Round-table: Alberto Contador – guilty until (not) proven innocent?

It has taken 566 days, but yesterday the Court of Arbitration for Sport finally handed Alberto Contador a backdated two-year ban as a result of a doping test during the 2010 Tour de France which returned small traces of clenbuterol, a drug which promotes weight loss and muscle-building. The CAS panel did not wholly accept Contador’s claim that he had ingested tainted beef. Nor did they accept the UCI and WADA‘s assertion of blood doping.

However, despite the lack of concrete evidence either way, they nonetheless enforced the two-year sanction. Contador will now be banned from competition until August 5th, and the UCI has declared it also wants to pursue a €2.485m fine (about £2m).

The verdict means that Michele Scarponi – a confessed doper who has already served a ban – is the ‘winner’ of last year’s Giro d’Italia. And Andy Schleck inherits the 2010 Tour de France yellow jersey. The Luxembourger said:

There is no reason to be happy now. First of all I feel sad for Alberto. I always believed in his innocence. This is just a very sad day for cycling.

I battled with Contador in [the 2010 Tour] and I lost. My goal is to win the Tour de France in a sportive way, being the best of all competitors, not in court. If I succeed this year, I will consider it as my first Tour victory.

As fans, how do we feel about the whole affair now it has ended (assuming it doesn’t go to the Swiss courts)?

Kathi: It went on too long and was very badly handled by the authorities.

Merckx called the CAS verdict “very bad for cycling” (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Sheree: I felt physically sick when I heard the news on Twitter and I’ve spent this afternoon reading all 98 pages of the decision. Eddy Merckx said it best when he uttered the word ‘scapegoat’. While I agree with Kathi, I would like to see this case have a positive outcome. The rule clearly needs revision and so do the procedures. I can’t imagine what Bertie and his family are feeling at the moment. One thing’s clear, he’ll handle it with his usual poise and dignity.

Jack: Deflated. I was gutted when I heard the news. I genuinely believed in Alberto, and thought his case was plausible. The ban is harsh, and it’s not just Alberto who I feel for – Andy Schleck and Michele Scarponi, who are now in effect Grand Tour ‘winners’ cannot possibly feel happy about their ‘victory’.

Sheree: Jack, you’re right: they don’t. In fact the reaction of other riders has been interesting. They tend to know who is and who isn’t.

Tim: I’m emotionally drained. I have always felt Contador would inevitably be punished in some way. Rules are rules, if he had been let off the ‘strict liability’ principle would have been in tatters, setting a disastrous precedent. But I cannot believe he has received the full two-year sanction, especially when you consider the lack of certainty which is written right through the CAS judgement like the lettering in a stick of rock.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

Kathi: It seems harsh, but if that’s the rule, that’s the rule. People go on and on about how they want a clean sport but then seem aghast Contador got banned. Honestly, how could he have not? If he hadn’t, that would be more ammunition that cycling is dirty and isn’t willing to take the hard decisions for a clean sport.

The UCI is seeking a substantial fine in addition to Contador’s ban

Tim: I agree he had to be suspended. But a two-year ban feels tantamount to being given the death penalty for shoplifting. I would have preferred a one-year ban, with only his Tour win annulled. A potential fine in excess of €2.5m – why? – could also ruin Contador financially.

Kathi: Yes, a €2.5m fine would be ridiculous, actually.

Jack: It is harsh – especially when considering it couldn’t be proved he ever doped – and it was only a trace positive. I agree a ban of some sort had to be given – but a two-year penalty is just too long.

Sheree: The law’s an ass and the potential fine is totally disproportionate to the crime. But it’s not just the fine; UCI and WADA are also wanting costs. Bertie had to prove that his contaminated meat supposition was the ‘most likely’ scenario, which he failed to do to the panel’s satisfaction. They were not prepared to conclude from a mere possibility that the meat could have been contaminated, that contamination actually occurred. Therefore they ruled it was only a remote possibility. The panel also conceded that WADA/UCI hadn’t sufficiently argued the contaminated meat theory was totally impossible, even though they had accepted that meat contaminated with clenbuterol would typically return this type of adverse finding. If contaminated meat had been the only theory advanced it would have moved up the scale from less likely to possible. Meanwhile, the UCI/WADA only had to prove that there were other possible explanations for the adverse finding such as blood doping (discredited by the panel) and contaminated food supplement. There were a couple of gems in the report such as: “The fact that someone is unlikely to be struck by lightning is of no relevance when a person is found dead in a field with a scorch mark from head to toe” and “Anti-doping regulations are proportionate, but only just so. They are balanced but on edge of the precipice of unfairness and arbitrariness.”

Tim: Quite. WADA’s strict liability’ principle means riders are effectively guilty until proven innocent. Without it, it would be hard to satisfactorily prove any doping cases. But it also places a huge burden on the accused to go way beyond ‘reasonable doubt’ to clear themselves. It’s like playing against a stacked deck. And I find it interesting that the panel effectively said as much in their verdict. It points towards a need for change, for sure.

