Alberto Contador: Guilty and Not Guilty

February 8, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Alberto Contador speaks during a press conference
Alberto Contador speaks during a press conference the day after the CAS handed him a two-year ban. (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The Committee of Arbitration for Sport in a somewhat mystifying ruling gave Spanish Cyclist Alberto Contador a two-year suspension which will only last for six months, and ruled him guilty of ingesting clenbutrol, via a method which no one seems able to definitively identify.

The three-judge CAS panel ruled out contaminated beef, which was the 29-year-old Spaniard’s stated source for the clenbuterol, saying that no one else eating with him had tested positive for the substance.

The other likely source for clenbuterol would be the plastic bags in which blood and plasma are stored. Cyclists are given transfusions of treated blood to elevate their red blood cell counts and transfusions of plasma to thin out the blood. Sometimes clenbuterol from the plastic bags shows up in this blood.

Somehow the CAS determined that there was no evidence of transfusions, though their investigation didn’t even start until 16 months after the positive test—what evidence of transfusions would one expect?

The CAS panel determined that the most likely vector for the clenbuterol to enter Contador’s body was in contaminated food supplements. What exactly is a “contaminated food supplement”? Tainted vitamins? If “contaminated food supplements” were the cause, wouldn’t that show up in tests of others using them, just as clenbuterol from tainted meat would have shown up in others?

Why can’t the CAS panel name the specific “food supplement” which was contaminated?

The actual rule states that a rider must take sufficient precautions to prevent accidental contamination by any banned substance. How could a cyclist know if meat was contaminated? But then, how could he be expected to know if a “food supplement” was contaminated?

The path that led to the CAS ruling is equally convoluted. After Alberto Contador tested positive for clenbuterol after Stage 16 of the 2010 Tour de France, the International Cycling Union (UCI) asked the Royal Spanish Cycling Federation (Real Federación Española de Ciclismo, RFEC) to discipline Contador.

The RFEC proposed a year ban, which the Spanish cycling star simply refused. The Spanish cycling authorities then decided to accept Contador’s claim that he had eaten contaminated meat, and to clear him of all charges. In effect, the RFEC effectively told their national champion, “Very sorry for the fuss; we now believe you ingested clemnbuterol inadvertently. Go on your way, and we hope you win lots of races.”

That is exactly what the Spanish cyclist did—he went on to win his second Giro d’Italia, one of the three most important bicycle races in the world, four months after being cleared by the RFEC.

The UCI protested and Alberto Contador decided to appeal to the CAS, but then asked repeatedly that the hearing be delayed, apparently so as not to interfere with his training and racing schedule. By the time the tribunal finally met in November 2011, Alberto Contador had completed a reasonably successful racing season. So, sixteen months after failing the test, he had yet to face any consequences.

Possibly the cyclist thought that he would win his appeal, and that giving up riding time to appear before the CAS would needlessly hurt his season. If he had instead chosen to follow the CAS schedule, he wouldn’t have had to race all through 2011 with the threat of suspension hanging over his head, but that was not the choice he made.

After two months of deliberation, the CAS panel ruled that in effect, Alberto Contador cheated accidentally. According to the CAS, he didn’t eat contaminated meat, which would not have been his fault; he didn’t get blood transfusions, which would have been blatant cheating; he did eat a contaminated “food supplement.”

Why eating a contaminated “food supplement’ would be considered blameful but eating contaminated food would not, is hard to understand. If he didn’t know what he ate was tainted with clenbuterol, how could he be guilty, whether it was a steak or a vitamin capsule?

It seems the CAS wanted to punish Contador, but didn’t want to accuse him of cheating. With the doping scandals which have plagued cycling through the past decade and the efforts made to stop doping, it might not be best for the sport if the best rider in the peloton were called out for cheating.

The penalty issued—stripping him of his 2011 wins, but counting the year of racing as part of his suspension and all the intervening time—likewise seems to benefit the sport of cycling.

If Alberto Contador didn’t deliberately ingest clenbuterol, taking away his titles would be grossly unfair, but if the CAS suspected that he might have, then the CAS would need show that it took doping seriously. By stripping Contador of his victories but only sidelining him for six months, the CAS managed to preserve as much as possible of the Spanish cyclist’s career.

A two-year ban starting in 2012 would cripple the Spanish cyclist’s career. Contador is at the peak of his powers now; a two-year layoff would rob him of possibly his best two years.

The CAS seems to have played some very clever politics. They refrained from damaging the reputation of the sport or the reputation of one of the sport’s most successful athletes.

As for whether Contador was guilty, one can only wonder. Apparently some bags of blood with his name on them were found by the police during the raid on Operacion Puerto doping scandal. It is hard to imagine that those bags of blood were there for any legitimate reason, even though Contador was cleared of any involvement.

Still it is impossible to condemn the man. Only he knows if he knew he was taking a banned substance or not. Yet the ease with which he accepted losing his third Tour de France and second Giro d’Italia win also makes one wonder.

Did he see it as a fair trade: lose the tiles but only get suspended for six months, maximizing his chances to win back the titles he lost? Far better to lose two titles than to lose two years, and far better still to never be convicted of doping.

Ironically, he will be not only eligible to compete in his nations Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España in September; if he trains well, he could be the favorite simply because his legs will be fresh, while the rest of the peloton will have ridden tens of thousands of tough kilometers already.

The CAS ruling really leaves unanswered questions or raises more questions than it resolves. Yet it does what might be the most important thing—it closes the case on Alberto Contador’s positive clenbuterol test. The world’s best rider was not branded a cheater; the UCI can still say that riders who test positive are treated strictly; and best of all for both camps, Alberto Contador will be back racing bikes with just a brief hiatus.

A very clever decision by the CAS, all things considered. 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.