Word that Alberto Contador might face a one-year doping suspension and be stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title will be regarded by many as just another downer of a day in cycling, but that misses the point.
The more significant defrocking is of the entire anti-doping "adjudication" system, which is flunking a big test from a process standpoint.
Athletes in Olympic sports all over the world are supposed to be governed by the same impartial code. But Contador's case demonstrates that the way the system treats them is anything but universal. Outcomes still depend entirely on who you are and where your passport was issued.
The initial smoke signals indicate Contador will be given a reduced suspension for a substance, clenbuterol, that has no minimum threshold under the World Anti-Doping Agency code. In other words, Contador, whose sample contained 50 picograms (trillionths of a gram) of a banned substance, is being diagnosed as a little bit pregnant in a context where there shouldn't be any ambiguity.
To review the tick-tock:
Contador tested positive on July 21, a rest day at the Tour. Five days later, he celebrated his third Tour victory in Paris.
On Aug. 24, more than a month after the test in question, Contador said he was informed of the result by the UCI, cycling's international governing body. That information, in turn, did not become public until late September, when the UCI announced it just ahead of a German media report that Contador's sample also had shown the presence of plasticizers -- an indication a banned transfusion had taken place. (The test is not yet approved for use in anti-doping.) Contador, who hadn't raced since the Tour but had signed with a new team (Saxo Bank), was revealed to have been on double secret suspension.
By contrast, American Tour winner Floyd Landis was informed of his positive test for synthetic testosterone three days after the final lap in Paris, less than a week after the sample was taken. Landis was immediately suspended, and the story broke the next day. No matter how one views the tortured narrative that has unspooled since, one thing is clear: No one in power was trying to sweep Landis' results under the carpet.
Back to Contador, who had weeks to prepare for the announcement. When he offered the explanation that he had consumed tainted beef purchased in Spain, the Basque beef industry reacted indignantly, the Astana team chef scurried to find a receipt, and statistics about clenbuterol contamination in the food and water supply were debated.
One authority didn't swallow the steak story. Christiane Ayotte, longtime director of the WADA-accredited lab in Montreal, was blunt with reporters in an informal media briefing in mid-October.
"You'll never find a ton of [clenbuterol] because the doses are really small," Ayotte said then, calling the beef excuse implausible. "Most of the samples are below 1 nanogram [a billionth of a gram]."
She added that her lab has seen many samples with levels as low as Contador's and that she considers them prima facie evidence of doping. Her scientific experience leads her to believe that athletes use low levels of the drug because of side effects that include headaches, high blood pressure and heart palpitations.
This week, Ayotte said she would be "disappointed, based on what I've seen in this case" if Contador receives only a one-year ban rather than the default two-year ban.
"We're following this very closely because we're still reporting [clenbuterol] cases," she said of her lab, which processes about 20,000 samples a year. "We haven't finished compiling the numbers yet, but the cases are concentrated in the sports of bodybuilding, swimming, triathlon and cycling. Is there a genetic predisposition to eat more contaminated meat in those sports?"
Disciplinary proceedings were opened against Contador the first week of November after a lot of mutual finger-pointing between Spanish cycling officials, the UCI and WADA about who was waiting on whom.
If you're still gamely following along here, bear with us. In the United States, all individual sports federations that are signatories to the WADA code have delegated responsibility for pursuing doping cases to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. In some other countries, including Spain, athletes' cases are decided by their national sports federation. Thus, the initial decision on Contador's fate rests in the hands of the very body that would have most to lose by punishing a high-profile rider -- i.e., the Spanish cycling federation, known by the acronym REFC.
The pitfalls in this scenario were vividly illustrated on Nov. 9, when the REFC announced that it would begin examining evidence in Contador's case. That same day, federation president Juan Carlos Castano said he had spoken with Contador and found him "not in very good spirits."
"Personally, as president of the federation, I hope that the case is resolved in favor of the cyclist for many reasons; because I've known him since he was a boy I can't help but have empathy with Alberto Contador. I would like things to turn out well, but now it has to be the [disciplinary] committee who will study all this and resolve it in the way it considers most just."
For the record, Castano wasn't on the committee, but everyone who is on the committee ultimately reports to him.
Now comes a decision, six months after the test. That's actually pretty timely where anti-doping cases are concerned, except it isn't a decision. A "proposed" one-year sanction was "presented" to Contador and his representatives, sort of like a bid on a house. Apparently -- and we're all learning together here -- Contador will give the federation some input on his prospective punishment before the REFC makes an official ruling on Feb. 9. (A one-year suspension would mean Contador would avoid paying the 3 million euro fine that would come with a two-year ban.)
Contador can then appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport if he's unhappy with the outcome, as can WADA and the UCI. The CAS, unattached to any sport or country, should view the matter from a more neutral plateau. Contador said at a news conference Friday that he is "a victim of the system" and will appeal the proposed sanction if it holds.
The substantive problem with a one-year ban is that, under the WADA code, there's no magic line on the test tube under which clenbuterol is acceptable. There's no out clause saying you get a reduced suspension just because no one can figure out precisely how the substance got into your body.
If an athlete and a lawyer can show specific evidence, that's different. American swimmer Jessica Hardy had her clenbuterol suspension reduced from two years to one because she proved a direct connection with a tainted dietary supplement. Contador's cow has gone off to greener pastures, which might be his bad luck but shouldn't be enough to get him off the hook.
The whole point of strict liability -- right or wrong -- is that the athlete bears full responsibility for what's in his or her body. This is the rule athletes have lived by for years. As long as it's in place, exceptions to it should be infrequent and fully documented. Keep the principle or strike it, but don't use it selectively or only when it's politically convenient.
One of the foundational problems of the anti-doping infrastructure established globally a decade ago is many of the organizations doing the policing are simultaneously promoting their sports, and rare is the governing body willing to gore its own ox.
The true measure of any disciplinary system is the way it treats the rich and famous. This case has diverged from the norm in every single way possible, and there's no doubt that's because of Contador's stature and his nationality rather than the facts.
No one has been able to explain the odd gaps in the early timeline of Contador's case, which could easily lead to the conclusion that someone was trying to make it go away. No one in a position of influence has pointed out that the Spanish federation's inquiry is likely a complete farce, given the sentiment from the top.
And all the disputed agricultural statistics in the world don't explain why Contador should get a break from the mandatory two-year suspension.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.