Sheree: Absolutely! The panel acknowledged that direct proof that Bertie had eaten contaminated meat resulting in an adverse analytical finding was not possible. He needed to prove, however, that it was possible and that no other sources of contamination existed or were less likely. Poisoned chalice or what?

Was Contador’s ‘contaminated beef’ explanation a credible one? 

Beef is unlikely to feature on Contador’s menu at races any time soon (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Tim: Plausible, yes. Convincing, no – even though it may be true. Contador’s defence team always faced an uphill struggle to prove their man’s innocence beyond reasonable doubt.

Kathi: Considering there have been proven cases of it in other athletes, yes, I suppose it is a credible one. Whether it’s true or not, I have no idea.

Jack: Yes, certainly plausible – there’s been evidence of it in other athletes. What’s more, there’s no reason why Contador would willingly take clenbuterol during a Grand Tour. Former pro Joe Papp once described the muscle cramps that it leads to as forcing a rider to “consider suicide” during a race as gruelling as the Tour.

Sheree: We’ll never know, though I did uncover details of a South American meat-smuggling ring in Castile e Leon where the meat was contaminated with clenbuterol. It was a couple of years ago and it was undertaken by the brother of the farmer where WADA alleged Bertie’s steak came from! Here the panel were not at all convinced that there was any form of blood doping and therefore plumped for the contaminated food supplement but that was strongly contested by Bertie, maybe because “use of food supplement rarely considered as a fully exonerating explanation.”

Is Contador the victim of a conspiracy theory?

Sheree: I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. They’re clearly two quite distinct and separate cases.

Tim: A lot of people are linking this case to the Lance Armstrong one and screaming ‘conspiracy theory’. I don’t see it. Two different cases, two different legal processes. I think there’s a lot wrong with the Contador decision, but is it linked to Lance? No.

Kathi: What I wonder about is, loads of people are enraged that Armstrong ‘got off’ but that Contador’s career is in tatters. But if they hate Armstrong so much because he cheated, then surely they realise that Contador couldn’t have not had a ban – that would bring us back to riders being protected, positive tests being ignored, et cetera. If it were Armstrong who had the trace positive, they’d be baying for his blood, which is hypocritical, really, isn’t it?

Jack: I fail to see how there could be any sort of conspiracy theory at all. The Armstrong and Contador cases are completely separate, and anyone trying to make a link between them is putting two and two together and getting five.

It is now more than 18 months since the failed doping control which started this whole saga. What can the authorities do to make this process shorter?

Jack: Surely the answer to this is glaringly obvious: they need to be much more transparent and reveal information regarding positive tests as soon as possible. It’s only more damaging for the sport if it’s lurking under the shadow of a doping case for months, even years, than if they quickly got it over and done with.

CAS has been the last step in a needlessly long process

Tim: Hear, hear. The UCI should be more up-front, instead of dithering and only going public when the German media are just about to reveal all. I also think we should bypass the national federations altogether and convene an independent panel to expedite an initial judgement. Then, of course, the final step is CAS. I fully accept this would still take several months, but there is no reason why what has taken 18 months could not be done in 6-9 months.

Kathi: Would we have known about it if German TV hadn’t been about to leak it? Making these processes go on forever doesn’t do anyone any favours. They should also make sure the riders don’t go on riding as it makes its way through the courts – Valverde skewed every single race he was in while the legal system stuttered towards his ban. That shouldn’t be allowed – and if that’s the rule, a positive and you’re suspended, it would get things moving a lot quicker. Of course there has to be the guarantee it would be dealt with in a certain amount of time.

Sheree: I second that but more worrying is the sense the UCI might have covered up the positive and I wonder whether this would have been their first cover up, or one of many.

Tim: I suspect the latter, sadly. Also, let’s not forget the role of the Spanish national federation (RFEC) in this. It was they who decided to ignore the existing rules and not impose any ban on Contador to begin with – a clear case of partisan bias. If they had applied even a one-year suspension, we could have saved ourselves 12 months of legal wrangling. And Alberto would, in all probability, be the 2011 Vuelta champion and free to race in 2012.

Should riders be banned for a trace positive, even if it means innocents may be punished?

Kathi: If the rule is that no amount of the substance can be found without a ban, then that includes a trace positive. The rule has to change if there’s a chance that it can come into your system via food to put a threshold in place that would keep the innocent from being caught out for something that isn’t intentional. But until then, the rule says you cannot have any clenbuterol in your system or you will be banned.

Tim: This needs to be reviewed, with a threshold and a sliding scale introduced depending on the level of certainty that deliberate doping has occurred. Trace amounts, or any result which suggests the possibility of accidental contamination, should receive a lesser sanction – six months, perhaps, or a suspended sentence. That may mean some cheats get off lightly, but I would still rather see that than have the reputations and careers of innocent men ruined.

Sheree: This case has highlighted the need for change – even the panel remarked on it in an oblique fashion – and I hope they do indeed introduce thresholds. I’m with Tim, I would rather a guilty few got off scot-free than we hang an innocent man.

