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Is a steak really why Contador’s reputation is at stake?

A positive doping result has threatened to sully the image of the world’s best cyclist.


Food poisoning victim or just another drugs cheat? Photo:

Alberto Contador has faced some pretty stiff challenges over the last couple of months. More than one of those have been posed by Andy Schleck, the rider from Luxembourg who was right on his rear wheel for so much of the Tour de France, before the Spaniard secured his third Paris victory.

And yet, the latest test for Contador cannot be solved by his incredible ability to accelerate up steep hills, dancing on the pedals as he does so. A positive drugs result during this year’s Tour for a banned substance, clenbuterol, means he could possibly be stripped of that latest title and banned from the sport.

The test was carried out on July 21, three days before the end of the race and the UCI international cycling authority informed Contador of it on August 24. He made it public on September 30, knowing that a Germany television station already knew of the result.

“I’m the victim of a case of food contamination,” declared Contador that day, as he gave an emotional press conference in his hometown of Pinto, near Madrid. His voice at times cracking, his eyes occasionally welling up, Contador offered a highly detailed account of the piece of meat he ate which, he says, came from Irún, across the Spanish border and contained the tiny traces of clenbuterol detected in his body.

The jury, both scientific and public, is still out. While the rider has been handed an automatic suspension for returning a positive test, the UCI itself has acknowledged that this case is not clear-cut, due to the small quantity of the banned substance detected. A spot poll in a Spanish sport daily showed that 74 percent of respondents believed in his innocence. For many, it seems, the quantity of clenbuterol seals the issue.

But Sports Illustrated columnist Austin Murphy is one of many observers who are, if not disbelieving, then keeping an open mind.

He writes: “There’s deep suspicion that Contador might have 1) Used Clenbuterol early in the season, 2) Withdrawn some of his blood, for the purposes of transfusing it later, before the drug was out of his system, then 3) Dumped the blood back into his body during the Tour, unaware that it still contained traces of Clenbuterol.”

Murphy (whose putative theory is backed by French paper L’Équipe) goes on to cite investigative journalist Hans Joachim Seppelt, who rubbishes the contamination theory on the grounds that clenbuterol never finds its way into European meat in this day and age. The health department of Guipúzcoa, where the meat was supposedly bought, told El País that  “it is years since this kind of intoxication has occurred in humans with this substance” and that since 1999 no cow in the area had been found to have clenbuterol in its body.

This case throws a number of reputations up in the air: of course, that of Contador himself, the world’s premier stage-race cyclist; the UCI; the Tour de France; and, incidentally, even Spain’s meat producers, who are upset at the cyclist’s “gratuitous attack” on their beef.

Little charisma, big lungs

It also throws the spotlight on a sportsman who looks strangely unlike a world-class sportsman when off his bike. With three Tour wins and the full house of Vuelta and Giro victories under his belt at the age of 27, Contador was pedalling into the pantheon of greats. But even at his dominant best, in the Alps or the Pyrenees, he never had the gravity of any of the commanding figures who came before him: the never-say-die spirit of Bernard Hinault, the sheer physical freakishness of Miguel Indurain or the grim locker-room confidence of Lance Armstrong. Contador still looks like a rather insecure boy, albeit one blessed with an extraordinary pair of legs and lungs.

Another Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, who won the race in 2006 before being stripped of the title and disgraced for being revealed as a drug cheat, reportedly offered his sympathy to the Spaniard on hearing the news, warning that he will be “crucified.” Let’s hope that isn’t the case, but support from Landis is the last thing Contador needs right now as he seeks to clean his name.

In an October 1 editorial on the case, Marca newspaper called Contador “an icon of fair play.” Besides the folly of daring to describe any professional cyclist thus, many would dispute that. The man from Pinto not only has the legs, he has the killer instinct to go with it; in this year’s Tour de France he accelerated past Schleck just after the Luxembourg rider’s chain came off. Again, opinion was divided, this time on the ethics (and yes, despite its horrendous catalogue of doping cases, the Tour still has ethics) of taking such obvious advantage of his nearest rival’s mechanical problems. Schleck was rightly furious and the French press outraged, while in Spain it was seen as “one of those things”. Contador later saw the error of his ways and publicly apologised.

We can only hope that if he is deceiving us, he is man enough to apologise again. If, on the other hand, the meat really is to blame, then Alberto Contador has every right to be an extremely angry young man.

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Published: Oct 1 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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