Three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador, in his first reaction to a proposed one-year suspension for alleged doping, strongly defended his innocence in an emotional press conference today.
Accusing international cycling and anti-doping organizations of making him a scapegoat, Mr. Contador vowed to fight any sanctions as a “question of honor” because “all scientists know I’m innocent.”
Now, he just has to argue that to the Spanish cycling federation.
The 28-year-old cyclist has until the second week in February to convince the federation to revise its preliminary decision. After that, the final ruling will only be appealable in the Zurich-based Court of Arbitration for Sport. If the suspension is confirmed, as most expect, he will lose his last Tour de France title and will not be allowed to compete for most of 2011.
“I’ve had over 500 controls [drug tests] in my life, many unannounced, in my home, in family dinners. I’ve had to exit a theater halfway through a movie to pass a control, just because I believed in the anti-doping system. I no longer believe in the system,” Contador said Friday, his voice often cracking and on the verge of tears. “I’m a victim of the system.”
The investigation of Spain's beloved cyclist, a hero to many here, has revealed a divide between Spaniards who believe Contador is being made an example of and those who believe he is getting off easy. While the proposed penalty nearly brought Contador to tears, it also spared him the normal two-year suspension and surrender of 70 percent of the previous year's income – which could have cost him $4.8 million.
A shady case
The case has been shady from the get-go. It was only disclosed weeks after Contador was declared winner of the 2010 Tour de France, despite the fact he tested positive for minute traces of clenbuterol during a rest day. The investigation has also dragged on for months.
The International Cycling Union (UCI) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) reportedly pressured Spain’s cycling federation to act decisively, demanding a two-year suspension, especially following numerous doping cases of Spanish athletes, including several top cyclists. The UCI did not return calls requesting comment.
Clenbuterol is used to fatten animals and can be used to gain body mass, but indeed many experts say it’s worthless as a performance enhancer even when taken in big quantities. The infinitesimal traces found in Contador could not have been artificially ingested, giving credit to his claim he accidentally ate it through a contaminated piece of beef, although the agent is illegal to use in cattle farming in Europe and none of his teammates tested positive despite eating the same meat.
“It was basically a homeopathic dose which could not have influenced his sporting performance,” says Alfonso Velasco, a pharmacology professor in the Universidad de Valladolid and expert in anti-doping who just completed a review of clenbuterol as a performance enhancer.
“It’s useless to improve performance, although it does increase muscular mass,” Mr. Velasco says, adding the list of anti-doping agents “should be updated because some substances like clenbuterol are irrelevant.”
“This has become a soap opera, a political trial," Contador contended, saying that the cycling union and anti-doping agency had made "gratuitous and malicious statements." When asked whether he thought the ruling was tailored to please the two organizations, he said, “it’s shameful that I’m here without having done anything.”
'I will go wherever necessary to defend my innocence.'
Despite the absence of a smoking gun, experts believe the suspension of Contador will likely he upheld. “I’m not sure scapegoat is the correct term, but I think it’s close,” says Antonio Gallegos of the Denver-based law firm Holland and Hart, who has defended athletes in anti-doping cases.
“The decision to impose a suspension of any length is backed by the rules," says Mr. Gallegos. "That said, it would not surprise me if WADA and to some degree UCI put a lot on pressure on the Spanish federation to give Contador the full two-year sanction because they’ve been adamant to show they have zero tolerance.”
Under international guidelines, lack of evidence of intentionality could be enough to pardon an athlete in a doping case. But for Contador, the federation's failure to prove intentionality merely resulted in a lighter sentence.
“The one-year sanction shows I’m innocent,” Contador said today during his press conference on the island of Mallorca, where his Saxo Bank-SunGard team is preparing for this year’s season. “I will go wherever necessary to defend my innocence.”
Seated beside him was Bjarne Riis, the team’s manager who admitted to using performance enhancing drugs for years in the 1990s, including when he won a Tour de France in 1996.
Mr. Riis said the team would continue to support Contador until there was a final ruling. “We are strongly against all kinds of cheating, including doping. It is extremely important to distinguish between those who try cheating on purpose and those who do it accidentally.”