The problem with ‘I didn’t know I took it…’

The Vuelta is well and truly underway and Contador is looking good for a podium finish. Now that his suspension period of six months for a two year ban has been served he is free to return to the ranks of professional cycling and resume his career pretty much where it left off. There is, however, a problem with Contador’s return to professional cycling and that is the ‘I didn’t know I took it’ defence. In the wake of this week’s shock decision by Lance Armstrong to not contest doping charges it has become quite obvious (well, to me at least) that what sports fans and especially cycling fans want from their fallen heroes is often something as basic as an apology. An admission of guilt or wrong doing and then we can all begin the healing process. I say ‘we’, because I think that there is a sense in professional sport, that we (athletes and fans) are all in this together. Athletes want our support and we freely give it. We adore our heroes and we are devastated when we discover, that like us, they too are human.

Contador’s lack of an apology or any wrong doing is obviously much more complex than what I have outlined here. An admission of having knowingly taken a banned substance would have incurred a far greater punishment than the one he received and there is of course the constant cloud of doping smoke that follows and clings to the Spaniard. Do Spanish cycling authorities have further evidence of wrong doing? There are those in the media who are adamant that they do. Was Contador’s average performance in last year’s Tour de France a deliberate ploy to deflect attention in the wake of his impending suspension? Who knows? Millions of words have been dedicated to all sorts of conspiracy theories and doping in cycling seems to have its own myriad of conspiracy stories. I’m sure we’re all on top of the many theories floating around about Lance Armstrong, whether you love him or hate him.

This all leads us back to the question of how do we welcome or accept Contador back into cycling? Surely, only those who believe in Contador’s innocence can be glad to see him riding again? And, this is the problem with his pleas of ignorance as to how the clenbuterol got into his system.  There is no way for Alberto Contador to apologise for his doping because he remains adamant that he did not knowingly cheat. Cycling fans are polarised between those who believe him and those who believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire (and let’s face it, there has been a lot of smoke surrounding him). This is why it is so difficult to be enthused by Contador’s return when so many doubts still remain.

On the other hand, a rider like Britain’s David Millar has turned his doping ban into a positive not just for his personal ambitions in the sport, but for the sport itself. He has apologised and atoned for his cheating and through this he has emerged as a man of integrity and a man who can demonstrate to cycling fans that his current successes are genuinely through hard work and the determination to be the best rider he can be. Can this be said of Contador? Well, no, because there is no apology and there never can be. Contador will always have a question mark over his head, in some ways like this year’s Olympic Road Race champion, Vinokourov. He too has never apologised for cheating and although I am not questioning his win in the Olympics or his performance in this year’s Tour (I thought he rode some great stages), his commitment to clean cycling is questionable.

This then raises the case of Frank Schleck. As a fan of the Schleck brothers, I felt what many of Contador’s fans must have felt when it emerged that Contador had a banned substance coursing through his body. Frank Schleck has also brought out the ‘I didn’t know I took it defence’ and this seems to me quite a cop out. Will Schleck, like Contador, use ignorance as a tool for minimising his punishment when he probably is doping? And like Contador, there has been a doping cloud hovering just behind the elder Schleck. Does this cloud extend too, to Andy?  Let’s hope not.

So, where does this leave cycling? Are we as cycling fans left to despair that the sport will never be clean? Is it good enough to wheel out the old chestnut for some European nations cheating in sport especially cycling isn’t such a big deal? There is no doubt that culturally, countries like Australia and Britain fundamentally deplore cheating in sport but is this true of all countries or is this a cultural myth? How can cycling ever hope to become clean, especially when riders plead ignorance to banned substances in their bodies? What cycling needs is for dopers to apologise, atone for their actions and then engage in positive steps to acknowledge their errors and genuinely work toward a clean sport.

Published on 27/8/12


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