Jack: I agree completely, Tim. Imagine a rider who’s completely innocent of any deliberate doping having their career tarnished by eating a dodgy bit of meat (possibly Alberto). There certainly needs to be a difference in ban length between a systematic doper and someone who can’t be proven to have taken on the product deliberately.

Kathi: Yes, I agree it needs to be reviewed. But it can’t be reviewed when a case like this is under way because it just looks like they’re trying to get a star rider off the hook. Now that it’s over, they should revisit this.

And finally, in a word, what’s our verdict on Alberto Contador: guilty, innocent or unlucky that he fell foul of some very strict rules?

Tim: Unlucky.

Sheree: Innocent of doping and unlucky to fall foul of the rules. [You call that ‘a word’? – Ed]

Kathi: I really can’t decide. A little of all three, I guess. [Ahem, that’s three words – Ed.]

Jack: Innocent and unlucky. [I give up – Ed.]

9 thoughts on “Round-table: Alberto Contador – guilty until (not) proven innocent?

  1. Trevor says:

    Just my twopenny worth having read all the above with great interest. I don’t think there is any doubt that this was not handled well by the authorities and improvements are urgently needed. In their defence I would state that this is at least partly due to the case that anti-dopers are still seen as a nuisance in the sport. An omerta still exists as far as riders are concerned who as Sheree states know who is doping and who isn’t and still keep quiet about it. Also the action of the Spanish authorities was clearly partisan and openly challenged UCI and WADA to continue with their efforts. With the full and real moral support of everyone in the sport the procedures will work as they should.
    I agree with Tim that the strict liability rule would have fallen if Contador had got off with the evidence as he presented it. In fact it would have given anyone charged with clenbuterol doping a clear get out of jail card.
    An athlete of Contador’s stature should not allow themselves to be in this situation. What the hell is the use of all these doctors and nutritionists if the millionaire, superstar athlete then goes and eats in a restaurant that serves illegal contaminated meat. He deserves to be convicted of stupidity if nothing else and I just don’t feel Alberto is as stupid as that.
    Until cycling as a sport fully accepts the moral stance that they will not only refuse to ride against dopers but also willingly give evidence against them, these kind of unsatisfactory procedures will continue.
    I love Alberto but did I believe him, no more than I believe John Terry is real sweet natured guy who loves his dusky skinned brethren or Harry Redknap knows nothing about business and finance and just loved his dog too much.

    • Thanks for your considered comment, Trevor. I have to admit that I’ve veered backwards and forwards over the matter of Contador’s innocence. I was convinced at first he was guilty, but over time I’ve become increasingly willing to believe there was some accidental contamination. However, as I said in the round-table, rules are rules. What is less edifying is people like the head of WADA stating that CAS found Contador guilty. They did nothing of the sort – they merely agreed that he had not proven his innocence. This sort of political posturing does no one any favours.

      I think there’s little doubt RFEC were partisan, but equally most national federations are either incredibly partisan or zealous prosecutors! It’s been reported that RFEC initially offered a one-year ban – not wholly unreasonable – but Contador rejected it as he was determined to prove his innocence and clear his name. I still believe RFEC should simply have enforced the lighter sanction regardless, stating that the shortening of the ban was in mitigation of the fact that the positive test had a high chance of being accidental.

      And maybe Alberto would have been better off with Redknapp’s lawyers!

  2. Sheree says:

    Trevor

    Thanks for your comments. It was worth wading through all 98 pages of the ruling if only to truly understand the timelines and what drove the endless delays. It was interesting to note the sheer bloodymindedness and tit for tat responses of UCI and WADA which did not reflect at all well on those august bodies. I was left with a sense that TAS went for the line of least resistance.

    If you can’t face 98 pages then check out Matt Rendell’s reasoned response on ITV sport.

    I’ve just watched Contador’s Press Conference. He conducted himself with dignity, didn’t read his speech – unlike Riis – but you sensed he was simmering with anger and I thought he looked haunted like he does it that black & white Tim Kolln photograph.

    Hope you’ve both entered the G4 Competition.

  3. Pingback: Cazul Alberto Contador după decizia CAS - - Sport Local

  4. Sheree says:

    For those of you that don’t speak Romanian.

    The pingback makes reference to the fact that Alberto was responsible for over 60% of SaxoBank’s World Tour points. And the general impression is that in this sport you are guilty until you clearly prove your innocence. As a consequence the article asks how many innocent cyclists will pay the price.

    • Just under 68%, in fact. Without Contador’s points, Saxo Bank would have finished rock-bottom of the 18 ProTeams – and by a considerable margin at that. Worse still, when he returns his points will not count towards his team’s total for two years. So he might well return to win the Vuelta, but Saxo Bank would not receive the 170 points on offer for the overall winner!

  5. Pingback: Friday feature: Is this the end of the road for Saxo Bank? « VeloVoices

  6. Pingback: Rider updates: Alberto Contador, Alexandre Vinokourov and Nicolas Roche « VeloVoices

  7. Pingback: Cazul Alberto Contador după decizia CAS | Blogul Sportlocal

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