I ate some contaminated meat. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. So says Alberto Contador, the (current, anyway) 2010 Tour de France champion who appears to have tested positive for clenbuterol on the second rest day of this year’s Tour.
Could it be that he ate some beef or veal that contained clenbuterol. Well, even though the European Union regulates beef and what goes into it, there’s always a chance that a rogue cattle rancher doped up his cows and steers with clenbuterol to make them leaner and meaner. But one version of the story is that Contador had a friend bring some veal over. Hmm. Veal. Isn’t that meat from a calf? As in, a very young animal, with maybe not much time to really fatten up? Why give the poor beast clenbuterol to trim it down if it hasn’t had much time to bulk up? That doesn’t make much sense to me.
OK, so how about a larger animal. Maybe that rogue rancher wanted his cattle to be more lean, and doped them with clenbuterol to do so. But how much would have to have been in the meat in order for our hapless Tour champ to have a sample come up with a concentration of 50 picograms/milliliter? Well, as luck would have it, the math is pretty straightforward, assuming that the concentration reported is a blood concentration, and assuming that all of the clenbuterol winds up evenly dispersed in the blood.
The average person has something like 5600 milliliters of blood volume. If the concentration of something is 50 pg/ml, and the volume is 5600 ml, we wind up with 280,000 pg (or 280 nanograms) of clenbuterol in whatever Contador consumed. Let’s say he ate a quarter kilogram of the stuff (about half a pound). If the animal that the meat came from weighed about 1000 pounds (to make the math easy), then there must have been about 560,000 nanograms (or 560 micrograms) of the stuff in the animal. One microgram is one-one millionth of a gram, just so you know. Still not a heck of a lot compared to the animal’s weight, but how much would typically be administered to a cow or steer, anyway?
Let’s try a different tack. An anonymous member of the Astana team (staff member? another rider?) recently suggested that Contador had received a small blood transfusion (150 ml of blood) on the day before the Tour’s second rest day, with blood stored sometime around the time of the Dauphine Libere race. The small amount used is part of a new technique to avoid triggering any suspicious values on the UCI’s biological passport.
The blood, this source said, was contaminated with clenbuterol, as Contador was trying to shed a couple of pounds before the Tour without losing any muscle strength. What concentration of clenbuterol would that 150 ml blood bag need to contain in order for Contador’s test results to come out the way they did? Doing a bit of math, it turns out that the concentration would need to be about 1917 pg/ml, or about 1.917 ng/ml — if the test was taken shortly after the transfusion occurred. (Due to the body’s ability to process chemicals, there will be progressively less over time. So depending on when such a transfusion was given, the original concentration could have been higher.)
This is an interesting result, given that WADA’s performance requirements for clenbuterol testing is that the lab must be able to detect a level as low as 2.0 ng/ml. Notice anything about the result above? It’s just a bit under the so-called minimum performance level that WADA requires when testing for clenbuterol. Coincidence? Perhaps. But smart dopers know enough to figure out how much of a banned substance could be used while still slipping under the radar of the anti-doping agencies. And that concentration is just below the minimum that WADA expects labs to detect. And only four WADA-approved labs are supposedly able to detect the kinds of low concentrations that the anti-doping lab in Cologne found in Contador’s sample.
Slipping just under the radar is the whole idea behind transfusing a smaller amount of blood, by the way. That way, the various markers tracked in a rider’s biological passport won’t go out of whack enough to trigger any suspicions. And while the transfusion won’t pack as big a punch as in the old days, it could still be the difference between being first on the general classification and further down. So it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think that a smart doper could figure out the amount of clenbuterol he or she could use without the narcs finding out.
But all of this discussion is predicated on the idea that the concentration reported by both Contador’s own team and by the UCI was a concentration found in a blood sample. If the result came from a urine sample, then you have the added twist of how much appears in the urine and at what time. It’s not so easy to work backwards from the reported value to figure out what the original dosage was, but there is probably a way to do so. (Extra credit to whoever figures out the rate of metabolism and the possible concentration or amount of clenbuterol in the meat or blood bag, whichever theory you prefer.)
