Olympic scandals: Was this the most elaborate dirty tricks campaign to reach the Games?

Julia Menendez and other members of the Spanish team after their match against the USA. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images) (Quinn Rooney)

Watch: Bribery and corruption at the Olympics

Football occasionally throws up stories of fans chanting long into the night at opposition team hotels to keep players awake. This, however, is sporting small fry compared to the extraordinary hockey tale of Azerbaijan’s alleged attempts to thwart Spain women’s bid in qualifying for the 2008 Olympics.

Four months before the Summer Games in Beijing, Spain were seemingly on the road to China. On the surface, the Spanish were sailing through the Olympic qualifying tournament in Baku after five successive wins. Hosts Azerbaijan were also in the mix, with the two set to meet in the final and the winner securing the sole Olympic ticket.

However, Spain’s Olympic journey proved a hazardous one. Their travails started in Baku with a plethora of alleged skullduggery and ended with them taking the field in Beijing just days after Azerbaijan had taken a case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in a bid to remove Spain from the Olympics for doping violations.

“It was the most extraordinary story of international dirty tricks,” recalls Claire Middleton, the former Daily Telegraph journalist who broke the story. “The whole thing was as if you couldn’t make it up.”

Where to begin?

Before a pool match with Kenya, Spain reported that four players had collapsed at the team hotel after inhaling gas from the air conditioning system. Spanish officials had also complained of the squad fielding late night telephone calls to their rooms, coping with fire alarms, while players picked up illnesses from the drinking water provided by tournament organizers. Added to this were the alleged threats to the tournament director and intruders in anti-doping control.

On the eve of the final against the hosts, the Spanish team ventured out for a meal at an Italian restaurant in Baku. Fast-forward to the following day and Spain were indebted to Silvia Munoz’s hat-trick, which included a late winner in their 3-2 victory over Azerbaijan. Cue jubilation.

But in a mandatory drug test after the final, two players tested positive for a banned substance, bizarrely the drug ecstasy. According to FIH rules at the time, if more than one member of a team had tested positive, the whole team could be thrown out of the tournament. Spain’s Olympic path was halted in its tracks.

It soon transpired that the Spanish team had dined on two tables for their pre-match meal. It was left to one International Hockey Federation (FIH) official who suspected subterfuge and took hair samples from the Spanish team. Results revealed that most of the squad, including the wife of the late Marti Colomer, then its elderly federation president, had tested positive for MDMA on one of the tables. Naturally there was uproar in Spain as to why players and officials would take a ‘club drug’ the night before their biggest game in four years to reach the pinnacle of an Olympics.

The FIH found one player guilty of a doping violation without significant fault and another unnamed squad member exonerated of any offence.

While Spanish Hockey claimed deliberate sabotage throughout their fortnight in Baku, Azerbaijan took the case to CAS as they tried to claim an Olympic berth and oust Spain from competing. "We are absolutely positive that the two girls had nothing to do with this. I would bet my life on it,” Colomer told Spanish media.

There was no concrete proof of wrongdoing by Azerbaijan.

What happened next?

Despite making the Olympics, Spain promptly lost the first game against China. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)
Despite making the Olympics, Spain promptly lost the first game against China. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

CAS dismissed the alleged doping violation case and a third appeal from Azerbaijan - which also included a bold request for Azerbaijan to be added as a late entrant to the Games - the final appeal waved away just two days before the Olympic hockey event was set to begin.

“It is a joy that they recognize that we are innocent," Spain coach Pablo Usoz told local media. “All's well that ends well in the mafia plot,” was Spanish paper AS’ assertion.

Spain duly lined up for the first match in Beijing, losing 3-0 to China, while Middleton was present at the media conference afterwards where players’ emotions were all too evident.

“The whole saga completely destroyed Spain’s Olympic preparations,” recalls Middleton. “It was horrendous for them, an emotional toil, while nothing ever happened to Azerbaijan.”

Spain eventually finished seventh at the Games.

What happened to Azerbaijan?

Undeterred, Azerbaijan were still intent on making their mark in hockey and competed at the 2009 European Nations Cup in Manchester. Their squad was notable for nearly half the team hailing from South Korea, players having married Azerbaijani nationals to gain passports and play for their adopted country.

Since 2016, the national federation has been suspended from world hockey after failing to pay compensation for not turning up to a Rio Olympic qualifying tournament.