The Explainer: Thoughts on the Contador decision
It’s been a little more than a day since the International Court of Arbitration for Sport released its decision in the Contador case.
The big news is already out, mainly that Alberto Contador was found to be guilty of having violated Articles 21.1 and 21.2 of the UCI’s Anti-Doping Rules. That resulted in a two-year suspension, officially beginning on January 25, 2011 and, with credit applied for the time he served on provisional suspension, ending on August 5 of this year.
By finding that a violation occurred during the event, Contador was automatically stripped of his victory at the 2010 Tour de France. Furthermore, those results he acquired during the period now deemed to be part of his suspension would also be negated. Most notably, that means he is no longer the official winner of the 2011 Giro d’Italia.
Okay, all of that stuff we know, but a number of you raised questions about the decision, the defenses raised, the allegations made and the term of the suspension itself. Fortunately, the three-member CAS panel spelled out its reasoning quite carefully in a well-drafted opinion. I know that many of us don’t consider a 98-page legal document to be the height of recreational reading and it took me a while to sort through the thing myself. I was actually pretty impressed, though, by the work of the three attorneys on the panel, who may have taken a little more time than any of us would have liked, but did a thorough job in explaining their reasoning.
So, using the decision letter, the UCI’s Anti-Doping Rules and the WADA Code as guides, let’s tackle a few of the more common questions I’ve received over the last day or so. The questions that appear below may represent edited or merged questions I’ve received. Some have come from emails sent directly, via Twitter and Facebook and in the comments section below the original news story.
Is this some sort of “new math” CAS is using? It’s a two-year suspension and he spent all of last year racing. Still, he’s coming back in time for this year’s Vuelta. To me that looks like a six-month suspension.
It might be good to start by asking why Contador got to ride in 2011. Look at the cases involving Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton for purposes of contrast. Contador managed to put in a full season last year. Conversely, Hamilton and Landis did not compete during the entire process, including the wait for the appeal.
The biggest difference, of course, is that both Landis and Hamilton lost their cases in the first round, when the case was originally heard by the American Arbitration Association. Contador, whose case was originally heard by a doping panel, assembled by the Real Federación Española de Ciclismo (RFEC), actually won his case … at least in that first round.
Once the RFEC issued a decision in his favor, Contador was free to ride. He had been cleared of the charges and in the event of an appeal, the original ruling stands until its reversed by CAS. That’s the same reason why Landis and Hamilton were not able to ride. They had been found in violation of the rules and those decisions would stand, unless reversed on appeal.
Contador did accept a provisional suspension and did not compete once he was notified of the positive result from the 2010 Tour on August 26. The RFEC issued a ruling in Contador’s favor on February 14, 2011, at which point he was again free to ride. He had, therefore, already served a suspension of five months and 19 days. The UCI Anti-Doping Rules specifically state that time served under a provisional suspension is to be credited against any future penalty relating to the violation at issue.
Interestingly, the CAS panel noted that on January 25 of 2011 (keep that date at the back of your mind) the RFEC actually floated a “plea agreement” past Contador, which would have resulted in the negation of his 2010 Tour results and a one-year suspension. On February 7, 2011, he turned down that offer and the RFEC panel ruled in his favor a week later.
It wasn’t until March 24 that the UCI announced its intention to appeal the RFEC ruling to CAS. WADA filed notice of its plan to appeal five days later.
In imposing its penalty, the CAS panel ruled that Contador’s suspension officially began on January 25, 2011, the day the RFEC floated its initial plea deal to Contador. A two-year suspension would carry through to January 25, 2013, but then the rules call for him to be credited with time served, so he is once again eligible to ride on August 5 of this year.
Contador’s attorneys did argue that it would be “unfair” to negate any results he achieved between the time of the RFEC ruling and the CAS decision, but the panel disagreed. Among the cases the attorneys cited was that of Alejandro Valverde, some of whose results earned prior to the full adjudication of his case were left intact.
