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Update on the Valverde Case: "The Presumption of Innocence"

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D_medium The Spanish authorities today issued a press release in response to the CONI request for a two year sanction for Valverde. The Spanish Anti-doping Agency and the Consejo Superior de Deportes, a Cabinet-level ministry supervising Spanish sports, co-authored the communiqué which challenged the prerogative of the Italians to sanction Valverde. Valverde carries a Spanish license.

Declared the statement, "The RFEC [the Spanish Cycling Federation] is the only competent institution to impose sanctions in relation to doping cases." The Spanish press release also noted that the RFEC requested the relevant information to the Puerto case on 13 February, "evidence which remains in the hands of presiding Judge." While expressing "respect" for CONI, the statement made clear that the Spanish authorities would continue to grant Valverde the "presumption of innocence." For his part, Valverde yesterday declared that he was "surprised and indignant" at the CONI decision.

With this statement the Spanish authorities are saying two things. The first, a relatively narrow claim, is that the Spanish will not recognize the sanction requested by CONI. Shorter: Valverde can keep racing. The Spanish will not suspend his license.

The second, broader claim is that only the Spanish federation has the authority to sanction Spanish riders. This second claim raises a challenge to the UCI rules, which specifically state that a sanction handed down by one national federation will receive the respect of all. We have most recently seen this rule in action in the case of Stefan Schumacher. The French anti-doping agency, the AFLD, banned Schumacher for two years after he tested positive at the Tour de France. The doping violation ocurred in France, but Schumacher carried a German license. Still, the UCI upheld the Schumacher sanction, and it now applies worldwide.

The Valverde case is complicated by the absence of a positive doping control, the most obvious evidence of a doping violation. A positive control situates the offense in a particular time and place, and makes questions of jurisdiction considerably less plausible, though certainly, there were questions about whether the UCI would recognize and extend the French sanction for Schumacher. CONI asserts that because Valverde raced on Italian soil during the period covered by the evidence from the Puerto case, they have authority to act in his case. From the Italian perspective, the case is no different than the Schumacher case. Because Valverde's nationality is not relevant, they claim, the case is the same as those of Ivan Basso or Michele Scarponi, both sanctioned on the basis of Puerto evidence.

Of couse, much depends on how detailed the evidence the Italian prosecutors have assembled truly is. Can they identify specific times and places where Valverde used banned substances or methods? Or, are they simply saying, he used banned substances during this period of time and he raced in Italy? If the latter, Valverde's lawyers may find it easy to overturn the case, when it goes before TAS. At the same time, it is hard to imagine CONI tilting at windmills.

The next decision comes from the national sports tribunal in Italy. CONI only recommends, it can not decide, doping sanctions. Assuming the Italian court formalizes the sanction, the UCI receives the hot potato. Will the UCI extend the sanction beyond Italian borders? The case pits two powerful federations against one another, at the same time that the rules offer little room for manuever. If all sanctions are created equal, the UCI has little option but to extend the Italian decision worldwide.

Ultimately, the Arbritration Court in Lausanne will decide the case. Already, they are mulling the case of Ivan Stevič, banned by CONI, but holding a Serbian license. The details of the Stevič appeal are not available, so it's unclear whether he challenged CONI's jurisdiction or the details of the evidence. What is clear is that Valverde stands as a test case. If TAS upholds the CONI decision in relation to Valverde, it will affirm CONI's ability to use the Puerto evidence to sanction non-Italian riders. No doubt we can expect more cases based upon the DNA comparisons carried out by the District Attorney in Rome, who acquired the evidence from Spain. This is not only about Valverde.

In the meantime, it seems likely that the Caisse d'Épargne rider will continue racing. The language of the Spanish communiqué makes it clear that the Spanish sports authorities do not recognize the sanction recommended by the Italians. Consequently, he still has a license to race and his team can send him to the starting line. It is also unlikely that the team could fire him, even if they wished to do so. Whether Valverde starts any major international races remains to be seen. Indeed, it's not a stretch to imagine the ASO going to TAS to block his participation in their races.

The next move belongs to the UCI. Will they extend the Italian ban? Then, we go to TAS. Expect resolution sometime in the next decade.