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Column: Intrigue abounds in Contador doping case

FILE- Spain's Alberto Contador attends the presentation of the 2012 Tour de France cycling race in Paris in this Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 file photo. The Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport will hear his doping case next week. FILE- Spain's Alberto Contador attends the presentation of the 2012 Tour de France cycling race in Paris in this Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 file photo. The Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport will hear his doping case next week. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani, File)
By John Leicester
AP Sports Columnist / November 16, 2011

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PARIS—Like a Hollywood film noir, Alberto Contador's devilishly complex doping case has mystery, intrigue, suspense, an as-yet-unidentified villain and a very uncertain outcome. But unlike the movies, there won't be a satisfying ending.

To quote from a courtroom drama, the question, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is this: What exactly happened in the hours of July 20 and 21, 2010, when Contador was putting finishing touches on his third Tour de France victory?

There are two certainties.

One is that clenbuterol -- a banned substance sports cheats like because it helps build muscle and burn fat but isn't cutting-edge because it has been around for decades and is readily detectable -- got into the rider's system. Likely, we will never know the whole truth of exactly how.

The other certainty is that the traces in Contador's urine were so infinitesimal they couldn't have given him a performance boost and helped him win the Tour.

In which case, why is the World Anti-Doping Agency and cycling's governing body, the UCI, still going after him? The reason seems to have as much to do with politics as justice.

Neither body seems, at least outwardly, to be completely convinced Contador intentionally cheated. But nor do they want to be seen as negligent. They can't afford to give the impression they're afraid to go after the biggest champions. Nor do they seem inclined to be forgiving of Contador's country, Spain, with its wretched recent history of being a haven for dopers and doctors who helped them.

So WADA and the UCI are going through the motions, sticking to the letter if not the spirit of the law and pursuing Contador through to the end at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which will hear this case next week. Who knows? Maybe they'll come armed with knockout new evidence to make it clearer whether Contador is lying or whether, as he claims, he's a victim of foul luck.

Or, more likely, the UCI and WADA don't have such proof. Either way, if Contador must be absolved, it is better for them that the highest court in sports be the one to do it. No verdict is expected until January.

"All of the institutions -- the anti-doping organizations, the international sports federations, everybody -- is terrified of doing anything that they'll be criticized of being soft on doping," said sports attorney Howard Jacobs, who is not representing any party in this case. "Their gut reaction is to be more harsh then they should. ... You see it across the board."

Spanish officials who rallied to Contador's side, from Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero down, didn't help, either. The impression they gave was that Contador was always going to get a friendly hearing in Spain, even if he doped. So when Spanish cycling authorities cleared Contador in February despite having previously proposed that he serve a one-year ban, it looked as if they had caved to pressure and didn't understand WADA's rules and the complex science. That, in turn, put the onus on WADA and UCI to appeal the decision to the CAS in Switzerland. They might have felt less need to do so if the Spanish had done a more credible job.

"I was very angry," said Swiss attorney Rocco Taminelli, who was part of Contador's defense team then. "That was the impression and that's what we heard all around the world: That it was a decision made just to please Contador and to please his sponsors. ...That wasn't true. That was a big mistake."

So that is the intrigue.

Now for the mystery: Did Contador dope?

His explanation that he consumed the drug unwittingly by eating a contaminated steak that a buddy bought in Spain and brought to him in France at the Tour has always sounded like a shaggy dog story. But it's also a very clever story because unlike other explanations he might have furnished, the bad beef tale could get Contador off the hook entirely if his lawyers can make it stick. Had Contador blamed a contaminated nutritional supplement, he would likely be looking at a ban of at least a year because it would have been partly his fault that he wasn't more careful about what he consumed.

But athletes cannot be expected to be vegetarian. Nor can they not eat or pretest every morsel of food. If the CAS accepts that the likeliest explanation for Contador's clenbuterol positive is tainted meat then it should also clear him of any fault and not punish him. But if the meat story doesn't fly, he's looking at a two-year ban. This isn't a case that lends itself easily to compromise.

"To me, it's either all or nothing," said Jacobs.

The onus is on Contador to back up his story. His lawyers, with plenty of experience of explaining away clenbuterol cases, will deluge the court with reasons to blame steak, not the athlete who says he ate it. They will point to science and a slew of cases from Mexico and China to show that clenbuterol is illegally used to bulk up livestock, that the drug can stay in animals and that through no fault of the athletes those eating the contaminated meat can fail doping tests.

They'll likely also argue to the court that European Union prevention efforts, including 83,203 tests in 2008 and 2009 that found clenbuterol only once in animal samples, aren't keeping the drug out of the food chain. Taken together, the overall picture expected from expert and witness testimony on his side will be that Contador was merely extremely unlucky: He came across a bad steak at a bad time and there was no way for him to even suspect that it might be tainted, so no negligence on his part, either.

Short of being able to produce the long-ago digested filet as evidence, his lawyers have filed some 3,500 pages of submissions to try to persuade the CAS that theirs is the most plausible explanation.

The UCI and WADA put in a mound of counter-arguments. They seem set to argue that the chances of meat causing Contador's positive are very small and that other explanations are likelier. They could table evidence to suggest that the drug might have gotten into his body from an illegal blood transfusion.

Whether either side will succeed in painting a clear and convincing picture of what happened on July 20-21, 2010, is far from certain.

There's definitely a villain in this story, we just don't know who. Is it a farmer who illegally gave clenbuterol to the cow Contador says he ate part of?

Or is it Contador?

We may never be sure. A satisfying ending that ties up the loose ends looks unlikely.

"I think it is very difficult for either side to prove," said Dutch anti-doping scientist Douwe de Boer, who assisted Contador in the early days of the case. "Nobody can prove anything."

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester.