A high-level doping scandal that’s been scarring our sport for far too long will reach its conclusion next week. And there won’t be any winners.
When the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) finally announces its decision on the Alberto Contador case it will have been 80 weeks since the Spanish superstar dined at the Novotel Lescar hotel in Pau, five days before the 2010 Tour de France finish. He claims that the sirloin steak he ate on the night of July 20 must have contained the clenbuterol, a banned steroid, which showed up in an anti-doping test the next day.
The three-person CAS panel will either confirm the Spanish Cycling Federation’s year-old decision to exonerate Contador, or uphold a joint appeal by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) to find him guilty of a doping infraction.
Why has it taken so long? Aren’t the WADA rules clear enough? To paraphrase two of them: A clenbuterol positive merits a two-year suspension from competition, and it’s the athlete’s responsibility to make sure he or she doesn’t ingest a banned substance (whatever the source).
Contador has spent an estimated $4 million on a team of attorneys and experts in defending his assertion that he was not responsible for the presence of clenbuterol in the urine sample he gave on the 2010 Tour’s second rest day. He has said there was no way he could have known that clenbuterol would be present in his steak, especially as the drug has been banned by the European Economic Community for many years. But the statistics showing an infinitesimal chance of there being steroids in European beef can also be used against Contador: The likelihood of the clenbuterol in his urine being caused by his steak is pretty much zero.
When WADA director general David Howman was asked in October 2010 what he thought of Contador’s claim that the steak was contaminated, he said, “The issue is, can you prove it? It’s a pretty hard thing to prove that is where it comes from.”
Another argument often repeated in Contador’s defense is that the amount of clenbuterol detected by the WADA lab in Cologne, Germany, was only 50 picograms per milliliter, and so, in theory, it was of no therapeutic value. But when the Chinese cyclist Li Fuyu, who once raced for Discovery Channel and Team RadioShack, came up positive for clenbuterol after a Belgian race in April 2010 and was banned for two years, the level was given as between 50 and 100 picograms per milliliter. Not much different from Contador’s level.
This subject was broached by the New York Times to Canadian organic chemist Christiane Ayotte, the longtime director of the WADA-accredited lab in Montréal, who said, “Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s not doping.” And addressing the possibility of athletes using micro-doses of clenbuterol to enhance their performance, she added cynically, “This is just the dopers adjusting or misadjusting to the testing.”
WHY SO LONG?
When Floyd Landis tested over WADA’s legal limit for testosterone in a test performed four days before he won the 2006 Tour de France, he was informed of the A-sample’s positive result within a few days, and the B-sample confirmed the presence of synthetic testosterone the following week. After his case was referred to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Landis requested a public arbitration hearing, which was held in May 2007.
Four months later, on September 20, 2007, the arbitration board found Landis guilty, and USADA suspended him for two years; within three weeks, Landis said he was going to appeal the decision with CAS. That appeal was heard the following March and a verdict was finally announced on June 30, 2008, with CAS dismissing the appeal and ordering Landis to pay USADA $100,000 in costs.
So the process for the Landis case took more than 100 weeks — which makes the 80 weeks for the Contador case look positively speedy! But it’s clear that this all should have proceeded much faster.
Questions have been asked why it took the UCI a month to inform the 2010 Tour winner of his positive test and why it took another month before the international body released details to the media — and only then after the news was leaked to German television network ARD. That delay can be explained by the Cologne lab also finding plasticizer residue in Contador’s sample taken on July 20, just prior to the steak dinner, which WADA claims possibly came from a blood bag being used for an illicit blood transfusion. This complication had to be fully examined by anti-doping scientists (especially if the blood-bag theory was true and the clenbuterol came from an injection of blood plasma before the positive July 21 test), and explains the long initial delay.
In an interview with the French sports daily, L’Équipe, Contador revealed that when the UCI’s medical expert Dr. Mario Zorzoli called him in late August 2010, “He said there’d been an abnormal test result, without mentioning the substance. … He told me we should meet and he’d explain because the situation was complicated and different from typical cases. … I was incredulous.”
Regarding the insinuation of blood doping, Contador said, “It was a devastating blow. Accusations based on a hypothesis can be very damaging. I would like this type of information to be handled with great caution.”
After his meeting with Zorzoli, Contador spoke with his brother Fran and a close friend, who both said the clenbuterol must have come from something he ate or drank. The Spanish racer then thought at length about his time at the hotel in Pau before concluding: “It could only have come from the meat brought from Spain that I’d eaten two days in a row. I did not see and still don’t see any other explanation.”
