Cycling

Contador fate contrasts US pro leagues

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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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Alberto Contador was taken down by a mere 50 picograms per milliliter of a substance that is used outside the United State mostly as an asthma medication or by crooked ranchers looking to dope their livestock.

Sure, it took a year and a half — way more time than needed to look up the fact a picogram is one-trillionth of a gram — before the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Monday banned Contador for two years, a decision that stripped the Spaniard of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d'Italia titles.

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“The process works,” WADA director general David Howman told FOXSports.com “If someone gets it wrong it can be remedied quickly. It’d be best if these decisions were remedied quickly without this sort of intervention . . . but there are policies in place.”

Blame doping authorities in Contador’s home country for the delay in enforcing his positive test for the stimulant clenbuterol on an off day during the 2010 Tour. Spanish officials bought Contador’s tainted meat story and decided not to suspend him, which forced WADA and the International Cycling Union to appeal. CAS ruled that the positive likely came from a tainted supplement, not food.

“Based on his defense, he would have had to have sample of the contaminated meat, at a minimum,” Duke University Law School professor Jim Coleman said. “Even if it were possible for meat he ate to have been contaminated, it is impossible to prove --- or even raise a reasonable doubt ... I think in a case like this, this is a correct result. If the CAS thought there was any chance the substance got into his system innocently, the proper recourse would have been to reduce the sanction, not to exonerate him.”

Just like in major league baseball, NFL and every other major professional sport in the United State, the backbone of WADA’s enforcement is “strict liability.” Basically, it means doping officials don’t care how it got into your body — adulterated supplements, tainted beef or intentionally through a steroid-filled syringe — just the fact that it’s there.

Contador joins 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis as riders stripped of titles because of doping. An investigation led by the US Anti-Doping Agency officials into seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong continues, although he learned on Friday that federal authorities have dropped their inquiry. Armstrong has repeatedly denied he's used performance-enhancing drugs.

"People know in cycling that's it's not possible to win the Tour de France without it," Austrian rider Bernhard Kohl told me after Cantador’s positive became public in 2010. "It's three weeks, 3,000 km, and you climb (the equivalent of) Mount Everest four times. That's just not possible."

Not at the speeds Contador and other elite riders were clocking.

“Floyd Landis won the Tour de France, and his average speed was 40 kph," said Kohl, who was nabbed for using endurance-boosting EPO in 2009 and retired from the sport. "(Cantador had) nearly the same average speed in (2010). Landis was doped. Maybe in 10 or 15 years, you can win (without drugs) if we work with the anti-doping movement."

At a New York anti-doping summit in December, Howman said maybe 1-2 percent of doped-up athletes are caught. He believes that more than 10 percent of elite athletes are using banned substances.

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And this is WADA, which sets standards that are often much more rigid than professional sports in the US. Leagues have made huge strides in recent years, although some sports — like the NHL, which has no postseason testing — still lag.

Where sports governed by WADA, including cycling, also diverge is how they go about punishing an athlete.

Contador’s two-year ban is backdated to when the positive sample was flagged. That not only invalidates what at the time was this third Tour win, but all the events he won afterward. Not only that, but race organizers can now come after him for all the prize money, the arbitration panel could still levy a fine and his current team, Saxo Bank-Sungard, may lose its place on the UCI World Tour.

Contrast that to, say, baseball. Pitcher J.C. Romero tested positive for the banned pro-hormone androstenedione in Aug. 26, 2008, and wasn’t suspended immediately. (Even Contador was forced to sit more than five months after his positive via a provisional suspension.) Rather, Romero’s 50-game ban didn’t being until the start of the 2009 season — after he helped the Phillies to the 2008 title.

Most recently, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun tested positive for synthetic testosterone during last season's playoffs, although the specific date — including whether the results were known to MLB before the Brewers were bounced in six games in the National League Championship Series — have not been disclosed. Braun’s positive did not become public until December, and a decision on his appeal should come in a matter of days.

Professional sports, like MLB, are collectively bargained and the players unions prefer this type of system so players are afforded due process, something that is supposed to happen behind closed doors until a final decision is announced.

“To that extent, the real damage to the athlete is done when there is a claim he or she has tested positive; even if the test is not upheld on appeal, the athlete's career likely has been irreparably harmed,” Coleman said. “To that extent, the system is seriously flawed from the perspective of protecting the interest of the athlete. When there is premature disclosure, the damage to the athlete largely has been done.”

There’s no mechanism in pro sports to invalidate any of Romero’s two World Series victories in 2008 or any of the Brewers’ postseason wins if Braun is indeed suspended. The desire to add an asterisk or scrubbing Barry Bonds’ all-time home-run mark won’t happen, even after his conviction on a single count of obstruction for his grand jury testimony. Bonds was there to testify about Bay Area Lab Co-Operative, a company that distributed banned substances and counted Bonds as a client.

Such moves — like how the NCAA frequently strips bowl wins or conference titles for rules violations — would largely be ceremonial, anyway. But taken as a whole, the arbitration panel’s ruling was hardly that on Monday.

“Some may think of it as a victory, but that is not at all the case,” International Cycling Union president Pat McQuaid said in a statement. “There are no winners when it comes to the issue of doping. Every case, irrespective of its characteristics, is always a case too many."

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