Other Sports
Other Sports

Contador Issues, International Competition and More Sports Thoughts

| by Sports Nickel
I wasn’t planning on having to write this piece, and I wasn’t planning on having to bring this week’s column to you late. What you’ll read deeper into this week’s edition is the direction I’d hoped to go, discussing hour tournaments like the Olympic hockey spectacle and the Davis Cup and the Ryder Cup are essential buttresses for the professional game. I’d been captivated by a book I had picked up at the library recently and will get to sharing those thoughts soon enough.  

But in a year where Spain was the top dog in everything from cycling’s showcase Tour de France to the FIFA World Cup to the tennis courts of the Grand Slams, the early announcement about the positive test of Alberto Contador had me putting down everything and getting out this tome. With another international competition, the UCI World Championships beginning in Australia, the revelation about the sport’s best all-around rider is damning.   

Yes, cycling finds itself with another doping scandal on its hands. For most sports fans in America, the seemingly-constant cycle of cyclists testing positive for one drug or another is the only evidence they require to condemn the sport as irrevocably dirty. We’re always more willing to put on the blinders for what’s nearby than what’s out further on the horizon. For Spaniards, though, this news hits closer to home and could be the beginning of the end of their reign at the top of the sport. Already we’ve seen Alejandro Valverde sidelined. Igor Anton endured a nasty crash at the Vuelta, ending the country’s streak of wins in their national tour. And the biggest head is soon to be mounted on the wall in a sport with a tradition of pulling no punches when it comes to seeking fair play.  

Cycling conducts more tests than any other sport, and thus it stands to reason that the sport would have more positive test results to reveal than any other. It is small solace for the Spaniards who stood behind Alberto through thick and thin, rejoicing in his victories and agonizing through his setbacks. They’ve also been hit with the positive by Vuelta runner-up Ezequiel Mosquera for hydroxyethyl starch, which boosts blood plasma and is often used as a masking agent for EPO. This is the dark side of nationalistic pride, of rooting for your own… when they reveal themselves to be human with all their character flaws, all that reflected greatness begins to wash away in a pool of contaminants. And doping, just like national pride, isn’t dependent on any one specific flag. So here’s the skinny on the Contador situation — info on the drug, past athletes to get popped for it and the prospects that Contador will beat the charges and race within the next two years:  

This picture may soon be as much of a hollow image as all those old photos of Floyd Landis on the Champs-Elysees...

Count Thursday, the 30th of September 2010, as a most dreadful day in the history defending Tour de France champion and five-time grand tour winner Alberto Contador. The Spaniard will be holding a press conference to discuss the revelations by the UCI that his A-sample tested positive for the drug clenbuterol while he was wearing the maillot jaune in the Tour. This particular sample, taken on the second rest day during the race’s final week, now will be held up to scrutiny against the B-sample. If the second comes up negative, Contador can take a deep sigh of relief and get on with the business of preparing for a two-tour assault next season as promised…  

… but if it comes back positive as well, he has a long legal fight ahead of him. He’s already posturing himself, discussing how “food contamination” led to the presence of this drug in his system. But is this a viable defense? Will that really work? What exactly is this drug for which the sirens are wailing? Let’s take a look at the case staring down cycling’s biggest star of the moment and predict what is likely in store for the grand-tour dynamo.  

 

CLENBUTEROL: WHAT IS IT?

It’s the first question we need to figure out… just what is this drug that appeared in Contador’s system? Clenbuterol is among the family of sympatomimetic amines that are often used as bronchodilators for asthmatic sufferers. It is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances, though, due to its abuse by athletes for the side effects it produces. An ingested drug in a similar class as ephedrine, the drug is especially prized for its ability to help stimulate the increase of lean muscle mass while burning fat. It is among the longest-lasting of this class of drugs (beta2-adrenergic agonists), absorbing 70-80% effectively with a 25- to 40-hour window of efficacy in the body. Thus, as it breaks down, the stimulating effects of the drug remain. 

