November 9, 2010 17 Comments
Last night the UCI, cycling’s world governing body, formally requested the Spanish National Cycling Federation (RFEC) begin disciplinary proceedings against Alberto Contador, who won his third Tour de France this July.
Coming as it does nearly six weeks after the news of the Spanish rider’s positive test for the banned drug clenbuterol, this announcement carries no small significance. There is a firm implication that the UCI is now satisfied Contador has a substantial case to answer.
The UCI said in a press release:
At the end of a long and meticulous enquiry entrusted to highly qualified, WADA-accredited experts, and considering all the information currently in its possession, the UCI has concluded that disciplinary proceedings should be opened against Alberto Contador.
Until the end of the proceedings and despite his provisional suspension, Alberto Contador still benefits from a presumption of innocence.
What we know so far
Here is a summary of the timeline and key evidence so far:
July 20: As race leader, Contador is subjected to a daily doping control. His sample shows high traces of a plasticizer commonly found in blood bags used for transfusions, suggesting the possibility of blood doping. However, the test employed has not been validated by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and is therefore not admissible as evidence. No trace of clenbuterol is found in the sample.
July 21: On the Tour’s second rest day, Contador again provides a blood sample. This tests positive for minuscule traces of clenbuterol, a drug which can improve oxygen flow and reduce body fat. Although the amount found is tiny, there is no lower limit for a positive test – the presence of even the tiniest amount is enough to trigger an automatic ban.
August 24: Contador is informed of the positive test by the UCI.
September 30: Contador’s agent announces the positive clenbuterol test result, apparently in reaction to the knowledge that both German TV station ARD and L’Équipe were about to break the story about both the clenbuterol and plasticizer tests themselves. Contador is provisionally suspended by the UCI. The rider speaks eloquently at a press conference that afternoon, claiming the UCI had assured him this was just a case of food contamination. He suggests is an innocent victim of eating contaminated meat brought over from Spain, and provides expert third party testimony to support that claim. He makes no mention of the plasticizer test, which is only revealed later by ARD and L’Équipe.
November 8: The UCI requests RFEC commences disciplinary action against Contador. RFEC has yet to announce a date for a formal hearing to take place, although they must do so within two days and complete the procedure within a month. Consequently, a decision should be known before the end of the year.
What has changed since September 30?
Despite providing a detailed scenario of how he believed the clenbuterol entered his bloodstream via a contaminated steak, Contador has yet to provide any additional evidence to support his claim. That’s not to say he doesn’t necessarily have any evidence, as he may have elected to quietly build a solid defence in preparation for the inevitable hearing. However, because no compelling evidence has been presented publicly since that September press conference, it is reasonable to assume there is no irrefutable proof to support Contador’s hypothesis.
There is no legal way clenbuterol could have entered the food chain in the way Contador claims – and even the possibility of its illegal addition to livestock is remote. The European Union banned the use of clenbuterol in animals in 1996, and regularly checks farms to enforce this. According to the Associated Press, clenbuterol was found in just one out of 83,203 animal tests conducted in 2008 and 2009 – and none of the 19,431 of the tests which took place in Spain.
There are also enough dissenting expert opinions to cast doubt on the testimony of the rider’s own anti-doping expert, Douwe de Boer. And although Contador has denied the accuracy and relevance of the plasticizer test, no attempt has been made to explain away the result. (As this evidence is inadmissible anyway, there is no point him stoking that particular fire.)
Contador himself has upped the stakes, threatening to retire from the sport if banned. He told Spanish newspaper El Mundo last month:
I am so disappointed with everything that’s happening that I’m thinking of leaving cycling, regardless of any decision by the UCI.
If found guilty, Contador would be stripped of his 2010 Tour de France win and face a mandatory two-year ban. However, UCI president Pat McQuaid has called for longer bans for doping after several riders had their suspensions reduced for co-operating with investigators. (2009 Giro d’Italia runner-up Danilo Di Luca tested positive for the blood booster CERA during the race, but his suspension was recently cut to 15 months.)
WADA’s anti-doping code already permits four-year bans, and McQuaid has instructed the UCI’s anti-doping investigators to pursue four-year penalties:
I’m increasingly going for four years because two years is very quick. An athlete returns to the peloton very quick. I think it’s unfair to the clean athletes that guys who have cheated in premeditated cheating can come back so quickly.
RFEC has promised to deal with the case with all due haste:
As with immediate effect and in accordance with the sport’s international rules, the RFEC will undertake all the necessary action to cast light on and resolve the questions raised by the positive test of the rider.
What is the likely outcome?
So now we wait. In theory, we should know the results of RFEC’s deliberations by Christmas, but of course there are many possible outcomes, with the distinct possibility of the losing party taking an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which could further extend the process by several months.
However, as summarised on the excellent Inner Ring blog yesterday, the most likely outcomes are as follows:
- A straight two-year ban. The usual result in such cases. Likelihood: high.
- A reduced ban under the ‘ignorance/innocence’ defence, most likely the result of a credible presentation of the ‘contaminated beef’ defence. It will require more than the unsubstantiated claims we have seen from the Contador camp so far. Likelihood: low.
- A managed settlement. Contador agrees to a shortened ban on condition of no appeal, or for co-operating with the authorities, di Luca-style. This would avoid a costly and lengthy legal battle, but would be tantamount to an admission of guilt. Likelihood: very low.
- No ban. RFEC refuse to prosecute (very unlikely) or Contador is cleared. The Spanish authorities were often intransigent over Alejandro Valverde‘s involvement with Operación Puerto, but any heel-dragging here is likely to result in a sweeping UCI/WADA response, including potential suspension from all cycling events. Likelihood: very low.
- Retirement: Contador is banned, and walks away from cycling altogether. Likelihood: medium.
One way or the other, it is extremely likely that we will not see Alberto Contador line up for at least the 2011 season, and probably longer. Any ban would see him stripped of his 2010 Tour victory, meaning that the ‘winner’ of four of the last five editions of the biggest race in cycling – Floyd Landis in 2006, Contador in 2007, 2009 and 2010 – will have been tainted by doping bans (although Contador’s first two wins would still be allowed to stand).
Whatever circuitous route is now taken by disciplinary and subsequent legal proceedings, it is looking increasingly likely that Andy Schleck will be declared the winner of the 2010 Tour de France. (Schleck himself has repeatedly expressed the hope that Contador is cleared in the wider interests of cycling, although whether this is a magnanimous or misguided wish is subject to opinion.)
Whether the 2010 ‘result’ will be confirmed before we watch the 2011 race remains to be seen. And whatever the outcome, cycling finds its carpet stained with blood once again – and sadly this is one which no amount of cleaning may ever remove.
- Alberto Contador faces ban as UCI calls for action (reuters.com)
- UCI ask Spanish National Cycling Federation to take action against Alberto Contador (telegraph.co.uk)
- Spanish federation to investigate Alberto Contador’s failed drug test (guardian.co.uk)
- Tour Champion Alberto Contador Faces Doping Probe (nytimes.com)
- UCI demands disciplinary action against Alberto Contador (velonews.competitor.com)
- UCI demands Contador disciplinary (news.bbc.co.uk)
- UCI president Pat McQuaid favors four-year doping bans (sports.espn.go.com)