Alberto Contador And Professional Cycling's Drug Apologists

Alberto Contador has finally been punished for doping offences after more than 500 days since being tested positive; but at what cost for the sport?
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Alberto Contador has finally been punished for doping offences after more than 500 days since being tested positive; but at what cost for the sport?

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Alberto Contador has finally been punished for doping offences; what does this mean for the rest of the sport?

This week, the world’s top cyclist, perhaps the greatest rider of his generation and winner of multiple Grand Tour’s, was finally found guilty of doping offences by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) more than 500 days after being tested positive.

Contador was banned for two years for having tested positive for Clenbuterol whilst riding in the July 2010 Tour De France, a race that he subsequently won; although now that title will be stripped from him along with any other titles that he won since his positive test. The result came as little satisfaction for the second place rider and now promoted winner of the 2010 Tour, Andy Schleck, and the same for promoted 2011 Giro d’Italia winner Michele Scarponi.

Although Contador was initially suspended after his positive test in 2010, the Spanish Cycling Federation overturned the ban in early 2011, a decision appealed by the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The rider was allowed to continue racing whilst his case was disputed and he went on to win several high profile races, including the 2011 Giro D’Italia, and was cleared to ride in the 2011 Tour De France. Subsequent delays meant that only in the last few days have the CAS finally ruled and found Contador guilty, nearly a year and a half after the offence.

Strangely, although Contador received a two year ban, he will be back on the scene towards the end of 2012. How does Alberto manage to cram a 2 year ban into just a few months? It was decided that the time he spent riding in competition between being first tested positive and yesterday’s final decision counted towards the period of the ban. Any results he gained during that time are null and void and it is argued this counts as much as if he hadn’t been riding and so they knocked it off his ban as ‘time served’.

Although the result has been hailed as a victory for clean athletes and a blow against drug cheating by WADA, the whole process has been an embarrassing charade. Those of us watching Contador compete in the 2011 Tour De France spent most of the race wondering if he would win, only to have the title stripped if he was found guilty when his case was finally heard. Were we watching a real race? Thankfully for cycling Contador didn’t win, and some of the best racing ever seen culminated in Cadel Evans taking the title, an athlete who has never tested positive.

Although the result has been hailed as a victory for clean athletes and a blow against drug cheating by WADA, the whole process has been an embarrassing charade. Those of us watching Contador compete in the 2011 Tour De France spent most of the race wondering if he would win, only to have the title stripped if he was found guilty when his case was finally heard. Were we watching a real race?

We all know there is history here. This is a sport where drug taking is, or at least was until very recently, ridiculously prevalent, the accepted norm amongst the top riders.

The subject first came to the attention of these shores in 1967, when the man many still consider to be this country’s greatest ever cyclist, Tommy Simpson, died of heart failure climbing the slopes of the Mont Ventoux during the Tour De France. Simpson’s death, still a cause celebre today, was almost certainly induced by his bodies inability to regulate temperature in the blazing sun of the Provence due to his ingestion of high levels of amphetamine’s, topped up with a little Cognac. Simpson, along with his fellow competitors, was a regular user of amphetamines, the then drug of choice for cyclists who wanted to push their bodies harder, which was pretty much all cyclists. The death of a top rider in this way brought home the dangers of drug taking for cyclists and changes were made to some degree, although the main effect was to drive the search for better and safer drugs rather than any attempt to eliminate them from the sport.

The riders tested positive over the last five decades reads as a Who’s Who of cycling. Riders such as Eddie Merckx, Jacque Anquetil, Marco Pantani, Richard Virenque, Alex Zulle, Bjarne Riis, Floyd Landis, and dozens more giants of the sport and past winners of the biggest races have all tested positive and received suspensions of varying severity. Debate and acrimony still abound over cycling God Lance Armstrong and his supposedly drug free career. The ‘did he, didn’t he?’ debate rages on, whilst Armstrong, lawyered up to the hilt, threatens to sue anyone who casts aspersions. So I won’t, but did he? Hmm. Either he didn’t and it’s a tragedy that such a great man, such an athlete and competitor, cancer survivor and campaigner, can be so accused. Or he did, and it’s tragedy of a different sort. Either way it’s a tragedy, and a self-induced weight around the slim but muscular necks of professional cyclists everywhere.

Amphetamines gave way to EPO as the drug of choice in the 1990’s, with team doctors and managers colluding all the way in an increasingly sophisticated game of cat and mouse with the testing authorities.

Perhaps the humiliating low point for professional cycling was the so called Festina Scandal in 1998 which saw police raids on team hotel rooms, arrests made, and the uncovering of organised and widespread doping. More serious efforts were then made to address the problem although further embarrassments followed, notably in 2006 and 2007 when various teams and riders were banned before the start of the Tour as a result of Spanish Police investigations, Tour De France winner Floyd Landis was tested positive after the race, and two German TV companies ceased coverage in protest at the general culture of drug cheating in cycling.

