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

Contador at the 2010 Tour de France (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Although it had not been officially announced, it was already being widely reported last night that the Spanish cycling federation RFEC has notified three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador of their decision to hand him a 12-month ban after his positive test for trace amounts of the banned drug clenbuterol at July’s Tour.

However, this is likely to be only the first step in a protracted legal wrangle which is unlikely to be resolved before the 2011 Tour kicks off.

If upheld – Contador has ten days to lodge an appeal – it means the 28-year old would be stripped of his 2010 Tour win, making him only the second winner of cycling’s biggest race to lose his title for a doping offence (after the recently retired Floyd Landis in 2006).

The official verdict is expected to be announced some time between the 10th and 15th of February.

Why only one year?

A positive test would normally carry a mandatory two-year ban, but RFEC appears to be taking the case of Alessandro Colò as precedent for a shorter sanction. The Italian cyclist also tested positive for clenbuterol at last April’s Tour of Mexico, but had his punishment halved by the Italian Olympic Committee because of the high occurrence of the drug in cattle in the region.

Also last year the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) accepted the explanation of American swimmer Jessica Hardy that a similar trace-positive for clenbuterol was the result of inadvertently taking a contaminated food supplement, refusing the World Anti-Doping Agency‘s (WADA) request to extend her ban from one to two years. And 2009 Giro d’Italia runner-up Danilo di Luca had his ban for CERA mitigated to 15 months after “co-operating with the authorities”.

Contador’s defence is that he unknowingly ingested the banned substance via meat which was brought to the Tour from Spain. Use of the drug in cattle which will be used for human consumption is illegal in the EU, and Contador has never provided any substantive evidence to support his claim.

There is also the evidence of a separate test carried out on another sample he provided, which showed the presence of plasticisers commonly used in transfusion bags, pointing to the possibility of blood doping – which is also illegal – which provides an alternative explanation for the one-off appearance of a trace amount of the drug in Contador’s sample. However, this test is not ratified for use by WADA, and consequently the evidence is not admissible as part of the disciplinary process. Nonetheless, it is interesting data – and somewhat less anecdotal than Contador’s protestation of innocence.

When will the ban start?

An apparently small but important detail which could shape the legal landscape for the next few months will be the date from which Contador’s one-year ban is applied.

Contador’s offending sample was given on July 21st, and to the best of my knowledge he was notified of the positive result on August 24th (although some reports put it as early as the 23rd or as late as September 30th). In any of these cases, a 12-month ban would render him ineligible to compete in the 2011 Tour de France, but depending on the ban’s start date, he might be able to compete in this year’s Vuelta a España – a race he won in 2008 – which starts on August 20th.

My understanding is that there is no precedent for starting the ban from July 21st, but if it is applied from the August date and – hypothetically speaking – reduced from 12 months to, say, 12 months minus one week, that would pave the way for him to participate in the Vuelta. Short of his ban being overturned – a process which will drag on into the summer anyway, during which he will remain suspended – this is probably the best-case scenario for Contador.

The long and winding road begins here

Contador is currently attending his Saxo Bank-Sungard team’s training camp in Majorca. He and team boss Bjarne Riis are scheduled to hold a press conference tomorrow afternoon, at which his next move should become clearer. He has previously threatened to retire if banned – this seems unlikely – but there is a strong possibility he will lodge an appeal with CAS, setting in motion a process which normally takes at least six months to resolve.

Equally, there is a possibility that either WADA or cycling’s governing body, the UCI, will seek CAS’s intervention to lengthen the ban. I suspect this is unlikely. There is both enough doubt (in a legal sense) and enough precedent to suggest they would be pushing water uphill in seeking a longer suspension.

My view

Putting the legalities of (a) what is and isn’t admissible as evidence and (b) what is proof and what is merely circumstantial supposition to one side for a moment, here is my opinion. No new facts, no deep insight – just my interpretation of the sometimes garbled evidence which is available in the public domain.

Even though he will be labelled simplistically as yet another doper by a lazy mainstream press, Contador’s ban is merely for the presence of clenbuterol in his system. There is no definitive judgement about whether the drug was ingested deliberately or not. Ignorance alone as a defence may lead to mitigation but not exoneration. In that sense alone, Contador is ‘guilty’.

However, while Contador’s contaminated beef story is plausible, in the absence of hard evidence it is little more than a fairly tale. It is a possible explanation, but it is also both unlikely and unconvincing.

What seems more likely is that Contador, who was at that point in the Tour below his best and locked in a close battle with Andy Schleck for the yellow jersey, received a transfusion of his own blood provided earlier in the season to boost his performance in the tough Pyrenees stages which followed. That transfusion still contained a trace amount of clenbuterol – which could have been used for muscle-building and fat reduction in training – which had not yet fully decayed. And the concentration level at which it was found in the Cologne lab was much lower than other labs are able to detect, something he would not have been aware of.

Let us not also forget that Contador was also under suspicion in Operación Puerto – the scandal which engulfed Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, among others – although he was quickly cleared by the Spanish authorities. I make no judgement one way or the other on that one.

All the above is an extrapolation of the evidence we already know about. There have been strong arguments for and against that theory for the past few months, but that is what I believe occurred. In a legal sense, Alberto Contador is guilty of ignorance but under strong suspicion of being a more complicit accomplice in a systematic attempt to gain an unfair performance advantage. In my mind, you can forget about all the legal qualifiers: he is just plain guilty.

I genuinely hope I am wrong – cycling needs another major doping scandal like I need to amputate a toe. However, I strongly suspect I am not.

