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Contador makes aggressive first move in response to proposed ban

Alberto Contador‘s record as a five-time Grand Tour winner was built on an ability to attack his opponents aggressively and with devastating effect. So we should not have been surprised that he chose to adopt a similar front-foot stance in his first press conference 48 hours after it was revealed that the Spanish national cycling federation RFEC was proposing to apply a one-year ban for his trace-positive test for clenbuterol at last July’s Tour de France.

The Spaniard spoke eloquently about how he maintains he is innocent and is indeed both the wronged party and a pawn in a political game of chess between the various sporting and anti-doping power-brokers.

He also announced that he intends to appeal against the proposed suspension which, if upheld, would result in him being stripped of the 2010 Tour de France title:

It’s not a question of money, or a race. It’s a question of honour. I have to defend my innocence.

Contador’s side of the story

Below I have reproduced the key quotes from Contador’s press conference, which was held at a hotel at his Saxo Bank-Sungard team’s training camp in Mallorca, with my thoughts and commentary added. I should stress that these are my opinions based on my interpretation of what facts have been made publicly known. I have neither additional knowledge nor any kind of personal agenda against Contador – however, I simply do not believe his side of the story because of the lack of compelling evidence (or indeed any evidence) in his favour.

You have to remember that this is just a proposal and I will work as hard as I can to change it. But if that does not happen I’ll appeal wherever I need to to defend my innocence to the end.

I have never doped myself, never. I can say that loud and clear with my head held high. I consider myself as an example of a clean sportsman. I find it, therefore, very difficult to handle the things that are said about me.

Very well put, but this is no more than you would expect anyone in his position to say. Whether you believe he is innocent or guilty, these are just platitudes which should not change your opinion one way or the other.

The only mistake I have made is to have a piece of meat that I had not analysed before to check it had clenbuterol.

Something may have been lost in translation here, but this sounds like a bit of a dig, along the lines of “you can’t expect me to check every possibility, can you?” I have some sympathy for this. However, the rules are very clear, and that is why all professional teams have their own chefs and support staff whose job it is to ensure the riders’ dietary requirements are met in a way which does not expose them to potentially tainted food. To deviate from the norm – as Contador’s story of eating beef brought over from Spain by a friend – smacks of irresponsibility. With irresponsibility comes culpability, and Contador’s claimed ignorance is grounds for potential mitigation but not exoneration. Such levels of rigour and paranoia are a fact of life in all top-level sports. Just ask any athlete about the precautions they have to take before they even buy something as simple as an over-the-counter cold remedy.

I have given everything to this sport. It’s my life and I have given so much to it.

Yes, Alberto. You compete out of a sense of aestheticism and altruism. You have given so much to the sport, and not taken a cent from it in earnings and winnings. Give me a break. You are a professional sportsman. I’m sure you enjoy the thrill of victory for its own sake, but don’t pretend that you haven’t taken as much from the sport as it has benefitted from your undoubted talent.

I have had 500 anti-doping controls in my career, many of which were surprise controls. I have had to leave birthday parties, get out of a cinema midway through a film, leave family and friends in restaurants to do these controls and all because I believed in the anti-doping system.

I agree that this is far from convenient, and cycling really should make every attempt to limit the intrusions it makes into cyclists’ private lives. (Instead, we get ideas like middle-of-the-night testing during races.) But it is a fact of life. Part of the price of eternal vigilance is the occasional inconvenience. You are not alone in that respect – just compare notes with Lance Armstrong – and others have suffered more than you through not being available for testing at the specified time. Christine Ohuruogu can testify to that.

I feel like a victim of a system that doesn’t allow you to defend yourself and that allows false positives to be punished as if they were cheaters.

False positive? Hardly. It was a trace-positive of clenbuterol that was identified in your sample – something you have not even disputed, rather attempted to explain away with a story of imported, contaminated beef which you have failed to back up with any substantive evidence whatsoever. We live in modern times, where by law meat has to be tracked through the supply chain. You have had nearly five months to trace the meat back from the butcher it was purchased from, and from there all the way back to its original farm source. So why haven’t you?

It’s incredible and embarrassing all the things that have happened these past few months. It’s been like a public lynching, a political fight, a war between the UCI and WADA. It has left me disillusioned and embittered.

The UCI and WADA certainly do not always see eye to eye over the policing of anti-doping procedures, and there is undoubtedly an element of political gamesmanship at play here. But that has nothing to do with the facts of the case. You have a positive test result, and you have done nothing to disprove it other than giving your word that it was an innocent error.

