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What The Papers Say: How UK press reported Contador's drugs test and Millar's silver

We get our fingers dirty with newsprint so you don't have to in review of Fleet Street's finest...

This morning, in an ideal world, the nation’s mainstream press would have given some decent coverage to Great Britain’s cyclists heading towards what could be their most successful road word championships ever, David Millar’s time-trial silver coming 24 hours after Emma Pooley’s gold in the women's event.

Instead, with the sport reeling after yesterday’s revelation that Tour de France winner Alberto Contador had failed a drugs test, swiftly followed by the news that Vuelta runner-up Ezequiel Mosquera and Xacobeo-Galicia team mate had also tested positive, plus reports of suspicious tablets being found at Riccardò Ricco’s home, cycling once again faced being dragged through the mire.

Or did it? With the Ryder Cup and last night’s football likely to take up most of the sports pages, we took a trip down memory lane to get our hands dirty with newsprint to find out what the papers were saying about the highs and lows of yesterday’s events.

The Times

It was nice to reacquaint ourselves with The Times – we’d almost forgotten it existed since that paywall went up – which is a real shame, given that it provides by far the most space in print to all the day’s events, although we should acknowledge that the likes of the Telegraph and the Guardian backed up their reports with a lot of comment and analysis that went up yesterday.

The Thunderer’s two-page spread is built around a comprehensive piece by Jeremy Whittle which outlines the background to the day Contador was tested, the UCI’s announcement of the failed test, and the Spaniard’s defence. Sidebars focus on ‘The Tour’s Hall of Shame,’ plus ‘Clenbuterol: what it does, why they risk it.’

Whittle’s report, under the wry headline, “Campaigners are divided as Contador offers food for thought,” added comprehensive quotes from a variety of sources ranging from Andy Schleck, potential beneficiary of a Tour de France win should Contador be disqualified, to Michel Audran, co-founder of the UCI’s Biological Passport Programme, who backed Contador’s claims.

Separately, the paper carries the day’s most extensive coverage of Millar’s silver medal ride, including a picture of him in his wonderfully mismatched Garmin-Transitions aero helmet and Team GB kit, including quotes from Dave Brailsford and – rarity of rarities – some description of the racing itself.

Back to the Contador coverage, Owne Slot wrote a column piece which provides a stark analysis of where professional cycling stands right now after, as he puts it, more than a decade in which it has been “clinging on unconvincingly to shreds of credibility.” If you can get hold of a copy of today’s Times, it’s well worth a read, although it makes for a fairly depressing one – as Slot says at the end, “This is a genuine ‘say it ain’t so’ moment. Contador is saying it as fast as he can, but it may well be too late.”

The Guardian

The Guardian does cycling better than most - beard, sandals and pipe stereotypes notwithstanding - and its coverage is prominently trailed on the masthead of its sports page, which also nods to the day’s other drugs-related news, saying “Contador suspected in cycling meltdown.”

Written by William Fotheringham, the article’s tone is set by it’s opening sentence, “The cycling world closed ranks around troubled Tour de France winner Alberto Contador,” going on to quote messages of support from David Millar and Greg LeMond, the latter comparing it to “someone going positive for marijuana.”

But, as the headline “Anti-doping campaigners divided after emotional Contador disputes positive test” suggests, the fact of the matter is that with no minimum threshold for the substance, Contador could well be looking at a ban.

Alone among the newspapers, The Guardian points out the difficulties that yesterday’s barrage of bad news cause for those trying to ply their business in the sport, quoting Bbox Bouygues Telecoms boss Jean-Rene Bernaudau, currently trying to find a replacement sponsor for 2011.

“I’m boasting to sponsors about the background and the ethics of my cyclists and on the other hand, this kind of stuff keeps going on,” said the Frenchman. “I’m in despair.”

Millar’s achievement in Geelong, meanwhile, gets just 70 or so words, but at least The Guardian – unlike some other newspapers – mentions the name of the winner, Fabian Cancellara.

The Independent

Headlined “Contador blames ‘contaminated meat’ for failed Tour drugs test,’ unlike its competitors, the Independent’s piece, written by Robin Scott-Elliott, picked up on the comment made by Floyd Landis at the New Pathways in Pro Cycling conference in Geelong that doping remains “commonplace” in the sport.

The article adds that in seeking to address a problem “as old as the yellow jersey… the UCI may even feel that it has to follow this case according to the book to prove how much its house is in order.”

Like the Times, the Independent illustrates its brief report on Millar’s second place in Geelong with a picture of the rider, describing him as “the best of the rest” as Cancellara took the title.

The Daily Telegraph

Like its political opposite The Guardian, the Telegraph trails the big story on the masthead of its sports section, asserting “Contador on brink – Tour de France winner battles to save career after positive dope test.”

Under the headline “Contador pleads innocence over failed drugs test,” the article is accompanied by a sidebar outlining some of the drugs scandals that have embroiled the sport in recent years, dating back to the Festina Affair in 1998.

The piece, written by Brendan Gallagher, goes into some detail about how it is that clenbuterol can end up in the food chain, saying that “if Contador can prove a connection between the steak he ate in Pau and a particular supplier who either admits to using clenbuterol or is suspected of it, he will be in the clear.” But ominously for the Spanish rider, “that is going to be difficult,” it adds.

Meanwhile, the newspaper’s sporting Tweet of the day comes from Andy Schleck. “What a crazy day for cycling with the news about Contador. I only heard about it in the press. I hope he is innocent.

