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The beginning of the end for Contador?

And the winner of the 2010 Tour de France is … 

Last night the UCI, cycling’s world governing body, formally requested the Spanish National Cycling Federation (RFEC) begin disciplinary proceedings against Alberto Contador, who won his third Tour de France this July.

Coming as it does nearly six weeks after the news of the Spanish rider’s positive test for the banned drug clenbuterol, this announcement carries no small significance. There is a firm implication that the UCI is now satisfied Contador has a substantial case to answer.

The UCI said in a press release:

At the end of a long and meticulous enquiry entrusted to highly qualified, WADA-accredited experts, and considering all the information currently in its possession, the UCI has concluded that disciplinary proceedings should be opened against Alberto Contador.

Until the end of the proceedings and despite his provisional suspension, Alberto Contador still benefits from a presumption of innocence.

What we know so far

Here is a summary of the timeline and key evidence so far:

July 20: As race leader, Contador is subjected to a daily doping control. His sample shows high traces of a plasticizer commonly found in blood bags used for transfusions, suggesting the possibility of blood doping. However, the test employed has not been validated by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and is therefore not admissible as evidence. No trace of clenbuterol is found in the sample.

July 21: On the Tour’s second rest day, Contador again provides a blood sample. This tests positive for minuscule traces of clenbuterol, a drug which can improve oxygen flow and reduce body fat. Although the amount found is tiny, there is no lower limit for a positive test – the presence of even the tiniest amount is enough to trigger an automatic ban.

August 24: Contador is informed of the positive test by the UCI.

September 30: Contador’s agent announces the positive clenbuterol test result, apparently in reaction to the knowledge that both German TV station ARD and L’Équipe were about to break the story about both the clenbuterol and plasticizer tests themselves. Contador is provisionally suspended by the UCI. The rider speaks eloquently at a press conference that afternoon, claiming the UCI had assured him this was just a case of food contamination. He suggests is an innocent victim of eating contaminated meat brought over from Spain, and provides expert third party testimony to support that claim. He makes no mention of the plasticizer test, which is only revealed later by ARD and L’Équipe.

November 8: The UCI requests RFEC commences disciplinary action against Contador. RFEC has yet to announce a date for a formal hearing to take place, although they must do so within two days and complete the procedure within a month. Consequently, a decision should be known before the end of the year.

What has changed since September 30?

Despite providing a detailed scenario of how he believed the clenbuterol entered his bloodstream via a contaminated steak, Contador has yet to provide any additional evidence to support his claim. That’s not to say he doesn’t necessarily have any evidence, as he may have elected to quietly build a solid defence in preparation for the inevitable hearing. However, because no compelling evidence has been presented publicly since that September press conference, it is reasonable to assume there is no irrefutable proof to support Contador’s hypothesis.

There is no legal way clenbuterol could have entered the food chain in the way Contador claims – and even the possibility of its illegal addition to livestock is remote. The European Union banned the use of clenbuterol in animals in 1996, and regularly checks farms to enforce this. According to the Associated Press, clenbuterol was found in just one out of 83,203 animal tests conducted in 2008 and 2009 – and none of the 19,431 of the tests which took place in Spain.

There are also enough dissenting expert opinions to cast doubt on the testimony of the rider’s own anti-doping expert, Douwe de Boer. And although Contador has denied the accuracy and relevance of the plasticizer test, no attempt has been made to explain away the result. (As this evidence is inadmissible anyway, there is no point him stoking that particular fire.)

What next?

Contador himself has upped the stakes, threatening to retire from the sport if banned. He told Spanish newspaper El Mundo last month:

I am so disappointed with everything that’s happening that I’m thinking of leaving cycling, regardless of any decision by the UCI.

If found guilty, Contador would be stripped of his 2010 Tour de France win and face a mandatory two-year ban. However, UCI president Pat McQuaid has called for longer bans for doping after several riders had their suspensions reduced for co-operating with investigators. (2009 Giro d’Italia runner-up Danilo Di Luca tested positive for the blood booster CERA during the race, but his suspension was recently cut to 15 months.)

