- Associated Press - Friday, November 12, 2010

PARIS (AP) - There’s been chatter in sports of late about supposedly tainted champions, especially two from Spain: Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso and Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. Frankly, some of it is nonsensical.

Let’s start with Alonso. He is in pole position to win what would be his third Formula One world championship this weekend, on the magnificent Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi. Speed, oil wealth and desert heat. An exotic cocktail.

The honest truth is that Alonso is as deserving as any of the four drivers still in with a shot at the world title. Brave at the wheel, as determined as a kid eyeing candy, Alonso has salvaged, what for a while, looked like being another forgettable year for F1’s oldest and best-loved team.

But in the paddock, where glamour and back-stabbing often mix, some whisper that the crown would be tarnished if Alonso secures it by a narrow margin. The reason: Earlier this year, when Ferrari’s season seemed to be heading down the tubes, the Italian outfit decided that Alonso was the likeliest of its two drivers to turn things around.

On the track, that meant sort-of, kind-of ordering Alonso’s pliant teammate Felipe Massa to move over and let the Spaniard overtake him at the German Grand Prix. The sacrificing of Massa handed the race win to Alonso, earning him seven extra points that, given how tight the championship is heading into this Sunday’s grand finale, now look mighty valuable.

Smart call, Ferrari. Well, yes … and no. In one of the stupidest rules in sports, F1 prohibits teams from handing out such orders. Something to do with fair play and forcing drivers to race each other, which all sounds admirable in theory but is unenforceable in practice. In an acknowledgment of that reality, Ferrari’s punishment was a $100,000 fine _ more of a wrist-slap than a real spanking in an absurdly expensive sport where teams are said to have splurged $1,200 on a single wheel nut.

Crucially, Alonso was allowed to keep his points. Quite right, too. With two cars on each team, carrying on a pretense that F1 isn’t a team sport, that team bosses won’t at times favor one driver over another, is silly. It forces teams to be underhand, as Ferrari was with its nod-nod, wink-wink prodding of Massa over his car radio on lap 49 in Germany that “Fernando is faster than you. Confirm you understood the message?” Oh yes, loud and clear.

Choosing between continued subterfuge and honestly accepting that teams are going to put their own interests first shouldn’t be hard, even for a sport like F1 where morality and doing the right thing have at times been cast aside with the speed of Alonso’s bright-red racing car. The sooner F1 does away with the ban on team orders, the better.

Contador’s case is thornier, far less black-and-white. The fact that minute traces of the banned performance enhancer clenbuterol were detected in his Tour de France urine samples looks awful, not just for him but for cycling’s laudable, dogged and pioneering efforts to curb the widespread doping that turned the sport into a joke prior to and during the Lance Armstrong years.

Contador’s claim that a steak he dined on must have triggered his failed test sounds like a dog-ate-my-homework excuse.

But it is important to remember that Contador is innocent until proven guilty. His Tour victory isn’t tainted … yet. For everyone’s sake, for the credibility of cycling and its administrators, for that of the anti-doping system, and even for Contador himself, the disciplinary process must be allowed to run its admittedly plodding course. And it must be seen to be fair and impartial.

Cycling authorities and the World Anti-Doping Agency have spent three months preparing a massive dossier of evidence and scientific research that will now be weighed in Contador’s hearing. It is at least 600 pages, says Douwe de Boer, a Dutch anti-doping expert who is studying it for Contador and advising him.

“They have done a lot of work in a lot of directions,” de Boer says, being coy with the details.

The head of Spain’s cycling federation wasn’t clever to declare this week that he hopes the rider will be cleared. However much Juan Carlos Castano insisted that “the rules will be applied and we’ll try to be fair,” his comments smacked of favoritism. And that is most unwelcome in a case that’s important not only for Contador and cycling but also for other athletes who also claim that contaminated food triggered their own positive tests for clenbuterol.

So more good sense, please, not nonsensical chatter.

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