The view from Spain

I’m a big supporter of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Its moves to internationalise, harmonise and scrutinise the anti-doping component of sports is surely one of the greatest advances in fair-play in recent years.

Only in Spain many have a very different view today. Here’s an explanation as to why more than just the Pyrenees separate Spain from others in Europe.

First, the cartoon above. It’s from Spanish sports daily Marca. Piratas is pirates but note the capitalised TAS is the Spanish term for the Court of Abritration for Sport (CAS) and we have the swarthy pirates of the UCI with their French parrots. I’m not sure why the French are involved given they’ve not played a role here, except for hosting the Tour de France of course. Such cartoons appear nationalist and jingoist and probably whip up sentiment although I don’t read Marca every day and perhaps they regularly mock doping cheats like Alejandro Valverde with insulting cartoons. I suspect not.

But the cartoon is too easy, it is far to simple to watch Marca mocking foreign pirates and draw lessons of people getting prickly, defensive and supporting their national champions. Instead it’s more sophisticated. First, it is not just Spaniards rushing to defend Contador. Eddy Merckx is one of many who have criticised the verdict; both for the delay and the outcome. Second, many are saying “but so and so was absolved after a positive test” but in most cases cited it involved athletes eating beef in countries with demonstrably high levels of contamination, which alters the probability substantially.

Martin Hardie, an Australian law researcher knows Spain well. In a wide ranging piece covering the legal aspects of the case, he explains how the legal crosses the cultural:

…in Spain, since the end of Fascism [inrng: in 1977], there is a real focus on justice. After years of people disappearing without trial and without trace the Spanish support the notion of citizens having substantive legal rights. That is why the Spanish judge who is their equivalent of the Chief Justice of the High Court here in Australia came out at the time of the original Spanish decision clearing Contador saying that to find him guilty would be contrary to the normal sense of justice. In contrast to this is the absolute nature of cycling’s rules in relation to positive drug tests, no matter how small the amount

Whether the history hypothesis holds true I don’t know, but there’s a split between the rules of WADA and the UCI and the natural sense of justice that’s valid in many countries. To explain, nobody has proven Contador was doping, all we know is that a modest quantity of a banned substance was detected and for this Contador is faced with losing two grand tours, repaying prize money and a giant legal bill and that’s before the CAS rules on a fine. That’s what the absolute nature of the rules request and you can probably see why some are upset.

But the history of sport is littered with athletes suspended after taking cold remedies or eating something contaminated and Contador had not spoken out about this before, instead he signed up to the rules when he took out a racing licence. Indeed not everyone in Spain is outraged. Here is the establishment daily El Pais and its editorial today, entitled Pruebas y sospechas (proof and suspicion):

The Contador case was handled politically with a lot of errors. We should remember that the RFEC wanted to impose a one year ban. The UCI and WADA would have accepted this: but Contador wanted to be cleared. Prime Minister Zapatero declared that there was “no reason to sanction Contador” … …on the same facts one institution cleared him (the RFEC), the other ordered the full penalty. Despite a legal labyrinth, the sanction imposed on Contador and the reactions in Spain show there is a more tolerant attitude towards doping than abroad.

If Contador finds many supporters at home, some of this is due to loyalty and patriotism; in the past I’ve found tales of “injustice” over Valverde’s DNA match with bloodbags labelled with his dog’s name absurd. Yet it’s not just blind support, there are real questions over the principle of strict liability and its absolutist, hard nature and when such a big name goes down for a matter like this it makes the front pages… and cartoons.

The CAS is no pirate outfit, it specialises in sports arbitration which is subtly different from justice: it is there to rule on the rules, not reshape them.

The WADA Code is tough and harsh. If there are questions over strict liability… nobody seems to have any answers. Without WADA’s Code sport would probably be in a worse state and the CAS has upheld these rules, it is only a messenger. If any good comes of this, it is a giant reminder to all athletes to take the utmost caution about what they eat and drink to minimise their chances of falling foul. Oh and Spanish beef is safe to eat.

32 thoughts on “The view from Spain”

  1. About that last sentence, one of the most unbelievable things is that those who support AC (ie, almost everyone in Spain) doesn’t seem to care about intoxicated meat. It’s like, ‘we have the cleanest cyclist. Our meat?…eh, not so much, so what’.

