aware of rumors that he was guilty of doping, but he could not have imagined the accusation of cocaine consumption when he amply cleared 2.30 meters in a single jump, as he had done over 300 times throughout his brilliant career. When Christian told him that the laboratory test indicated the presence of cocaine, the scene turned dramatic: Sotomayor burst into tears of indignation and anger. When Christian asked him if he had drunk any sort of hot infusion or tea, Sotomayor categorically responded that he had consumed neither cocaine nor any infusion or tea to which such a result could be attributed.
Everyone who knows Sotomayor describes him as an extremely humble person, who never hesitates to recognize a mistake, a failure or lack of discipline in training, no matter how slight, when indicated to him. He is also an athlete obsessively cautious about anything he ingests, to the point of systematically refusing to take vitamins or medicine. He was not prepared to accept it, no matter what the consequences might be.
While the comrades in Winnipeg unable to consult him were trying to find an explanation, figuring out and even admitting a strategy that would benefit him in the apparently irreversible situation created by the staggering result of the Canadian laboratory, Sotomayor honorably denied having ingested any infusion or tea. Christian, an exceptional witness to this hard, traumatic and bitter moment, who did not doubt the integrity of the popular and respected athlete, was profoundly impressed by the sincerity and dignity of his reaction.
The tactic adopted for the morning meeting with the PASO Doping Control Commission had obviously been very wrong.
At 5:23 p.m. on August 4, I managed to contact Humberto, who was anxiously awaiting a reply, just 37 minutes away of the technical group’s press conference. These are the essential points I made to him:
"You cannot elaborate theories that will damage his honor.
"We cannot be seeking for technical solutions to the problem.
"It must be explained that he categorically denies the charges, that he is an honest man and has been one all his life, that we believe in him. In short: we must support his claim because he is a man who has never committed a wrongdoing or shown a serious lack of discipline, and his principal trait is honesty.
"You cannot let yourselves get carried away by your desire for him to be allowed to continue competing. He has cried over this in indignation.
"We cannot impose him the tea story because we would be questioning his honesty and supporting an unfair charge.
"In the light of everything that has happened there, who knows how they managed to come up with this result, which is also a blow to the country’s prestige.
"Deny it all. Our claim should be based on the true fact that he is an honest man, an honorable man, who has never been guilty of a serious lack of discipline.
"We must not waver in this regard. A result like this must be challenged. Do not waver for even a second.
"Tests like these cannot be trusted, in view of all of the underhanded tricks they have played, much less so when they have concocted charges of cocaine use, something which discredits not only the athlete but also Cuba.
"We must defend him; this is the moment when we must defend him and trust him more than ever. Do not accept even the remotest possibility that he might have done this. We must trust him because we know him well. We have a thousand reasons to trust him."
Humberto fully agreed with this stance.
Minutes later, I managed to contact Fernández. I spoke with him for a few minutes stressing similar points:
"This is an outrage. Among the many things that have happened, we see this as one of the greatest injustices committed there.
"To speak of cocaine is obnoxious.
"We have trusted him throughout his life because of his conduct. We cannot doubt him or question him now. By seeking a technical solution to counteract the decision made we would be questioning his prestige and his honor. I do believe in him, Fernández."
To which Fernández replied: "I believe in him, too, and we must make it clear that we believe in him, we believe in his innocence."
What was most infuriating about the Javier Sotomayor case was that he was being stripped of his gold medal through charges of consuming a drug with such a volatile presence that there was no possibility whatsoever of using scientific means to irrefutably prove the fraud. The only possible alternative was to wage a moral battle based on the life, history and profound, intimate knowledge of the athlete’s personal traits and his behavior throughout an extraordinary career in sports.
We had a totally legitimate right to trust him, a man of humble origins, selfless, loved and admired by our people and by all those who have met him or have had any contact with him abroad.
He was awarded tens of thousands of dollars with the Prince of Asturias Prize in 1993, during the most difficult stage of the special period, and he donated it all to the country. I know this very well because he handed the donation over to me personally. He was only 26 years old at the time and was already a world record holder. To turn down his offer so that he could instead use this money, which he did not steal from anyone, to help his modest household, his poor and self-sacrificing family, would have offended him. It was extremely difficult to have him accept part of those funds without hurting or offending him. We could not abandon him now to the odious machinery of commercialization and advertising, which devours human beings and has corrupted and debased sports.
