When is a suspension not a suspension? When it is issued in Spain, against a high-profile cyclist. On Tuesday, members of the discipline committee of the Spanish Cycling Federation (RFEC) declared Alberto Contador innocent of doping charges. The defending Tour de France champion had been suspended three weeks earlier for a positive drug test during last year's Tour. Contador's urine showed traces of clenbuterol, a result he attributed to a contaminated steak eaten during the race. It was ruled, at the time, that even though he may not have knowingly ingested the substance, Contador was responsible for its presence in his body.
By declaring Contador innocent, the RFEC overturned a ruling by -- wait a minute, can this be right? -- the RFEC? Yes, you read it correctly: that august body overruled ...
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In that three-week interim, Contador's attorneys highlighted the case of the German table-tennis player, Dmitri Ovtcharov, who tested positive for clenbuterol, but wasn't sanctioned by his national federation. (Like Contador, Ovtcharov claimed he'd ingested the substance accidentally. Unlike Contador, several of Ovtcharov's teammates showed traces of clenbuterol in their systems, bolstering the ping-pong player's case). According to
The primary factor: this is happening in Spain, a country with a proud, unapologetic history of shielding its cycling heroes from the consequences of their own malfeasance.
Remember Operacion Puerto? In May 2006, Spanish police raided the laboratory of Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, discovering scores of doping products and bags of blood -- intended, presumably, for the purposes of transfusion -- bearing code names that linked them to some 60 cyclists, including such prominent riders as Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Spain's own Alejandro Valverde.
A Spanish judge ruled that no law had been broken, and ordered the RFEC not to use any of that seized evidence to pursue sanctions against any of the riders named in the investigation. Investigated by the German cycling federation, Ullrich was forced to retire. After the Italian cycling federation (CONI) followed up on Operacion Puerto, Basso was suspended two years by the Italian federation. Valverde walked, as did every other Spanish rider linked to Puerto, including a young but promising climbing specialist named Alberto Contador.
(Disgusted by Spain's refusal to police its own, CONI, in 2009, suspended Valverde from racing on Italian soil for two years -- preventing him from contesting the '09 Tour de France, which crossed into Italy.)
Contador also enjoyed the support of both the country's leading political parties, and the president of the nation's highest legal court, who told
Such comments, from the nation's highest judge, while Contador's case was still being decided, would've been considered highly unusual ... in a country other than Spain.
It was good news for the Tour of Algarve, in Portugal. With his suspension lifted Tuesday, that race's two-time defending champ arrived in Portugal for Stage 1 on Wednesday.
Expressing frustration at the RFEC's astounding flip-flop was Pat McQuaid, president of Union Cycliste International, cycling's governing body. Speaking to reporters at the Tour of Oman, McQuaid lamented interference in the case "by politicians who don't know the full facts .... It doesn't help the image of Spain, either. It shows they're biased towards supporting their own, regardless of what the facts of the case might be."
While the UCI and World Anti-Doping Agency have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the RFEC's decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, that appeal won't be finished by July, meaning Contador will be allowed to defend his Tour de France title ... even though he could subsequently be stripped of that 2010 victory, should he lose that potential appeal.
Thus will Contador compete on his sport's biggest stage, but under a cloud -- not unlike Auburn's Cam Newton quarterbacking the Tigers to the national title, despite a hovering pay-for-play scandal.
The difference, of course, is that Spaniards are more forgiving of their star athletes than Auburn fans.
Only in cycling.