Whatever happens, do not expect the story to end with a simple acceptance of the suspension by Contador. I have previously wondered whether this case might prove to be the beginning of the end for Contador. In reality, we now stand at the end of the beginning of a long and winding road. Who knows where it will ultimately take us?

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?

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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

Related Articles

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

Alberto Contador

Following the news of his provisional suspension after tests on a urine sample taken at July’s Tour de France had revealed minuscule traces of the banned drug clenbuterol, three-time Tour champion Alberto Contador has presented his side of the story in a press conference in his home town of Pinto this afternoon, claiming the positive test – which carries a potential suspension of up to two years – came as a result of eating contaminated meat before providing the sample.

Contador lays out his defence

The Spaniard, who was informed of the test result by the UCI late last month, referred to the decision to suspend him as an error and called for changes to the testing system, claiming:

The UCI itself affirmed in front of me that it was a case of food contamination.

This is a genuine mistake. I think it will be resolved in a clear way, with the truth up front. [The UCI] understands that is a special case, which has to be examined.

I’ve spent a month and half keeping this inside, without sleeping. My family didn’t find out until last night.

This is a real error. The system is very questionable and it has to be changed. I cannot tolerate the idea of a possible sanction.

Contador explained that he must have inadvertently consumed a tiny amount of clenbuterol in meat he had eaten both the day before and the day of the control. Fellow Astana teammates who had also eaten the meat were not tested along with Contador; Alexandre Vinokourov was, but had not eaten the alleged contaminated meat.

He went on to suggest that the infinitesimal amount of clenbuterol found in his sample could not have been injected deliberately, and that such a small dose could not have affected his performance anyway:

It’s actually impossible to take such a small amount. The administration of it is just not possible. So this points again to food contamination. Moreover, regarding performance, this amount is totally insufficient and doesn’t serve anything.

Millar backs Contador

British rider David Millar, who earlier today finished as runner-up to Fabian Cancellara in the men’s time trial race at the World Championships, leapt to Contador’s support. Millar understands the situation better than most, having previously been banned for using the blood booster EPO and subsequently returned to the sport as one of the most vocal proponents of the anti-doping movement. He said:

I think there’s a very strong chance that this is being blown way out of proportion because it’s a microdose and it was on a rest day and it makes no sense. It makes no sense because it would have come up in other controls.

He also questioned the wisdom of the UCI going public at this point with an as yet unresolved case:

It’s a shame that it’s been released when it hasn’t been resolved. I think it’s something that should be resolved behind closed doors and done the way it should be done properly.

There are strict rules and I think unfortunately in cycling for the right reasons we always jump to the worst-case scenario and because of the history we have in the sport unfortunately maybe Alberto’s just maybe been kind of thrown to the sharks.

I think it will get resolved and I hope so for Alberto’s benefit and I hope so for the sport’s benefit.

Previous clenbuterol cases – and the ‘Gasquet defence’

Contador’s food contamination defence is a plausible one with a number of historical precedents. Chinese cyclist Fuyu Li was provisionally suspended in April after testing positive for a similarly minute level of clenbuterol. Dutch anti-doping expert Douwe de Boer subsequently stated that the amount found in his body points “clearly in the direction of a contamination” and that such a low dose would not help his performance.

American swimmer Jessica Hardy was given a one-year suspension after a positive clenbuterol test in July 2008, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport later accepted her claim that she had ingested it in a contaminated food supplement. And French tennis player Richard Gasquet escaped sanction after successfully – and uniquely – claiming that a positive test for cocaine came as a result of a kiss in a nightclub.

Are the UCI too trigger-happy?

The issue facing cycling and the UCI is how to strike the right balance between transparency and hysteria. The authorities are keen to display their openness and vigour in pursuing doping cheats, but in cases such as these there is a danger of throwing the innocent on to the less than tender mercies of an eager media who will happily trumpet – in the most black-and-white terms – the latest scandal to engulf the sport, without considering the validity of a rider’s defence or the incomplete nature of any scientific analysis.

It is a major problem for the sport which periodically threatens to tear it asunder. The UCI knows that cycling has a bad reputation among the wider sporting public and is desperate to be perceived as taking a hard line on cheats. But at the same time, if the UCI adopts a premature, trigger-happy approach which makes much ado about the tiniest of test results – which is what, to my eye, appears to be happening here – they run the risk of shooting themselves in the foot. If they consistently choose to light the blue touch paper, they cannot complain when ultimately innocent cases explode in their faces.

As Lance Armstrong will attest, throw enough mud often enough and some of it will inevitably stick. There are enough people out there already willing to do just that without the UCI offering them further ammunition.

Ezequiel Mosquera

UCI confirms positive tests for Mosquera and David Garcia Da Peña

As reported on Spanish radio this morning, the UCI have now confirmed that Vuelta a España runner-up Ezequiel Mosquera and David Garcia Da Peña, both of the Xacobeo Galicia team, tested positive during the Vuelta for hydroxyethyl starch, which increases blood volume, allowing red blood cells to deliver oxygen more efficiently. Both riders have requested testing of their B samples.

The 34-year old Mosquera signed a lucrative two-year deal with the Dutch Vacansoleil team earlier this month. His performance at the Vuelta was a huge publicity boost for the Xacobeo team, which is desperately trying to raise sufficient funds to continue next year. Today’s news will be a terrible blow to the team’s future prospects, although the convenient – deliberate? – timing of its release in the aftermath of the Contador suspension will likely minimise the collateral PR damage the team will suffer.

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