Contador has at least one public supporter in the pro peloton who has some direct experience with clenbuterol and contaminated meat. Italian rider Alessandro Colò — who just received a one-year ban after allegedly consuming contaminated meat during the Tour of Mexico in April of this year — believes Contador’s story.
“After studying my own case, I know the possibility of eating meat contaminated with Clenbuterol is very small but it is possible because farmers always want to boost animal growth.”
“I don’t think Contador would risk taking Clenbuterol. Before I tested positive [I] didn’t know that Clenbuterol even existed. Now I know it stays in your body for two or three days and can show up in some riders and not in others. That means Contador would have been crazy to take it in June. He would have known he could have been tested at any moment in the weeks before the Tour and so I don’t think he’d be that stupid. However like me he is facing a one-year ban.”
On the other hand, at least one WADA official isn’t so sure Contador’s claims. According to an article on MSNBC.com, David Howman said:
“It’s been raised before, it’s been heard in a couple of cases and rejected,” WADA director general David Howman told reporters during a meeting at the anti-doping agency’s headquarters. “It’s not unusual.
“The issue is, can you prove it? It’s a pretty hard thing to prove that is where it (the banned substance) comes from.
“The tribunal will make a decision and I’m comfortable with that.”
Olivier Rabin, the chief science officer at WADA is hedging his bets on the issue of plasticizers and whether the leaked test results indicate a blood transfusion. According to the same article:
“There are residues. We’re sure about this at that level, that is a scientific fact,” explained Rabin. “How you connect that to doping is the question.
“Today, we cannot make a 100 percent connection between high plastic residues to ‘You are doped.’
“That is something we are working on.”
Rabin went on to say:
“When there are high plastic residues, we get some indications that this is very likely related to transfusions,” said Rabin. “But we need to do a little more work to see whether this link is 100 percent.
“Because it’s not fully validated, we can use this as an indication but don’t use it as a standard of proof.
“We cannot be 100 percent sure it was a transfusion, other explanations are possible.”
Which is not to say that the UCI might not try to pin a blood doping charge on Contador. Whether that would succeed is another question.
On yet another hand, Bonnie Ford posted a story yesterday quoting Christiane Ayotte of the Montreal anti-doping lab. Here’s some of what Ayotte had to say:
“You’ll never find a ton of [clenbuterol], because the doses are really small,” she said. “Most of the samples are below one nanogram [a billionth of a gram].” That’s many times the 50 picograms [trillionths of a gram] reported to be present in Contador’s sample, but Ayotte said her lab has frequently found levels that low.
“[Clenbuterol is] used in sports where they need to cut weight,” she said. “Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s not doping. … This is just the dopers adjusting, or misadjusting, to the testing.”
WADA regulations set no minimum threshold for the drug. Ayotte doesn’t favor setting one as she considers any trace finding to be suspect.
“We can’t link content in urine to performance, because we don’t know the time, the mode of administration or the dose,” she said. “If this case is lost because they’re concluding the amount is too small, that would be a major problem. It’s not the end of the world, but if competent arbitrators decide that, my heart would break. More dopers would go through the net.”
Well, there goes all that math from earlier. Sounds like the test in question is a urine test. Still, it was interesting to work out. And if the concentration found in the urine can be correlated to a concentration in a person’s blood (and that may be a big if), it would be pretty straight-forward to work out what the possible dosages were for different methods of administration.
Contador may be innocent, or he may be guilty. Hard to say for certain. But unfortunately he finds himself in the claws of the current system with the current rules in place. Given Colo’s suspension for a similar offense, my own guess is that Contador will have a hard time escaping a sanction. If a lesser-know rider like Alessandro Colò gets a one-year suspension for testing positive after possibly eating contaminated meat, I don’t see how Contador could get a lesser suspension, short of Colò and everyone else in the same boat being granted the same lesser punishment retroactively.
Alberto Contador may wish to consider some advice given to a previous Tour winner four years ago. Save your money. Serve the suspension and come back to racing when it’s over. I’d say it’s a fair bet that Contador won’t listen to that advice, however.
Rumor has it that an announcement about how the Contador case will proceed is due early in the coming week. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the UCI open a disciplinary case against the Spanish rider. We’ll see.