Why should we have more confidence in the disorganized and indiscreet laboratory run by the host country? That host country, which expected to displace Cuba from the second place she occupied definitively and irreplaceably. It should not be forgotten that his medal, together with those won by another ten heroes in this sport, had removed the United States from the first place in one of its strongest disciplines. By snatching Sotomayor’s medal, they were also stripping us of this honor.
Why should we have more confidence in the organizers who were not even capable of guaranteeing respect and physical safety for the members of our delegation?
Why should we have more confidence in a medical commission whose representative heaped insults on our glorious athlete and shamelessly mocked and insulted our delegation with the press?
But there is an essential meaningful difference between stripping Sotomayor of his gold medal and stripping our two weightlifters of theirs.
The stripping of Sotomayor’s medal was accompanied by a destructive and slanderous charge. He was accused before the world of being a drug addict, with absolutely no consideration for the fact that he had previously undergone over 100 doping tests, many of them carried out by surprise, where the slightest trace of drugs or anabolic steroids was never found. This is a fact that attests to his immaculate and irreproachable sporting background.
The weightlifters were charged with the use of an anabolic steroid, nandrolone, regularly used in professional sports but censurable, inadmissible and deserving of exemplary punishment in amateur athletes. Although the moral damage involved is considerable, it does not permanently destroy a young athlete, his honor and his family’s honor, with an indelible social stigma that will forever emerge alongside his athletic feats.
In the case of Javier Sotomayor, they could not be unaware that his record, so far unbeatable, would be associated today, tomorrow and forever with the hateful claim that he was a drug addict.
Moreover, in the case of the weightlifters, they were charged with the presence in their urine of a substance that can only have the desired effect when injected muscularly and which remains in the athlete’s system and can be detected up to six months later. This was what the well-known "experts" in Winnipeg affirmed when they condemned the weightlifters.
When I received the news on August 6 that they had found nandrolone in the laboratory tests of weightlifter William Vargas, I immediately thought that it was another case of fraud to support the hateful charge against Sotomayor and strengthen the credibility of the accusations against the unsurpassable high jumper and the prestige of Cuban sports.
I asked Christian to locate the weightlifter that very same day, to make an appointment with him at his INDER office to talk with him, listen to his points of view and then communicate to him, as tactfully as possible, the need to immediately take urine samples so as to spare him from a potential injustice. I asked him to immediately locate the weightlifting team doctor and the athlete’s trainer as well.
The weightlifter, who had not returned yet, arrived in the early morning hours of August 7. He lives in the municipality of Caimito, in the Havana province and his wife had given birth to a son on the same day he won the gold medal. Once he was located, however, that fact did not stop him from heading to the INDER headquarters to provide the samples late that night, a task he completed in the early hours of the following morning. Only four days had passed since the time the samples were taken from him in Winnipeg.
The deluge of news reports and comments related to Sotomayor had hardly subsided when the Cuban weightlifters’ scandal broke out. There was no respite for our delegation in Winnipeg.
On the night of August 8, wire dispatches from various news agencies reported that another Cuban weightlifter, Rolando Delgado Nuñez, winner of the gold medal in the 69-kilogram category, had been stripped of his medal after testing positive for nandrolone.
That very same night he was immediately located and brought to Havana from Pinar del Río, were he lives, and urine samples were taken from him at midnight on August 9, five days after the samples had been taken in Winnipeg.
In both cases, the time difference was minimal. It was absolutely impossible that an injected substance like this, which remains in the system for months, would not show in the urine of the athletes whose medals had been withdrawn as a result of alleged nandrolone use.
It was no longer the volatile and untraceable cocaine attributed to Sotomayor. If it were proven that the weightlifters’ urine samples were absolutely free of nandrolone, there would be no way of maintaining the purported presence of the illegal substance that the same individuals and the same sacrosanct Canadian laboratory found in Sotomayor’s urine. But this seemed like a practically impossible dream.
Given the continuous intimations in the news reports issued by the wire agencies regarding further cases of doping among the Cuban weightlifters, the remaining silver and gold medal winning weightlifters were immediately summoned on August 8 and 9. There was an urgent need to locate them, along with their trainers. It was much more difficult to track down the team doctor, who was on vacation in Holguín, but after three days he was finally located and flown to the capital.
