Updated with more specific ruling details.
Three-time Tour de France Champion Alberto Contador has been found guilty of using a banned substance during the TDF in 2010. He has been suspended from racing for two years (from the date of the failed test) and stripped of his wins in the 2010 Tour de France and the 2011 Giro d'Italia by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
This is not a story that I was prepared to comment on today. Having just posted about the concluded investigation into Lance Armstrong on Saturday, I guess I had naively hoped that scandals in bicycle racing were so last week’s news…
Apparently, I was wrong. Cheating will continue to be the headline for bicycling news stories for the foreseeable future.
Controversies like this stubbornly refuse to go away. It doesn’t help that the UCI – the governing body of bicycle racing – tends to shine a bright spotlight on the issue of banned substances and the agency’s rigorous testing protocol. Unlike baseball where fully grown men continue to grow from one game to the next, the UCI tends to notice both the obvious and the concealed when it comes to an athlete’s performance gains.
While the goal of random drug testing gives the outward appearance of an ethical sport that will not tolerate cheating, it also ensures that every failed test and resulting athlete suspension will continue to conflate cheating with cycling in the court of public opinion.
Worse yet, the shorthand terminology for use of a banned performance enhancement substance is “doping”. This connotation brings to mind a bad 1970’s police drama or a cheesy 1980’s after school special. It paints the picture of a desperate man detached from society or a promising young man who has succumbed to peer pressure.
Ironically, there is a similarity between stereotyped TV characters and banned bicycle racers.
An athlete (and most likely his advisers) has to be somewhat detached from the mores of normal society to consider getting caught cheating an acceptable risk when weighed against the reward of winning. If he perceives that his closest rivals may be doing the same, peer pressure from competitors (and again, advisers) may influence his decision to ingest a banned substance.
While most people tend to dislike cheaters, they really despise dopers.
It is for this reason that I must take issue with the word “doping”. In the popular vernacular, dope is slang for an illicit drug – a narcotic, an amphetamine, a barbiturate, or a hallucinogenic. Illicit drugs of this nature do not serve as a performance enhancement to elite level athletes as ingesting these substances could result in arrhythmia (remember college basketball star Len Bias).
In professional sports, dope generally refers to an anabolic steroid that promotes an elevated level of testosterone that usually results in upper body muscle growth. Upper body mass is not beneficial in cycling, so continued use of anabolic steroids is rare. That being said, Floyd Landis admitted to using an anabolic steroid to rapidly repair muscle fiber after a poor stage performance in the 2006 TDF. Steroids instantly gave him a fresh set of legs to win a critical mountain stage the next day which ultimately led to his overall victory in the race. Like Contador, he was stripped of his title after failing a drug test afterward.
While it may be splitting hairs here, but both types of doping – illicit drug use and anabolic steroid ingestion – are not common in bicycle racing. Most performance enhancement involves increasing oxygen consumption to ward off the debilitating effects of lactic acid build-up – improving both speed and stamina. Alberto Contador was found to have an amount of clenbuterol in his urine. This substance is used as a bronchodilator and is commonly prescribed to asthmatics. Strangely, it is also marketed online simply as "clen" and used as a metabolism booster to burn body fat quickly. In most banned substance cases, racers are found to have undergone blood transfusions with their own blood to achieve enhanced oxygen transport.
What difference does it make about doping when the end result is still cheating?
It is the insidious nature of Contador's attempt that transcends the conceptions of both cheating and doping.
Contador's team claimed that he ingested clenbuterol inadvertently through a tainted piece of steak from dubious origins. The UCI and WADA countered that he obtained it through a blood transfusion or tainted nutrition supplement. The CAS ruled that neither the contaminated steak nor blood transfusion theories were probable, but the tainted supplement theory was.
Contador likely ingested clen as a weight loss supplement, had his own blood transfused during the TDF's rest day and that blood contained a small amount of clen, or clen was inadvertently put into a nutrition supplement that was not authorized by his team. Neither UCI nor WADA accused Contador of inhaling it, but I'm sure that's another possibility if we're talking strictly about how one ingests clenbuterol.
Regardless of how it occurred, this type of cheating is no small affair – it is a full-on conspiracy. The racer doesn’t just cruise around the bad part of town or call up his cousin to ask his guy for an extra dime bag. He doesn’t mail order a box of ‘roids to a post office box and begin popping pills like they were Skittles. If he did take clenbuterol entirely on his own, he had to be incredibly stupid to mess with a known banned substance that could be discovered in a random drug test at any point during the training and race seasons. Stating that he ingested clen inadvertently through tainted meat might support the "stupid" defense...
In all likelihood, he had to work with a trained (maybe not licensed) physician, pharmacist, or medical researcher. The person supplying him had to know not only how the substance would work and in what dosage, but how (or if) it could be detected in a drug test. The substance had to be properly administered for both efficacy and the avoidance of test revelation. Many people must have been involved and each was complicit in the cheating attempt.
Calling it doping almost encourages us to offer sympathy for the abuser as there most certainly is a psychological issue behind the deplorable behavior. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Unless, of course, you consider greed a psychosis.
It infuriates me to have to acknowledge greed in bicycle racing, let alone comment on it. But there it is, the only logical common denominator in this conspiracy.
Alberto Contador did not act alone. Whatever his personal reasons for risking his reputation to win a Grand Tour were (something he had already done as one of only five men in history to win all three of the major races), we know his conspirators could not have been motivated by fame. Money - and likely lots of it - had to be their motivation.
Whether Contador's own greed prompted him to solicit conspirators or his conspirators approached him with "an offer he couldn't refuse", we have yet to find out. We may never find out. The CAS, UCI, and WADA seem to be content with stopping the investigation at Contador.
Alberto Contador is not a doper - at least in the traditional meaning of the word. He is a cheater. He is a conspirator. He is greedy. He is a liar, too.
But he is also a great bike racer (although not the best teammate or sportsmanlike competitor on the course, IMHO). And he will never be held in any esteem ever again. He traded his professional reputation for greed.
As I wrote over the past weekend, feel free to think what you want about Alberto (or Lance Armstrong). Read other opinions about the verdict. Voice your opinions about how cheating is ruining professional sports. Condemn all of those that are involved in gaining an unfair advantage on whatever field they happen to be playing on.
Please don't conflate cheating and doping with bicycling.
Keep riding and be safe.
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