Alberto Contador may be stripped of Tour de France title. Is he a scapegoat?

Spain's cycling federation made a preliminary decision to strip Alberto Contador of his 2010 Tour de France title and suspend him from cycling for one year.

Laurent Rebours/AP
In this July 25, 2010 file photo, Alberto Contador of Spain speeds down the Champs Elysees during the 20th and last stage of the Tour de France cycling race in Paris, France.

Spaniards on Thursday debated whether to condemn or defend their three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador after news filtered in that the country’s cycling federation would likely suspend the cyclist for one year. It is a decision that would cost him his 2010 title.

Some saw it as a mere slap on the wrist. Others saw it as overly harsh. Mr. Contador, who tested positive for minute traces of the banned performance-enhancing substance clenbuterol during a rest day in the last edition of the French competition, would be spared a heavy financial fine with the one-year suspension, but would miss most of the 2011 season.

The Spanish federation on Wednesday privately told its preliminary decision to Contador and the International Cycling Union (UCI), which had already provisionally suspended Contador last year. After news leaked to Spanish press, the cyclist’s new team Saxo Bank-SunGard confirmed it had been notified and said it would hold a press conference Friday.

Was Contador merely gorging on steak?

The federation declined to explain its one-year proposed suspension, instead of the two years that doping normally carries and that the UCI wanted. Contador and the UCI have 10 days to plead their case before the decision is final. They can appeal it formally after that in the Zurich-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.

But it has already split public opinion here between those who defend Contador as a scapegoat of cycling officials eager to show their zero-tolerance against doping, and those who condemn him for once again painting Spain as a doping haven, following numerous scandals in several sports in recent years.

One newspaper wrote: “Another idol has fallen.” Another called the decision “unjust, but legal.” Online chat boards were filled with disappointment and conspiracy theories.

Clenbuterol is commonly used to fatten cattle in some countries, but is illegal to use in Europe. Contador, considered by many to be Spain’s best cyclist ever, has claimed he unknowingly ingested it through a contaminated steak. Experts have said that the amount found in his blood could hardly improve performance.

No fish too big to fry

But the UCI, besieged for years by dozens of doping scandals, including the one that stripped American cyclist Floyd Landis of his 2006 Tour title, pressured Spain’s cycling federation to investigate the allegations.

Contador’s case is not clear-cut though. “This decision will mark a before and after about [the use of] smaller quantities of some substances that don’t enhance performance,” Juan Carlos Castaño, president of Spain’s cycling federation, said in a radio interview.

Several well-known Spanish cyclists have been suspended for doping in the past. Earlier this year, Spain’s best known female runner was also arrested, along with several other athletes, for their role in a doping ring.

But cycling is very popular is Spain, which has traditionally placed well in international tournaments. And Spaniards are openly wondering whether permissive authorities are trying to clean their slate with Contador while also appeasing the UCI.

Angel María de Pablos, a well-known Spanish columnist who has written about cycling for 40 years, sees it as a lose-lose situation.

“This heavy-handed decision harms everyone, not just Spanish cycling,” he says. “The federation just wants to show it’s Solomonic, to please both sides, and that it penalizes everyone.”

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