Of course, this isn’t always the best thing for the cardiovascular system, and hence the reason why sports have by and large banded together to prohibit its use. Indeed most nations (including the United States and the European Union countries) have realized that there are cheap, equally-if-not-more effective substitutes which are far safer and have banned the drug’s use among humans. It is still permitted for use in equine veterinary medicine to cure breathing disorders in horses, but Homo sapiens is not supposed to take this drug except in the most dire of situations where no other bronchodilator can be found in an emergency. But despite the FDA lack of approval, it doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Controlled Substances Act. 

This is a non-steroidal compound that has steroidal properties, making it an attractive proposition for athletes looking to avoid the androgenic and anabolic properties of steroids and their designer derivatives…. READ MORE HERE 

THE VALUE OF INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION…

I found myself plowing through the book The Death of Hockey this past week, setting aside Jack Kramer’s biography for a short period and getting into an icy mood as another NHL season looms on the horizon. For most Americans, hockey is as alien a sport as anything I write about in this column usually, as distant as cycling or curling or cross-country skiing are from the Yankee pantheon of pastimes. Which is sad, since it is a sport with a rich and diverse history in this nation.  

From the Portland Rosebuds and Seattle Metropolitans of the defunct Pacific Coast Hockey Association, respectively the first American team to participate in a Stanley Cup finals and the first American team to win the Stanley Cup, the sport’s history has threaded its way through the nation’s history. The West Coast teams soon gave way to the folding of their league, the power base shifting eastward when the Boston Bruins became the first team from the United States to enter the NHL in 1924; over the next eight decades the league would expand further and further on its own Manifest Destiny to blanket the continent with hockey, stretching further and further southward until the league became the truest legitimate multinational league on the continent. (Raptors and Blue Jays do not constitute stretching across two nations, as far as I’m concerned.)  

Yet despite this undeniable growth, the league seems to have stagnated throughout its history. The authors of the book I just finished, Jeff Z. Klein and Karl-Eric Reif, do a fine job documenting how the NHL has shot itself in the foot time and time again just when it has the opportunity to grab natural momentum and seize a bigger footprint for itself in the American sports consciousness. I’d like to focus on just one of the aspects in which the NHL has fallen short…  

Think back to last February. Remember the Olympics? Hell, think back a dozen years to the first time NHL stars participated for their national teams in Nagano. Over the four Olympiads where the NHL has had a presence, we’ve seen three different champions and six different nations in the finals. The Americans and Canadians battled each other in both North American festivities, Salt Lake City 2002 and Vancouver 2010, with the Great White North snagging gold both times. The first time around in Japan, Russia was thwarted from claiming its succession as the natural progeny of the long line of Soviet juggernauts by hot-handed Dominik Hasek and the Czechs. And four years ago in Torino, it was Sweden holding off Scandinavian cousin Finland for the spoils.  

What does this reveal? If you’re a network or a sports reporter or just an average fan, you recognize implicitly that this is indicative of the fact that no other North American sports league has such a dominant diversity of top-shelf players from different nations. Major League Baseball can boast a large Latin American contingent and a smattering of Japanese talent; the NBA has its European and African stars as well as a burgeoning Chinese pipeline. But these two sports were often influenced by American trends, deferring to the predominant American position on many matters. Hockey, on the other hand, developed simultaneously on two continents and in varying styles.  

Hockey in North America came to resemble football on ice in a way, a hard-checking, sometimes-brawling sport that carried a distinct flavor of machismo which permeated rinks across the continent. In Europe, radiating in two spheres from Scandinavia and the Soviet Union, games of bandy in the wintertime and soccer in the summers helped temper their idea of the sport into one where it wasn’t the man with the puck who was most important but the one in space who was about to receive it. With the influx of talent from abroad into the NHL, starting in the 1970s and accelerating over the past four decades as expansion opened the floodgates for players to earn elite roster spots and playing time. The game ever since has been punctuated by the admixture of styles, that “diversity, not assimilation” that Joe extols in the old Molson Canadian commercial.  

