The boys who cried wolf.

CYCLING Why the Alberto Contador ruling is a consequence of cycling’s past >>

Some of this will not be new to seasoned followers of cycling and anti-doping legislation but it perhaps demonstrates that those seizing on individual details from the Alberto Contador ruling are missing the bigger picture and failing to grasp how cycling’s present is the sum of its past. In one way, Contador could be seen as a victim. He is a victim of past excesses and the failure of successive generations to tackle doping in a way that provoked wholescale cultural change. The rules in place today are a direct consequence of past conduct. They weren’t plucked out of the air, they were drafted and adopted in an attempt to keep pace with the cheats. And, while it sounds great when people say we must move on and stop focussing on what happened in the past, that is actually the last thing the authorities should be doing.

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The anti-doping effort has boiled down to a complex battle between science and the law but it is a mistake to assume we arrived here overnight.

Having read all 98 pages of the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s judgement in the cases of the UCI and WADA against Alberto Contador and the Spanish Cycling Federation, it became clear just how contorted our idea of justice in sport has become.

Last week, during his press conference to reiterate his innocence and express his dismay at a two-year ban that’s actually just six months long (only in cycling, folks), Contador complained about how long it took for CAS to hear the case and deliver a verdict.

It took more than 500 days to arrive at a decision to enforce one of the most black and white clauses in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s code, that of strict liability. Contador was banned because the rules state that that an athlete is directly responsible for any banned substances in their system, however small the trace may be. This rule was introduced partly to prevent athletes from claiming a substance had been in a contaminated nutritional supplement or food or that an unscrupulous coach had doped them without their knowledge when the truth may have been that they’d willfully cheated.

The CAS panel assessed more than 4,000 pages of argument and counter-argument and managed to issue its judgement in a mere 98 pages. Matt Rendell’s concise interpretation is well worth reading.

At the end of it, you reach the conclusion that although this was a complex case there was only ever going to be one outcome. According to the letter of the law, Contador had to be banned because there was clenbuterol, not a substance produced by the body, in his system. Science ruled out the beef explanation and arched a doubtful eyebrow at the contaminated blood bag theory. In the end, it might have been a dodgy food supplement. This cemented Contador’s martyr status among his supporters.

Contador’s complaint about how long the case took to resolve was a valid one. For 18 months we have endured jokes about determining the rightful winner of the 2010 Tour when the competitors are old and grey. Justice is a dish best served stone cold. Last week we also had to erase from our memory the images of Lance Armstrong overtaking Jan Ullrich during the opening time trial of the 2005 Tour de France because it turns out that Ullrich was a phantom competitor in that event. Ullrich was found guilty by CAS and stripped of some results, even though he retired five years ago.

The Contador case was lengthy because the science had to stand up to a rigorous examination from the law and the delays were caused by both sides being rigorous and detailed in their fight.

This is where it gets interesting. It seems that a lot of people love to put their faith in the law and yet are sceptical about science. The law is man-made (and therefore flawless) whereas what we know about science keeps changing (and therefore cannot be trusted). This applies to sport just as it does to many areas of life.

Science is attacked for its greatest strength – the fact that it cannot prove or disprove everything. Science is exploratory. It is open-minded and willing to accept that there may be another possibility, however slim the idea may seem. Science is never so arrogant as to presume it knows everything.

When dealing with anti-doping cases, the law is exploitative in the sense that it seeks out areas where science is on shaky ground. It looks for loopholes and unpicks them ruthlessly.

You could argue that science sees the dots and tries to work out how they are connected, while the law picks them off one by one.

We have seen in many anti-doping cases how the defence lawyers work through the argument line by line, clause by clause, trying to prove or disprove.

And that is why we end up with such division among sports fans who are struggling to work out who the good guys are and who are the baddies.

In previous high-profile cases we have seen Tyler Hamilton’s chimeric twin theory or Floyd Landis’s “it was the Jack Daniels” argument put forward alongside other possibilities. When looked at individually, these seem like plausible causes and science is forced to concede “we’ll have to get back to you on that, because there might be a possibility”.

That is why the anti-doping legislation has had to don not only a belt and braces but a full-blown biohazard suit in order to stand up to the scrutiny it is subjected to in court.

