Alberto Contador appeal needed for clarity


Alberto Contador's doping case rolls on at the pace of a fat-tire bike weighed down with saddlebags. The UCI, cycling's international governing body, announced Thursday it will appeal the Spanish cycling federation's decision to exonerate Contador based on his claim that food contamination accounted for his positive test for clenbuterol. The Court of Arbitration for Sport will consider the case sometime in the next few months.

It would have been far bigger news had the UCI elected not to challenge the dubious ruling by the RFEC, which came amid apparent political pressure in Spain and had every appearance of being a negotiation rather than an objective consideration of the facts. Allowing the ruling to stand would have made it impractical to pursue any future case involving clenbuterol, a stimulant with steroid-like effects.

Several other recent decisions could undermine anti-doping authorities on this front, as well. Cyclists from the Netherlands and Denmark who had clenbuterol positives have been cleared by their respective countries, as was a table-tennis player from Germany.

More importantly, the principle at the core of the anti-doping infrastructure -- that the athlete bears the burden of proof when a banned substance is detected in a sample -- would be at issue, and sliding even a short distance down that slippery slope could make overall enforcement of the World Anti-Doping Agency code problematic.

There are those who think the principle of strict liability, as it's known, needs to be revisited and revised. Just ask American cyclist Tom Zirbel, who is serving a two-year suspension after a positive test for the steroid DHEA. Zirbel has said he does not know how the substance got into his body. He thinks the most plausible explanation is a tainted supplement, but he couldn't prove that, just as Contador couldn't prove he ate contaminated beef. Yet today, Zirbel is sidelined and Contador, riding for the Saxo Bank team, is leading a stage race in Catalunya.

As I wrote in a previous column, anti-doping justice today has too much to do with who you are and what kind of adjudication system your country has in place.

There are also those who contend that clenbuterol's presence in the food (or even water) system in some parts of the world is too widespread to dismiss a contamination claim by an athlete. (See this primer for more background.) The solution in an anti-doping context may be to establish a threshold amount for the drug. But there's a time and a place for that argument to be heard, and that's when the WADA code undergoes its periodic revision. Until then, at the risk of repeating myself, Contador's case and any others in the pipeline need to be judged under the current rules.

In all of the bureaucratic back-and-forth of the past two months, there has been no indication as to whether evidence involving plasticizers has or will figure into Contador's case. There was a ruckus last fall when news leaked that residue from blood bags used for transfusions, a banned performance-enhancing technique, had been found in Contador's samples. A test for plasticizers has been undergoing the review required for formal approval and, even absent that, WADA director David Howman has said test results could be used as corroborative evidence.

The Contador appeal needs to proceed for the sake of clarity on a lot of levels. Hopefully, it will be heard before either the case law or the race results it could affect get any murkier.