Five hundred and sixty five days after he tested positive for a minute quantity of the banned substance clenbuterol, road cycling's top star, Alberto Contador, has finally received the maximum ban possible from the Court of Arbitration for Sport for a first doping offence – two years – and has been stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d'Italia titles.
Contador's ban is retroactive, starting on 5 August 2010, and as a result the 29-year-old Spaniard can return to racing later this season. However, he will miss this year's Tour de France, as well as the Olympics, which will indirectly favour the chances of British contender Bradley Wiggins in both events.
Arguably the most controversial and high-profile of all the doping cases to batter the sport in recent years, Contador had argued that the clenbuterol – present in his body at a level far lower than the minimum required to be reported by an anti-doping laboratory – had shown up because he had eaten contaminated beef during the 2010 Tour. Contador was cleared by his federation in February 2011, but an interminably lengthy appeal by both the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI, cycling's governing body, to CAS has finally seen him banned.
The retroactive nature of the verdict means that, following Floyd Landis's positive test in the 2006 Tour de France, the winner of cycling's flagship event has been stripped of his title because of a doping affair for the second time in five years. On a third occasion, in 2007, Contador himself claimed the first of his Grand Tour victories after the Dane Michael Rasmussen was expelled amid doping accusations. For cycling, the two-year ban was taken in some quarters as a knockout blow, while others believed it proved just how hard a line on cycling takes on doping.
The five-times Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx said: "It is catastrophic for cycling and for Contador. If he had been a football player, he would never have tested positive. Only cycling goes so far [in searching for banned drugs]. When you go down to such a low percentage, you always find something."
The former world road race champion, Thor Hushovd, said: "It took too long a time to sort out, but it shows that we are really tough on banned drugs."
As a result of the ban, Andy Schleck will inherit the 2010 Tour title, while Michele Scarponi will now be declared the winner of the Giro. Schleck has already said he always considered Contador to be innocent and that if he won this summer, he would consider it his first Tour de France victory.
What is beyond all doubt is the damage caused to a sport's image while doping appeal cases grind through the courts, not to mention the often absurd reshuffling of results if the athletes are declared guilty. It highlights what many feel is an excessive time lapse between a positive drugs test being announced, and its final resolution.
However, the exceptionally complicated nature of the Contador case, makes it difficult to see how proceedings could have been shortened.
The precedents on clenbuterol positives are radically contradictory. Wada itself had cleared 109 footballers who tested positive in Mexico for quantities of clenbuterol as minute as Contador's 50 picograms after eating contaminated meat during an Under-17s World Championships in 2011. Another case, involving a top German table tennis player, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, who had tested positive for the same drug was also thrown out on appeal.
CAS pointed out that Spain had not had a history of clenbuterol contamination in meat, and said the positive was most likely to have been caused by a contaminated food supplement.
The secretary general of CAS, Matthieu Reeb, said: "There was no reason to exonerate the athlete, so the sanction is two years."
Contador will have to decide in the next 30 days if he will appeal against the decision in the Swiss civil courts, and he will find out, in a further CAS verdict, whether he has pay the UCI a fine of $3.25m (£2m). He could return as early as the Vuelta a Espana, which starts on 18 August. His brother and agent, Fran, said yesterday: "Contador will come back to racing."