Professional cycling has just endured its own perfect storm, which also lasted for seven days. It began with a stunning decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on February 3; passed through a contentious verdict by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on February 6; and ended with a surprising retrospective ruling on February 9. The individuals at the center of these three diverse cases have a common background: They won a combined 11 Tours de France over the past 15 years.
Jan Ullrich took his only Tour victory in 1997, and he wasn’t allowed to ride a final one, in 2006, because of his apparent involvement in the Operación Puerto blood-doping scandal. That was almost six years ago, and the case involving the German cyclist’s alleged transgressions was only resolved this Thursday.
Alberto Contador, the winner of the 2007 and ’09 Tours, was found positive for the banned steroid Clenbuterol in an anti-doping test performed a few days before he won the race a third time in 2010. That case was resolved last Monday — after 18 months of mud-wrestling between the legal team representing Contador and the Spanish cycling federation (RFNC) on one side, and the various experts working for the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on the other side.
Lance Armstrong won seven straight Tours and raced the first six, from 1999 to 2004, in the navy blue colors of the U.S. Postal Service team. A federal inquiry into the possible misuse of that government-based sponsorship to fund a team-wide doping program was started two years ago. It was abruptly ended last Friday with no charges brought against the American superstar or his team.
These three cases have discredited cycling at its highest levels, and we can only hope that this past week’s perfect storm of results can finally sweep away the doping detritus that has polluted our sport for far too long. However, it may well turn out to be a not-so-perfect storm, one that washed away three major scandals for now but may allow them to bob back to the surface at some point in the future. So what’s the likelihood of that happening in these three similar, yet very different cases?
For Ullrich, who retired from the sport five years ago, the decision by CAS looks to be definitive. He asked the tribunal to dismiss an appeal by the UCI, which wanted to overturn Antidoping Schweiz’s decision not to initiate proceedings against Ullrich in regard to his alleged involvement with Operación Puerto. That Spanish blood-doping network has already seen suspensions for some of Ullrich’s former rivals, including Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi and Alejandro Valverde.
In a 24-page report, the three-person CAS panel upheld certain aspects of the UCI’s appeal and handed Ullrich a two-year suspension (not the lifetime ban sought by the UCI). The panel also wiped out the German’s results for the final 14 months of his career (including his second place to Armstrong at the 2005 Tour and his victory in the 2006 Tour of Switzerland), and asked him to pay about $11,000 in costs to the UCI. When Ullrich didn’t question the veracity of the doping evidence against him, the panel was taken aback and wrote: “Ullrich’s silence in this respect is both notable and surprising, given the vigor with which he has otherwise contested the UCI’s allegations.”
Given the even-handed nature of the CAS verdict, it seems unlikely that Ullrich will want to take any further legal steps. So at least this case is set in stone, with Ullrich found guilty of a doping infraction in connection with the Spanish blood-doping ring. Perhaps he’ll get on with his life as a retired athlete like his former Deutsche Telekom teammates — including Rolf Aldag, Udo Bölts, Bert Dietz, Jörg Jaksche, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel — who all (eventually) admitted to doping in the EPO era.
Unlike Ullrich, Contador has threatened to appeal Monday’s CAS decision to clear his name, but he can only make such an appeal to the Swiss federal court on procedural grounds. And anyone who has read the 98-page document produced by CAS that summarizes all the various arguments made by the two sides and gives all the reasons for the decision to hand Contador a two-year suspension can only be impressed by the tribunal’s professionalism.
For instance, after examining every aspect of the Spaniard’s reasoning that contaminated meat caused his positive test for Clenbuterol, the three-man panel concluded that “although the meat contamination scenario is a possible explanation … in light of all the evidence adduced … it is very unlikely to have occurred.” The panel used similar wording to judge that the UCI/WADA theory of Contador having had a blood transfusion prior to his positive test just as unlikely. The panel said that a more plausible reason for the Clenbuterol positive was contamination of a food supplement he had ingested, but because the athlete is responsible for everything that gets into his system that’s still regarded as a doping violation.
The panel’s conclusions are an affirmation of the UCI’s and WADA’s rules that earned Chinese cyclist Li Fuyu (one of Contador’s Discovery Channel teammates in 2007) a two-year suspension after he tested positive for a similar amount of Clenbuterol in April 2010. In response to the Contador verdict, WADA president John Fahey said: “Every time a cheat is caught out, the decision is very good news for anti-doping, no matter what discipline he practices or which flag he defends.”
In light of the panel’s impartial and thorough conduct of the Contador case, a new appeal by the now two-time Tour champion (he loses his 2010 title to runner-up Andy Schleck) could only go to the Swiss federal court on procedural grounds, and that is unlikely to get anywhere; and even if it did, there would probably be no verdict reached much before his suspension is due to expire on August 5. And Lars Christensen, the CEO of Saxo Bank, told L’Équipe on Wednesday that he “fully supports” Contador and will welcome him back to the team after the 2012 Tour de France.
In a rowdy press conference on Tuesday in his hometown of Pinto, near Madrid, Contador said about a possible appeal: “My lawyers are working on that possibility.” But it’s time to stop dragging things out even longer. Or, to paraphrase Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “The hombre doth protest too much, methinks.”
Contador’s ban has been a big blow to his fans, the Spanish media and the Saxo Bank team (which had to let him go); but the only sensible way for them to proceed is to accept that the 89 weeks of controversy have ended and to look forward to their hero returning to competition later this year. As French cycling journalist Gilles Simon wrote this week: “Will Spanish sport finally accept looking itself in the mirror, or is it going to close itself off in conspiracy theories?”
As for the feds’ investigation of Contador’s onetime teammate, Armstrong, the sudden closing of his case last Friday afternoon came without comment from the U.S. attorney Andre Birotte Jr. after input from the investigators. It was a tacit admission that no criminal charges will be brought against Armstrong, his teammates and team officials. Speaking to the Associated Press on Thursday, Armstrong said. “It’s over. I’m moving on.”
But not everyone is ready to move on with him. Both WADA’s Fahey and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart have urged the FDA to turn over evidence compiled during the federal inquiry to USADA — which temporarily closed its own investigation into doping in American cycling when the federal attorneys began their work. When asked about the renewed USADA investigation this week, Armstrong said, “I don’t want to get bogged down with that. I’m not going to worry about that.”
Armstrong, who always tested clean, has insisted that he never used performance-enhancing drugs. Nonetheless, given the public statements made by his former teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton that they used EPO and blood-doping methods at U.S. Postal, and that they observed Armstrong doing the same, USADA should examine these allegations as part of their broader investigation. However, Hamilton last raced with Armstrong in 2001; Landis left the Texan’s team at the end of 2004; and WADA has an eight-year statute of limitations on taking action against an athlete. So if Landis’s testimony is to be invoked, any charges against Armstrong by USADA would need to be taken before the end of this year. Even so, without positive anti-doping results, anecdotal evidence is rarely enough to convict an athlete of wrongdoing.
In this week’s Contador verdict, the CAS panel quoted the Spanish rider as saying in his defense: “Not only have I not taken doping substances, but I have always been surrounded by people (cyclists, doctors, trainers, etc.) who categorically reject the use of doping substances.” To counter that statement, WADA presented “a list of 12 former or current teammates …who have been banned for doping.” But the CAS panel concluded that “being in ‘bad company’ is no more or less of an indication of illicit behavior,” and added that “the actions of certain persons, or certain circumstances, should not in principle affect the way the evidence … is taken into consideration and evaluated.”
Given those standards, a new case against Armstrong looks unlikely at best. If so, then this past week will have seen a true perfect storm. Now, everyone can get on with the new season.
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