What a cop-out.
In taking the mushy middle ground of a proposed one-year doping ban for Alberto Contador, Spanish cycling officials are timidly sitting on the fence.
They're apparently signaling that they believe the Tour de France champion's story that tainted beef caused his failed drug test, but they're shying away from the far tougher decision on whether to clear him completely.
Because if he doped, then Contador should be banished for two years, not one. That's the rule.
But if he didn't and if steak really did cause him to flunk his test, as he claimed, then how can that be his fault?
People have to eat. Food isn't simply an option like taking supplements or vitamins.
Athletes have had ample warning from the World Anti-Doping Agency that they can't expect to be let off the hook, at least not entirely, if a supplement or vitamin they took was tainted with a banned drug, causing them to test positive.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport has also hammered home that message. In the case of US swimmer Jessica Hardy, who got a 1-year ban, it pointedly noted: "An athlete can avoid the risks associated with nutritional supplements by simply not taking them."
But it's absurd to apply the same logic and same punishments to positive tests caused by bad food. What are athletes meant to do to protect themselves? Go vegan and run marathons on nothing more than nut-loaf and mung beans? Hire tasters, like a paranoid emperor, to pre-chew their food and then pee in a sample bottle? The test is clear, my lord. Bon appetit!
The wishy-washy Contador compromise _ seemingly not, at least in the eyes of his federation, guilty of deliberately doping but still somehow worthy of punishment _ does nothing to resolve the major and pressing issue for sport posed by the drug he tested positive for, clenbuterol.
Clenbuterol helps burn fat and build muscle. That has long made it attractive to both dopers and to livestock farmers, who illegally use it to bulk up their animals.
Athletes unlucky enough to eat a piece of meat from a cow or pig that's been treated with clenbuterol risk a positive test. Anti-doping scientists, including those who analyzed Contador's urine, are fully conscious of that possibility. The WADA-accredited anti-doping lab in China, where illegal clenbuterol use by farmers is known to be widespread, even proved it in 2009 by having its workers eat contaminated pork and then testing their urine.
In short, clenbuterol in food is putting innocent meat-eating athletes at risk of doping bans, of becoming collateral damage in WADA's zealous and warranted hunt for cheats. And that can never be fair. There should be no punishment for a poisoned filet mignon.
If that is what Spanish cycling officials truly believe happened with Contador, then he should keep his Tour crown and be free to defend it this July. Contador spokesman Jacinto Vidarte says the Spanish federation accepted that the rider's positive test was due to "unintentional ingestion" of clenbuterol. WADA and cycling's governing body might, of course, disagree. As it is, the neither-here-nor-there proposed 1-year ban looks tailor made to provoke an appeal, which would relieve the Spanish of having to sort out this whole mess and hand it to CAS, instead.
One solution could be to show a little lenience _ and only with clenbuterol _ to athletes whose tests show only very small traces of the drug, as happened with Contador. Set a low threshold and only punish those who have more drug in their system than the allowable limit. Perhaps even make clenbuterol-positive athletes take a lie-detector test, as has happened with others. Certainly, more scientific research and thought is needed to better distinguish cheats from unfortunates who stumble on bad meat.
The drawback would be that dopers might then all fall back on the meat excuse to cover up their cheating. It is not inconceivable that Contador is doing that, despite his protestations of innocence. After all, who can trust the word of an accused athlete anymore? Early in his drawn-out disciplinary process, there were quiet suggestions that Contador may have had a banned performance-enhancing blood transfusion and that it might have triggered his failed test. He denied it. But it sure would help if there was a fully validated scientific method to entirely rule out or prove that scenario.
Losing Contador, its biggest star, for a year would be a blow for cycling but not disastrous. Because, after so many previous drug positives, what is one more? No matter how many fans have been turned off by the stubborn stain of doping on cycling, hundreds of thousands of others who line France's roads for three weeks each July don't seem to care. The sport has become like a fish tank in a restaurant: every now and then a fish unlucky enough to be caught disappears but, for the others, life goes on. Cycling stumbles from scandal to scandal but never succumbs to or eradicates them. The damage done to the sport by the Contador case shouldn't be overstated. The Tour will go on.
But the damage to an innocent athlete unfairly punished for doping charges cannot be overstated enough. Ultimately, the clenbuterol problem that Contador's case highlights boils down to choosing the lesser of two evils.
If changing the rules lets some cheats slip through the cracks, then so be it. As wiser people have said, it is better that some guilty men go free than to punish an innocent one.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org
What a cop-out.