The latest doping scandal (or not, depending on whose story you believe) is hitting cycling with a huge impact given the relatively minuscule amount that 50 nanograms of anything is. In case you haven’t already heard, Alberto Contador apparently tested positive for clenbuterol on the second rest day at this year’s Tour. Contador’s claim is that he must have ingested food contaminated with the drug. More about that in a bit.
First, let’s get down to the news reports. How much clenbuterol, a banned anti-asthma drug (among other things), was detected? Various sources are saying that the amount found in Contador’s system is 400 times less than WADA’s minimum performance requirement for labs. In other words, the concentration of clenbuterol found is one-four hundredth as much as the lowest concentration WADA expects labs to find. That’s a whole lot less, to say the least.
VeloNation.com posted a copy of a report about the lab’s finding, written by Dr. Douwe de Boer. Dr. de Boer was asked by Contador’s legal team to give an opinion on Contador’s Adverse Analytical finding. His report contains a number of interesting pieces of information. Let’s start with the minimum concentration of clenbuterol that WADA-accredited labs are supposed to be able to detect. On this page of his report, Dr. de Boer quotes a WADA technical document that says the minimum concentration is 2 ng (nanograms)/ml (milliliter). From Dr. de Boer’s report, as well as news reports, the concentration found in Contador’s system was (edit: estimated to be) 50 picograms/ml. How much less is a picogram from a nanogram? A picogram is 1/1000-th of a nanogram. So doing a little math, it turns out that the concentration was only 40 times less, rather than the reported 400 times less.
Still, that’s quite a bit less than the minimum concentration the labs are expected to find. What other interesting things does Dr. de Boer’s report have to tell us? In his Twitter feed, Bill Strickland notes that Contador’s “research packet” cited a number of cases of accidental ingestion of clenbuterol from food sources. Not sure if this is from Contador’s press conference, but it sounds like it could be. Where does the information come from?
On this page of Dr. de Boer’s report, you can find more detail, including footnotes to the sources he cites. So it is possible to ingest clenbuterol accidentally through food, and as Dr. Don Catlin knows, through dietary supplements. As Cyclingnews.com reports:
Catlin said that clenbuterol is one of the more common contaminats found in supplements.
In 2008, Catlin’s lab worked on the case of swimmer Jessica Hardy, who sat out of competition for two years after testing positive for clenbuterol, and found the drug in supplements that she was taking. Hardy used the information to sue the manufacturer.
On the next page of Dr. de Boer’s report, he discusses accidental use, along with the concentration of clenbuterol found in such cases. There, he states that an individual may have no symptoms of ingestion when concentrations of clenbuterol are 9 ng/ml or less. Contador’s was much less. His discussion continues on for a couple of pages before he makes a suggestion on what concentrations should be considered “fair and reasonable” and reported as an Adverse Analytical Finding, noting along the way that for clenbuterol, any presence could trigger such a finding. He concludes that perhaps a concentration of 0.2 ng/ml should be a reportable concentration, but nothing lower. This would be a concentration four times greater than detected in Contador’s case.
Subsequently, he lays out the case that Contador consumed something on July 20th, the day before he tested positive, and that it showed up on the 21st and 22nd in very small amounts. After the 22nd, no tests detected any presence of the substance.
Still, the question is, should Contador be sanctioned? WADA maintains no specific cut-off for reporting an adverse finding for clenbuterol, and as Bonnie D. Ford reports on ESPN.com:
WADA director general David Howman told The Associated Press that testing positive for even the most minute amounts of clenbuterol could be enough to sanction an athlete, although he declined to discuss the specifics of Contador’s case.
“The issue is the lab has detected this. They have the responsibility for pursuing. There is no such thing as a limit where you don’t have to prosecute cases. This is not a substance that has a threshold,” said Howman, reached by telephone as he was changing planes in Dubai on his way to the Commonwealth Games in India.
“Once the lab records an adverse finding, it’s an adverse finding and it has to be followed up.”
Howman went on to tell the AP one other thing that doesn’t get a mention in Ford’s article:
“Clenbuterol is a substance that has been used for over 20 to 30 years,” he added. “It is not anything new. Nobody has ever suggested it is something you can take inadvertently.”
