What next for Contador?

El Pistolero
El Pistolero dodges a bullet

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.

Bigger picture
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.

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.

Governing bodies
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:

Article 19
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.

¿Qué Pasa
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.

Zapatero Contador
Which one has the highest power to weight ratio ratio?

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.

11 thoughts on “What next for Contador?”

  1. I agree the no lower limit rule for clenbuterol must be reviewed, but for RFEC to essentially take the law into their own hands (assuming there has been no compelling evidence from Contador’s side) and ignore a rule just because it is inconvenient is ridiculous. It makes the sport look silly. Worst of all is the inconsistency from country to country. How can we expect doping to be managed in a consistent way across all sports when cycling alone cannot apply the rules consistently from country to country? I fear today will be a depressing day for the sport’s fans once again.

  2. Yes Tim, leaving each national body to act is confusing but that’s why the UCI and WADA can appeal, to ensure they don’t have the last word. But it creates a farce. We saw one when it took the Italians to sanction Valverde. In some senses this isn’t the fault of cycling, instead it’s about some countries. But once again cycling is the stage for more of this nonsense.

  3. In a nutshell, man, I’m not sure if lacking a lower threshold amount is of importance in all cases. Pro Cyclists often skirt the rules so why not have it this way? Also, I don’t really hold AC in higher regard than a # of other cyclists but I would have respect for the Spanish Prime Minister in effect coming to AC’s defence and Contador is surely a National Hero in a cycling country like Spain.

  4. So now, numerous cyclists will be stripped of their podium appearance any time Contador gets on the podium. The 2nd placers *will* eventually come first, but only after WADA and the CAS send Contador through their slow meat grinder.

    Seems unfair to teams like Vacansoleil, who do the right things when a rider is suspected of cheating.

  5. Apparently Contador’s detective presented some evidence regarding contaminated meat in the north of Spain. This is in the PDF which could be downloaded from El Mundo. A lot of it has been written here and elsewhere but the facts are not really known by that many and a lot of people, including journos, are commenting even without reading the readily available evidence.

    I am not saying he hasn’t doped or is doping or was doping at the time what I think is that the UCI with Pat McQuad at its helm has been trying to make a political crusade of all of this.

  6. Rex: yes, some say small amounts can have an effect; if this is part of the defence then it needs to be looked at.

    NNT 71: apparently an appeal takes 3-4 months. If the clock starts ticking today, then we could know more by June.

    Matt: exactly that happened with Valverde last year. I wonder if RCS will want him at the Giro if he risks being ejected mid-race.

    Gabriel: good point, we are waiting for the full public response. As I wrote yesterday, it is possible that Contador’s team has evidence of the bad meat (but I also said if they did then surely they would have gone public?)

  7. Matt, seems funny you should use Vaconsoleil in your example. Great, they are suspending Ricco after he nearly killed himself. But this is a team that chose to hire some suspicious riders to boost itself up into ProTeam status: Ricco, Ezekiel Mosquera, and Bjorn Leukemans all have checkered pasts. I really believe their team management chose to look the other way in an attempt to jump up to ProTeam. Certainly they are not a great example of a team that might be cheated by Contador racing while his mess is sorted out.

    I cannot see the UCI and WADA simply accepting the current RFEC decision on Contador, unless Contador’s investigating team can produce the smoking gun (the well-done beef in this case). Exactly how far the UCI might be willing to against the RFEC is hard to know, but I am sure there are many in Switzerland who have grown frustrated with the reluctance of the Spanish to deal with problems. This case might be enough to push the relationship to the brink and perhaps the UCI will choose to do something rash, like suspending the RFEC as per Article 19. But this action comes with the potential of shutting down every single rider licenced by the RFEC. If a nation’s federation is suspended, what happens to the riders licenced by that federation? Are the licences invalid as well?

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