Argentine Guillermo Bertola Banned Four Years for Transfusion of Mother’s Blood

Jul 12, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Guillermo Bertola of Argentina competes in the men's open water swim during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Ontario Place West Channel. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel/USA Today Sports Images

Argentine open water swimmer Guillermo Bertola was handed a four-year ban FINA and stripped of his 2019 Pan American Games silver medal.

The infraction Bertola was found guilty of was receiving a transfusion of his mother’s blood shortly before a race in 2018. The ban, announced by FINA Wednesday, will keep the 30-year-old out of competition until Jan. 2024. Reports of the suspension had surfaced as early as last week.

In addition to the vacated medal from last year’s Pan Am Games, Bertola won bronze in the 10 kilometers at the 2011 event. He’s competed at the World Championships on four occasions, finishing as high as eighth in the 25 km and 10th in the 10 km in 2013. He has been a long-time fixture on the international open water circuit.

According to FINA’s report (pdf), Bertola’s case was built off an adverse finding on his athlete biological passport (ABP) from a blood sample obtained Jan. 31, 2018. When the matter came before FINA’s disciplinary committee in December, Bertola attempted to explain it away:

“The Athlete denied that he was doping and claimed that the ABP Documentation could be satisfactorily explained due to his intermittent bouts of hard training at altitude together with his use of a snorkel and mask with hypoxic effect. The Athlete further explained that he used a hyperbaric chamber, was taking iron injections and was feeling ill in the weeks prior to the Santa Fee [sic] ultra-distance swimming competition which was when the problematic blood sample was collected.” (Bertola would go on to win that race.)

When FINA’s medical authorities determined that explanation not to be credible, Bertola recanted. Bertola has suffered from a thyroid condition since 2013. During a part of his training early 2018, when he was not taking his medication and in a “frail and weakened condition,” a doctor near his home in Cordoba, Argentina recommended a transfusion. Both Bertola and his mother, Claudia Suarez, testified as to the transfusion during a hearing conducted via Zoom on May 27.

It was in these circumstances that the Athlete agreed to receive a blood transfusion from his mother. The Athlete claimed the transfusion was the result of his mother calling for a local doctor to examine him at her home because she was so concerned about his weakness and poor health. The Athlete’s evidence was that after the doctor assessed him, his mother accepted the doctor’s advice to perform a blood transfusion. This was possible as they had the same blood type. This fact was known previously. The Athlete claims that as he was tired and ill and weak and very concerned regarding his health he simply went along with the proposed treatment.

Bertola petitioned, on the basis of a suspension’s ruinous effect on his career and the lack of anti-doping information he’d been provided by his federation, for a shorter ban. But FINA, in part citing his initially false explanation, was unmoved. But his admission that he knew blood transfusions to be illegal undercut his claim for leniency.

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3 comments

  1. Mark Schwartz

    Nothing less than a lifetime ban and criminal prosecution will put a stop to PED use.

  2. Tanya McDowell Thome

    Can someone explain this blood transfusion thing? Why are blood transfusions not allowed? Are they used to cover up doping?

    • avatar
      BahamaTodd

      More blood volume increases your oxygen carrying capacity.

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