What gets lost most in the shuffle when a doping case is ruled upon is not a sense of guilt or innocence, but a better understanding of why athletes have been compelled for over a century to co-opt the best medical technology of the time to improve their performance. The truth, whether fans want to face it or not, is that there is really no “clean” era in any sport. Despite the façade of fair play and gentlemanly amateurism that has served as the public face of sports, pretty much every pastime has always seen some of its participants operating in a grey area of athletic ethics.
At one point our favorite athletes sought a boost from strychnine and cocaine and chloroform. These crude forms of performance enhancement gave way to amphetamines and anabolics, opening the door for a modern alphabet soup where THG and HGH are prevalent and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is always on the hunt for ever-better tests to detect them.
The human nature behind the athlete’s mentality has not changed, only the effectiveness of the specific drugs being utilized. It isn’t the athlete whose mentality has changed, but the rest of us spectators who suddenly have come to expect and demand “fair play” along the lines of a sepia-tinged impression of a past that never really existed as the fantasies we erected around it. We think nothing of the hundreds of loosely-regulated supplements athletes take with the full complicity of their leagues and teams, yet everyone thinks that they know best where to draw the line in the sand as to what is and is not illicit performance enhancement.
So what has spurred our puritanical witch hunt, a war on drugs as futile as any other in the course of human history?
It’s the question Alberto Contador must be asking himself in the wake of Monday’s ruling in Lausanne. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, granting the appeal of WADA and the UCI (cycling’s international governing body), has rendered Contador’s achievements of the past two seasons null and void. Now he must endure the ignominy of becoming the first cyclist in the sport’s long history to have multiple grand-tour victories stripped retroactively from his career achievements. And all for trace quantities of clenbuterol in his system.
For the past two years we’ve followed the saga. (Feel free to follow the links at the right for more background.) Two months after winning the 2010 Tour de France, it was revealed that Contador’s test sample had come back positive for trace quantities of clenbuterol, a drug sometimes used by cattle ranchers to promote the development of lean muscle mass in their livestock — though banned in the European Union for such applications. A steroidal compound, clenbuterol is believed to also be able to burn fat and maintain muscle mass in humans — thus its explicit zero-tolerance ban under the WADA List of Prohibited Substances.
The question, though, has always been one of degrees of quantity. The trace amounts of the drug in Contador’s system would have triggered a negative test at all but a handful of testing facilities worldwide. Had the Tour de France sent his samples to any lab other than the one in Cologne, Germany, it likely would never recognized any amount of clenbuterol in his system. But the equipment in Cologne, perhaps the most sensitive in the world, has increasingly found quantities below the minimum standard for WADA testing — but higher than the zero threshold the agency has set for a drug which many increasingly suspect is contaminating our greater food supply.
The other problem has been one of evidence. While many authorities have come forward supporting the Contador camp’s assertions that this had to be a situation of contamination, the inability to pinpoint any potential contaminant for definitive testing yields skepticism. Which is amazing, because whereas we hope that a presumption of innocence would prevail should we ever be confronted with charges, many fans and pundits are apt to jump the other direction when it comes to judging the super-fit physical specimens they follow with rapt attention.
In anti-doping cases, the only evidence necessary is that red flag thrown up by a positive result. The source of that positive result is immaterial. The motive behind that positive result is immaterial. (Remember, too many puffs on an inhaler are enough to land you a year’s suspension, even with the proper documentation to use it for legitimate medical purposes.) Only the test result matters.
Like statisticians who become so engrossed in the numbers of the past and present that they fail to see the intangibles that can also represent greatness, the doping authorities are too apt to look at their charts without looking at the extenuating circumstances. And we applaud this version of justice; when the Spanish cycling federation looked beyond the zero-tolerance policy and analyzed the number and what it really constituted, ruling in favor of clearing Contador’s name, the UCI and WADA were quick to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to ensure that the rider would be punished.
They got their wish. Contador’s 2010 Tour de France victory is now expunged from the records, the maillot jaune falling to reluctant runner-up Andy Schleck. His 2011 Giro d’Italia victory, where he won the maglia rosa by over six minutes after spending the winter in limbo before being cleared to race by the Spanish authorities, becomes the first ever in the long history of the race to be forfeited retroactively due to doping. And Contador is left once again on the sidelines, waiting until August to return to the sport that has simultaneously built and destroyed his fame and reputation.
Schleck, who lost the Tour by less than a minute to Contador in 2010, was anything but giddy about becoming the virtual winner of the race. “There is no reason to be happy now. First of all I feel sad for Alberto. I always believed in his innocence. This is just a very sad day for cycling. The only positive news is that there is a verdict after 566 days of uncertainty. We can finally move on. I trust that the CAS judges took all things into consideration after reading a 4,000 page file. If now I am declared overall winner of the 2010 Tour de France it will not make me happy. I battled with Contador in that race and I lost. My goal is to win the Tour de France in a sportive way, being the best of all competitors, not in court. If I succeed this year, I will consider it as my first Tour victory.”