Athletes who have tested positive for clenbuterol in places like Mexico and China, where anti-steroid controls for meat producers are very lax, have gone unpunished or had two-year suspensions reduced to a year, but both the Contador and Li Fuyu tests were carried out in Europe where agricultural regulations are strictly enforced.
After Contador’s dossier was handed to the Spanish federation (Spain, unlike the U.S., does not have an independent anti-doping agency), it took six weeks before a hearing was held and another 10 weeks before a decision was announced in late January 2011. The federation handed down a provisional suspension of one year, but said Contador could appeal. He did, and after an outcry of support for him from the media and the public — including an endorsement from the Spanish prime minister — the federation reversed its decision on February 15, leaving Contador free to race.
It took another six weeks before WADA joined with the UCI to appeal the Spanish federation’s decision. The CAS hearing was originally scheduled for late June last year, but it was then postponed until early August “in order to give all parties concerned reasonable time to prepare.” A week prior to that date, CAS announced a second postponement, requested by WADA, to allow another round of written submissions and give all parties time “to complete their evidence and arguments relating to some specific scientific issues.”
The four-day hearing was held in Lausanne, Switzerland, November 21-24. The CAS panel’s decision was expected mid-January, but was delayed yet again to investigate claims in the media that Contador’s cycling team, Saxo Bank, had tried to influence the chairman of the CAS panel, Israeli lawyer Efraim Barak, by holding its pre-season training camp in Israel. However, neither the UCI nor WADA challenged the composition of the panel, and so the verdict will finally be announced next week.
Eighty weeks is a very long time to wait for a decision. But when the stakes are so high — for Contador, it could mean losing his victory in the 2010 Tour de France (and perhaps 2011 Giro d’Italia), compromising his status as a national hero and jeopardizing his multimillion-dollar salary — it’s better that every avenue is explored so that justice appears to be done. One change that can (and should) speed up the process in the future is to stop sending doping cases to national federations and instead have an independent commission (similar to the one that adjudicates on the UCI’s biological passport cases) that could produce a much faster outcome.
It’s perhaps facile to compare the Contador case with that of Li Fuyu, the Chinese rider who didn’t have a team of high-paid lawyers to help him and whose two-year suspension from competition ends this spring. Still, the anti-doping rules should be applied equally to every athlete; otherwise, cycling’s fight against doping loses credibility.THE VERDICT?
In his October 2010 interview with L’Équipe, Contador said, “If I’m ever found guilty then an innocent person will have been condemned. … I’ve always encouraged the fight against doping, and now things are turning against me.”
When Contador was asked about the likely outcome of his case by a group of American journalists three months ago, he replied, “I’m very confident (the CAS decision will be favorable). Because of all the controls, the scientific facts support my case.”
Contador was referring to all the anti-doping blood and urine tests he has had throughout recent years when he enjoyed a six-win streak in the grand tours, before coming up short with fifth place at the 2011 Tour. “There is not the slightest abnormality in my biological passport,” he told L’Équipe. “I am one of the five most tested athletes in the world. Do you think I’d risk doing something wrong?”
His November hearing at CAS was held behind closed doors, but certain details emerged. The first was that the WADA-UCI team introduced the evidence of the plasticizers and blood-bag theory, even though the test for detecting them is still being developed. Furthermore, according to an Associated Press report, WADA scientist Michael Ashenden (who is an analyst for the UCI’s biological passport cases) was barred from being questioned on procedural grounds — possibly because the CAS panel felt the transfusion theory was not a central part of the case, only an addendum.
Given the size of the two sides’ dossiers and the panel’s two months of deliberations, it’s virtually impossible to predict an outcome. Those closest to the case believe that the Spanish federation’s exoneration of Contador will most likely be upheld. If that’s what happens, the three-time Tour champion will win on paper, but a stain will remain on his reputation. Such a verdict would be a setback to the UCI and WADA because it would go against two basic tenets of their fight against doping: (1) a positive test for steroids brings an automatic ban, and (2) an athlete is responsible for any banned product entering his or her body.
Should the Spanish side lose the case, then WADA and the UCI could point to the success of their anti-doping policy. But Contador, like Landis, would be stripped of his Tour title and become one more black mark against the Tour and the sport of pro cycling.
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