At least according to Dr. de Boer’s report, that’s not strictly true. Nor was it in the Jessica Hardy case that Don Catlin was involved in. Ford’s article, however, goes on to offer this from Dr. de Boer:
“My conclusion is that it is very likely that this extra-low concentration [of clenbuterol] entered his body without him knowing it and one of the scenarios is contaminated meat,” de Boer said in a telephone interview. He said the UCI’s “lack of speed” in deciding whether to sanction Contador suggests that the cycling body is “seriously” considering the argument that contaminated food was to blame.
Clenbuterol has figured into at least two recent doping cases.
American swimmer Jessica Hardy voluntarily withdrew from the 2008 Olympic team after testing positive for the substance. An arbitration panel later agreed with her contention that she had ingested the substance inadvertently, perhaps in a tainted nutritional supplement, and cut her suspension from two years to one.
There’s that Jessica Hardy story again. And Ford gets an interesting quote from a cyclist once banned for doping and who is now a staunch anti-doping advocate:
Fellow cyclist David Millar, competing at the road cycling world championships in Australia, said Contador deserves the benefit of the doubt until all the facts are known.
“At the moment it doesn’t make much sense in that it was a rest day control and it’s a micro-dose … Alberto gets controlled every day when he’s in the yellow jersey and that would have come up the day before or after the race,” Millar said. “I 100 percent give Alberto fully the benefit of the doubt.”
One reader passed along this link, which discusses the use of clenbuterol in doping. Though I wouldn’t normally post a link to a how-to article, the author makes this point:
So Let’s re-examine that first point I made: Clen vs. clen+excercise produce roughly the same results for the first 2 weeks! This tells me that the 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off schedule for clen dosing is far from optimal, and if you want the quasi-anabolic effect from the clen, it’ll take more than 2weeks on (6 weeks apparently).
Interesting, eh? So if Contador really did ingest contaminated meat, he wouldn’t have gotten any doping benefit from the drug’s presence. And, if he took the drug on purpose, it probably wouldn’t have done anything for him — at least according to the source above.
But be that as it may, the rule is strict liability. And in a case like clenbuterol, if even a little bit is in you, you’re as good as guilty, no matter how it got there. The case of Jessica Hardy might well provide an indication of what’s in store for Contador. An arbitration panel agreed that she had inadvertently taken the drug, and they reduced her suspension to a year. She was still suspended, even though she didn’t intentionally take the drug.
Given how the federation has reported it in their press release, and given Contador’s public statements, it appears that some groundwork is being laid to avoid suspending the rider. We’ll have to see how it all plays out, but it sure leaves Contador’s fate up in the air, as well as the team he would be going to. Again, as Bonnie Ford points out:
After this year’s Tour, Contador announced that he had signed with the Danish Saxo Bank team owned by Bjarne Riis. Riis, the 1996 Tour winner who confessed to doping more than a decade later, is one of the most successful businessmen and tacticians in the sport. However, Saxo Bank began to fragment this summer when most of its stars, including brothers Frank and Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, announced they were defecting to join a new Luxembourg-based team.
Andy Schleck finished second in the Tour and would be declared the winner if Contador was disqualified for a doping offense. That turn of events would also throw Riis’ 2011 plans into disarray.
Looking back four years, to when the Landis scandal was blowing up, the contrast in how quickly the story broke is striking. This time there was no press conference by Pat McQuaid talking about a “worst case scenario.” Rumors weren’t spreading publicly. Data from the test results wasn’t being leaked. Did the anti-doping system learn something from that go-round, perhaps? Certainly makes me wonder.
Will Contador lose his Tour crown? Will Andy Schleck be the second runner-up to gain the victory in the last five years due to a doping case? Or, will all of this be quietly swept under the rug, and Contador will get the equivalent of a slap on the wrist? Time will tell. And we’re certainly living in interesting times.
One last comment, what advice would Floyd Landis offer to Contador right now? I’m not sure, but FakeFloydLandis had this to say about what he would tell Contador:
First, tell the truth, whatever it is, as completely as you know it.
Good advice, that. What a difference four years makes.