Samples were taken from these last athletes barely four days after the samples taken in Winnipeg, although at that point none of them had been accused of using nandrolone.
Simultaneously, that same night, instructions were given as to where the samples would be tested, who would transport them and how they would be transported, how the necessary visas would be obtained immediately, and what measures would be adopted to ensure total compartmentalization and secrecy.
By just after midnight, the only thing left to do was to issue a brief but significant statement to be published at daybreak on August 9, reporting the last two cases officially announced, and precisely and categorically establishing the Cuban government’s position regarding any confirmed case of doping.
At 5:00 a.m., we received the last plane bringing back 93 members of the Cuban delegation. Also with them were José Ramón Fernández, president of the Cuban Olympic Committee; Humberto Rodríguez, president of INDER; Dr. Mario Granda, director of the Sports Medicine Institute, who was summoned to immediately undertake important tasks related to the investigation under way, and other outstanding specialists.
Once the reception had concluded, we met right there in the airport with the delegation’s main leaders and technicians. I informed them of the steps we had taken and together we drafted the Government statement issued through INDER. There, we informed the people that an in-depth investigation was under way into the charges against the weightlifters to clarify, as we said at the beginning of this broadcast, whether this was yet another dirty trick against our country, or whether there effectively was an anabolic substance present in the system of the aforementioned athletes. We also announced our decision to report the results of this investigation to the national and international public.
At 8:20 a.m. on August 9, the statement was broadcast on television.
We could speak in these terms because this time we had the possibility of using scientific methods to confirm or rule out the laboratory results that we considered fraudulent and unfair charges.
Why did we speak of the possibility to completely and irrefutably expose the plot against Cuba? Even though, as you will see, it is possible to prove the charges false with solid and equally irrefutable arguments, based on explanations, tests and procedures of a medical nature or other, in this case, the final word would come from other extremely prestigious laboratories.
There were four reasons, however, that made me feel somewhat skeptical:
First: It was practically impossible that those who were trying to damage and discredit our sports movement and our country would be so stupid as to use a long-lasting anabolic steroid whose presence could easily be refuted by technical means; this could only be possible if they infinitely underestimated us.
Second: A trend has developed around the world in the sport of weightlifting, and is almost a general phenomenon in some countries, to use anabolic steroids. Although very few and far between, we have also had cases of indiscipline by weightlifters and their trainers.
Third: One of athletes charged now had been penalized several years ago for use of anabolic steroid. The situation was made even more worrying by the fact that his trainer had also been sanctioned for the same reason, something truly astonishing.
If this really were a plot against us, as we believed it to be, then the enemy had chosen its target very skillfully.
Fourth: Even if only one of the various excellent and prestigious laboratories chosen were to find the slightest trace of nandrolone in the urine of the penalized athletes, thus coinciding with the Montreal laboratory, this would be enough to force us to admit and immediately announce the validity and fairness of the results issued by that institution.
None of the laboratories chosen by us would have the slightest idea of each athlete’s code number, and the comrade transporting the samples knew absolutely nothing about their identity. Under such circumstances, the results of the investigation could considerably weaken the international credibility of something we did not harbor the slightest doubt about: Javier Sotomayor’s innocence.
There were other obstacles as well. Those we have mentioned are enough to understand the risks involved in our investigation, but they were risks we had to take. It was a basic moral duty.
We could observe two positive aspects in the course of the investigation.
First: In light of the dangers threatening this particular sport, a new commissioner had been appointed on January 4, 1995. He is a retired lieutenant colonel of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, who had worked for 12 years as the head of the Physical Training and Sports Division in the Ministry of the Armed Forces. He had previously been an internationalist combatant.
From the moment he took over the post, this commissioner did an extraordinary job of improving organization and discipline, raising technical awareness, and reinforcing ethics and a patriotic spirit within the field of weightlifting. The team that represented us in Winnipeg was unbeatable, and there was still a reserve force in Cuba capable of achieving major victories.
Second: As for the Sports Medicine Institute, and the bright young doctor responsible for the national weightlifting team’s health, both working from within their own areas of activity had perfected a system for the comprehensive care of these athletes.
