Contador’s Ban: The Death of Cycling?
Over 18 months after the race, Contador has been stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title, and banned for 2 years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, making Andy Schleck the winner of the 2010 race.
The ban is punishment for the traces of clenbuterol, an anabolic steroid were found in his blood. Initially cleared by the Royal Spanish Cycling Federation back in February 2011, Contador blamed the traces on contaminated meat brought in by a friend- indeed the traces were small- 40 times lower than the minimum rate WADA insists labs must be able to register to gain accredited status. However, it is possible that Contador was blood doping using blood taken during a training phase that had been insufficiently washed, leaving traces of steroids behind. Plasticizers were also found in his blood and can be a sign of IV usage, though the doctor who invented the test believes these tests may not yet be legally binding. Floyd Landis was also excluded with a similar pattern of steroid detected during the final stages of the race, probably as a result of contaminated blood doping.
Eddy Merckx said to Eurosport: “Sad for him and cycling. I think someone wants the death of cycling. We’re going too far”
Contador is not the first rider to be accused of doping. Looking at the ranking of the 10th Stage of Tour de France 2005 (Grenoble- Courchevel), Verner Moller in his excellent book, ‘The Scapegoat’ notes that of the first 25 riders placed on that team, only seven are still uncompromised by doping allegations or convictions. And only one in the top 17 (Cadel Evans) is untainted.
Indeed with the ever increasing speed of the Tour de France, some riders have claimed it is now impossible without doping. In 1989, when advances were made in bike technology, average speed was 37.5kph. In 2005, it was 40.9kph, an increase of over 8%. Moller explains these apparently small increases in speed mask a large increase in effort- 8% increase in speed means 16% more air must be moved, means 16% more energy is required to go 8% faster. In the context of a race won by seconds, by athletes at the top of their abilities, this is a huge increase.
Jacksche, an ex-cyclist who has confessed doping, but after 1998 scandals rode 1999 clean, described his experience riding without enhancement:
“You hope from day-to-day that the speed goes down. You have to push yourself harder and your recuperation is slower, there was no way I could hang on, and I felt completely superfluous. In the end I was afraid of being left behind on a railway bridge.”
He explains the catch – 22: “Only the one who dopes wins. Only the one who wins appears in the media. Only the one in the media makes the sponsor happy. Only happy sponsors invest new money in the team the following year.”
Contador’s ban may be a turning point for cycling. No winner of the Tour has not been implicated in doping since Miguel Indurain, except Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck. The stark stories of Landis Riis and Hamilton give a glimpse of how pervasive doping is and how there is systematic toleration by riders, sponsors and officials, with occasional athletes singled out and destroyed. Verner Moller’s “The Scapegoat” tells this tale well.
If cycling is not to completely lose it’s spectacle and credibility, it is time to be realistic and relax the ban on doping. Safe doping – like blood doping up to a level where 50% of the blood is red blood cells – could be permitted.
The substances that modern cyclists take are safe enough compared to the risks of professional sport. We should focus on monitoring athletes’ health rather than losing a war on doping
Performance enhancement is not against the spirit of cycling; it is the spirit of cycling.
It is time to give up the puritanical crusade on drugs in cycling and focus on banning those that are very unsafe, not those which are performance enhancing.
More on the ethics of performance enhancing drugs in sport