The United States' anti-doping chief described the Spanish cycling federation's decision to clear Alberto Contador of doping as a "flip-flop," saying the backtracking on a proposed one-year ban could send out the wrong messages to both athletes and fans.
Spain's disciplinary committee accepted Contador's defence that a positive test for banned substance clenbuterol while winning last year's Tour de France was caused by unintentionally eating contaminated beef.
But Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said authorities must not be afraid of "bringing down our heroes" if they have cheated, and wants Spain's Contador dossier fully reviewed by international bodies.
The International Cycling Union must decide by March 24 whether to appeal against the Spanish federation's decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. The World Anti-Doping Agency has three more weeks than the UCI to decide whether to appeal to CAS.
"If there are questions about whether the outcome is fair and just based on the rules and particular facts they should appeal that to the supreme court of sport," Tygart, who hasn't seen the Contador dossier, told The Associated Press on Friday. "WADA plays the great equalizer to ensure justice is even and in line with the facts and the rules around the world."
The Spanish federation overturned Contador's ban after Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero declared there was "no legal reason" to sanction Contador, who was also backed by the country's sports minister.
"Clearly what has been reported was a flip-flop — there was a one-year agreement [ban] and then there were statements from the prime minister ... and then there is a zero sanction," Tygart said when attending an anti-doping conference in London this week. "I don't know what the right outcome is, I haven't seen the evidence, but from a perception standpoint, something is not right there.
"Something should be looked into, and it looks [like] it is right at the heart of the lack of independence when you have a national federation ... which might not have the expertise, which might not have the funding, which has to go after and prosecute a national hero who just won the biggest cycling event in the world. That is not an easy thing to do for anyone."
Contador registered a minute trace of clenbuterol, which is listed as a zero-tolerance drug by WADA, from a test taken on a rest day at last year's Tour.
"There is a whole level and layer of facts the investigators need to tease out and see if it is a defendable and provable point," Tygart said. "But that is why that process is critically important. ... Regardless of the outcome, there is a process in place now at this level that should give all of us comfort that WADA — the independent agency — is ultimately overseeing the decision."
He added: "If they don't review the case you will be hearing from me again."
Asked if the Contador case harms the integrity of anti-doping bodies, Tygart responded: "Certainly people aren't stupid and people ask the questions and see what the perception is.
"Importantly, the perception of athletes in this environment is critically important and athletes have to have the perception that the rules are being applied fairly and have they have to believe that is happening."
USADA banned Floyd Landis for two years when doping tests revealed abnormally elevated testosterone levels. The American was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title.
"It's a tough world we live in bringing down our heroes," Tygart said. "But if our heroes need to be brought down because they cheated then that's what all athletes expect us to need to do and we need to have a strong resolve to do that sometimes."