Should we believe in Contador? Steak alibi tough to digest
Alberto Contador claims a contaminated steak caused his positive drug test in July
The three-time Tour champ has come under fire for performance enhancing before
Cycling's checkered past with drug usage makes Contador's story hard to believe
Until he lost his appeals and changed his tune, Floyd Landis pioneered the Jack Daniels defense. Another athlete, a former American track and field sprinter, insisted that his elevated levels of testosterone were the result of repeated intercourse, and copious amounts of beer, on the eve of the test.
Joining them in the restaurant at the Alibi Hall of Fame is Alberto Contador, who pleads with us to believe him when he says that the Clenbuterol that showed up in a drug test from last July's Tour de France (which, incidentally, he won), was not the result of any intention to dope. At a press conference in Spain today, the three-time Tour winner insisted that the drug got into his system in the form of a steak prepared by a friend during the Tour. It would have been rude not to partake, explained Contador, considering "all the trouble that this person had gone through" to transport the "really good meat" from Spain to France.
In addition to being a low-level anabolic, Clenbuterol is also highly effective as a bronchodilator, used by asthmatics. Contador, as it happens, has a history of asthma. (When he flopped at last March's Criterium International on the island of Corsica, it was explained that he'd had "difficulty breathing.")
Considering the drug-drenched history of this sport, some people are having trouble buying Alberto's bifteck defense. There's deep suspicion that Contador might have 1) Used Clenbuterol early in the season, 2) Withdrawn some of his blood, for the purposes of transfusing it later, before the drug was out of his system, then 3) Dumped the blood back into his body during the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.
The contaminated beef theory has been rubbished by, among others, German investigative journalist Hans Joachim Seppelt, of ARD TV, who told the cycling website Velonation.com:
"ARD has obtained the exact values from Spain. This shows that it is not very likely that we are dealing with contaminated foods, especially in light of the fact that in Europe, it is highly unlikely that foods, such as meat, are contaminated with Clenbuterol. It happens in Asian countries, but it is strictly prohibited in Europe. Also, there were no other positive test cases with contaminated meat, so the statement from Contador is not credible."
Cautioning against a rush to judgment is U.S. anti-doping expert Paul Scott, who describes the transfusion scenario as "fanciful, but not impossible. The problem," says Scott, former Director of Clients at the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory and a founder of the Agency for Cycling Ethics, Inc., "is that it's not a very simple explanation, and there is a very simple explanation:
Legally and illegally, he says, Clenbuterol is commonly added to the feed of cows, pigs, even chickens. It is far more widespread in the environment -- not just in milk and meat, but in the water supply -- than is commonly realized. Unless the World Anti-Doping Agency sets some threshold amount, to allow for trace amounts from, say, milk, or the occasionally smuggled steak, "you're going to start seeing a lot of positives from people who are getting it" from their food and drink.
But in the VeloNation piece, Seppelt points to other "very, very incriminating suspicious facts against Contador. Other values have appeared that are ten times over the higher value from so-called plasticizers, which are used in blood bags. These values were measured one day before the positive dope control. These blood bag softener values could indicate that autologous blood doping may have been performed."
Nearly as stunning as Contador's bad news is the ADR's report that, up until it broke the news, UCI president Pat McQuaid was denying that the three-time Tour winner had returned a positive test. (In a press release today, the sports beleaguered governing body admits that, yes, in fact, now that you mention it, Contador DID actually return a "positive analytical finding," which would require further scientific study.) The UCI has long faced allegations that it buries positive tests to protect riders; those suspicions will now be renewed.
While Contador is suspended, it's not known whether he'll be sanctioned, or stripped of his Tour title. The benefit of the doubt has been extended to him before. In 2006, Contador's name appeared in documents connected to Operacion Puerto, a vast doping ring investigated by the Spanish police. Contador was one of nine riders pulled from that year's Tour de France on the eve of the race. He was cleared upon further investigation. Until this summer, Contador's greatest sin -- to me -- was that he lacked a personality commensurate with his huge talent. All the guy did was win every grand tour he ever entered. But there was something annoying and forced about his "pistolero" shtick. Alberto, you're a meek soul from the country who finds its greatest pleasure in breeding goldfinches and canaries. Give the pistol a rest.
He was reviled after Stage 15 of the last Tour for attacking Andy Schleck just after Schleck dropped his chain. Contador was ripped for what was perceived to be a lack of sportsmanship. I'm not so sure he wasn't in the right. Schleck had attacked him, and it's not Contador's job to make sure his rivals know how to properly shift gears. But I liked that Contador issued semi-apology on Youtube. I liked that, with the race in the bag, he ceded the final mountain stage, on the Tourmalet, to Schleck. It showed a generosity of spirit that appealed to me.
I want to believe that he's a victim, not a cheater. But this is cycling, the sport where our worst fears about doping are often confirmed. I hope he's clean, and won't be surprised if he's not.
Either way, I hope it was a damn good steak.