Alberto Contador: How strong is the doping case against him?

Alberto Contador, winner of this year's Tour de France, tested positive for a banned substance during the race. The cycling superstar says he was a victim of food contamination.

Andres Kudacki/AP Photo
Cyclist Alberto Contador of Spain smiles during a press conference in Pinto on the outskirts of Madrid, Thursday, Sept. 30. The three-time Tour de France champion tested positive for a banned drug while winning this year's race and has been suspended by cycling's governing body.

Alberto Contador, cycling’s brightest star and a lynchpin of its post-doping rebound, has been suspended from the sport two months after winning his third Tour de France.

The international cycling federation, UCI, announced today that traces of the banned drug clenbuterol had been found in Mr. Contador’s sample from July 21 – the second and final rest day of this year’s grueling Tour. He went on to beat Andy Schleck of Luxembourg by a mere 39 seconds after 2,262 miles of racing.

If Contador is charged with doping he could become only the second rider ever to be stripped of his Tour title – following US cyclist Floyd Landis’s fall from grace in 2006. Clenbuterol use carries a two-year ban.

But such a result is far from certain in this case.

Contador blames meat he ate

Illustrating the complexity of the case, the "adverse analytical finding" by the German lab responsible for doping controls at this year's Tour was only revealed to Contador on Aug. 24. The UCI took another month before announcing his suspension and an ongoing investigation could take months to yield a final result.

The Spanish superstar blamed the traces, which were 400 times below what accredited labs must be able to detect, as coming from meat he had consumed the previous evening – a claim supported by Dutch doctor Douwe de Boer, who provided an opinion at the request of Contador's attorney.

That would have been the night after Contador, a renowned climber, finished nearly seven minutes out of the lead on the first of two trips up the race's most notorious climb, the Col du Tourmalet. After the rest day, when the drug was detected, he and rival Schleck dusted the entire field in a strenuous rematch up the Col du Tourmalet, which Schleck won by half a length.

In a detailed opinion, Dr. Boer argues that given the short half-life of the drug and the fact that no traces of it showed up in Contador’s July 19 or 20 tests, the cyclist must have ingested it on the night of July 20. He also says clenbuterol – an anabolic agent used mainly to treat asthma – is sometimes used illegally as a growth agent for cattle. If humans eat such meat, the substance can show up in their system.

The Hardy precedent

The case of US swimmer Jessica Hardy, who gave up her spot on the 2008 Beijing Olympic team after testing positive for the same drug, offers support for Contador’s defense. Her two-year ban was ultimately reduced by half after it was determined that she had inadvertently ingested clenbuterol, an anabolic agent used to treat asthma, which she blamed on contaminated food supplements.

Hardy’s lawyer Howard Jacobs, who has made a name for himself defending athletes accused of doping, said in a 2008 Monitor interview that two-thirds of his cases involve such inadvertent use.

While the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) holds elite athletes responsible for remaining free of banned drugs, Jacobs said the system has become so unwieldy – without the proper checks and balances – that innocent athletes are too often being slapped with doping convictions, ruining their careers.

Reformed doper urges caution

British cyclist David Millar, an admitted doper who repented and has made an impressive comeback – taking second at today’s world cycling championships – urged caution in Contador’s case.

He criticized authorities for making the case public before a thorough investigation could take place.

“I think there's a very strong chance that this is being blown way out of proportion,” he was quoted as saying by cycling website “I would 100 percent give Alberto the benefit of the doubt. You have to understand that these things can be quite complicated, and it is a shame it is out there when it could be something completely innocent. Let’s wait and see.”

"It's a shame that it's been released when it hasn't been resolved,” he added. “I think it's something that should be resolved behind closed doors and done the way it should be done properly."

'No threshold' for clenbuterol

While the amount of clenbuterol detected is miniscule, doping authorities said any amount could be grounds for banning the athlete.

"Clenbuterol is a forbidden substance, whatever the amount which is detected,” Pierre Bordry, who resigned his post as head of the French Anti-Doping Agency last week, blaming a lack of political will to support the work, told RTL radio. “If they really found it, it's forbidden."

"There is no such thing as a limit where you don't have to prosecute cases,” added WADA Chairman David Howman in an Associated Press interview. “This is not a substance that has a threshold."

"Clenbuterol is a substance that has been used for over 20 to 30 years," he added. "It is not anything new. Nobody has ever suggested it is something you can take inadvertently."

But clearly Hardy’s case proves otherwise. Maybe Contador’s will, too.

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