That’s the problem with our find-anything-and-everything-at-all-costs mentality. Nobody ever wins in a doping case. Regardless the verdict, whether an athlete is exonerated or excoriated, we’re all left to ponder alternate realities and wonder if the drugs really did play a role in the result. We don’t know how 50 picograms of clenbuterol can really benefit a cyclist in a single day. If anything it is highly dubious that such small quantities, in one dose, could have even a negligible effect on performance during the course of a three-week race. What we do know is that Contador had been tested several times before and after the offending sample was taken, and none have been released to have trace quantities.
Even the CAS, in its ruling, said that it was highly likely that this was a case of contamination rather than willful performance enhancement. But ultimately we are all responsible for what we put into our bodies, and athletes more than any other segment of our society are beholden to that simple truth.
So now Contador will sit on the sidelines once again, six more months sapped from a career that has seen him out of commission more than once for the doping indiscretions of others. Which makes it all the more puzzling that he would willfully risk his career to dope himself — he was caught up in the whirlwind of the 2006 Operacion Puerto scandal that wracked the Liberty Seguros team on which he then rode, and was then forced to miss the 2008 edition when Astana was barred from the Tour due to the past actions of riders not even on the team at that point.
The impulse is to try to rewrite history. What is striking a result from the records but a manipulation of the facts we all witnessed? We all watched Contador and Schleck, and then Contador and Scarponi, battle through the Alps and Pyrenees and Dolomites. It is no different than the other major rulings to come out about doping in the sport of cycling in the past week, where two former rivals were dealt two very different hands once again.
The U.S. government (but, it’s worth noting, not the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) has called off its hounds regarding their investigation into alleged doping practices within the U.S. Postal team of Lance Armstrong. While the seven-time Tour winner hasn’t yet cleared his name completely — and he very well may never be able to exonerate himself to full satisfaction — his legacy is in better shape than his German doppelganger. In a second bombshell ruling three days after they ruled on Contador, the CAS banned 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich from the sport for two years and erased his results from the record for the last two years of his career — including his third-place finish in the 2005 Tour.
But there is no way to convincingly airbrush out somebody from a podium snapshot. We could go back through the annals of cycling, or any other sport for that matter, and winnow out every transgressor of the rules from history. Our sports would be much less rich for the ostracism, for no era is without its sinners.
So why do we still get so worked up about something that, ultimately, has proven itself to be human nature throughout the generations of sport? Every athlete always has greater advantages across the board than his or her predecessors. The equipment is better, the tactics are better, the training regimens are better… and, yes, the drugs are better.
Had the current drug tests existed in the 1990s, or the 1980s, or any decade before that right back to Maurice Garin’s victory in the inaugural Tour de France in 1903, there would have been no field to contest the races for all the riders left ruing their two-year bans. It wasn’t yesterday that Albert Londres had his little sit-down with the Pelissier brothers, after all. It wasn’t until first Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen died in Rome at the 1960 Olympics and then British champion Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour that the tide began to turn against the unbridled guinea-pig dreams of better results through chemistry.
Yet for every death, and every positive result, it would be naive to assume that there aren’t multiple cases slipping through these cracks that are intended to approximate justice. Catching somebody in the act is one thing; Michel Pollentier’s pre-Whizzinator apparatus was too obvious to pass up. And throughout the 1980s, you would see immediate justice as riders were docked overall time for their transgressions — most famously when Gert-Jan Theunisse was penalized ten minutes in the 1988 Tour after testing positive for testosterone.
Now we are left with the worst of both worlds — suspicion from the outset, a lengthy simmering process before we can exact a penance for whatever transgression we deign illicit at that point in time, and the inability for athletes to be wary of seeking out medical treatment even for legitimate health issues lest they trip the wires of the system.
It isn’t that mentality that leads athletes to strive to outdo their competition by any means necessary that has altered throughout history. What we want to see hasn’t changed. We as fans pine to see the jaw-dropping, the highlight reel in real time, athletes consistently pushing the boundaries of what we know to be possible… and then pushing some more. Instead what has changed is that the pendulum, once wholly on a laissez-faire kick allowing free use and abuse of whatever was best at the moment, has now bombed past its nadir and is swinging back up the other side.
Our current rigidity and complete zero-tolerance stances are marvelous in theory, but they are as dangerous in what they can do to the fabric of sport as a free-for-all amnesty for any and all substances. Sensible policies seek out the serious transgressors, presuming innocence until the evidence is there to back the case up. And if it can’t meet a sensible time frame, move on — there is no use expending an overabundance of resources just to retroactively punish somebody for beating the system of that moment long after the trophies have collected dust in the case.