I note also that you did not comment on the results of the plasticiser test which pointed towards possible blood doping. In fairness, that test has been neither vetted nor approved for use, and the test results therefore have no bearing on the outcome of your case, so I can understand why you choose to ignore it. But it does look suspicious, no?

Contador also firmly stated that he would not retire if banned, as he had previously threatened to do:

A few times over these past few months I was at the point of exploding, of crashing down, I simply couldn’t take it any more. Now I have changed my mind, a lot of time has passed, my emotions have tempered.

That is fair enough. I’m not sure anyone ever took that threat that seriously anyway, as it was clearly both an emotional response and one aimed squarely at the authorities to consider the implications of any action they might take.

What has everyone else said?

Neither the UCI nor WADA have passed official comment on the proposed ban so far, and have said they will not do so until a final verdict has been delivered. That seems right and proper.

However, Contador’s position has been supported by former Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov, who himself has previously served a one-year ban for blood doping. He said:

No decision has been taken [yet]. Contador is still the winner of the Tour de France.

And, of course, he was supported to the hilt at the press conference by his new team boss, Bjarne Riis:

My team will continue to support Alberto as long as the final ruling is not anything else than a case of intake by accident. It is extremely important to distinguish from those who try to cheat on purpose and those who take something by accident. It is those cheaters who we want to fight.

He added:

As far as I am informed right now, everything points to accidental contamination.

Oh, really? Everything in Contador’s story certainly points to accidental contamination. I’m not sure about all the other evidence, whether real or circumstantial. And Riis’s words will always have a slightly hollow ring to them, coming as they do from a man who won the 1996 Tour de France and admitted 11 years later that he had doped.

In reality, Riis has no option but to stand by his rider, having signed him to a €3m per year contract through to the end of 2012 only last summer. Without Contador, he will face pressure from the sponsors who signed on in the expectation of having their name plastered across the jersey of the world’s best stage race rider. Without Contador, he will likely enter the Tour de France with young Australian Richie Porte as his primary general classification rider.

Riis has muttered about having plans for the season both with and without Contador. Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport has linked him with a move for Geox‘s Denis Menchov. The Russian, who finished third at last year’s Tour, will currently not be able to ride in this year’s edition after Geox failed to secure a wild-card invite last week. However, he has a two-year contract with the team which would need to be bought out.

What happens now?

Contador now has until February 9th to answer the RFEC proposal, after which a definitive decision should be issued within a week. If the proposed ban is enacted, it will also result in his disqualification from the 2010 Tour, which would then be awarded to runner-up Andy Schleck.

He then has 30 days to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) should he want to – which he has indicated would be likely. Similarly, either WADA or the UCI could lodge an appeal to ask for any ban to be lengthened.

There has also been no mention yet of any proposed fine to be levied alongside the ban. Contador could conceivably be fined as much as 70% of his salary if he is banned for more than 12 months. Not to mention he would presumably be asked to repay his winnings from last year’s Tour. The winner’s purse alone was €450,000 which, although the winner traditionally gives this to his teammates, would have to be repaid out of Contador’s pocket.

There is more than Contador’s innocence at stake – there is also his bank balance.

Of course, while the best case scenario for Contador would be to have his ban overturned, the process of taking it to CAS would almost certainly not be completed until after the 2011 Tour, during which time he would still be suspended.

And there is always the danger that his ban might be extended, something which RFEC president Juan Carlos Castaño has warned against:

If Contador appeals to CAS, I see it as very difficult that the case won’t become more complicated, including even making it worse.

The standard ban for a first doping offence is two years, although this has been mitigated in a number of cases. If Contador were to lose an appeal, a two-year ban would become a very real possibility, with all the sporting and commercial consequences that would bring for him.

Appealing to CAS represents a high-risk strategy. An alternative solution would be to negotiate a compromise which allows him to serve a nominal 12-month ban but still compete in 2011. The Spanish newspaper El Diario Montañés has claimed that Contador’s legal team will ask for the ban to be applied from July 25th last year, the date on which he last competed, rather than the more customary date on which he was notified of the positive test, August 24th. Bringing forward the date to July would enable him to compete in this year’s Vuelta a España, which starts on August 20th.

Does anyone smell a rat?

In his press conference, Contador made worrying accusations about the way in which the news of the proposed ban had been made public:

As you all know, the day before yesterday I received the proposed ban of a possible one-year ban, but it’s an absolute disgrace that after waiting all these months that I learned about it from the media rather than from the appropriate authorities.

It is shameful that it was leaked to the press before I was told officially.