  2. After the Contador ruling my brother was trying to convince me to buy a farm and raise livestock just for athletes. While I don’t think Contador’s meat was contaminated, my brother may be right about there being a market for paranoid athletes. Whether there will be enough of them to justify the cost and whether they would spend extra money on “safe” meat and veggies, I don’t know. But I bet some farming corporation is looking into it.

  3. “If there are questions over strict liability… nobody seems to have any answers” seems right to me. The system looks tough but who has an alternative idea that works?

  4. Did Alberto Contador dope ? Could CAS prove that he doped, and when he finally did not dope ? Had the quantity of clenbuterol an effect to improve his performances ? I think the Wada Code has to be rethought in this matter.

  5. Seems to me that the “anything more than zero equals a positive” is unsustaintable. With improvements in detection methods there will always be cases where smaller and smaller concentrations of substances become detectable. My understanding for Clembtrl having a “zero” limit was that, when the rules were introduced, testing kit was (relatively) unsophisticated, and therefore only significant (and therefore performance enhancing) concentrations could be detected. Once a new test method is found that can detect much lower (and from what I understand, in this case non-performance enhancing) concentrations, then it seems reasonable that the rules need changing to specify a lower bound limit. What that limit should be set at is then decided by on the basis of appropriate scientific research.

  6. You say: “perhaps they regularly mock doping cheats like Alejandro Valverde with insulting cartoons. I suspect not”.

    You are totally right! The view here in Spain is colored by blind chauvinism (as a quick skim through any of the comments on Marca will reveal, on this or any other issue). Here in Spain we are 100% sure Armstrong cheated, 100% positive Contador did not, purely on the grounds of nationality.

    Why, even the PM came out in Contador’s defence (what the #### had it got to do with him, if it wasn’t purely chauvinism ?!).

  7. @DavidB
    Ok you are right on that, with new testing methods, the limits should probably be reviewed, but that doesn’t exonerate Contador from the fact that he had Clembuterol on his blood, a substance that is not produced by the organism, and that there were traces of plastic on the tests, not used on the trial, but that suggest there was a blood transfusion involved in the process, and we know from the doping calendars that riders extract blood in certain periods of training to reuse them later during the competition, “surprisingly” Contador had one of those training sessions during a time he was trying to burn some fat, lose some weight and, what a coincidence, Clembuterol is one of the substances that can be used to burn fat quickly.
    This is clearly a “bad luck” case or miscalculation from him/team/doctor. They may have thought that Clembuterol cleared faster than it did or they simply didn’t expect a test to look to those levels. So, ok, Clembuterol was not performance enhancing, but the blood transfusion is and it’s also prohibited, you may argue that until someone proves the transfusion, it should be allowed, but for me it, the fact that cheaters are one or two steps ahead of the law doesn’t mean they are not cheaters. Don’t fall on the most common trap used by riders (and cheaters) worldwide, until it is proven as positive, it is not cheating.

  8. I don’t think any serious cycling fan, in Spain or anywhere, thinks Contador is clean. But from there to being sure there are enough grounds to pronounce him guilty, there’s a long way to go. WADA’s extremist idealism has its detractors everywhere (have you read Verner Moeller?), and strict liability is difficult to understand or accept even if you are a dedicated cycling follower, let alone to a jingoistic, tabloid-reading member of the masses. The point that Contador did not enhance his performance with a tiny amount of clembuterol is, on the other hand, very easy to understand for the masses, and if you top it up with the court saying there is no proof of doping, I guess it’s very easy for newspapers to build indignation, especially in countries with an inferiority complex.

  9. One of the biggest problems I have with this case is that the only reason that the clebluterol traces were found was down to the lab in which the sample was analysed. No other lab in the world could have found such minute quantities. Therefore it is entirely feasible, if not likely, that many other athletes who have had a greater quantity of clenbluterol (or other banned substances) in their system have not failed a dope test because their samples were analysed at another lab.

    Surely if the WADA code is to be taken seriously, uniformity of testing is a prerequisite? The fact that this isn’t the case is just one element of the Contador case which leaves so many people feeling dissatisfied with the outcome.

  10. There are a few things that really jump out and grab my attention. The main one is how convinced everybody is that Lance Armstrong is a cheat and the case against him being dropped is a large scale conspiracy WHILE (and AT THE SAME TIME), being somewhat surprised and offended by Contador being suspended (and a lame suspension, if I may say so.)

