Charles Pelkey wrote a truly excellent commentary on the recent decision to "retroactively" suspend Alberto Contador for trace levels of Clenbuterol in his blood during the 2010 Tour de France. It's probably the most level-headed, well thought out analysis I've yet seen on the matter.
Clenbuterol is hardly an exotic doping agent. Even Sears sells it as a weight-loss supplement. There's a lot of the stuff flying around, and some of it ended up in Contador's blood in that Tour. How? The Court of Arbitration for Sport claims that the most likely method, having considered the alternatives, is a contaminated supplement. Indeed, the levels in Contador's blood were so low that no credible source claims they could have provided a performance boost. Either he ate contaminated food, took a contaminated drug or supplement, or transfused contaminated blood. The Court considered this last possibility, and claimed there was no supporting evidence.
Anyway, Charles' article really is worth reading. Here was my response:
While it's easy to believe Contador was doping in the late naughts, this whole thing just doesn't sit well with me. It's one thing to be caught with performance-enhancing substances, but in this case he was caught with concentrations which enhanced nothing except the income of a lot of attorneys.
Excellent, excellent article! However, there is one missing point, which is that no sport can thrive in such an environment of instability. Consider the 2011 Giro: Contador was a valid, licensed rider for a highly ranked, licensed team. Had he been denied entry in that race he and his team may well have had grounds to sue. Yet in accepting Contador’s entry, the entire epic race has been turned into a farce. Cycling, other than time trials, is highly tactical, which means the presence of a rider strongly affects the interactions of other riders. You can’t simply remove a rider’s effect by removing him from the standings. And in such a turbulent, uncertain environment, how are sponsors expected to commit to the sport? This is especially true if consideration is given not only to erasing a rider’s personal results retroactively, but also retroactively considering the grounds for a team’s license.
So the system clearly needs to be fixed. The decision, it seems, comes down strongly on the side of strict liability. So given that, no substance should have a 0 threshold. Set quantitative limits for everything. This will reduce the problems of advances in test sensitivity. Second, if the burden of proof is going to be against the rider, the minute a positive B-sample is announced the rider doesn’t race. Cycling cannot tolerate the cascade of destruction which results when a rider continues to participate and results are retroactively revised.
Eddy Merckx has said this case proves people are trying to kill cycling. Whether there is intent or not, further cases like this may well accomplish that end, at least in the form we know it now.