A Sad Day In Cycling: The Contador and Armstrong Decisions

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The Dangers of Drugs via Shutterstock, Photographer Julien Tromeur

The cycling world is collectively sighing this morning, some in relief, others in disgust. If you're like me, no matter how you feel about the two big doping stories jamming the cycling airwaves today, the prevailing emotion is simple, overwhelming fatigue.

After literally years of waiting, in the past 72 hours the cycling world received decisions in not one, but two of the highest profile doping inquests running. Last Friday, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California announced in a short statement that the nearly-two-year investigation into whether Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs was closed and that no charges will be filed. Then this morning, the Court for Arbitration for Sport handed Alberto Contador a two-year ban for his positive test for Clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France. Contador's ban will be served retroactively, and the Spaniard will lose all results since the doping infraction, including the 2010 Tour de France title.

Though contrasting in many ways, the two decisions offer similar lessons.

First, the facts of the Contador case. The Spaniard tested positive for Clenbuterol, a weight-loss and muscle-building drug, on the second rest-day of the 2010 Tour de France, a race that he went on to win. The positive wasn't confirmed until August 23, and Contador made the case public on September 30. The Spanish Cycling Federation (RFEC) took up the case and, after first proposing a one-year-ban on January 25, 2011, the RFEC acquitted Contador of all wrongdoing three weeks later. The UCI and the World Anti-Doping Authority appealed the decision to the CAS in late March, leaving Contador eligible to race until his appeal was decided. Numerous delays plagued the proceedings, and in the interim Contador won the Vuelta a Murcia, the Volta a Catalunya, and the Giro d'Italia. He went on to finish fifth overall at the 2011 Tour de France. Last year, between November 21 to 24, the CAS finally heard the case. According to the official statement released today (February 6), the sanction is “a two-year period of ineligibility starting retroactively on 25 January 2011, minus the period of the provisional suspension served in 2010-2011 (5 months and 19 days). The suspension should therefore come to an end on 5 August 2012.”

There are fewer facts known in the dismissal of the Armstrong case. Federal investigator Jeff Novitzky began an inquiry into whether the seven-time Tour de France winner used performance enhancing drugs after disgraced 2006 Tour-winner Floyd Landis confessed his own transgressions in May 2010 and alleged that he had taken to the practice because of institutionalized doping at the U.S. Postal Service squad. In those statements, Landis implicated Armstrong. In the almost two years since the announcement of the investigation, there have been numerous leaks, additional allegations (most notably the accusations by Tyler Hamilton on 60 Minutes last year), and wild speculation that Armstrong would finally be taken down. Then came the surprise announcement on Friday that the investigation was closed, with no explanation as to why.

Given the coincidence of timing in these decisions, it's tempting to take the two together—and I've seen this all over the web already—to say that it shows, once again, that Lance remains the beacon of light and right in a sport that is otherwise mired in drug scandals and controversy. It's also tempting to say that justice has finally been served. But as with both of these drawn-out affairs, the truth and fallout is murky.

I must admit that I believe that the idea that Armstrong never doped is naive. There's a stack of circumstantial evidence that supports the allegations against him, not least of which is the fact that the majority of the riders Armstrong ever beat in the Tour have since been convicted of doping. The huge benefits of performance enhancing drugs have been documented, so the idea that Lance was able to rout the very best athletes in the sport—when they were on PEDs and he was not—strikes me as beyond credible. As The Explainer points out at Red Kite Prayer, the closing of the investigation doesn't tell us anything about whether or not Armstrong doped; it simply says there's not enough evidence to legally prove anything. And without that proof, I agree that the decision to drop the inquiry is the right one.

Personally, though, I'd go a step further and say what I've been saying since the inception of this investigation: This is old news, with claims dating back a decade and more, and this whole thing should have never been started in the first place. I'm no Lance fanboy; quite the opposite. But I believe that the beating this investigation has delivered to cycling's credibility in the mainstream was not worth the possible payoffs of finding “the truth”—especially once Armstrong had retired. Furthermore, if you indict Lance, it opens Pandora's Box of pursuing retired cyclists, and I see no value—or end—to bringing down generations of cycling heroes. My opinions aside, I'm relieved to see it finished.

I also have to admit that while I really hoped that Contador would be able to prove his innocence—I personally like the guy and believe that he's the most talented stage racer on the planet at the moment—the CAS decision to uphold his ban was also the right one. The fact is that under the current rules Clenbuterol is a zero-tolerance drug, meaning that if an athlete tests positive for it he is either liable to show how the substance entered his system or he is guilty. Contador couldn't produce the tainted meat that he says led to the positive, so the only credible decision was to ban him.

What's unjust is that the case has languished for so long (565 days). In the interim, Contador has won a number of big races—presumably while racing clean as you have to imagine he was tested rigorously given the suspicions against him—and it's unfair to the cycling world, to Contador's opponents, and to Contador himself to now strip those results.

The coming days will no doubt be filled with endless discussions of the fairness of these decisions: whether Contador should have gotten more time or less, if the government should have pursued Armstrong harder, and how to once-and-for-all clean up cycling. To me, all of this talk misses the point

Now that the decisions have been made the best possible outcome (in these admittedly bad situations) is to accept them and move on. If we've learned one thing from both the Armstrong and Contador cases, it's that no good comes from dragging out the process. Had Novitzky left the past in the past, Armstrong could have spent less time and money defending himself over the last years and more energy on his cancer awareness efforts. Had Contador's case been decided quickly and his two-year ban applied from the date of his positive, he would be poised for a comeback in almost identical timing as he is now and cycling wouldn't be in the terrible spot of having to create arbitrary sentencing, re-write a year of results, and consider what to do about Contador's Saxo Bank team.

As long as there is big money at stake, there will inevitably be those who try and cheat. So rather than exclusively dwell on how to clean up the sport, it's as important to consider how to fix the judicial process that follows a doping positive. Cyclists should be suspended as soon as their A sample has come up positive, and they shouldn't be reinstated until they are cleared or they have served their ban. National cycling federations like the RFEC, which have an interest in promoting their own athletes, should not be in charge of prosecuting doping cases. More importantly, doping cases should be presented and decided in no more than three months from the date of the B sample positive, and sentences should be standardized and always pegged to the date of the infraction. I know that critics will parry that such a rapid trial wouldn't allow ample time to prepare a case, but I think the benefits of a swift conclusion of these trials outweigh the potential pitfalls. 

Apart from those legal changes, I hope we can simply bury the rest of this. I'd love to see Armstrong continue his foray into triathlon as well as his philanthropic pursuits. And hopefully Contador will take his lumps and return this August to vindicate himself. It's an ugly stain on his reputation, but lesser riders have accepted their bans and returned to success (think: David Millar, Ivan Basso, and Alejandro Valverde). With four grand tours to his name (not including the 2010 TDF and 2011 Giro that were struck from his record with this decision), the Spaniard already has more wins than most cyclists could ever dream of. And at age 29, he has plenty of time to regroup, reload, and rebuild his reputation.

But I'm not optimistic. Already, the US Anti-Doping Agency says that it will continue its investigation into Armstrong. And though Contador has yet to make a statement, he has the option of appealing the CAS decision on procedural grounds to the Swiss federal court.

And that brings me back to that sigh of immense, unadulterated weariness. 

–Aaron Gulley


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