Millar’s silver in the time-trial, meanwhile, merits only 41 words, ten of those a reference to his 2004 ban.

Daily Express

Tucked away nine pages from the back, the Express devotes two columns to yesterday’s events, with Alasdair Fotheringham’s report on Contador, under the headline Drugs find all down to steak says Contador taking up most of that space.

Fotheringham’s report, bereft of sensationalism, focused on the Spaniard’s press conference and commented that Contador’s explanation “is bizarre to say the least – and possibly more credible for that very reason.”

It adds though that yesterday’s news regarding positive drugs tests for Mosquera and Garcia and the police raid on Ricco’s house would do Contador’s case “no favours.”

Millar, meanwhile, got just over 130 words at the bottom of the page for his achievement, which gets credit for mentioning his 2003 win and subsequent ban. However the comment – presumably an agency report, since it’s repeated in The Sun - that “he could be picked for the three-man Britain team hoping to see Mark Cavendish to victory” in Sunday’s road race is a bit wide of the mark, given that the selection was settled after Geraint Thomas’s withdrawal a few weeks back.

Daily Mail

Like most other papers today, the Mail gives over the bulk of the sports pages to the Ryder Cup, but Contador gets the best part of half a page. Penned by Ivan Speck, initially the article lays the boot into the sport for years of drugs scandals, saying that “Contador wore the look of the boy who cried wolf,” and specifically mentions the Astana team plus initials matching those of the cyclist in documents seized as part of Operacion Puerto.

Intriguingly, it also mentions a message posted by former team mate and rival Lance Armstrong that the American posted to his Twitter feed on 24 August, the same day Contador was informed of his positive test, that read, “And now it all makes sense...”

Overall, however, the article, headlined “Contador: I’m not a drug cheat,” is reasonably sympathetic to the Spaniard given the specific details known so far about the case, pointing out that none of the other samples taken from him during the race showed traces of anything untoward.

Still, with the Mail waving the flag for the Ryder Cup, you’d expect it to do the same for our cyclists out in Australia, wouldn’t you? Well, not quite. After introducing Millar as “a drugs cheat in the past, who now speaks out vehemently against doping,” the paper mentions simply that he “yesterday won time-trial silver at the road world championships in Melbourne,” before quoting him on the Contador issue.

The Sun

Under the monosyllabic but rhyming heading, “Drugs ‘cheat’ blames meat,” with the article, in true Soaraway Sun style repeating the final word in capitals in it’s opening sentence, “Alberto Contador blamed contaminated MEAT for his positive doping test.”

While not quite up to speed with the nuances of cycling’s politics – Contador “has been provisionally banned by Tour bosses,” which is bound to upset both ASO and the UCI – Simon Shaw’s piece focuses on Contador’s defence of what he maintains was “a true mistake.”

Daily Mirror

The Mirror gets no prizes for its coverage, by a long way the worst of any of the dailies. Hidden away in its Sports Wire column – “Bringing you updated reports and results from around the world” – the newspaper fails to live up to that promise, with not so much as a mention of Millar’s medal-winning performance Down Under.

Oh, wait a minute – there it is under last night’s football results, “2 D Millar (Gbr) 01:02” the only clue to the Scot’s achievement.

As for Contador, that news merits just 60 words, allowing the barest of facts to be stated and the Spaniard’s “true mistake” comment.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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Simon E | 5251 posts | 12 years ago

The Festina affair was 1998, not 2008 as stated here.

It is interesting to see how poorly most newspaper writers' grasp is of the Contador story. Is the cycling world really closing ranks? What I've read online suggests otherwise.

For the Torygraph, normally pretty good on most sports, to give Millar's brilliant performance a mere 31 words is shocking. I thought they would do better than that.

Conversely, I wouldn't expect anything remotely like factual reporting in the red-tops. The only thing they're good for is to stuff in the toe of your cycling shoes after a wet commute (which I've done twice this week with a colleague's Sun).

Does anybody have an idea how much coverage was given to Emma Pooley's victory the previous day in the newspapers?

Simon_MacMichael replied to Simon E | 2733 posts | 12 years ago
Simon E wrote:

The Festina affair was 1998, not 2008 as stated here.

Of course it was, corrected (as a footnote, my first live TDF stage was the day the peloton staged the sit-down protest in the Pyrenees. Race came through 2 hrs late by which time most of the village was toasted and the patron of the local bar had a big smile on his face).

In most cases I think the stories were filed mid-afternoon at the latest, before the ball really got rolling on the blood doping theory, the "close ranks" reference reflects obviously what people like Millar and LeMond were saying, I'm sure elsewhere they could have found less sympathetic opinions.

The coverage of Millar, yes in most cases is disappointing, I suppose there is an editorial decision taken to focus on the Contador story, but even so...

Interestingly, Google News UK search this evening on "Alberto Contador" returned that miniscule story in the Mirror as one of the top five answers.

Emma Pooley got around 500 word(+ small pic) in yesterday's Guardian, there were also further 150 words at end mainly about Alex Dowsett, not sure about any of the other papers.

Simon_MacMichael | 2733 posts | 12 years ago

Ah, thanks kittyfondue, to paraphrase Lance, now it all makes sense...  3

kittyfondue | 56 posts | 12 years ago

The Daily Mail's comment about Lance's comment about Contador is wrong - that tweet was when he found out about Floyd Landis filing the Whistleblower case, which could mean he receives a third of the money the government would get in damages.

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