The systematic monitoring and testing carried out with regard to the use of anabolic steroids made it almost impossible for any case of doping to emerge.
During a conversation, the national team doctor told me that although he had only recently graduated from medical school, he could tell just by looking if a person did or did not use these substances.
When the charges of doping were made against two of our gold medal athletes, I could see that all those directly involved with the athletes rejected any possibility of this being true. I did not sense the slightest doubt in any of them. For my part, when I reflected on the first factors mentioned, it seemed to me that it would be impossible to refute all the elements, without exception, used as the basis for stripping the medals from our athletes. As in boxing, a consensus was needed in which the majority of judges voted in favor, but in this special case, it was necessary for all of them to vote in favor, without a single vote against.
The results issued by the laboratories would say the last word.
The idea was to use three different laboratories. The director of sports medicine approached five European laboratories and requested their services explaining the need to carry out certain tests on the weightlifters. These laboratories were in Barcelona, Madrid, Portugal, London and Belgium.
The laboratory in London responded that they could not comply because they were currently undergoing repairs; the others accepted.
Taking into account the urgency of the matter and the distance of the other laboratories, we opted for the three on the Iberian Peninsula. The preparations for the world track and field championship in Seville further complicated matters. The Barcelona laboratory, which had been the main center for doping tests during the Olympic Games held there in 1992, and the Madrid laboratory were both involved in the upcoming competition. The laboratory in Madrid was virtually overwhelmed with work. They were receiving almost 50 samples a day from Seville. The greatest possible discretion was crucial.
Only three people would know the code numbers identifying the samples and their respective donors. They would be Christian, vice-president of INDER, whom I had made responsible for all the measures that needed to be adopted immediately, in Humberto’s absence; Dr. Mario Granda, director of the Sports Medicine Institute and me, who would have a copy of the list in a sealed envelope. Dr. Palacios, a biochemist with the Institute, who transported the samples and carried out the corresponding procedures abroad, did not know the codes.
Three duplicate samples were taken for each athlete who had won a gold medal and one duplicate for each athlete with a silver medal. They were 40 samples in all. Six were tested in Madrid, seven in Lisbon and seven in Barcelona. On Wednesday, August 11 at 5:25 p.m., the biochemistry specialist left for Madrid with his precious cargo.
I will say no more about this fascinating stage in the investigation process. I will let the messages sent by Palacios, reporting each fundamental step he took, speak for themselves:
Madrid, August 12, 1999
The first shipment was delivered in Madrid at 12:50. Possibility of an earlier response still unconfirmed. I will reconfirm next week if there are any changes. Possible delivery to Lisbon tomorrow, pending a call.
Madrid, August 17, 1999
Up until now the following steps have been taken:
- I delivered the samples in Lisbon on Friday, August 13. They were tested and I received the results on Sunday the 15th. All negative.
- I returned to Madrid on Sunday and went to Barcelona on Monday morning to deliver the samples. The results will not be ready until the beginning of next week, because they are short-staffed (vacations).
- It was not possible to stay in Barcelona. The only vacancies were in very expensive hotels, which is why I came back to Madrid last night, Monday, to the same hotel.
- I will wait here for a response from Barcelona and will try to speed up the response from Madrid, which will not be ready until at least August 31.
- In Barcelona I had a very interesting conversation with the director of the laboratory. I will send a full report by mail on Friday.
On August 23, 1999 an unexpected surprise interrupted the Palacios rewarding accounts. We were plunged back into the past nightmare. A fax arrived on that day from Porto Alegre, Brazil, which read:
Porto Alegre, August 23, 1999
Mr. Humberto Rodríguez
Head of the Cuban Mission
Cuban Olympic Committee
Calle 13, No.601
Dear Mr. Rodríguez,
The purpose of this letter is to inform you that nandrolone metabolites were detected in the urine sample of Cuban athlete Modesto Sánchez, a participant in the Pan-American Games in the discipline of weightlifting, in the over-105-kilogram category. The test was carried out on August 7, 1999 at the Centennial Concert Hall.
Sample B will be tested on August 30, at 9:00 a.m., at the INRS-Santé Doping Laboratory, located at 245 Boul. Hymus, Point Claire, Montreal. In accordance with PASO rules, your delegation may send a maximum of three delegates to the laboratory.