International hockey, while not nearly as popular as the globe-spanning FIFA World Cup, should be celebrated by the NHL; without the influx of talent and playing styles that the overseas exodus spawned, the league would’ve crumbled by now from the weight of overzealous expansion. Yet when both the Canadians and Americans were eliminated from the Olympics in Nagano, it was viewed absurdly by the NHL as a failure. Despite the fact that it was an NHL goalie, the Czech Republic’s Dominik Hasek, stonewalling Russian NHLers like Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov, Bettman and company couldn’t see what a public-relations bonanza an actual competitive tournament with unanticipated results really could yield for their product.  

Dominik Hasek stymied the Canadians in Nagano -- apparently a cause for consternation, not Cinderella celebration, for the NHL...

Instead of praising the high level of play, the success of all NHLers in the tournament, and applauding the Cinderella story the Czechs supplied for a worldwide audience, the NHL condemned the Olympic experiment as a failure. Forget for a moment that they had every opportunity to grow their game not just on North American soil but had been handed a gift chance to take an imminently marketable product abroad and initiate a global explosion. No, between Canada’s shootout defeat at the hands of Hasek and the Americans trashing their rooms before departing Nagano, all Gary Bettman chose to see was the peripheral while ignoring the brilliance directly before him. 

They got their dream matchup in 2002, as Canada won its first gold medal in 50 years at the hands of the Americans in Salt Lake City. The Swedes, victorious in Lillehammer the last time the Olympics were contested without NHL talent in 1994, defeated Finland in 2006 for the title in a game that featured NHL players in most of the roster spots on both sides. And while the Americans reached the 2010 final this past February, they couldn’t repay the Canadians for their loss eight years earlier on home soil and lost out on becoming the fourth different nation to capture Olympic gold since the Games went fully professional. Every time fans around the world have been treated to hockey played at its highest form, players skating and shooting not for paychecks but for pride, for something no astronomical athlete’s salary could ever purchase except through the sweat and blood of their labors.  

And still the NHL doesn’t seem to understand the gift they’ve received. The league is likely going to try eliminating NHL participation from the Olympics starting with the Sochi Games in 2014, despite the near-universal desire of the players to represent their countries in the preeminent international tournament for their sport. The World Cup of Hockey, which delighted fans back in 1996 and was an impetus for the league’s entry into the Olympics, has been allowed to stagnate despite its obvious charms; it has been contested once since, in 2004, and is slated to resume after a seven-year absence in 2011. 

International competition bolsters, rather than diminishes, domestic product for all leagues involved — just ask the English Premier League or La Liga or Serie A or the Bundesliga whether FIFA World Cup participation is a good or a bad thing for their clubs, and aside from the inevitable injury or two that takes its toll on players during the tournament the worldwide spectacle is worthwhile in that it reinvigorates fan interest and introduces global audiences to names and faces they might’ve failed to recognize between World Cup cycles. The NHL has two distinct international tournaments that its participation automatically legitimizes, that can work to benefit the league just as the participant players who ply their trade in the league bolster the credibility of Olympic and international results. But as soon as the league works to delegitimize these interests, carping about not getting the result they’d anticipated and failing to have smart PR people to spin things positively no matter the scoreline, it does more damage to the league than to the tournament.  

So be careful what you say out there when it comes down to trying to act in your best interests — you might unwittingly be cutting off your nose to spite your face as you speak out. We all do it from time to time, but this is just one facet of how the NHL has done this throughout its history. From Dollar Bill Wirtz prohibiting TV at Blackhawks games in Chicago for decades to the eagerly-approved theft of long-established franchises from strong fan bases that has been at the heart of the northern exodus for the 15-20 years, the league continually gives itself black eyes and them wonders why no one finds it attractive.  