And it is why rules such as ‘strict liability’ have had to be applied to anti-doping law.

Often the legal argument sounds so persuasive, and the science seems a bit shaky and rules like ‘strict liability’ sound disproportionate and unreasonable. Because sports fans want to believe in their heroes, a third player takes centre stage. Step forward Public Relations.

The court of public opinion is where the phoney war is fought. Over the past 18 months, while science and the law have been carefully preparing their arguments for serious scrutiny, the public are teased along as if they’re watching a Punch and Judy show.

PR is flashy. It comes up with catchy phrases that capture the public imagination and it wins hearts and closes off minds.

It is hardly surprising that most people will be turned off by the idea of wading through pages of legal and scientific argument. It is difficult, it strays well outside our areas of understanding and it makes our brains hurt.

That’s why statements by Fabian Cancellara – “4,000 pages for one person… Already, that is something crazy” – are ludicrous.

This isn’t to pick on Cancellara, merely to point out that when reading the Swiss rider’s comment you would be forgiven for thinking: “Hey, this is a rider I love to watch race, he must know what he’s talking about.”

But he doesn’t know any more than many of the rest of us. He is reacting emotionally to a complex case and, if he knew the letter of the law, he would know that the presence of clenbuterol in Contador’s system meant it was an open and shut case.

S o, did Contador cheat? He will maintain his innocence, of course. And that argument might stand up to scrutiny had his career taken a different course.

His mentor in professional cycling was Manolo Saiz, the man who ran the Liberty Seguros team that was up to its eyeballs in blood bags. The investigation known as Operacion Puerto centred on the relationship between Saiz and the gynaecologist Dr Eufemiano Fuentes.

After that, Contador rode for Johan Bruyneel at Discovery Channel and Astana. Bruyneel is a man who has never expressed an anti-doping sentiment in his career. Feel free to point me in the direction of some evidence to the contrary. Bruyneel also rode for ONCE, where Saiz was the manager. Without assuming guilt by association, you can see how the dots join up already.

And then Contador joined the team owned by Bjarne Riis, who admitted to taking EPO to win the 1996 Tour de France.

Contador’s choice of employer does not scream an endorsement of clean sport.

We are back to joining the dots again. Riis raced for the Ariostea and Gewiss teams. He transformed himself from an unspectacular domestique to a Tour champion in an era when EPO use was rampant. The Gewiss team’s doctor was Michele Ferrari, the man who said that EPO was no more dangerous than orange juice. [Clarification: Ferrari told a reporter from L'Equipe that EPO, used correctly, was not dangerous. He said it was abuse that was dangerous, just as drinking excessive amounts of orange juice would be].

Riis admitted doping and offered to return his yellow jersey yet his place remains in the record books as the 1996 Tour champion. Yet his Telekom team-mate Ullrich last week lost a number of results, including a Tour of Switzerland title and a place on the 2005 Tour de France podium, after CAS judged him guilty. Ullrich’s doctor was Dr Eufemiano Fuentes. The same doctor as the one consulted by Ivan Basso, who rode for CSC, run by Bjarne Riis.

It’s like we’re going round in circles.

And so, when Contador protests his innocence, with Riis sitting enigmatically by his side, it is impossible not to think back a few years to when Riis supported Basso and said how shocked he was by what had happened.

Over the years we have heard a lot of catchy phrases that sound great as long as you don’t analyse them too closely. Cycling hasn’t got a problem. It’s just one rogue team. It’s just a couple of dodgy doctors. Cycling is doing more to clean up than any other sport. Most tested athlete. Cleanest sport on the planet.

People have said all of those things to try to portray the sport in the best possible light, partly because it was in their interest to do so.

If Contador has trained and raced every day of his career clean then he has been the victim of a dreadful injustice. However, it could also be argued that had he spent a tenth of the energy speaking up for clean sport before July 2010 as he has done protesting his innocence since, it would be a lot easier to believe him.

Maybe it really was a mistake.

The problem with that argument is that for as long as people consider it “a mistake” to deliberately inject CERA or EPO, or extract their blood for later use, it’s a wholly unconvincing defence.