Please, be so kind as to report their names to the Director of Services, Prof. Christianne Ayotte, by fax at (1-514) 630-8850 or by telephone at (1-514) 630-8806.
If the results of sample A are confirmed, a meeting of the PASO Medical Commission will be held on September 4, 1999 at 10:00 p.m. in the Presidential Hall of the Guatemalan Olympic Committee, located at the Palacio de los Deportes, 24 Calle 9-31, Zona 5, 3er Nivel, Guatemala City, to which the competitor and no more than three members of the delegation are invited.
Prof. Dr. Eduardo Henrique de Rose
President, PASO Medical Commission
They informed Cuba of the news sixteen days after August 7, when the sample was taken.
By then, Modesto Sánchez’ urine had already been on the Iberian Peninsula for quite a while. Excellent! Now there were three cases of athletes sanctioned for nandrolone use instead of two. Things would be even worse for the guilty parties if the last word of any of the three prestigious laboratories were to contradict them. Were there still any other Cuban weightlifters left unsanctioned? How long would they continue stripping Cuba of gold and silver medals?
Even if we gave back the three gold medals left in weightlifting, not even counting the 10 we would have easily won had they not arbitrarily reduced the number of medals traditionally corresponding to this sport on the eve of the competition –-in order to reduce Cuba’s possibilities–- we would still continue to occupy second place. If they like, we can give back all the medals we won in such a grueling battle and despite all of the adverse factors we faced at the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, not even then would they be able to strip us of our title as world champions in the defense of clean and healthy sports, and of the honor, dignity and purity of our athletes.
There is a particularly strange document here: a letter from Mr. de Rose to the Cuban delegation, under his signature, in his own handwriting, dated August 2, announcing the presence of nandrolone in the urine of athlete William Vargas, who had not even competed yet and had not undergone a single test. Was it a typing error? A computer error? A previously prepared document that got misplaced? A Chronicle of a Death Foretold, like García Márquez’ novel?
That same day, some hours later, more news arrived from Palacios:
August 23, 1999
A short while ago I spoke with the directors of the two laboratories where the results are still pending. The one here has not done very much, because he is caught up in the other activity, which is a priority for them. They told me to call next Wednesday 25th, to check if they had anything. The other laboratory has made quite a lot of progress and they should have finished by tomorrow morning. I agreed to call them at 9:30 a.m.
They all know that we have made a multiple shipment. (Remember that there is a high degree of communication and cooperation, because they turn in periodic reports to the organization that oversees them. [ He is referring to the IOC]
They commented that this is a strange and somewhat unconventional situation, viewed with different degrees of strangeness, the director from here being the most aggressive. I explained to them that we were studying the relation between cost and speed in the delivery of results, and as such we had divided the total number of samples into several lots in order to see how things work in practice. This explanation was accepted as valid, although with certain reservations on the part of the director here.
Say hello to everyone for me. Sincerely,
P.S. I will report back again tomorrow
On that day, August 23, as you can gather from this message, our tireless, efficient and tenacious biochemist, Miguel Palacios, traveling from one end of the Iberian Peninsula to the other, like a new Quixote, was told at the laboratory in Madrid that the procedures he was undertaking at three different institutions looked rather strange.
At that point, he could not explain the true reason for this strategy. He was instructed not to reveal the actual purpose to anyone. He responded amiably but in such an unconvincing way that not even I, who was in on the secret, could fully understand what he was trying to say when I read his words. I am not sure they fully believed him. Perhaps they suspected that the Cubans were trying to unravel some of Winnipeg’s mysteries.
They might not have been aware of the weightlifter’s case, being so overloaded with work for the upcoming track and field championship in Seville. But they could not have been unaware of the fact that Sotomayor, so well known in Spain, where he set his extraordinary record, had been sanctioned for purportedly ingesting a large quantity of cocaine two days before the competition, according to the metaphysical theories of the president of the PASO Medical Commission and the laboratories in Montreal.
We would like to extend our apologies to the administration of the laboratory in Madrid. Today we are finally answering their questions.
We contracted the testing services offered by the laboratories and provided the basic data. We were not obligated to do any more. The services requested could not have had a more legitimate end. At the three laboratories, the staff was friendly, serious, efficient and understanding. Because of this, in addition to our apologies, we want to extend our deepest gratitude.