It’s worth noting here that CAS issued its ruling in the Valverde case in May of 2010. It imposed a two-year suspension, back-dating it to January of 2010. By doing so, Valverde’s results earned between January and May were in fact erased from the record books. By that standard, the CAS panel said that it would be inappropriate to impose a sanction that begins in January of 2011 and then leave intact the results Contador earned after that date.
So, confusing as it might seem, the CAS panel did carefully work its way through the whole process and imposed what it found to be a fair penalty.
Why did this all take so long?
I’ve read in your column and others that there is no acceptable level of clenbuterol and that it’s a simple strict liability offense. It was there. Contador didn’t dispute the test result, but tried to explain it away. What was so complicated that made this thing take almost two years?
True. It’s been 19 months since Alberto Contador tested positive for minute traces of Clenbuterol and it was only yesterday that CAS issued a final decision in the case. In Hamilton and Landis, the process took even longer.
The author of the adage that “the wheels of justice grind slowly,” could have had the whole WADA system in mind when he penned that one. Look at some of the most high-profile doping cases in cycling to get a feel for it if you have your doubts. Hamilton, Landis, Valverde, Ullrich … they all took years to resolve. Even if they had been successful in their appeals, their careers had effectively been on hold for a period almost as long as their original suspensions.
While the rules may appear to be simple, that isn’t always the case. I guess the best way to describe the problem is that in doping cases, sometimes strict liability isn’t actually so strict.
Generally speaking, a strict liability offense is one in which the prosecution need not prove the element of intent.
Since I just handled a case involving a defendant charged with possession of a controlled substance, let’s look at the law my client was alleged to have violated:
It is unlawful for any person within the city limits knowingly or intentionally to possess a controlled substance unless the substance was ….
Do you see that those two key words in there? “Knowingly” or “intentionally?” In order to convict my client, the prosecution would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that my client actually knew he had the controlled substance in his possession. (Admittedly, in most cases, that’s not a huge burden for the prosecution.)
Conversely, there is no intent element when it comes to speeding. If you get pulled over for going 40 in a school zone, the cop, the prosecutor and the courts don’t give a rat’s rear if you knew you were speeding or if you knew it was a school zone. You were operating the vehicle and the vehicle was going faster than the posted speed limit. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. That is strict liability in its purest form.
Now, CAS has in the past offered a little wiggle room in these strict liability cases. In a sense, that wiggle room gives the athlete the opportunity to put forward an explanation that would show him to be a completely innocent victim of circumstance. It means that the athlete has the chance to raise an “affirmative defense.” That does, however, shift the burden of proof over to the defendant.
Take for example the case of table tennis player Dimitrij Ovtcharov. He played an event in China and, soon after, tested positive for clenbuterol. In his defense, he offered evidence that, although illegal, clenbuterol is still widely used in China and that he was very likely exposed through food he consumed on that trip. The German Table Tennis Federation ruled in his favor, the international governing body did not appeal and he was free to go.
While those really-good-explanation defenses might be considered, the CAS takes a really narrow view of them. There have been several cases in which riders have accidentally ingested banned substances by consuming contaminated food supplements.
For example, in USADA v. Moninger, USADA v. Neben and USADA v. Oliveira, athletes were able to show that they consumed contaminated supplements, but hearing and appeals panels still cited Article 21.1-(1)(1) of the UCI Anti-Doping Rules, which states:
It is each Rider’s personal duty to ensure that no Prohibited Substance enters his body. Riders are responsible for any Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers found to be present in their bodily Specimens. Accordingly, it is not necessary that intent, fault, negligence or knowing Use on the Rider’s part be demonstrated in order to establish an antidoping violation under article 21.1.
In those cases, the explanation served only as a mitigating factor – information that prompted the court to reduce the penalty due to the absence of intent.
