Alberto Contador is set to be cleared by the Spanish cycling federation, the RFEC. His defence has rested on two factors:
- The quantity of Clenbuterol detected was too small to have a performance enhancement.
- The principle of “strict liability” in the anti-doping rules is unreasonable.
Yet these rules have no minimum tolerance for Clenbuterol and they also impose the responsibility on an athlete to control what goes in their body and to account for the presence of banned substances. As such the acquittal is not about Contador, instead it is a firm rejection of the WADA Code’s basic principles.
On the startline
His first call could be the Tour of the Algarve, the Portuguese race has long been Contador’s first race. If you’ve emerged from a six month coma or a tour of duty on a submarine you might not notice any change. He stopped racing after the Tour de France and Algarve has been his traditional season opener.
Longer term there are several things to consider. First, the anti-doping hearing process hasn’t cleared anything up. Months of investigations yet we are nowhere nearer to understanding the source of contamination than in September; indeed during this time we’ve learned of UCI cover-ups, Spanish ministerial influence and other worrying practices.
ASO and RCS
We’ll get an early view of what ASO thinks via L’Equipe’s editorial line, the sports paper under the same corporate umbrella as the Tour de France organisers. Contador might ride Paris-Nice but will the French welcome him? I suspect he’ll find an open door but no warm welcome. ASO can remind people of the tiny quantity of Clenbuterol and say that he’s fully entitled to race. Similarly, the editorial of La Gazzetta Dello Sport should reflect RCS.
Pressure is likely to come from WADA and the UCI. Both see their rules turned upside down. WADA in particular is likely to appeal the ruling purely because this is a test case and it can’t afford the arguments in favour of prosecuting Contador not to be heard. The core principle of “strict liability” has been overturned. Table tennis player Dimitri Ovtcharov got off the hook because of the probability of eating contamninated meat in China, a factor that swayed WADA from an appeal but this time the are unlikely to let Contador establish jurisprudence or case law.
The UCI can bring additional political pressure, namely If the RFEC can’t offer an adequate explanation as to why they’ve skirted the UCI rules then there are grounds for the UCI to get pretty heavy. Here’s part of the UCI’s constitution:
1. A federation may be excluded by the Congress in the following cases…
…c) When the federation discredits the international reputation of cycling sports.
If the RFEC can be shown to have put one of its riders ahead of the UCI and WADA then it’s got some explaining to do. But this is a nuclear option, the prospect of an organisation of 100 employees based in Swiss village taking on the Spanish state is almost fanciful. Yet like WADA, there’s a big principle at stake. So easier said than done but even the mutterings of sanctions could be enough to wake up the sleepiest governing body in Europe. Pressure could come from the International Olympic Committee.
The other question is what changed? Leaked documents showed the RFEC wanted to ban Contador for a year. There’s little in the rules to support this, without evidence of the bad meat Contador would normally get a two year ban.
Yet to be cleared in full is a big leap, especially since the RFEC was recommending a ban. So was the RFEC influenced by senior figures in the Spanish government? That’s certainly a possibility, especially given the statements from the Spanish Prime Minister, not to mention its most senior judge. We’ve seen slowness to prosecute the Puerto case; it took the Italian Olympic Committee to suspend Valverde.
Contador’s defence is beyond the rules but in principle reasonable. There has to be a review as to whether WADA introduces a threshold for Clenbuterol.
The investigation ends with more questions than we had six months ago. At several points along the way we’ve seen strange happenings, right from the start when Contador was suspended in secret by the UCI. Since then the rules have been shredded and there are whispers of political fixes.
I suspect WADA and the UCI will appeal. It can now go two ways, it simmers in the background as papers are prepared for an appeal or it blows up into an issue far bigger that cycling with the international sporting world asking if Spain is fit to uphold the rules that underpin sport.
In the meantime cycling fans risk a re-run of 2010 where Alejandro Valverde was racing whilst his lawyers kept the CAS busy. The Spaniard took several wins, including the Tour of Romandie, only to see them stripped when the CAS ruled. Some will ask what is the point in watching the sport if results, both past and yet to come, are not determined on the road but in a courtroom.