On August 24, 1999, Palacios sent his last message from Madrid. This time he had more encouraging news:
I have received the results pending from the other center [ he is referring to Barcelona] . All negative, according to the enclosed
The results from here remain pending until tomorrow afternoon. I think we can hope for the same I am returning on Thursday, if all goes as planned.
P.S. Did you call me collect? You can answer yes or no at this fax number. Thanks.
On August 26, Palacios left for Cuba. This time he was carrying irrefutable documentation. Only he knew the answer awaited here with agonizing impatience: the results of the samples tested at the laboratory in Madrid. He arrived at night, with a splitting headache and went straight home. He sent a message to INDER reporting his arrival but nobody passed it on, or nobody paid any attention to it. What did it matter if some Palacios guy had arrived? That August 26 was a day of agonizing impatience for other reasons as well.
The world boxing championship was being decided in Houston, and nobody trusted the judges. We would have to wait for the Mafia’s verdict. Nobody was in the INDER, nothing else existed as boxing fans or patriots we were glued to our TV sets. On Friday, August 27, everyone was caught up in righteous indignation over what they had seen on that boxing ring. No one remembered Palacios.
On Saturday August 28, around noon, Christian called the hotel in Madrid asking for Palacios. "He is not at the hotel. He left two days ago." He called the embassy and there was no answer. We were extremely anxious for several hours. "Could he have been kidnapped?" "Could he have been vanished?" "What he was carrying was awfully important."
At 8:30 p.m., a meeting was to be held to prepare for the round table scheduled for broadcast the next day on the two television channels, with the participation of journalists, boxers and instructors who had recently returned from Texas. Ten or 12 of us were standing in a waiting room. Christian was standing a few steps away from me. I looked at him questioningly. He was smiling. I moved closer to him and he told me, in a hushed tone of voice, "Palacios arrived on Thursday. He brought all the documents." Amazing!
Sunday, August 29, 3:50 p.m. The round table on Houston concluded. Only then were we able to deal with Palacios. A meeting was held at 5:00 p.m. at the Palace of the Revolution. We spent nine hours studying the inflammatory materials we now had with the key participants in the story.
Monday, August 30. A message of acknowledgment to the Iberian laboratories. Now we are wrapped up in a major issue. We cannot be more explicit, there could be controversy and it would not be advisable to provide our adversary with information that it might be desperately hungry for at this very moment. We cannot put all our cards on the table, nor use up all our ammunition. Nor will we declassify the code numbers. There are little bottles with 75cc of urine that are worth more than a ton of gold at this moment. We also have reserves. The athletes on our national weightlifting team, strong, healthy and morally vindicated, can supply as many samples as necessary if the circumstances call for it.
The presence of nandrolone was the allegation they used to strip us of our medals and if this substance had in fact been injected weeks or even months before the competitions at the Pan-American Games, it would still be circulating in these athletes’ bodies, with more than enough time to carry out as many tests as necessary.
From the smile on Christian’s face the night that Palacios’ mysterious disappearance was solved, I guessed what was happening: he had the result of the tests from the Madrid laboratory. Palacios had been carrying them in his briefcase full of juicy documents and slept with them the two days when no one knew where in the world he was. It was cruel on his part to delay for yet another 48 hours the end of such a tense and agonizing wait. All negative as well!
In the 20 samples tested by three laboratories, there was not a single report on the presence of nandrolone or its metabolites, nor was a single member of our weightlifting team guilty of doping. It was all a colossal lie, a hateful and shameful fraud, a criminal plundering of merits won through self-denial, tenacity, dedication and sacrifices.
What had seemed inconceivable, an impossible dream, a miracle, had become a reality. That was why I was able to report that very Sunday, after the round table, that a major announcement would soon be forthcoming.
Speaking in sports terms, this would be referred to in baseball as no hits, no runs; in boxing they would say that there was a unanimous consensus, that none of the judges voted against us. The winner, in the red corner, was Cuba, 20 to 0 points.
We know how they will try to respond but we are perfectly calm because every avenue has been covered.
All that I have left to address are the final demands, a brief summary that will come later. For now, I will give the floor to those who have further testimony to contribute, equally irrefutable, beyond the biochemical tests that will complement what has been stated here.