WADA’s anti-doping code already permits four-year bans, and McQuaid has instructed the UCI’s anti-doping investigators to pursue four-year penalties:

I’m increasingly going for four years because two years is very quick. An athlete returns to the peloton very quick. I think it’s unfair to the clean athletes that guys who have cheated in premeditated cheating can come back so quickly.

RFEC has promised to deal with the case with all due haste:

As with immediate effect and in accordance with the sport’s international rules, the RFEC will undertake all the necessary action to cast light on and resolve the questions raised by the positive test of the rider.

What is the likely outcome?

So now we wait. In theory, we should know the results of RFEC’s deliberations by Christmas, but of course there are many possible outcomes, with the distinct possibility of the losing party taking an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which could further extend the process by several months.

However, as summarised on the excellent Inner Ring blog yesterday, the most likely outcomes are as follows:

  1. A straight two-year ban. The usual result in such cases. Likelihood: high.
  2. A reduced ban under the ‘ignorance/innocence’ defence, most likely the result of a credible presentation of the ‘contaminated beef’ defence. It will require more than the unsubstantiated claims we have seen from the Contador camp so far. Likelihood: low.
  3. A managed settlement. Contador agrees to a shortened ban on condition of no appeal, or for co-operating with the authorities, di Luca-style. This would avoid a costly and lengthy legal battle, but would be tantamount to an admission of guilt. Likelihood: very low.
  4. No ban. RFEC refuse to prosecute (very unlikely) or Contador is cleared. The Spanish authorities were often intransigent over Alejandro Valverde‘s involvement with Operación Puerto, but any heel-dragging here is likely to result in a sweeping UCI/WADA response, including potential suspension from all cycling events. Likelihood: very low.
  5. Retirement: Contador is banned, and walks away from cycling altogether. Likelihood: medium.

One way or the other, it is extremely likely that we will not see Alberto Contador line up for at least the 2011 season, and probably longer. Any ban would see him stripped of his 2010 Tour victory, meaning that the ‘winner’ of four of the last five editions of the biggest race in cycling – Floyd Landis in 2006, Contador in 2007, 2009 and 2010 – will have been tainted by doping bans (although Contador’s first two wins would still be allowed to stand).

Whatever circuitous route is now taken by disciplinary and subsequent legal proceedings, it is looking increasingly likely that Andy Schleck will be declared the winner of the 2010 Tour de France. (Schleck himself has repeatedly expressed the hope that Contador is cleared in the wider interests of cycling, although whether this is a magnanimous or misguided wish is subject to opinion.)

Whether the 2010 ‘result’ will be confirmed before we watch the 2011 race remains to be seen. And whatever the outcome, cycling finds its carpet stained with blood once again – and sadly this is one which no amount of cleaning may ever remove.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

17 Responses to The beginning of the end for Contador?

  1. kittyfondue says:

    I read on VeloNews that the Spanish Federation are really glad that they are going to do the investigation and said something to the effect of ‘it’s the outcome we’d been hoping for’, which makes me think that they will go easy on him. Which would then mean an immediate WADA appeal to the Court of Arbitration so I think this is going to run and run.

    • Tim says:

      Isn’t it standard process for the investigation to be done by the national federation? Like you, I do fear there will be a cover-up, although there will be enormous pressure on RFEC to be seen to be doing the right thing. Either way, this one looks likely to end up at CAS, so it will probably get very messy. Just look how long it finally took them to nail Valverde …

      And in the meantime the average sports fan will just switch off from cycling for good (if they hadn’t already done so). It’s all so very sad.

  2. kittyfondue says:

    Yes, it is the national federation (or the country that holds the rider’s licence if it’s different from his nationality) does normally hold the investigation. But I just read this, which just verifies what we’re both afraid of.

    http://www.velonation.com/News/ID/6301/Spanish-federation-president-Castano-gives-his-support-to-Contador-as-disciplinary-proceedings-loom.aspx

    I think WADA the UCI and everyone else in the cycling governing bodies should just say, okay, as of 1 January 2011, anyone caught doping is banned for life. Anything that has happened before, that’s over and done with, but it all stops now. Because, once the test for the plasticizers goes into effect, if they retest from years ago, seriously, how many riders are going to keep their titles?