If true, he is absolutely right that it is an appalling way to do things. Even though the official announcement was not expected until Thursday, by Wednesday evening the news was already flying around the news wires, having been clearly leaked. For the media to learn of the outcome before the athlete is no way to handle such a matter.

He also reiterated his anger that he could be banned for having such a tiny and insignificant amount of clenbuterol in his system:

Those responsible for the anti-doping system have to rethink things. There’s an anti-doping regulation [which states that any amount of clenbuterol detected is a positive] which is completely obsolete.

The amount of clenbuterol found in my system could have had no effect on my performance and is physically impossible to take intentionally. In no way did it help me win the Tour de France.

His point about there being negligible performance benefit is likely true given the minute concentration in which the blood was detected in his sample. From a layman’s perspective, it would make sense to have a lower threshold below which any ‘accidental’ ingestion would confer no physical advantage. However, the rule is what it is, and expressions about crying over spilt milk spring to mind.

Where now?

As I suggested in my previous post, there is a distinct possibility that we are at the beginning of a long and winding road of legal and scientific disputes, which will likely drag on until the summer – effectively meaning the 2011 Tour de France will start before the 2010 winner has been finally confirmed.

Yet again, cycling will find itself dragged through the mud at a time when its reputation among casual and would-be fans is already at an all-time low.

Is a year’s ban enough of a deterrent? Not really. But as I have said previously, there is already enough precedent to suggest that 12 months is the going rate for a clenbuterol trace-positive. I don’t like that – I would much rather it was at least two years – but I also think there should be a minimum threshold concentration so that all future cases are simply black or white, with no grey area in between for obfuscation. In reality, a year is all the UCI and WADA can reasonably expect. I don’t like that, but we live in a pragmatic world.

None of that, however, is the concern of Alberto Contador. If he is innocent, then he must fight to save his reputation. And if guilty, he must at least fight to preserve his career and his commercial interests. The fact he has the wriggle room to mount a legal challenge is not his fault. That is solely the fault of the rule-makers in the wider sport.

In the midst of a sea of argument and counter-argument, the truth will only become further muddied. As I have stated before, I am not inclined to believe Contador’s story, because it remains a fairy tale with about as much basis in fact as the tooth fairy, and because of the (admittedly less than robust) evidence of the plasticiser test.

As a lover of the sport, I really do want to believe that Contador is innocent. However, I cannot. But equally I will defend his right to defend himself to the fullest extent the process will allow, even if that damages the sport in the eyes of many. Let battle commence.

My previous posts on the ‘Conta-dope’ scandal

Conta-dope suspension adds another chapter to Tour’s tale of woe

Is Contador’s doping suspension much ado about (almost) nothing?

Experts suggest Contador’s ‘contaminated beef’ defence may be a load of bull

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

The beginning of the end for Contador?

Contador’s one-year ban just the start of a long, winding road

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

11 Responses to Contador makes aggressive first move in response to proposed ban

  1. txtmstrjoe says:

    The whole thing has me shaking my head and questioning so much about the sport. It’s a bit like the so-called “steroid era” in baseball in a sense, in that fans are forced to assume just for the sake of convenience that everybody participating in the sport is guilty of cheating. Past champions, present champions… who is clean, who was clean, who weren’t?

    Woe be it if sports in general were reduced to a game of “who cheats best” equals who wins the trophy.

    I’m with you regarding Contador: As far as the big picture goes, I wish Contador (and Lance Armstrong, and every other champion from the last two or so decades maybe) was completely innocent of cheating of any kind. But given even just the hints of evidence, whether it’s circumstantial or stronger, dampens my enthusiasm for the sport. And that is the biggest and most odious consequence of all this.

    I want to believe Contador is innocent, but sadly, in my heart of hearts, I can’t find him so.

    • Tim says:

      Indeed, Joe. I actually wonder what will be sadder, if Contador is actually guilty, or if he is actually innocent but hounded into a position of “guilt” by a well-meaning but flawed system *shakes head*

  2. Sheree says:

    Tim

    I watched the press conference and while I was not amazed at the outcome I was surprised by Alberto’s rightous indignation. Either he’ s got a great future in Pedro Aldomovar movies or he’s feeling genuinely
    agrieved.

    The results of the plasticizer test appear to have muddied the water and swayed opinion. I appreciate it supports the theory that Contador blood-doped on the second rest day and there were minute traces of clenbuterol in that blood. However, by the 3rd week of the Tour many of the riders are suffering from dehydration and the plasticizers may have ended up in his sample as a result of intravenous rehydration.

