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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Contador is cleared. A Verdict, not a proposal...

Contador is cleared to race.  And this time, it's a verdict, not a "proposal"

In a bizarre series of events, the Spanish cycling federation has cleared Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, and exonerated him of any doping charges.  He is therefore free to race immediately.

The verdict, which was until yesterday a "proposal" was announced by Spanish news yesterday and confirmed today.  You can read the coverage in English at cyclingnews

There is a lot to comment on this story, and I will in due course.  Right now, I'm traveling back from the USA Sevens in Las Vegas, and I had been planning a couple of posts on high performance sport, inspired by the weekend's victory!  Then this came up!  So a short comment below.

The basis for exoneration - a theory without proof, but good enough

Contador was cleared for two reasons:
  1. Article 296 of the UCI code states that an athlete can be exonerated if they prove (my emphasis) that they had inadvertently ingested a banned product through no fault or negligence on their part.

    And that's fair enough, of course.  I'm all for sensible decisions based on the evidence.  It happened in SA Rugby, and as I posted last time, I think the correct verdict was reached there because the players were able to prove that they'd ingested contaminated supplements.  The "culprit" was presented to a lab, it contained the banned stimulant, it was presented to the committee.

    No such thing seems to have happened here.  Contador's cow is long gone...and no secondary evidence that suggests the likelihood of contamination seems to have been provided, unless we are not being told of all the evidence.  Instead, we have a proposal, not proof, provided by Contador and his team, having been given some time to prepare a report on it last year.  That report provides a possible argument, sure, but it does NOT constitute proof.

    So am I to interpret this to mean that Article 296 of the UCI regulations, at least to the Spanish committee, actually says "an athlete can be exonerated if they offer a theory that they inadvertently ingested a banned product.  Whether or not that theory is provable is not so important, as long as there is some precedent and the possibility exists, however small"? 

    This is a crucial re-interpretation of what has always been strict liability on the part of the athlete.  And we have all heard some crazy doping defence arguments - toothpaste being spiked, vanishing twin theories, accidents causing testosterone to rise.  And yes, the idea of contaminated beef is not so outrageous that it can be dismissed out of hand.  However, numerous experts have pointed out that small doses of clenbuterol are not unusual.  And even in Contador's own report, cases of contaminated beef have often resulted in very serious symptoms.  Experts cast doubt on this defence, yet Spain's authorities have accepted it.

    Perhaps the key is that even though the contaminated beef theory is possible, it doesn't matter.  Unless it can be proven, it is not a sound defence argument, particularly when the alternative - deliberate doping - is far more plausible.

  2. The second basis for clearance may be a technicality, a procedural flaw early in the case.  That is, a letter was sent from the UCI to the Spanish federation on November 8, but it was not also sent to Contador and his legal representatives.  This violates Spanish anti-doping law, and L'Equipe are reporting that this may have had something to do with the clearance.

    If that is true, then so be it - the legal loophole wins again.  It would be interesting to know if that were interpreted by Contador as evidence of innocence.  As it is, we won't know, because of the contaminated beef argument, which he will almost certainly feel vindicates him.
The bigger picture - a politician's tweet, a committee's neutrality, cycling's reaction and what happens next?

Finally, look at the bigger picture here.
  • We have a Committee, set up by a President who himself said that he hoped Contador would be cleared.  The committee is "neutral", but answers to the president.
  • They deliberate for months before deciding on a PROPOSAL.  Not a sanction or a decision, but a proposal of a one-year ban.  An idea, that they effectively floated out there to see how it would be received.
  • It's received very badly.  Contador is outraged, the Spanish Prime Minister is equally upset.  He tweets that there “there are no legal grounds for sanctioning Contador”
  • The Committee gets back together, and apparently mulls over their proposal for a weekend.  They emerge, but this time, with a verdict.  Contador is cleared.  There is no contaminated beef, no proof of the alternate theory, but they have decided that Article 296 must include the possibility of inadvertent use, rather than proof
All in all, it is quite a bizarre series of events.  I'd like to think that the Committee were not swayed by the Spanish Prime Minister's tweet.  That he, like many others, was simply ignorant of the WADA code.  But then again, it appears that the Committee may have been equally ignorant.  Or that they have decided to re-interpret it for the good for Spanish cycling, and Contador.

As for the UCI, their reaction will be interesting.  Will there be an outcry?  Or are they also drinking champagne and celebrating behind closed doors tonight?  Pat McQuaide has after all stated numerous times that cycling doesn't have a doping problem.  Clearly the Spanish Committee agree.  And now their champion cyclist has been cleared.  I expect to hear very little from the UCI on this one, but I also expect media and public pressure to force their hand, as it has done before, and I wouldn't be surprised if the CAS get involved in this one. 

What will be the reactions of the professional peloton?  Will they decry the injustice of the verdict?  Or will they support, quietly, the escape of one of their own?

All in all, cycling's condition just go worse, regardless of whether you believe in tainted beef or not.

Love to hear your comments and discussion, as always!  I'll be traveling to New York tomorrow, spending three days there, so I may not always respond, but I'll be reading!