In the last few years, with the sport lacking in credibility and sponsors becoming reticent to continue investment and harder to attract, professional cycling has finally faced the problem head on and done more to eliminate drug use that ever before. It’s almost certainly true that cycling is the cleanest it has ever been, and that’s why the machinations and soap opera surrounding the Contador case are so disappointing.

It’s clear that the timescales involved between Contador’s initial test and the CAS ruling this week were far too long. The rider has been allowed to race throughout and will therefore suffer very little from lost training and racing time when he finally comes back. His real ban will be from now until August of this year, a long way from the two year ban imposed. The results of the races he took part in since the positive test have been re-written, but who wants to be declared winner months later because the winner on the road turns out to have cheated? Where is the victory in that? And what of the original decision by the Spanish Cycling Federation to overturn Contador’s ban in the first place? Reasonable, or national self-interest? In effect, a whole season of racing was to some degree made null and void by the inability of the various bodies to act in a timely fashion, overshadowing Cadel Evans magnificent victory in one the greatest Tours of all time.

In the last few years, with the sport lacking in credibility and sponsors becoming reticent to continue investment and harder to attract, professional cycling has finally faced the problem head on and done more to eliminate drug use that ever before.

With the world’s top rider in the dock there was an opportunity to demonstrate that cycling could deal with these problems effectively and decisively. The truth is they’ve shown there is still a long way to go in restoring confidence in the sport.

To top it all off, in the last few hours the CAS found retired German rider Jan Ullrich guilty of a doping offence connected with the 2006 scandals and have stripped him of all titles from 2005 until his retirement in 2007, in addition to a meaningless 2 year ban, 5 years after the event.

It doesn’t help that many past riders turned team managers and commentators show little sign of wanting to step up and condemn riders caught cheating. This was demonstrated by Eddie Merckx, a true legend of cycling and himself a convicted drugs cheat on several occasions, when he called the Contador outcome ‘a disgrace’. Perhaps it’s not surprising that commentators seem squeamish to say too much when they themselves have often been caught doing the same thing! It’s the fans as well though to some degree. A quick perusal of the comments left on cycling forums shows there are a huge number of apologists for cycling drug takers, fanatics who just cannot accept that their heroes are cheating and are just living in denial.

Finally, there is often a marked lack of genuine remorse from riders tested positive and more of a sullen acceptance of being caught, often accompanied by mutterings of how unfairly they’ve been treated. This is often followed up after retirement by an autobiography where they cheerfully admit all previous wrongdoings.

How many kids should be encouraged to take up a sport where the suspicion is that they will have to risk their health and their lives ingesting toxic chemicals in their quest for ‘glory’? Make no mistake, it is their lives that riders are risking. Worryingly high numbers of riders die an early death after retirement from heart failure or cancers linked to the drugs they took.

Does it really matter? Well I think it does because road race cycling is in fact one of the most majestic sports in the world. The competitors, drug use aside, are without doubt some of the very best athletes the world of sport has to offer. The complexities of the tactics; the many ‘races within a race’ that occur. The spectacle of riding 34km up a mountain to a height of over 2,500m and then down the other side at 50mph plus; the heartbreak of seeing a rider who has gone out on his own for several hours only to be caught a few hundred meters from the line and swallowed without trace by the enveloping ‘peloton’. The danger of a dozen riders sprinting for the line at 50mph, bumping each other elbow to elbow all the way, their bikes swinging wildly under pure pedal power; all of these things can be seen in just a single stage of the Tour De France, the Giro in Italy, or the Vuelta in Spain. Throw in the back drop of truly spectacular vistas across the high Pyrenees, the stark white heat of the Mont Ventoux, or the Alpine views from the Alpe d’Huez and you have an amazing sporting and human spectacle.

And the Brits are in the ascendancy! We have the British based Team Sky which includes Mark Cavendish, the world’s best sprinter, holder of the coveted green sprint jersey and the world champion’s rainbow jersey . Team Sky also includes a number of Olympic track cyclists turned roadies, such as Bradley Wiggins, a genuine contender for one of the top spots in a major race this year, and several young riders looking to break through. Never has it been better to be a British cycling fan!

Professional cycling has an opportunity to grow in the lucrative UK market, and it has the raw entertainment material to become as big across the world as the sport is in France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and many other European countries. To do that it needs media exposure and a positive image to attract the sponsors.

The alternative is a lack of new talent coming in and a steady flow of sponsors cash out of the sport which could leave cycling without the funding it needs to keep its top riders in the millionaire category of sports stars, and the teams without the cutting edge set up’s they currently enjoy.

It’s time for the UCI and the national Cycling Federations to reflect, definitely could do better. But mainly it’s time for professional cyclists to stop taking drugs and stop accepting others taking them, before they bring their house crashing down once and for all.

A Tribute To Cyclist Wouter Waylandt

Despair From The Jaws Of Victory

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