Painful Times in Front of Us

News & Results

01/16/2012| 0 comments
by Neil Browne
Photo Fotoreporter Sirotti.
Photo Fotoreporter Sirotti.

Painful Times in Front of Us

What will be the repercussions of the Ullrich and Contador cases?

What will be the repercussions of the Ullrich and Contador cases?

The ongoing and seemingly never ending doping cases in pro road cycling make me wonder what the end result of all this will be.

First off we have the Jan Ullrich case. Just a quick recap for those who might have forgotten - back in 2006 Ullrich was implicated in the Operation Puerto sting. Bags of his blood were found, which is never a good thing. The implication being that he was transfusing his own, now turbo charged hemoglobin. Ullrich was tossed from his team and he retired. But like a battery sucking app on your smartphone, the case continued to churn along in the background. So after almost six years the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is expected to finally make a ruling this week!

Regardless of the ruling it doesn't make a difference to the 1997 Tour de France winner. He's retired with no comeback planned and now riding the Gran Fondo circuit. His agent has stated regardless of CAS ruling there won't be any interviews or television appearances.

While personally there are no repercussions that will affect Ullrich, what CAS and the UCI have shown is that they will continue to proceed with doping cases, regardless if the athlete in question has retired or not. This prevents an athlete from avoiding any prosecution by retiring, the investigation stopping, but the rider makes a "comeback" and picks up where they left off, a la Alexander Vinokourov.

The Kazakhstan rider was popped at the 2007 Tour de France but was slapped on the wrist by his own national cycling federation, issuing him only a one-year ban. Naturally this upset the UCI which would have liked a two-year ban. However, Vino said he was retiring, so there didn't seem to be a point in pursuing litigation if he was truly done with professional cycling. But surprise! He returned!

CAS had to restart their case against him and Vino didn't return to racing until August of 2009 - but this stop and start by the UCI didn't do the governing body any favors. It just made them appear unprepared.

This Ullrich ruling, regardless of the decision, has created a precedent that no matter what, the accused athlete will be brought before CAS or at least sanctioned by their own national federation.

Next we have Alberto Contador. We have been teased for months that a decision from CAS was coming soon, then it was postponed. Then it was postponed again. Then we were told January was the month and specifically this week. Then it was announced that due to the pesky media and their reporting on the case a ruling has been delayed again!

I know what you're thinking, how is the media responsible for the delay? In a press release CAS stated that because the media was "all up in our business" (okay - not a direct quote - that's my own interpretation) regarding the arbitration panel, specifically the Israeli judge, it's going to make a ruling at the end of January. Really CAS - that's the media's fault?

Last week RadioShack-Nissan team owner Flavio Becca got a bit snarky regarding Contador and the Saxo Bank team. He accused them of trying to curry favor with the Israeli judge on the CAS panel by holding their training camp in Israel and doing good deeds like building a school in Israel. You see, you need two out of three judges to rule in your favor to make those pesky clenbuterol charges to go away.

Sure, on the surface it's a bit odd. To my knowledge no professional cycling team has ever had a pre-season training camp in Israel, but without more evidence I have to believe that team Saxo Bank was there for altruistic reasons. Well, the media had the nerve to report on Becca's statements and the Associated Press went further and wrote that the WADA lawyers nearly walked out of the proceedings because their expert witness was denied the chance to give testimony. This reporting of the facts got CAS' panties in a bunch, so they delayed the ruling.

Myself and several other journalists could only shake our heads in disbelief. The 2011 Tour de France is in the books and we are still faced with determining who really won the 2010 edition. Will it be Contador? Will it be Andy Schleck? Will the Tour's reputation survive the fallout if CAS rules against Contador? Will professional cycling's reputation survive regardless of the outcome?

If Contador is found innocent of purposefully ingesting clenbuterol for performance enhancing reasons my belief is that it will make splashy front page news in Europe and maybe a paragraph in the back of the sports section here in the States. For my European readers, cycling in the States only gets the attention if an American wins the Tour de France or someone has a horrible accident. Anything else, forget it.

The ramification of an innocent Contador is that an athlete can be found not guilty of a positive doping result if he or she can prove that the ingestion was accidental. To further clarify, a positive result will no longer mean an automatic ban. A rider's lawyer will have an extra loophole and can claim that the drug in question was found in their client's body because of a vitamin, meat, tainted water bottle, Jack Daniels ... whatever. Defense lawyers have a great imagination and will come up with all kinds of excuses. However, it's going to take some real brainstorming to beat the twin fetus defense by Team Tyler Hamilton. That theory was pure gold!

Unfortunately this doesn't help Tom Zirbel who was sanctioned for two years after taking a supplement that had traces of a banned substance. Zirbel was all set to transfer to the Garmin squad and make his European debut. But the positive result scuttled that and any chance of joining and making that next step in his professional career. If he had been found positive in a "post-innocent Contador world" he might have had a fighting chance to defend himself.

A guilty Contador creates a shit-storm of epic proportions. The 2010 Tour de France standings will be changed as well as the results of other races he's contested. The reputation of the Tour will take another hit and that will make front page news. The casual fan will wonder if professional cycling has the legitimacy of wrestling and that will scare off potential sponsors. Who needs to invest their money into something that seems a bit dodgy when there's NASCAR? Saxo Bank, the sponsor, will not be pleased and they'll be gone by the end of the year. A guilty Pistolero means team manager Bjarne Riis will need to find a title sponsor and we all know how easy that is (sarcasm alert!).

I've said this before, but I'll say it again - I think Alberto Contador will be found innocent. Not because he is, but I think the ramifications will be too horrendous to the sport if he's sanctioned. The Tour de France, the flagship of the sport, will be wrecked like the cruise ship Costa Concordia that's currently taking on water off the Italian coast. Perhaps I'm jaded by the UCI's mishandling of issues from race radios, the Tour of China, and comments by the president of their own organization to not think the fix is in. Deep down, in the pit of my stomach, I hope that the right ruling is made: Contador gets suspended. I also hope that instead of showing how inept certain aspects of the sport is, there is some good being done and in order to move forward there will be some painful times in front of us.

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