It’s a saddening reality for a hockey fan to endure, yet it’s not guys like me who find their affections blunted when missteps such as these arise. No, it is the casual fan — say, one who found the action in Vancouver at February’s Winter Olympics riveting and wanted to see the players’ talents showcased more regularly — who balks when the NHL does something stupid and turns away forever for something where stability is more certain.  

Of course, if stability were all we ever needed from life, every league would be the Globetrotters and the Generals, a preordained result night after night after night. But something as simple as knowing your favorite team, one that has been well established and regularly draws solid crowds night after night during a long (Klein and Reif assert too long) season, won’t be moved just to eke out a sweetheart deal for some cookie-cutter arena with the requisite number of luxury suites but nobody to fill them shouldn’t be too much to ask for from the league you support with your viewership.  

That’s all any fan really wants — a team for which they can cheer, a team with which they can live through the highs and lows. We want to share that common bond with others, a link through the ages that offers a collective history of place. Sometimes a franchise needs to be relocated; there are instances where a fan base simply fails to materialize and there is a genuine clamoring elsewhere for the sport in question. They also want the ability to cheer for their best athletes every once in a while in a setting devoid of monetary value and a rotating cast of characters in this era of global free agency.  

But this goes beyond hockey. There’s a reason the FIBA World Championships were such a big story this year, and why the Olympics and World Cup consistently draw such massive worldwide television viewership (and the greenbacks that come with it to sustain them). It’s the reason why baseball has tried to market its World Baseball Classic as the diamond’s answer for these other global contests. We have rooting interests all over the place, but there’s something about the flag — no matter which it might be — which brings people together in ways even the most historic of clubs and franchises never can. But so too would too much of a good thing drive malaise for it; one bolsters the other in the long run. Bettman might not know the value of what the Olympics might be to his product, but this Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America sure does…  

TOOLING AROUND THE NET…

Most of my time spent reading last week was spent on the hockey book mentioned on the previous page. I also have been spending the past few days scouring thrift stores for Halloween costume pieces, and have taken the time to peruse the book sections long enough to find the 2001 and 2003 editions of The Best American Sports Writing anthology series. It seems as though, when I thought I was going to have oodles of time, those opportunities to actually READ what I’ve got have dried up. So too has it been for poring over information on the internet — other than quick glances at things on my phone, I’ve only been able to read things the past couple days. While I haven’t had much time, what has been read has been of quality… which is never something to scoff at, what with so much chaff blowing about through the cerebral vortex. I’m going to try something a little different and let these articles speak for themselves — let me know in the comments whether you prefer the cleaner list or the links with summaries. With that in mind, here are my favorite reads of the week online: 

 

 

 

