We still don’t know what actually happened. Two-and-a-half years of bans, rescinded bans, hearings, and arguments that were by turns hilarious and laughable, and we still don’t know how Alberto Contador came to fail a dope test for a miniscule quantity of the asthma drug clenbuterol in the middle of the 2010 Tour de France. And it seems unlikely we ever will.

That’s not to say the 98-page decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport isn’t a cracking read, or that it isn’t an excellent demonstration of how the doping legislation is designed.

There was a great bit (para 135) where Contador argued that the steak must have been contaminated, because if it hadn’t been, well then where had the clenbuterol in his urine come from?

And I enjoyed the part (para 274) where the two parties held an entirely straight-faced debate on what size the cow must have been based on the dimensions of the steak. The meat in question cost €32 a kilo (at which rate a gasp from your asthmatic mate’s inhaler would seem a bit of a bargain), and weighed 3.2kg.

This meant the cow must have weighed between 290kg and 350kg, an analysis that would have been of more value if that margin didn’t apparently include pretty much every relevant animal in Spain.

Personally, I’d have thought that if a slip of a lad like Alberto ate 3.2kg of steak he’d have started the next stage with a bump in the middle like a constipated python, but this question was sadly left unexplored.

Likelihood of possibilities

The weakness of the arguments put forward by Contador to support the contaminated meat claim is clear from the start. He kicked off by appealing for an extra-flexible approach to the law to meet the needs of justice (para 218). Asking the court to bend the rules in your favour is not generally recognised in the trade as a clarion call of innocence.

The Spanish federation did attempt to help out, but you have to doubt how much assistance they provided by disingenuously asking how, since Contador had eaten the evidence, anyone was ever going to prove anything? Their attempt to explain what they meant by ‘prove’ was not quite the model of clarity they intended: The circumstance that a possibility is more likely than other possibilities does not mean that this relatively more likely possibility is also more likely than not to have occurred (paras 231 and 232).

By the time Contador asserts that ‘I have always been surrounded by people (cyclists, doctors, trainers, etc) who categorically reject [doping]’ you feel that the defence has pretty much rolled over and sunk (para 339). WADA and the UCI barely raised the energy to throw stones at the hulk when they provided a list of 12 convicted team-mates and the names of former manager Manolo Saiz and current manager Bjarne Riis as a counter-argument.

(The court rightly ignored both sides of this one – ‘guilt by association’ can’t be used as evidence, or you could probably line up every professional cyclist from the last 80 years.)

It’s very easy to criticise a failing defence. But in the end WADA and the UCI didn’t seem to play a blinder either – they spent vast amounts of time and money pushing the theory that the clenbuterol had come from a blood transfusion, only to see it dismissed by the court in half-a-dozen sentences. (Though WADA and the UCI rightly objected to the court’s refusal to allow their blood-transfusion expert to comment on an important aspect of the argument.)

No tidy resolution

The way the WADA code works, as soon as the positive test was confirmed Contador was essentially guilty, and had to make the running to escape a sanction. It was up to him to explain how the drug could have got there innocently, and to show not only that his explanation was possible, not only that it was the most likely of the available explanations, but that there was in fact a better than 50/50 chance of it having been what actually happened. (This is the ‘balance of probabilities’ that everyone keeps talking about.)

WADA and the UCI, on the other hand, didn’t have to prove anything. They just had to raise enough doubt about Contador’s explanation to keep it below the 50/50 threshold, which is why it doesn’t matter at all that in the end the court didn’t really accept anyone’s explanation.

I would speculate that the court probably ranked the chances of the competing explanations at something like 0.5 per cent for contaminated meat, 10 per cent for transfusion, and 20 per cent for contaminated supplement. And in deciding that meant a two-year ban, they applied the code perfectly.

That’s why the case feels so unsatisfactory. There was no need for it to present a tidy resolution. So it didn’t.

