Alberto Contador is having a tough time these days. Not only is he under a cloud of suspicion following a positive doping test at last year’s Tour, he was also jeered by the fans (predominantly French) under the pre-Tour presentation, and now comes the news that he has found it impossible to eat meat since that much-debated test result as well. He ate his last steak on that fateful evening when the disputed Clenbuterol allegedly entered his blood stream, and hasn’t touched any since.
Now this might just be a way of saying ‘see how much I really do blame that blasted piece of meat’, but if he really wants to endear himself to the French fans – and he could do with a bit of that – then forsaking the country’s beloved boeuf is surely not the best way forward. I don’t think his culinary habits will have much sway over WADA or the UCI either, somehow.
Anyhow, the greatest show on sporting earth starts tomorrow. Are you ready? Here’s hoping Andy Schleck is up for the battle!
How I would welcome the day when cycling dominates the headlines for good reasons… For the time being, however, the papers have been concerned with three past Tour de France champions, all three suspected of doping, two of whom were caught and one stripped of his win. More drug scandals, in other words.
The Contador saga
Alberto Contador, three times winner of the Tour de France, tested positive, got a one year ban, received some prime ministerial support, was acquitted and is free to cycle again, except of course his case is likely to end up with CAS, who may respond with a ban during or after this year’s Tour de France, which, obviously, he may well win again. Just farcical.
Countries where such things are deemed less acceptable are shaking their heads, fans despair and non-fans have just been given another reason to give cycling the cold shoulder. I maintain that the greatest shame is not (another) champion doping, but the handling of his case. Cycling desperately needs a governing body with a fair and strong hand, which can clean up its image. We also need consistency across the board. The suspicion remains that had this been Mr Joe Bloggs, or had he come from a different country, he would have been thrown to the wolves long time ago.
The master steps down
Lance Armstrong announced his second retirement from cycling on the same day that Contador was temporarily let off the hook, this time final, one presumes, and thus the sport has lost one of its greatest champions.
The Lance Armstrong story does not end here, however. Under other circumstances, his retirement would probably have generated bigger headlines and more celebrations of his achievements, but we are all waiting with bated breath. What will be the outcome of the federal inquiry?
Perhaps that is the greatest shame – that the master must rely upon others to write the postscript.
Will the real Floyd Landis please stand up?
Floyd Landis. The ex-liar in search of belated redemption, or the bitter rider hoping to take others down with him?
It was hard to read between the lines and work out which man Paul Kimmage interviewed for the Sunday Times at the end of January (full transcript here). Lance Armstrong said that he has ‘no credibility’, which is hard to argue with, given his history; Floyd Landis lied to the cameras, to the judge in the courtroom and took thousands of dollars from unsuspecting cycling fans to lie again in his book.
If he is telling the truth, Landis is breaking all protocol within the cycling world, naming and shaming every rider he has ever seen dope. Previously, caught riders have professed their regret (or their innocence), served their ban and been welcomed back into the fold – or at least been readmitted, which I can’t see happen with anyone who goes down the Landis route.
For all his sins, I have sympathy for Landis. He seems to be a man who doped, was caught, then protested his innocence until all was lost, and that is precisely why I believe him. He has nothing left to lose. I don’t know if he is now telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or what variety of it, but I do believe this is a genuine quest for redemption.
Something that goes by the name of Clenbuterol, that is. Alberto Contador, three times winner of the Tour de France, tested positive for the substance on Aug 24th, and has been given a one year ban as a result. He may also find that he is, in fact, only a two times winner of the Tour de France.
This case has quite some way to go yet, of course, and the one year ban is only provisional for the time being. Fellow blogger Tim has done an excellent job of summarising the many twists and turns of the story over on his blog, so I shall leave the facts and figures alone, and limit myself to giving my thoughts on the affair.
Whilst there is precedent for a one year ban, and whilst I don’t want to deprive a man of his livelihood, nor a sport of one of its best athletes, one year is hardly much of a deterrent for young riders. There are always two purposes to a punishment, after all – to punish the perpetrator and to discourage others.
There are plenty of hard-liners who call for a life-time ban on drug cheats in order to scare the rest into staying clean. I think that is too extreme, but I do feel there needs to be a minimum ban period, and it ought to be a prohibitive length of time.
No matter which way you twist this, an illegal substance was found in Contador’s blood, which he has not been able to account for – he is either found guilty, in which case I think two years, if not more, ought to be the absolute minimum, or else he is innocent. Something about the current ban smacks of ‘we’re not sure, so we’re opting for a half-way measure’.
A two-year suspension would incidentally hurt his pocket as well, as he would then be forced to return 70% of his 2010 salary. A one-year ban incurs no financial sanction.
The damage to cycling
Contador is one of the leading lights of the pro cycling world, so this affair will no doubt further tarnish the sport’s already battered image. The UCI haven’t covered themselves in glory with the way they’ve handled it so far, either.
Damaging as it is, however, it doesn’t compare to the scandals of old, such as the Festina affair, for example. This is not a case of systematic doping by a team, nor evidence of endemic use and acceptance within the sport, which was the conclusion reached by many during the scandal-ridden 90’s.
To my mind, the UCI are showing a willingness to deal with doping issues, which wasn’t there before. The reputation of the sport is more dependent on the UCI’s handling of doping, I think, than on any one rider. Sad as the whole affair is, I see overall signs of progress, even if we have a long way to go yet.
There is one rider whose innocence cycling’s reputation does depend upon, however – Lance Armstrong. The investigation into doping within his US Postal Team is still ongoing, but we will have forgotten all about Contador by the end of the year if he is found guilty.
It’s been suggested elsewhere that the UCI is making a fuss out of nothing with regards to the Contador case. They should have handled it more sensitively, since he apparently must be innocent, kept quiet even. I strongly disagree with this view.
Whatever the outcome of Contador’s case, it is imperative that every positive test is not only fully investigated, but also seen, by the public, to be fully investigated. Cycling’s reputation is already tainted by drugs scandals, and whilst the public might not believe in the cleanliness of the riders, it should at the very least be able to believe that the governing body is committed to eradicating the cheats.
It has been suggested that cycling is cleaning up, and although there have been a stronger push from the UCI to keep their own house tidy in the last few years, they still have a long way to go.
The fact that the UCI has, in the past, accepted donations from Lance Armstrong, for example, strongly undermines their neutrality, and is not at all helpful to Armstrong himself in his current quest to clear his name.
Likewise, the road championship organiser’s recent attempt to ban Floyd Landis from speaking at the ‘New Pathways for Pro Cycling’ conference sends the wrong signal. I have no sympathy whatsoever for Landis, but if a robber offers to teach a bank how to improve its security, then the bank would be wise to listen.
Every sport has its cheats; it’s in the nature of competitive spirit that some will use drugs to get ahead. I don’t think any cycling fans believe that every single rider is clean. A governing body that is fair, but also decisive and hard on doping, is the best way to counter it, and the best way for fans to regain faith in the sport as a whole.
I don’t know whether Contador is guilty or not. Judging by the expert comments I have read it would appear that he has a strong case, which is good news for all fans. But either way, the UCI has done the right thing in investigating, even if the timing could have been better.
Cycling’s image doesn’t just rely upon clean athletes, but also upon a governing body who inspires confidence in the way they deal with the drugs.