Few certainties in Alberto Contador case

Alberto Contador will have his day in court next week, at long last, or more accurately, his four days before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, starting Monday. The ratio of time spent on a doping case versus picograms of banned performance-enhancing drug has to be a record.

The 50 trillionths of a gram per milliliter of clenbuterol found in Contador’s urine during the 2010 Tour de France -- a race he eventually won, capturing his third title by mere seconds over Andy Schleck -- has preoccupied the cycling world for more than a year now. This case has provided another litmus test of how an athlete of Contador’s stature would be treated in a system that is supposed to treat the powerful the same way it treats the obscure. The CAS ruling expected in January could provide the final answer to that, but on a few counts, the system has already flunked.

Three CAS arbitrators will weigh the credibility of Contador’s explanation that he consumed contaminated meat in the form of a Spanish steak carried over the French border. Their decision will determine whether the Spanish star gets to keep the 2010 Tour trophy, and other racing results including his 2011 Giro d’Italia championship, which could be stripped if CAS metes out the maximum two-year penalty.

However, those looking for closure and clarity on how to handle the growing number of clenbuterol cases in sports will almost surely be disappointed.

To review: Contador’s test result floated in a still-unexplained bureaucratic limbo for two months before German press reports forced cycling’s international governing body, the UCI, to release it.

Predictably, Contador was exonerated by the Spanish cycling federation, the body that had jurisdiction over his case. Even though the committee that examined it (through an exchange of paperwork, not a live hearing) was purportedly independent, there was overt pressure from the grassroots all the way to the highest levels of Spain’s government to let Contador off the hook. The committee made it known that it was considering a one-year suspension; Contador and his lawyers said that was unacceptable, and the prospective sanction evaporated.

Both the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed that decision. After several postponements requested by both sides, here we sit -- even though clenbuterol is supposed to be a zero-tolerance substance and the principle of strict liability that is the bedrock of the WADA code puts the burden on the athlete to explain how it got there. Contador hasn’t done that definitively, and it’s hard to see how he can without bringing a bovine spirit back from the dead to testify about its food supply.

The fact that Contador wasn’t suspended floodlit one of the key weaknesses in anti-doping jurisprudence: There is no uniformity in who gets to judge the athletes in the first round of hearings. National sporting authorities have an inherent conflict of interest that legalistic bodies like the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency do not. Ask American swimmer Jessica Hardy, who showed to an arbitration panel’s satisfaction that she tested positive because of a tainted supplement, yet served a year’s suspension and missed the 2008 Olympics.

A list of 23 witnesses combined for both sides in the Contador case was leaked to the Spanish press this week. It doesn’t include Hardy, and more’s the pity. The Contador panel might have been informed by hearing her testify about a year she lost and can never get back.

Instead, the panel will hear from hematology experts, nutritionists, anti-doping analysts, police investigators, a biostatistician, a polygraph expert (for the defense, although there is no confirmation that Contador has yet submitted to a lie-detector test), a small convoy of Contador’s 2010 Tour teammates, a representative from the Spanish beef industry and the butcher who sold the steaks to one of Contador’s friends. No word yet on whether either side plans to call a baker and a candlestick maker.

It’s been widely speculated that WADA will present evidence linking Contador’s positive to a banned transfusion using evidence of plasticizers that leach from blood bags. That would be a first, and another chapter in the long and tortured scientific pursuit of a reliable means to detect autologous (from one’s own body) transfusions.

In the past few years, thanks in part to improved detection technology, a number of doping cases involving clenbuterol have been considered around the world. The decisions have been all over the map. There’s little dispute that clenbuterol contamination in livestock is a reality in China and Mexico, and the U.S. Olympic Committee has openly warned its athletes to beware of what they eat there.

But until and unless those countries are persuaded to clamp down on their agricultural establishment (and shouldn’t they do that for the sake of their general citizenry as well as elite athletes, since clenbuterol can cause some nasty side effects and is nothing to mess with?), doping cases that originate there involving resident or visiting athletes will continue to be headaches for anti-doping authorities.

In my opinion, neither that reality nor the Contador case, whatever its outcome, is an argument for rewriting the WADA code to set a threshold for clenbuterol. That kind of tweak would only result in athletes inclined to dope (and their enablers) trying to figure out how they could cheat up to wherever the new line was drawn. Tempting as it is to want to dispense with these kinds of protracted, expensive cases -- cases that dent the morale of the sport and take away from other storylines -- the rule as it stands is the right one. And in the absence of any new and compelling evidence on Contador’s side, if CAS does the right thing, he’ll be sanctioned for breaking it.