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Column: Contador is banned but was justice served?

Updated: February 06, 2012, 14:50

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) Stripping Alberto Contador of his 2010 Tour de France victory on the supposition that he may have eaten a dodgy food supplement is like jailing Al Capone for tax evasion: Yes, Contador's accusers secured a conviction, but the verdict missed the point.

Was this justice? Strictly speaking, it was. But it didn't feel that way.

In their defense, the three judges at the Court of Arbitration for Sport - whose ruling on Monday struck another body blow at cycling - faced a devilishly difficult task.

Pretty much the only indisputable fact in this most complex and contentious of cases was that the banned performance-enhancing drug clenbuterol was found in the Spaniard's urine in infinitesimal quantities at the 2010 Tour. That, in itself, was reason enough to ban him.

But how it got there remains anyone's guess, even after a hearing process that gave new meaning to the term "glacial.''

The legal file alone ran to 4,000 pages. Contador and his accusers - the World Anti-Doping Agency and cycling's governing body, the UCI - solicited enough experts, scientists, witnesses, gumshoes and lawyers to fill a bus. No speck of argument was left unturned. There was even discussion - I kid you not - about how big a calf needs to be for a butcher to be able to cut a veal fillet weighing 7 pounds, and how many liters of urine Contador produces in a day (don't ask).

If all the brainpower and money that both sides poured into this case had gone toward something more useful, perhaps there would be world peace by now. In economically tough times for ordinary folk, WADA and the UCI might not get much applause for spending a fortune to secure a result so wishy-washy and unsatisfying. But they would have been hammered if they hadn't pursued this case, too.

All many fans wanted from the CAS was clarity: Did Contador cheat by having a banned, performance-enhancing blood transfusion or was he telling the truth when he said that a veal fillet he ate at the Tour must have been contaminated by clenbuterol, causing him to test positive for the drug?

The judges ruled that both scenarios were "possible'' but also "equally unlikely.''

Instead, they took a third route: Contador might have eaten a food supplement that might have been contaminated with clenbuterol.

This, they said, was a "more likely'' explanation for his positive test. Read that again carefully. They weren't saying that it was the likely explanation, only that it was less unlikely than the other two "very unlikely'' scenarios.

In other words, the judges took a guess.

Which doesn't mean, necessarily, they made the wrong decision. Fans who suspect Contador is a dope cheat with a bogus excuse about veal will simply be pleased that he's banned until August and stripped of his 2010 title. For them, the ends will justify the means. If Contador did blood dope, then justice will have been served.

Blood doping with transfusions has been - some would say it still is - a scourge in cycling because it supercharges performance and endurance but also cannot be proved using conventional urine tests. Months of forensic science were devoted to trying to demonstrate that Contador's blood readings at the 2010 Tour were suspect. If CAS had agreed with WADA's theory that he might have had a blood transfusion, that would have sent a powerful warning to dopers who are getting away with it and would have made the expense of this case easier to justify.

But pointing the finger at a supplement isn't going to deter cheats.

Plus, with all the "ifs,'' "buts'' and "maybes'' in this case, Contador's two-year ban seemed a bit harsh. It's by the book, of course. Athletes are responsible for what goes into their bodies. They've been warned many times about the risks of taking supplements. Even the tiniest amount of clenbuterol can trigger a ban. From the moment lab technicians in Germany found traces of the drug in his urine samples, it was always going to be hard for Contador to beat the rap. Athletes with far less money than he has to throw at his defense would have stood even less of a chance in the circumstances.

One bright spot in the CAS verdict is that athletes who eat meat in Europe shouldn't overly worry that they might be contaminated and test positive inadvertently for clenbuterol, as happened to some competing in China and Mexico. The judges ruled that although the possibility of meat being contaminated in the European Union "cannot entirely be ruled out,'' the probability is "very low.'' With the London Olympics just six months away, that means athletes need not become vegetarian - in Europe, at least - to be completely safe.

Still, that doesn't tell us what happened with Contador.

Cycling's biggest star since the retirement of seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong now has an asterisk next to his name. But it's hard to draw any solid and unbiased conclusions about what that means. To his fans, he will be the innocent victim of a system that is tough because it puts the burden on athletes to prove how a drug got into their bodies. But those who have long suspected that Contador is just another cheating cyclist telling yet another lie will feel he had this coming and won't care how CAS got there.

One can only hope CAS got this right, that it hit on the truth without saying so or perhaps even meaning to. But short of a belated confession from Contador, we'll never be sure that it did.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester

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