Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Thoughts on the Contador Verdict

In light of Eurosport's delayed coverage of the Tour of Oman I have a little time on my hands today. So, time to ponder the big story of the moment: Contador is guilty and banned for two years.  The ban is backdated to the positive test, which means he’ll be back in competition by August but will lose his victories since that 2010 TDF rest day - most notably, the 2010 Tour De France and the 2011 Giro d’Italia. Andy Schleck and Michele Scarponi will be elevated to the top podium steps of those events, a’la Oscar Perreiro.

I have to admit, I have a hard time sorting out my feelings about this one.

On the one hand, I’m glad that the UCI and WADA pushed and pushed until they successfully got a conviction, a move which has protected the doctrine of strict liability. It’s a harsh rule, but it makes athletes responsible for what’s in their system rather than how it got there. This is vital if dopers are to be successfully drummed out of the sport, rather than simply tied up in court cases discussing the possibility of doped meat, contaminated steroids or those funny diet pills they were given.

On the other, I’ve always been a little unsure as to whether I thought Contador had actually doped. Of course, it’s easier to be suspicious of someone as dominant as he is, especially when he’s ridden for Directeur Sportifs such as Manolo Saiz and Johan Bruyneel, whose teams have been riddled with dopers. But still, we’re talking about a tiny amount of a fat-burning asthma medicine detected during the 2010 Tour de France. Remember that Tour? At one point Andy Schleck was so far from his best that he actually climbed Mende hollow eyed and drooling, yet Contador could still only win the race by the 32 second margin he gained when Schleck slipped his chain on the Port de Bales. If that’s a doped performance, you’re inclined to think Contador has been doing the equivalent of buying oregano outside Camden Town tube station.

Al Capone's Tax Return

For a long time I clung to the unspoken implication of the appearance of plasticisers in the test sample. This was a logical but unprovable train of thought that says that Clenbuterol’s biological halflife (around 36 hours) makes it highly unlikely that it could be in the blood on the rest day but not have been there when Contador was tested the day before … unless of course the blood itself hadn’t been there the day before.  An illegal transfusion of stored blood from several weeks or  months earlier might explain the presence of Clenbuterol and would also show traces of plasticisers. 

There’s no way of proving that plasticisers in the body came from a blood bag as opposed to from general environmental contamination, but the past prevalence of blood doping in cycling made the whole thing sound plausible. The Clenbuterol was essentially Al Capone’s tax return - something that could be proven so as to achieve a result you couldn't reach when pursuing the real problem. That still wouldn't explain why Contador was so uncharacteristically underpowered for a doped rider, but it did at least make slightly more sense of the miniscule reading.

Of course, CAS have now dismissed the plasticisers as a red herring, and seem to think blood doping is an unlikely a source of the Clenbuterol, and are floating the idea of contaminated supplements.

This has been on the back burner for a while now. Pharmaceutical production companies are making Maximuscle one day and Viagra the next, and there’s no guarantee of cleanliness on the lines. Plenty of team doctors have suggested that it’s only a matter of time until someone takes a multivitamin and tests positive for Elephant Sex Hormones.

Which brings us back to strict liability. If it’s in your system, you’re guilty. We’re all willing to accept that strict liability is harsh but fair in the case of Contador, who has ridden in some rotten teams and can’t help but carry a whiff of suspicion about him, but imagine if it happened to one of those riders universally believed to be above suspicion? Would strict liability seem harsh but fair if it had been Cadel Evans or David Moncoutie?

As far as his punishment goes, the backdating thing makes sense to me. Instinctively, I don't like it; it feels wrong that Contador will be riding by the end of the year, but I do like the small amount of clarity it introduces: you cheated in this race, so it's taken away from you, as are all the races you couldn't have ridden during your ban period. At the same time, the window is open - you can repent, serve your time and have a second chance to come back and do it properly.

It does make a joke of other things, mind you. With all due respect to Andy Schleck and, of course, Oscar Perreiro, I just can’t bring myself to think of them as Tour winners, even if I’m willing to acknowledge them us such. But there's a lot of hypocrisy in me. If the FDA Armstrong investigation had gone the other way, I'd have been screaming for confessed dopers Alex Zulle and Jan Ullrich to be awarded the Tours they should have had, as well as Beloki, Kloden and Basso.

That hypocrisy isn't uncommon among cycling fans - it often seems that we're less concerned about the crime than we are about how it was committed and defended. In my case, I find arrogant, credibility-stretching sporting displays or lengthy, petulant denials a'la Ricco or Virenque are unacceptable. Show a bit of contrition like Millar or Basso, however, and I've got a lot of forgiveness on offer. In Contador's case, I can't help but like him. He's an exciting throwback of a racer, and I'm already looking forward to seeing his destructive climbing on display in this year's preposterously mountainous Vuelta.

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