This article originally appeared in the February 16 2012 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine

Related links

Contador banned for two years after clenbuterol positive

  • paddy phillips

    I think to eat 3.2kg of steak some eater get him on man v food . Am a cyclist no way could u eat this much

  • Lucas

    Apart from the fact that riders nutrition is very, very closely monitored by team doctors and nutritionists, to the point of weighing portions and testing supliments for any anomalies.
    So……..there is no way a top pro cyclist would be eating anything not sanctioned by his team, and certainly not steak, suposidly brought all the way from Spain by a “mate”.
    Also, no pro cyclist would be ingesting steak before the Queen stage of the TDF.
    Guilty of cheating, end of story.

  • Hal

    Important point is missing.
    a fillet of veal, is 1kg or so. around 2kg from one calf (it can take two).
    the fillet of 3.2kg, I think it’s so doubtful veal.

  • dai bananas brother

    Dai’s missus says that , allowing for the fact that a bloke’s liveliehood is at stake, this is the funniest thing since the Unpublished History of New Tredegar Nomads’# I mean just how many cows do you have to eat to win a Tour? Let the bloke off, he’s a terrific rider, a great character and the grounds are as spurious as can be.
    # available via http://www.choppywarburton.co.uk

  • Anthony Turner

    Good article, if you have a spare couple of hours the decision paper is a fascinating read. From the evidence it suggests that the Clenbuterol probably did come from a tainted food supplement, rather than blood doping. There is however strong evidence that Contador had been using blood transfusions during the Tour due to his very high phthalates readings (additives used in plastics). The peak of phthalates which appeared on 20/07/10 is consistent with the data obtained after a blood transfusion.

    Ultimately Contador was unlucky. If it had not been for the tainted supplement, he would have got away with banned blood transfusions. Nice to see a cheating rider getting what he deserves, although a longer ban would have been nice.

  • Terry Wilson

    Good article. Nice to get a bit more background info too.

  • Colnago dave

    There was a great bit (para 135) where Contador argued that the steak must have been contaminated, because if it hadn’t been, well then where had the clenbuterol in his urine come from?

    Surely the above statement then acknowledges the fact that he had clenbuterol in his system – then he is accepting he was guilty, the only question remaining would be knowingly or not. But if he can climb and time trial like he does with 3.2Kg of steak in his belly he truly is awesome.

  • Alex

    Before I do the Etape this year, I’d happily volunteer to be doped up to the eyeballs in the name of science! …just so long as I don’t have to eat a 3.5kg steak or dislocate my lower jaw!!

  • David Chadderton

    Alberto could not possibly have consumed 3.2 kg of steak, unless spread over a week, but, I have only one echelon of questions. What about the remaining 330 kg of meat from the carcass? What happened to that? One animal could not be the only source of clenbuterol in the whole of Spain. Was it tested? Who else ate it? Why have meat quality professionals not found the source of the meat and its supposed clenbuterol? Every consignment of food is traceable. Does this mean that athletes dare not eat in any restaurant ever again? Does it mean that Alberto will not be dining in Spanish restaurants again? Would they want to serve him there?

  • John Brennan

    On the contrary HoCee CAS stated that there was no proof that he doped, they simply supported the UCI/WADA position of riders’ strict liability for what they ingest.

  • HoCee

    CAS found Contador guilty because he is a drugs cheat –simples !!

  • Ken Evans

    They could have done an experiment on volunteers,
    to see if using Clenbuterol, then extracting blood, storing the blood,
    then later re-transfusing the blood, showed any traces of Clenbuterol.

    And what doses of Clenbuterol, what time-interval before blood extraction,
    produced a positive result.

    The test subjects ideally would be a similar size, and body type, to Contador.
    They could even follow a similar lifestyle, and riding pattern to AC,
    during the months before the Tour.

    I doubt this would have cost more than all the legal stuff,
    and would have been more conclusive than all the guessing.