While fans and media celebrated Alberto Contador’s apparent victory in his ongoing doping scandal, reactions were strikingly more negative north of the Pyrénées.
Some 76.7 percent of fans in an online poll at Marca.com agreed that Contador was innocent, but many beyond Spain saw the ruling as a step backward in the fight against doping in cycling.
The decision to clear Contador “is very surprising,” Brian Cookson, a British member of the UCI’s management committee, said in a phone interview to Bloomberg. “If any amount of clenbuterol is present, that’s an offense. I’m puzzled to understand the Spanish federation’s interpretation of the situation.”
Headlines across Europe echoed similar concerns. The French sports daily L’Equipe called “caso Contador” an “affair of the state” while La Gazzetta dello Sport chastised Spain for “always looking at some foreign plot against the golden era of Spanish sport. Spain, which cannot get rid of Eufemiano Fuentes, has protected at all costs a guilty Alejandro Valverde, and now it embraces Alberto Contador. But the legal road is not over yet.”
Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the United State Anti-Doping Agency, speaking to The New York Times, expressed similar concerns.
“It’s a very, very unique set of facts that would justify someone being completely cleared, so unique that we haven’t seen it at all, at least here in the United States,” Tygart told the newspaper. “If there’s truly been a flip-flop, as reported, it appears to be a classic example of the fox protecting the henhouse. It would look like they are protecting a national hero.”
There’s speculation that there was tremendous pressure on the four-member disciplinary panel from Spanish politicians and other high-level government officials to clear Contador.
There was a growing chorus of public support for Contador in the days following the board’s original call for a one-year ban. Officials from Spain’s Olympic committee and leading national courts all publicly expressed support for Contador’s innocence, a wave that culminated when Spanish prime minster José Luís Zapatero chimed in with a Twitter message last week that there was “no legal reason to ban Contador.”
Fernando Uruburu, a member of the “comité de competición,” shot down suggestions that political pressure prompted them to reverse their original proposal of a one-year ban.
“We regret that there have been doubts about our independence and objectivity,” Uruburu said. “We have not favored the rider. The final decision came after deep and independent judicial reflection. It’s a mistake to attribute the influence of the media or of politics in the final decision.”
Contador defended the Spanish cycling federation’s decision to clear him against insinuations that it was an inside deal to protect a national hero. In an interview on Spanish television broadcast Tuesday evening, Contador insisted that “justice was served.”
“No one should think that this is a patriotic decision,” Contador said. “The ruling was a question of justice.”
Others weren’t convinced and the decision will not do much to help rattle the notion that Spain goes easy on athletes caught up in doping scandals.
The Spanish cycling federation never issued any bans against Spanish riders related to the Operación Puerto doping scandal from 2006, whereas the Italian and German federations did, slapping bans on such riders as Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi and Jorg Jaksche.
Despite a tougher, anti-doping law that brings Spain closer to laws in France, Italy and Belgium, there still has not been a civil court doping case against athletes. In December, police unraveled another large-scale doping ring, this time among top-level track and field athletes that once again featured the notorious Dr. Fuentes from Puerto fame.
Many wondered if Spanish politicians and sport officials are too close to the sport figures to provide an objective voice in the fight against doping.
“When you have politicians and the entire governments protect athletes the way they do,” said French sport director Cyrille Guimard on French radio, “I don’t think that’s a very effective way to fight against doping.”