There’s been plenty of coverage of Alberto Contador’s positive test and the ban, much of it in the mainstream media. Much is informative but some of this has run wild and ignored the intricacies of the case or the particulars of the procedure. For example today Le Monde, France’s establishment newspaper, ran an article with several mistakes. So here’s a quick primer on the facts.
- Doper! WADA’s John Fahey has labelled Contador a “doping cheat” but that seems a harsh claim. He has been convicted of an anti-doping violation and sanctioned for the “Presence of a Prohibited Substance”. Was he doping? Nobody knows and the Court of Arbitration (CAS) simply ruled that the presence of a banned substance which cannot be explained invokes a two year ban.
- It was a contaminated food supplement. Not really. The CAS stated it believed this was statistically more likely but did not reach any conclusion. Here’s the relevant bit:
in light of all the evidence on record, the Athlete’s positive test for clenbuterol is more likely to have been caused by the ingestion of a contaminated food supplement than by a blood transfusion or the ingestion of contaminated meat.
Note the CAS is not making claims, just suggestions.
- Only cyclists get this kind of treatment! There’s been talk of German table tennis players and Mexican soccer players being cleared but the poor cyclist gets done over. The difference is not sport nor nationality but of location. Clenbuterol contamination is far more prevalent in China, where the German visited and Mexico and so makes for a more probable source of artificial contamination. If Contador had, say, rode the Tour of Quinghai Lake and tested positive during this race then he’d likely have escaped a ban.
- What if some South America beef was sneaked into the food chain in Spain? Quite possible but the WADA rules require the athlete to prove this. Here’s rule 295:
To justify any elimination or reduction, the License-Holder must produce corroborating evidence in addition to his word which establishes to the comfortable satisfaction of the hearing panel the absence of an intent to enhance sport performance or mask the use of a performance enhancing substance
What this says is that the only way to get out of a ban is to provide evidence to satisfy the panel. You can make claims about the probability of food contamination in certain countries to support the rogue steak hypothesis but you need to back it up with numbers to satisfy the panel.
- Two years is excessive! The Le Monde article says the sanction is “beyond the norm given the infinitesimal traces detected” but their contributor has not read the rules. I agree the ban seems unjust but the WADA and UCI rules make no room for the quantity detected, the rules are blind to the amount of a banned substance. 50 picogrammes is the same as 50 grams or 50 yoctograms and this might seem absurd but the CAS isn’t there to opine on this, just to enforce the existing rules. Applying the rule that the athlete has to explain how they tested positive to escape a ban, we saw Contador unable to satisfy the CAS and so he gets the standard sanction. Harsh but the CAS had little choice. Perhaps a threshold is something for experts to review in the future but for now the rules don’t allow for it.
- But he passed all the doping controls in the 2011 Giro? I hear you but again this is the rulebook talking and it says he forfeits all results from the date of the ban. The date itself is set at the time of the hearing in Spain that cleared him, the verdict which both the UCI and WADA took to appeal. Again it might seem injust but those are the rules and the CAS has little leeway here, it simply reads the rulebook.
- Contador’s going to win the Vuelta. This seems like the most certain claim but anything can happen and time out from racing is a substantial handicap before competiting in a grand tour although his ban ends in time to compete in the Vuelta a Burgos. But his team still has to be invited and who knows what will happen between now and August, especially as he been called to testify in the Operation Puerto trial.
A few small pieces here but they’re worth dwelling on, especially when sections of the mainstream media seem prone to ignoring the context or rules. Most of the coverage has been fine but some examples stand out. Of course there is no universal truth here, feel free to correct my corrections.
Before the verdict I likened the case to the Japanese story Rashomon, a tale that recounts the death of a samurai from the perspective of several characters. Each one presents plausible accounts and motivations but after hearing the different accounts, we don’t know who is telling the truth. With Contador nobody knows what happened. The only certainty is that he tested positive and the rules imposed a two year ban.