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Whatever the truth, mud will stick to Contador and the UCI

After the feeding frenzy of the first 24 hours following the news of Alberto Contador‘s provisional suspension by the UCI – and the deluge of evidence, counter-evidence and wild theorising that accompanied it – the flow of news from the mainstream media has slowed to a barely noticeable trickle. In reality, it will probably be some time now before we see significant progress from the ensuing investigations, but as ever there are several well-informed sources in the blogosphere who have kept the debate alive with a combination of fact and informed opinion which casts far greater light on the affair for those who are interested in the detail behind the sensationalist headlines.

I have provided some relevant (and highly recommended) links at the end of this post, but the bottom line is this: regardless of the truth of the situation – and every new bit of news that emerges makes things look bleaker still – the credibility of the three-time Tour de France winner is probably already damaged beyond repair.

Here are a few observations that have arisen from my reading:

  • It seems ludicrous to me that the UCI has effectively assumed the dual role of prosecution and defence – or at least this is how it appears from the outside. Why did UCI president Pat McQuaid instruct Contador to remain silent about the test result? At best, it was a ham-fisted attempt at PR damage limitation by the UCI. At worst, it smacks of a conspiracy to cover up the truth.
  • If the story was not on the point of being broken by L’Équipe and German journalist Hans Joachim Seppelt, would Contador and the UCI have ever gone public? And how many other positive tests from leading riders have been covered up like this in the past, for fear of damaging the sport?
  • Why is there no lower limit for clenbuterol levels to allow for cases of small-scale, accidental consumption which provides no significant physical benefit? The UCI is surely now compelled to suspend Contador, even if the trace reading is genuinely a result of contaminated meat (although they could always reduce the length of the suspension in mitigation). The authorities seem to have created a rod for their own back here.
  • Earlier this year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted the explanation of American swimmer Jessica Hardy that she had inadvertently taken a contaminated food supplement, and refused WADA‘s request to extend her ban from one to two years. However, given that ignorance of the presence or source of a banned substance is generally not considered an acceptable defence in such cases, how will the UCI justify anything less than a one-year ban?
  • Now that he has been officially suspended (albeit provisionally) by the UCI, the burden sits with Contador to clear his name. Six weeks after he was originally informed of the offence, we have seen claims and expert scientific testimony from the Contador camp, but no actual evidence other than his word. It doesn’t look good.

I have heard the situation described as being that there will never be enough evidence to convince those who believe in Contador, whereas there is already more than enough for those who have always been convinced of his guilt. It’s an apt summary, and the majority of people generally fall firmly on one side of the fence or the other.

Having spent much of the last four days reading everything I can on a subject about which I can only claim a little knowledge – which, as the saying goes, is a dangerous thing – I find myself somewhere between the two extremes, but leaning increasingly towards the side of the doubters. I am prepared to grant Contador the presumption of innocence, but recognise that his defence is somewhat flimsy and unconvincing – plausible, yes; credible, not so much.

There are also enough question marks in his history to show that he has never been the most open and transparent of athletes. For one thing, his close links to Manolo Saiz, the former manager of two Spanish teams – ONCE and Liberty Seguros – who were also embroiled in doping scandals do not help, as does his public refusal on several occasions to provide blood and DNA samples to demonstrate that he is clean, and his less than totally unequivocal answers to journalists’ questions, such as this response given to Cycling Weekly‘s Edward Pickering after the decisive Mont Ventoux stage last year:

Pickering: Can you assure us that you’ve never taken any banned performance-enhancing products, nor used any banned methods, and can you take this opportunity to make a strong statement for clean cycling?

Contador: I’m available 365 days a year, which is something I accept with good grace for the sport I love. I will continue to have this attitude.

And then there is his involvement in Operación Puerto. Yes, he was quickly cleared by a Spanish court, but the fact remains the initials ‘AC’ do appear in paperwork seized in the investigation, and given what often appears to be a diffident attitude towards doping from the Spanish authorities, one has to wonder about what really happened here, particularly in the context of a heavy weight of circumstantial evidence elsewhere.

I don’t think it is exaggerating too much to say that this is an extremely complex case, and while I am 100% in support of Contador being treated in exactly the same way as Joe No-Name, I fear for the ongoing credibility of the sport, particularly if the UCI cannot categorically demonstrate that they are whiter than white. There are few things worse than a corrupt policeman.

While admirable in many ways, it also doesn’t help the sport’s image when Bernhard Kohl, who was stripped of his third-place finish at the 2008 Tour after testing positive, told the US Anti-Doping Agency science conference yesterday:

I was tested 200 times during my career, and 100 times I had drugs in my body. I was caught, but 99 other times I wasn’t. Riders think they can get away with doping because most of the time they do. Even if there is a new test for blood doping, I’m not even sure it will scare riders into stopping. The problem is just that bad.

(By the way, I’m not suggesting Kohl should have been prevented from speaking, merely that the timing is unfortunate from Contador’s perspective.)

As if I haven’t already painted enough of a doomsday scenario, to make matters worse the New York Times is now also reporting that Contador failed a second test at the Tour the day before testing positive for clenbuterol, registering eight times the legal limit for a plasticizer commonly found in blood bags. The allegation had already been raised by L’Équipe last week, but this is the first time it has been reported that the test result came from a different sample.

The testing process involved is new and has not yet been approved by WADA, so the positive test is almost certainly inadmissible as evidence. However, it adds to the collateral damage to Contador’s reputation which is rapidly moving towards the point of no return as far as the court of public opinion is concerned. Things are not looking good for the Spaniard.

Even if Contador is fully exonerated and the UCI are shown to have acted with the relevant propriety – hey, look, airborne bacon! – the reality is that there has already been more than enough doubt cast over the integrity of both that all but the most blinkered optimists must realise that the events of the last week will continue to drive casual fans away from one of the most physical challenging sports there is, a sport I love.

But mud sticks.

According to Contador’s Wikipedia entry, he enjoys hunting in his spare time. The shoe is very much on the other foot right now.

———-

For detailed and knowledgeable analysis of the Contador case, I would highly recommend the following blogs:

The Boulder Report: More Questions than Answers in Contador Case

Pappillon (blog of Joe Papp, former UCI Elite rider): Five Questions to Clear Up the Contador Clenbuterol Affair

The Inner Ring blog

See also this piece in the UK’s Cycling Weekly:

Alberto Contador, the clenbuterol, the beef excuse and the traces of plastic

And ITV’s Matt Rendell and Ned Boulting have also covered the evidence and potential ramifications in a special edition of their Real Peloton podcast:

Real Peloton podcast

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