    • Tim says:

      Having only read transcripts, I think Alberto’s indignation came across loud and clear. His words were impressive (if slightly liberal with some of the facts), and reminded me of his initial press conference after the suspension was made public in September, where he was similarly eloquent.

      You make a very good point about IV rehydration being a possible explanation, which is something I hadn’t considered before. Do they use the same sort of bags for rehydration drips as for blood? I don’t know.

      If so, I would accept it is a very credible explanation, but then my question – well, two questions – would be (a) why hasn’t the Contador camp suggested that themselves and (b) would it show up in lots of riders’ samples if the test was ratified and used?

      Indeed, I find myself wondering why an unapproved and inadmissible plasticiser test was carried out in the first place. Was it ordered after the clenbuterol test by someone with a possible agenda against Alberto, to strengthen public opinion against him, even though they knew it was inadmissible in any formal hearing?

      The frustration for me is that we appear to be no closer to “proving” anything one way or the other than we were in September. Instead, we have argument and counter-argument being fought out in the court of public opinion.

      The thing that has the alarm bells ringing in my head with respect to my opinion on Alberto is the fact that he has yet to offer even a shred of proof in his defence. An elaborate but consistent story blaming contaminated steak – surely traceable, as it came from within the EU? – does not constitute evidence. Nor does complaining about the inconvenience of being a top-level athlete, or pointing the finger at dark political conspiracies. (The latter argument hardly did Richard Keys any good this week …) There comes a point where sympathy for the accused ends, and it just starts to look like hollow excuses, and I think Alberto skirted dangerously close to that precipice yesterday, even though much of what he said was very well put.

      Sigh. I’m going to bury my head in the sand for the next two weeks and wait for some actual racing to come on …

      • Sheree says:

        Luckily we only have to wait a week for the Tour of Qatar. Sunshine, sand and, one of most girls’ favourite riders, Tom Boonen. It’ll be particularly poignant as we were deprived of seeing said rider for a disproportionately long period last season. Though, to be honest, I may catch sight of him out training in the early part of this week, providing he’s back in Monaco, before flying to Qatar. If not, I’ll have to wait until the two weeks before Tirreno Adriatico.

        You have to bear in mind that the doping tests were conducted in a German lab. The Germans have tried to eradicate cycling from their collective memory. Jan who? You can barely find any books on the topic in mainstream German bookshops and precious little coverage on the television.

        If I were Contador I would make no reference to the tests. They are not relevant, should not have been undertaken and, if they were, the results should not have been made public. And, yes I believe the bags are made of the same stuff.

        We really need access to the mountains of paper generated by each side in order to really understand what’s at stake. Sadly, we’re not going to get this. Instead, we have to rely on what’s reported. My experience of dealing with journalists means I only believe around 5% of what they write unless I have actually witnessed it for myself. This cynicism is based on personal experience of two high profile cases: Cherie-gate and the Erotic Gherkin.

        I forgot to say, great summary.

  3. Tim says:

    I’ll be interested to see how Boonen goes in the early season. Do you know what his priorities are this season? (I’m sure I’ve read it somewhere, but my memory is positively sieve-like, particularly around Christmas!)

    Fair point about the lab being German. I did wonder whether it was better for Alberto to say something or nothing about the plasticiser test. I guess the traditional PR strategy is not to fan the flames of a fire you don’t want to attract people’s attention to, but at the same time if there was a straightforward rebuttal to be made, that might have been better than to leave a vacuum for people to fill with speculation. I guess that’s the problem with the PR game, though – you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

    Also a very good point about the limited access to full information (which, of course, we will never see – nor should we) and not trusting journalists unequivocally. It amuses me how often journos twist stories to fit their own agenda (or to justify what they have previously written). And on top of that, is particularly clear that (a) most cycling journalists are anything but knowledgeable about doping and (b) most football journos know nothing about the business and finance of football.

    Bring on Qatar, I say!

  4. Riis: “My team will continue to support Alberto as long as the final ruling is not anything else than a case of intake by accident.”

    Hmmm, that’s interesting. So Contador will lose his team if he’s found guilty, then? This could be a complete disaster for Riis and his team.

    • Tim says:

      Indeed. The one-year proposal does suggest some acceptance of Contador’s explanation, though. So, innocent and ignorant rather than guilty and knowing?

  5. Pingback: Is Contador about to be cleared? Show me the evidence, please « The armchair sports fan

  6. Pingback: No surprise as UCI lodges CAS appeal in Contador case « The armchair sports fan

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