A NICKEL’S WORTH…

  • Singapore has come and gone, and the race for the Formula 1 driver’s title has turned on its head after the race last Sunday. I announced a few weeks back that the Ferrari team (and especially Fernando Alonso) were peaking at just the right time to factor among the contenders for the title. It was a wild ride in Asia, with Alonso claiming his second victory in three years on the course to slingshot into second in the standings. A crash between the two men at the top of the standings saw leader Mark Webber (Red Bull) emerge unharmed, while Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) was forced to retire from the race and subsequently dropped from second to third in the standings. We’ve got just four races left in the 2010 F1 calendar, and with 11 points separating Webber and Alonso and Hamilton just 9 points further back there is still opportunity for any of these three drivers to claim the championship…
  • Congratulations are well in order for Fabian Cancellara, who claimed his fourth world time trial championship at the UCI World Championships in Australia. The Swissman has put together one hell of a career, and he’ll be donning the rainbow jersey in time trials for yet another year. With Cancellara set to leave Saxo Bank at the end of this year to join the Schleck brothers at their new Luxembourg-based squad, a new sponsor in the sport will be feted with one of the most emblematic symbols of the sport at stage races and grand tours all throughout 2011. What a phenomenal ride by the former Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders winner, who has also found himself adorned in the maillot jaune at times during his career. We’ve been witness to one of the best racers against the clock in the sport’s history throughout his career, a privilege which we often take too lightly when discussing him amongst the greatest of his generation. A punctuating win over Great Britain’s David Millar, who finished with the silver more than a minute behind the winning time, broke a tie with Aussie Michael Rogers and gives Cancellara the all-time record with four TT rainbow jerseys…
  • UEFA Champions League action just concluded its second matchday, and we’re starting to see the contenders and pretenders in each group begin to crystallize. Group A saw dominating performances by Tottenham and Inter Milan, who each scored four goals in victories over FC Twente and Werder Bremen respectively. Olympique Lyon, despite its domestic troubles, is still a force in European competition after taking out Hapoel Tel Aviv 3-1 in Israel to lead Group B. Glasgow Rangers are the surprise leaders at the top of Group C, their draw at Old Trafford in the first matchday buttressed by a 1-0 win at home against Turkish side Bursaspor. After drawing against Rubin Kazan in Russia, Barcelona finds themselves behind FC Copenhagen (who continued Panathinaikos’ misery with a 2-0 win in Athens to give the Danes 6 points in the first two matches) in Group D. Bayern Munich won at Basel to lead Group E ahead of Cluj and Roma, looking as focused at this point in the competition as they did in reaching the final last year. Olympique Marseille is in a tailspin in Group F, dropping both its first two contests and letting Chelsea and Spartak Moscow build a six-point cushion. Real Madrid have yet to allow a goal as they head up Group G ahead of AC Milan and Ajax, looking like the strongest of the Spanish sides this year so far. And in Group H, Arsenal and Shakhtar Donetsk are the obvious class of the group at this point as they prepare to settle first from second on the next matchday. The competition resumes in three weeks, so be sure to stay tuned…
  • Serbia have revealed their choice of surface for their Davis Cup final against France in December, deciding to go with the Rucort Medium Fast hardcourt surface in the Belgrade Arena. The surface is a favorite of the Serbs, the kind of court where guys like Novak Djokovic and Nenad Zimonjic can do some real damage. This will be the first time Serbia has ever competed for the Davis Cup; their opponents have claimed the championship nine times in the 99-year history of the event. Yet simultaneously we’re already seeing qualifiers for next year’s main field of contenders before we’ve even decided this cycle. The ITF and ATP need to get on the same page to clarify the convoluted Cup calendar — the sloppy nature of scheduling these ties serves to diminish overall fan interest in places other than where the finalists might reside, and even then it is such a hard event to pin down and follow with any sort of regularity that the luster is diminishing even as it nears its second century of operation. That must be remedied if  it is to remain relevant deep into the 21st century and beyond…
  • Unlike the Davis Cup, the Ryder Cup in golf is a more insular affair — Americans versus Europeans. The action commences at Celtic Manor today, with matchups continuing through the weekend until one team emerges victorious over the other. Will the Americans be able to count on Tiger Woods to rebound from his off-track year to help end the country’s streak of futility on European soil? Will the European neophytes to the tournament be able to break through and show that they are mere Davis Cup rookies in name only?

  

 

ON THE DOCKET…

The lull continues… this is the time of the year when this Non-Traditional Sports Fan settles in to watch some quintessentially American sports. There is plenty of other action going on around the globe, though, that’s worth mentioning. The UCI Road World Championships continue through the weekend, when we’ll see which women and men will emerge with the rainbow jersey to wear in competition next year as the cyclist coronated as the best on the globe. The ATP and WTA tours continue their streak around the globe, and the Ryder Cup will unfold in all its drama over the weekend. And we’ve got plenty of soccer galore to witness, as the global appeal of the sport means that high-quality broadcasts are available all over the television as well as online. So get out there, check out something new rather than watching the flapping heads preview for the fifth time what you’re about to watch or rehash the same things they’ve been breaking down all day long…

 

NTSF 106: Storm clouds over Contador, the value of international competition and more… is a post originally from: SportsNickel.com - In Sports We Trust

 

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