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Is Contador about to be cleared? Show me the evidence, please

It is no surprise that news of the Spanish cycling federation RFEC‘s final verdict in the Alberto Contador case has leaked out in advance of the official announcement (which is expected tomorrow). I suspect it will not be a shock to many if, as Spain’s El País newspaper is reporting, the rumour that he has been completely exonerated of all doping charges turns out to be accurate.

It’s not easy being a cycling fan. I hold the sport close to my heart, while also bearing a jaded cynicism about its more unsavoury practices. Since the details surrounding Contador’s positive test for clenbuterol at last July’s Tour de France were revealed, I have believed him to be guilty while simultaneously hoping that he is innocent and able to prove it beyond a shadow of doubt.

Now, it would appear, RFEC is happy that Contador has proven his innocence. But has he really?

What is the truth?

I have listened to the arguments on both sides. Contador has always claimed his trace-positive result was no more than a consequence of eating contaminated beef. Such is the way the anti-doping procedure works that it has been entirely up to him to prove his innocence. This he has singularly failed to do. He may be innocent, but to the best of our current knowledge, he has provided no actual evidence other than his word as an honest and honourable man.

The case for the prosecution has hardly been watertight either. The concentration of clenbuterol found in Contador’s sample was tiny, and unlikely to have had any impact on his performance – although it could have been used profitably during pre-Tour training (to reduce body fat) and then unknowingly returned to the rider’s bloodstream via an illegal transfusion during the race. But the rules state that any concentration, no matter how small, must be considered a positive test.

There is also the positive plasticiser test which supports the blood doping hypothesis. But this test has not been ratified for use and the results are therefore inadmissible. This is fair enough.

One could argue – with not inconsiderable justification – that the ‘any concentration’ rule is hopelessly inflexible and as likely to catch riders for inadvertent contamination as systematic doping. But that it is not really within RFEC’s purview here. They are supposed to judge the case on the evidence they are presented with, not make up the rules as they go along or ignore ones that are harsh or inconsistent at their convenience. Rules are rules.

So, what has changed?

What we do know is that their initial recommendation was for a one-year ban – the standard punishment for a first offender is two years – but that there is some precedent for this to be mitigated in cases where there is a likelihood of accidental contamination. However there is, to the best of my knowledge, no precedent for a suspension to be completely overturned.

(There was a German table tennis player, Dmitrij Ovtcharov, who tested positive and claimed he ate contaminated meat and subsequently escaped sanction. However, Ovtcharov was competing in China, where clenbuterol use is high, and he reportedly also provided a hair sample which supported his defence – something Contador has not done.)

We should not pre-judge. It is possible that Contador’s defence team have unearthed some new evidence in their favour, perhaps tracing the consumed meat back to its original, contaminated source of supply. If so, then his exoneration would, of course, be correct. But any such evidence would have to be convincing rather than circumstantial. And then one has to wonder why it has taken so long to be produced. In the EU, at least, all meat for human consumption should be easily traceable back to its source.

On the other hand, if RFEC have determined simply that they ‘believe’ Contador, then that faint smell you can detect is the odour of a carefully stage-managed cover-up.

Turkeys voting for Christmas?

There is something of a nonsense here about asking a national federation to render a verdict in cases such as this, not least because different countries take very different views when it comes to punishing dopers, depending on various political agendas. Some federations take such decisions extremely seriously. Others – and there is already a deep history of Spanish authorities doing this – it is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. The sense of whitewash isn’t helped when the country’s Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, speaks openly in favour of Contador, saying: “There is no legal reason to sanction Contador.” (As if he’s an expert!)

Why can’t these decisions be taken by an independent body for each sport, funded by the teams and the national federations themselves, say? After all, this case is inevitably going to end up at the independent Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Anyway, it now appears as if Contador will be exonerated. In that event, you can be sure that the UCI and WADA will take an appeal to CAS, which they must do within 30 days. In the meantime, Contador would not only retain his 2010 Tour de France win, but would also be free to race – the Tour of Algarve starts on Wednesday – and continue his preparations for this year’s Tour. Not only that, there would be a greater onus on the UCI to demonstrate some degree of incorrect decision-making, process or bias on RFEC’s part to get the ban reinstated.

In the meantime, of course, the ultimate loser would be the sport of cycling. And also the fans of the sport who feel short-changed by the leniency of various governing bodies, and are growing weary of the snide remarks they constantly receive from fans of other supposedly morally superior sports. But then the concepts of fairness and the wider interests of the sport are not really what a national federation worries about, are they?

The bottom line? Alberto Contador may be innocent. But if he is exonerated, I want to be told about whatever new evidence has been produced to clear him. I think the fans deserve at least that much if we are expected to believe in both the three-time Tour champion and the sport we love so much. I wouldn’t count on it happening, though.