    Do not get me wrong, I’m no LA fan-boy and couldn’t really care less. But the cases seem pretty clear cut if based on evidences: they are against AC and they are not (or not enough or not yet) against LA.

    Deal with the facts, not your personal preferences.

  11. “But the history of sport is littered with athletes suspended after taking cold remedies or eating something contaminated and Contador had not spoken out about this before, instead he signed up to the rules when he took out a racing licence.”


  12. @David B @Redeye
    It is certainly ridiculous that Cologne is only lab with sophisticated enough equipment to detect clenbuterol at such low levels.
    It’s pretty shambolic to think that other riders might have gotten away with the same thing as Contador because their samples were sent somewhere else.

  13. A country with the debt problems of Spain cannot afford to have the reputation of their beef industry ruined at a time like this, by somebody trying to pin his sporting excuses on them, small fry in the grand scheme of things, one athlete against thousands of families trying to make a living and a country exporting product. This is where Contador made his mistake, attaching blame to an industry with a huge lobbying power, his excuse was very poorly chosen. With hindsight, he was never going to win this one.

  14. I would be very interested to know how many pro cyclists, other than Contador, had their samples sent to this lab in Cologne for testing over the past 2 years. If the number is quite large, and these samples have come up negative for Clenbuterol, then it puts Contador’s positive result into perspective (i.e. suspect!). Surely, if there is contaminated beef throughout Spain, then other riders should have tested positive.

  15. mynemisis – thanks for the comments. Nothing there that I disagree with, although remember that CAS stated blood tranfusion was unlikely (or at least, equally as unlikely as contaminated meat, which always seemed as near as dammit to unlikely as you could get!)

    Ross, Daniel – exactly the point why consistent lower bound limits are needed. Seems to me to be an easy update of the WADA rules.

  16. “the swarthy pirates of the UCI with their French parrots”

    Could also be the colours of the Luxembourg flag – a symbol of Andy Schleck riding in on the Pirate’s shoulder?

  17. Alberto is a legend, i’ve spent the last couple of days rebutting arguments, and then this article comes along. I have nothing. Great piece,well written. Well done!

  18. If I drive home from the pub after a few beers, am breathalysed and found over the limit, I’m deemed guilty. I can try and mount a defence on why I shouldn’t be disqualified from driving etc. but I’m still deemed guilty the instant the breathalyser says I’m over the limit.

    Alberto’s case is the same and shouldn’t be regarded as a perversion of natural justice.

  19. @Sidamo – your comparison is like apples and oranges.

    A fairer comparison would be if you were driving home and were breathalysed, your BCA was 0.0000000001 (instead of 0.05) and the copper told you he thought you were drunk earlier and charged you on those grounds.

  20. @Chrismurphy101 – that’s called zero tolerance, I believe.

    Cycling should probably stop all dope testing and just let them get on with it. Surely no one who has followed cycling seriously post -Festina believes the nonsense about contaminated beef, or indeed that there are ANY clean riders, only cheats that have not yet been caught.

  21. It happens that Spaniards have a long experience of mistrusting and denouncing the image that is created of them in the foreign media and establishment, especially in the Anglo-saxon world (the “Black Legend”, the propaganda used to launch the Spanish-American war, etc…)

    By the way, @saftycyclist: Spanish government debt is lower, as % of its GDP, than German debt, British debt, or American debt. Your readiness to believe the contrary proves that there might be a point to what I explained in the previous paragraph.

  22. I have argued on many occasions, particularly on “The Science of Sport” blog, that one of the best things that WADA et al could do is to address penalties so that we don’t have the nonsense of a tariff system that is currently in place – not all infractions are of the same, and i think we can all agree on that . Also, the application of strict liability needs careful scrutiny, especially as it is not a concept applied across all aspects of the testing regimes.

    Considering strict liability first, it is an absolute – ie if a drug is present it is the athletes fault. So, as an absolute, if it is to be applied, you have to be absolutely sure – not sure on the balance of probabilities, or by jury. 100% sure. That was not the case here. Also, imagine if strict liability was applied to the whereabouts program! One missed test – you’re out. It isn’t thankfully, but you have to ask yourself why then is it applied elsewhere?