    • Tim says:

      Oh great. Why couldn’t Castano just keep his big mouth shut? Even if Contador is innocent now, it will just look like a massive Spanish cover-up. Could he not have just trotted out the “innocent until proven guilty” line espoused by the UCI and left it at that? Or is it asking too much of people in positions of responsibility to think about the implications of what they say first?

      I’m certainly in favour of extending the bans. Two years (or as little as 12-15 months with mitigation) simply isn’t enough. I would make the starting point four years as McQuaid advocates, and allow for a degree of leniency in extenuating circumstances, but the decision on the length of the ban should be made by the UCI and not the national federations. And in an ideal world, wouldn’t it be lovely if all cases were heard by an independent global panel rather than by a national federation out to protect its own?

      Sigh. I’m depressed now.

      • kittyfondue says:

        Don’t be depressed, Tim. Well, I can say that but I have that horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach … Not so much about Contador whether he did it or not (my heart was broken long ago by Basso so I kind of take these things on the chin now) but having to actually defend my love of the sport to, well, practically everyone… I actually always change the subject now, which is a shame because I love talking about cycling …

  3. Tim says:

    I know what you mean. So many of my otherwise sports-mad friends turn up their noses at cycling, trotting out the usual line that “they’re all on drugs, aren’t they?” I can’t say I really blame them in all honesty, although I will defend the efforts cycling has made compared to virtually every other sport until they start to glaze over – usually about six seconds.

    And yet many of them are quite happy to marvel at athletics, despite that sport’s distinctly murky past (and present, if truth be told). Just look at the women’s record books if you want to see how corrupt track & field was in the 80s (as I pointed out in a completely separate post a couple of months ago).

    Anyhow, I’m braced for the worst, because there just is no way this story ends well, is there? I’ll be glad when 2011 rolls round and I can look forward to the Tour Down Under and the Tour de Langkawi (I mean, seriously, what kind of a name for a race is that? And I say this as someone who is Malaysian by parentage.)

  4. kittyfondue says:

    Funny that – it takes about six seconds for my friends’ eyes to glaze over too! And I agree about athletics … I can’t believe it’s any cleaner than cycling.

    Next year, I’m looking forward to the Classics. Cancellara is saying he’s going for Liege-Bastonne-Liege and therefore probably won’t be defending his Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders titles. Disappointed about that, but at least I won’t be conflicted during Paris-Roubais – I can cheer Thor on without hesitation. 🙂

  5. tophatal says:

    Tim

    Who really takes this sport seriously anymore ? UCI and L’Equipe for the last decade plus have watched the sport become oh “so tainted” and now they want to show that they have a sense of decency and morality ? As I said the best thing that can happen is for the sport to be thrown out of the Olympics until they truly show that they have their house in order !

    tophatal 🙂

    • Tim says:

      You’ve said this already. It’s simply not a practical solution (or, to my eye, a reasonable one). Restrict Olympic participation to only those sports that “have their house in order” and you will have a quadrennial event also missing track and field, weightlifting, tennis and indeed the majority of Olympic sports.

      Also, I think you’re being fairly insulting to an awful lot of people – primarily in Europe and Australia, rather than the US – who take the sport VERY seriously. There is no more reason to throw cycling out of the Olympics than there is to ban athletics (or to shut down Major League Baseball or the NFL, both of which have been historically pretty lax about their substance abuse policies).

      Neither is going to happen, and it would do nothing to clean up either sport. The Olympics has never been anything more than a sideshow in cycling. The cheats would still dope at the Tour, the Giro, the Vuelta and the Classics – which is where all the money is anyway. And you would end up punishing all the clean riders (of which there are many).

      It is far better, surely, to continue to fund and develop the various anti-doping procedures, and to mete out quick and increasingly punitive punishments for those who are caught (two years isn’t enough, in my view), to the benefit of those who do ride clean. Better still, take punishment out of the hands of the national associations who are driven by politics and national self-interest. The Spanish Cycling Federation already sound as if they are going to side with Alberto Contador, but it’s not just cycling or the Spanish where the problem lies. The USADA shortened LaShawn Merritt’s ban to 21 months. I know there were mitigating circumstance in that case, but isn’t it convenient that the reduction allows him to compete at next year’s World Championships?

  6. txtmstrjoe says:

    “Depressing” is all I can say about all this.

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