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

Contador makes aggressive first move in response to proposed ban

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

15 Responses to Is Contador about to be cleared? Show me the evidence, please

  1. kittyfondue says:

    I’m rather shocked by this – I thought UCI/WADA had been involved in the original decision and were satisfied with a one-year ban. I think I’m just going to have to go underground with my love of cycling because I don’t know how I’m going to explain this to my sceptical friends…

    • Tim says:

      They had certainly hinted that a one-year ban would probably be acceptable. I will be fascinated to see how much of the rationale behind RFEC’s apparent about-turn will be made public. If they say “we’re convinced when he says it was all an accident”, all hell will break loose – so I expect there to be much legalese and obfuscation about contamination levels, the impracticality of administering such a small micro-dose and so on.

      If there is irrefutable evidence, then I’m happy with that – I have no wish to see a rider banned if he is genuinely innocent – but why has it taken so long? And if there is clear evidence, I expect Contador to be all over the media this week talking about it. If he slopes off quietly to do the Tour of Algarve and says nothing, then I call cover-up.

      I’ll join you in hiding … 😦

      • kittyfondue says:

        I think I would be more comfortable with the whole thing if there hadn’t been the test that showed all those plasticisers (sp?) in his blood. But I’m just worried that this is going to run and run like Valverde – and in four years time, after tons of races have been ridden, they’ll finally ban him for a year. But like you, if there is irrefutable evidence that suddenly came to light, they better be upfront about it because this is kind of hard to believe as it stands…

        Dennis Taylor would never have done this!!

  2. This is just laughable. As you say, doping cases should be handled by a central organisation, not by the national federations. Preferably by one that takes a zero-tolerance approach. This only succeeds in making a laughing stock of the sport, further undermining fans’ belief in both riders and the governing structure.

    If there is no other evidence, I really, really hope the outcome is two years’ ban when all is done and dusted.

  3. Sheree says:

    According to an article in this week end’s L’Equipe, the Spanish authorities have uncovered a meat importation scam in Castille e Leon involving meat from S America. This may (or may not) have some bearing on Contador’s case.

    I agree that further details would be useful.

    • Tim says:

      Interesting – thanks for the steer, Sheree. I’ve not seen any mention of this influencing RFEC’s about-turn – it would be a very convenient and at least credible explanation for doing so – but no doubt we will not be told all the facts when the decision is finally made public. Sigh.

  4. Sheree says:

    According to today’s L’Equipe, Contador’s legal eagles have invoked rule 24.2 of the Spanish Constitution whereby Contador (the accused) has the right to be kept informed about every detail pertaining to the case. Apparantly, the contents of a letter dated 8 November, sent by the UCI to RFEC, had not been disclosed.

    Said letter cited four possible reasons, approved by AMA, for Contador’s clenbuterol positive:-

    1. Ingesting a supplement which contained clenbuterol
    2. Ingesting food contaminated by clenbuterol
    3. Blood transfusion containing contaminated blood
    4. Micro-dosing clenbuterol

    If, as everyone expects, Contador is cleared, UCI and AMA have 30 days from the time they’re advised by RFEC to appeal to TAS. The burden of proof will then rest with UCI and/or AMA. It will be very expensive for them if they appeal and lose.

    Meanwhile, Contador could be riding the Tour of the Algave.

    • Tim says:

      Mumble, grumble. Contador takes the start in Algarve muttering about not being in quite the shape he was in this time last year, as if it’s somehow the UCI’s fault by implication for creating this inconvenient distraction.

      I’m OK with him saying the process is outdated and needs review – I think he’s right – but he should really stop pointing the finger at everyone else and just openly accept that to have eaten meat of uncertain provenance in the way he did is an unacceptably silly risk for any professional athlete to have taken, They all know what the potential consequences are, and too much of what Alberto is saying makes him sound like a petulant child.

      • kittyfondue says:

        Totally agree with this, Tim, in fact, it was one of the few things about this case that made me laugh.

  5. kittyfondue says:

    It’s official. He’s been cleared. Although UCI and WADA reserve the right to take action after looking at the reasoning behind the verdict. I’m really conflicted about this. I sense a cover-up but is it because I’m so cynical because I’m a cycling fan, or am I having reasonable doubts because I’m a cycling fan?

    • Tim says:

      I think both views are equally valid. As cycling fans, I guess we have learned to deal with multiple personality disorders!

      UCI have 30 days after receipt of the full documentation to lodge an appeal. McQuaid said they had already received 35 pages, but suggested they didn’t have everything from RFEC yet. (What? Was it too difficult to send everything in one email?!?)

      Once the 30 days are up, WADA then have a further 21 days in which to file an appeal of their own, apparently.So it could potentially be the middle of April before we know for sure whether we are going to CAS or not. Given that RFEC have effectively said the UCI code of strict liability can be ignored, it’s hard to see the UCI not challenging the ruling – unless there is clear evidence in Contador’s favour which we haven’t yet been made aware of. (Unlikely, given that they would be trumpeting it from the rooftops if they did.)

  6. Sheree says:

    Sadly Kitty we’ll never really know.

  7. Pingback: Contador a free man, but at what cost? « The armchair sports fan

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