But Contador was going for full exoneration and was offering his own version of the Ovtcharov defense. To do that he had to present evidence to support the claim. In a heavily regulated market like that in Europe, providing that evidence might be harder than it would be were one to raise that same claim when referring to the unfettered market in that bastion of unregulated free-enterprise, known as “China.”
While the sample in question was provided on July 20, 2010, it wasn’t until November 8, that the UCI formally asked the RFEC to begin disciplinary proceedings. That actually moved pretty quickly and, as I mentioned before, the decision was released in February.
It then took another six weeks or so before the UCI and WADA decided whether to appeal the RFEC ruling. When they did appeal, they raised a number of peripheral issues, including the blood transfusion theory and the whole “plasticizer” question.
That added a whole new complexity to the case and there were a number of extensions and continuances granted as both sides sought to sort through some fairly complicated evidence. Then, as frustrated cycling fans know, the CAS panel took its own sweet time in issuing a decision. Again, the panel said, it was due to the complexity of the issues presented … even though they then disregarded the most complex charges and defense and came up with their own theory (see below).
It took time, but because of the complexity of some of the issues, it actually moved along reasonably well … at least in terms of how lawyers might view it. When you’re looking at it from an athlete’s perspective – and a finite window of opportunity to have a career—this process is painfully slow.
Was it the plastic?
What’s your take on the whole plasticizer question? I thought it was interesting and am wondering if that might have tipped the balance for CAS.
I do not think the transfusion/plasticizer issue did anything but complicate and delay the process. A careful reading of the decision letter shows that the CAS panel actually spent a great deal of time considering the UCI/WADA allegation that the trace amounts of clenbuterol were the result of a transfusion.
They ruled that the evidence did not support the allegation that Contador had transfused the day before his July 21st blood sample was taken.
In the absence of a specific WADA rule or substantial peer-reviewed studies regarding what levels of plasticizers one might expect to see in a normal blood sample, the CAS panel wisely reviewed Contador’s biological passport data instead and found no evidence that he had transfused.
Interestingly, too, was the introduction of polygraph evidence that purportedly showed that Contador was not lying when he denied that claim.
In order to corroborate his assertion that he did not undergo a blood transfusion of any kind at the relevant time, the Athlete voluntarily underwent a polygraph examination on 3 May 2011. In doing so, Mr. Contador was asked and answered two series of question(s) ….
The results of the polygraph test were clear according to Dr. Louis Rovner, the specialist who administered the exam. His results were shared with an outside expert, who agreed with the conclusions and reported to the CAS panel that “After a complete review of all of the materials supplied, and both a semi-objective and objective assessment of the recorded physiological data, I concur with with Dr. Rovner’s findings that Alberto Contador was truthful when he responded to the relevant questions asked in each of his … examinations.”
The CAS panel reviewed the UCI/WADA allegations and pretty much lumped them in with Contador’s tainted beef defense, concluding that both claims lacked sufficient evidence to warrant consideration.
Oddly enough, the panel then went on to bring up the question of contaminated food supplements, despite the fact that neither Contador, the UCI nor WADA raise the issue.
In what has to be the weakest line of reasoning in the entire letter, the CAS panel posits its own contamination theory, even though a strict interpretation of the rules doesn’t require one. Then going even further out on a limb, the panel concludes that it was the most likely means by which Contador was exposed.
AC is stripped of titles. Does he have to give back the money? Since typically the money is distributed amongst the team, I like to picture AC going up to a masseur, to whom the TdF money represented a pretty significant bonus, and begging for the cash back.
While tradition dictates that prize money is distributed among a grand tour winner’s teammates and support staff, the money is awarded to the rider himself.
The CAS ruling makes Contador responsible for returning those monies. It doesn’t matter if he spent that money in accordance with tradition or bought a Ferrari. He’s the one who has to pay it back. Perhaps his staff and teammates might feel a moral obligation to help him out, but they certainly have no legal obligation.
The Explainer is now a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.