    As for the tariffs, perhaps best demonstrated by way of a relevant example. Imagine if the concentration of clenbuterol found in AC (ie an amount below a level regarded as performance enhancing and more likely from accidental ingestion, and is a first offence) led to an automatic 6 month ban and the loss of results from the race in which it was found. Ultimately the same as what he will get now, bar dates it is applied to, and without the farce that is retrospective result jiggling. The fact is, a 2 year ban was a major factor in the farcical circus that has ensued, and ultimately is not even the ban it purports to be! Bans need to be not only fair in term, but also timely….

  23. Nice piece and let me add how refreshing it is to read this as well as the (mostly) restrained, civil and insightful comments…so unlike those other blogs! Even the sites who’ve forced those wanting to make (or even read) comments to join Facebook and have a real name are plagued with “you’re an idiot” and worse.
    BRAVI to all!
    Personally, if “Il Pistolero” didn’t have a history of coming from a country that seems to have very different tolerance for doping than most, didn’t have a history of being on a team run by a notorious person like Manolo Saiz, wasn’t mentioned in the Puerto affair and hadn’t raced on a team run by another notorious character from Belgium, I’d be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt with such a tiny amount of this banned substance present in his sample. But because of all that other stuff I think he’s been doped all along and beaten the tests, until this tiny screw-up. It’s like that other guy, the one who has “passed all the tests” except for the ones he failed…but those of course were tampered with by some conspiracy of “haters”. And didn’t he produce (after the fact, which I thought was clearly a rules violation) some sort of claim about a steroid cream used for saddle sores when he tested positive for steroids? The only conspiracy I see there is the one that got him off the hook, but perhaps my memory is cloudy on this? So I can understand Spanish fans being outraged while it seems (at least for now) this other fellow has gotten away with what might be called the sporting equivalent of murder.


    If the Clenbuterol didn’t get into AC’s blood stream from the contaminated meat and he didn’t dope then how did it get there?
    From my understanding of Wikipedia it only has a couple of uses – as a weight loss drug and to treat asthmatic patients. Presumably AC doesn’t suffer from Asthma which means that it can only have been taken deliberately or accidentally through contaminated food. Now if the beef wasn’t contaminated what was?

  25. Contador’s team defence was that he ate contaminated meat from Spain. They also claim they imported this contaminated meat because other meat was not suitable. My understanding is that the source of the meat was checked and no Clenbuterol was found. As a defence it is up there with “the dog ate my homework”. The code is pretty clear on the principle of strict liability. So the defence of going out of your way to import contaminated meat looked pretty stupid. If you are bringing food or supplements to a stage race you should be very sure that it is clean.

    To say that they did not catch him doping is not true as Clenbuterol was found in his system and it is a banned substance. He can only claim that he doped by accident.

    If Contador had stated from the start that he was innocent, and that he did not know how it got there, accepted a 12 month ban, he would have more credibility and money now.

    BTW Did we get a clear answer as to whether plasticisers were found or not?

  26. beev: I’m sympathetic to both ideas but here we had him cleared and then the verdict appealed, it was harded to go faster. Let’s not forget this was a cross-border multi-jurisdictional case and 565 days is not to bad compared compared to many cases waiting in French, Spanish, Italian or Swiss courts.

    That said, 565 days and hundreds of thousands of euros spent just to get the UCI rulebook read back and a repeat of strict liability? A lot of the delays were unnecessary and he could have taken a one year ban this time last year from the Spanish.

    Gavin: nobody knows. CAS said on probability alone it was more likely to be from a food supplement but I stress on probability and that nobody knows. This is why the resolute “rogue steak” defence puzzled me, it might have come from contaminated milk or another source, the insistence on the imported meat to the exclusion of other hypotheses confused me.

    Bezz: yes, there were high levels of plasticizers present and WADA/UCI tried to suggest this was due to blood doping but the CAS believed there was no evidence of this, that there could be other more innocent means.

  27. I seem to recall that Alberto declared he would retire from (pro) cycling if he were found guilty and suspended. Now we hear that he expects to be re-signed by Saxo Bank in August when his suspension ends. I wonder if Saxo Bank will still be a ProTour team?

  28. I wonder…if a spectator sprayed some clenbuterol near a rider as he passed by, would this be enough to be detected? Just how minute of an amount can be detected by the super German lab?

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