Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Si, Si, Alberto: Contador Is Free To Race. Should He Be?

By now, most of you know that the doping charges against Alberto Contator were dismissed today by the Spanish Cycling Federation, clearing him to race, well, tomorrow, in the Volta ao Argarve. Despite the rumblings in the cycling media, this is a startling turn-around by the same agency that "suggested" a one-year ban for Contador's clenbuteral positive. I guess that Alberto didn't like the suggestion and just declined.
I have mixed emotions about the whole affair. I'll outline my conflicts and I'm interested in where others fall on this.
Antidoping enforcement in cycling has a long-established precedent of punishing athletes found to have banned substances in their bodies, no matter the level, the benefit, or the rider's intent. Athletes have received reduced penalties when they proved that the doping positive was due to food or supplement contamination, but ignorance/innocence was irrelevant to the case of their ultimate responsibility of the presence of the banned substance.
Then comes Alberto Contador, three time Tour champion, etc., etc., not the warmest character in the pack, but widely seen as a clean rider representing a new generation of champions. That reputation was pretty much intact in spite of his presence on the tainted Liberty Seguras team, his long association with Manilo Saiz, then the Astana-Wurth team that withdrew from the Tour because most of their riders were implicated in the Puerto doping scandal. Contador was cleared, but he has been in a culture of doping for most of his career and has become the top rider in the world, yet most cycling fans were shocked when he tested positive. Then we were confused. We were confused by the tiny amount of a drug that none of us had heard of, but that has real performance-enhancing capability. The fact that the positive test was preceded by negative tests seem to prove that at no time in the recent past did Contador take a beneficial level of the drug, so the only rational explanations that I've heard are:

1- Food contamination: highly unlikely, but possible. And how bad would it suck to be absolutely clean and be stripped of a Tour de France win, banned from the sport of which you are the current and reigning king? It would be a huge injustice, just as it has been for others who have endured bans for unknowingly ingesting a banned substance.
2- Rest day blood transfusion: In light of the state of the sport, much more likely than the lightening strike odds of the steak comtaminaton, but not provable. In spite of the talk of evidence of plasticizers as used in blood bags, there is no definitive means of tying all of that into any kind of a charge on its own. Though it would be interesting to see his pre- and post-rest day blood values evaluated, I'm sure that with the biological passport business, all of his numbers were in line or we would have heard about it.

So, in a culture where virtually every rider at the top of the sport has either been busted or implicated in doping, and I think that includes every Tour podium finisher except Andy Schleck back as far as Induran, do you punish Contador because he had an amount of clenbuterol so small that it was a tiny fraction of what labs must be able to detect and too small an amount to have been administered? Do you punish him because we suspect he might have transfused blood with the residue of previous  use of the drug?
Do we buy the steak story? Even after many of us tried to believe Floyd Landis?
Do we just have to shrug and admit that a cheater may be getting off, but, in fairness, we can't punish him based on what is just the most likely of possibilities?

The UCI and WADA will likely appeal and Contador may serve a ban, yet. The Spanish federation did not want to touch this case to begin with, and this may simply be the means of getting it out of their court, as Contador is very much a hero in Spain. There will be much more to come.

What do you think would have been the right thing to do? I honestly don't have an answer.


Steve S said...

In a recent German study, 22 of 28 travelers to China in late 2010 tested positive for clenbuterol which entered their systems from the beef they ate. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/more/wires/02/15/2080.ap.doping.clenbuterol.study.0711/

So Contador's defense is plausible. And the level of clenbuterol in Contador's system was so insignificant that he would have not gained a competitive advantage.

Added to that, WADA has already decided not to appeal a German ping-pong player's free pass after testing positive for a small amount of clenbuterol.

So I think the RFEC ruling should stand and Contador allowed to race in 2011.

particulier said...

Il n'est pas encore certain qu'il puisse participer au tour de France.
wait and see

JBar said...

A challenge to my high school French, but, yes, a Tour start is still uncertain. We shall see.