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Contador’s clenbuterol positive and what it really means for Tour champ…

This picture may soon be as much of a hollow image as all those old photos of Floyd Landis on the Champs-Elysees...

Count Thursday, the 30th of September 2010, as a most dreadful day in the history defending Tour de France champion and five-time grand tour winner Alberto Contador.  The Spaniard will be holding a press conference to discuss the revelations by the UCI that his A-sample tested positive for the drug clenbuterol while he was wearing the maillot jaune in the Tour. This particular sample, taken on the second rest day during the race’s final week, now will be held up to scrutiny against the B-sample. If the second comes up negative, Contador can take a deep sigh of relief and get on with the business of preparing for a two-tour assault next season as promised…

… but if it comes back positive as well, he has a long legal fight ahead of him. He’s already posturing himself, discussing how “food contamination” led to the presence of this drug in his system. But is this a viable defense? Will that really work? What exactly is this drug for which the sirens are wailing? Let’s take a look at the case staring down cycling’s biggest star of the moment and predict what is likely in store for the grand-tour dynamo.


[pullquote]Clenbuterol is abused generally by bodybuilders and athletes for its ability to increase lean muscle mass and reduce body fat (i.e., repartitioning effects). However, clenbuterol is also associated with significant adverse cardiovascular and neurological effects.  — U.S.D.O.J. Drug Enforcement Administration[/pullquote]It’s the first question we need to figure out… just what is this drug that appeared in Contador’s system? Clenbuterol is among the family of sympatomimetic amines that are often used as bronchodilators for asthmatic sufferers. It is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances, though, due to its abuse by athletes for the side effects it produces. An ingested drug in a similar class as ephedrine, the drug is especially prized for its ability to help stimulate the increase of lean muscle mass while burning fat. It is among the longest-lasting of this class of drugs (beta2-adrenergic agonists), absorbing 70-80% effectively with a 25- to 40-hour window of efficacy in the body. Thus, as it breaks down, the stimulating effects of the drug remain.

Of course, this isn’t always the best thing for the cardiovascular system, and hence the reason why sports have by and large banded together to prohibit its use. Indeed most nations (including the United States and the European Union countries) have realized that there are cheap, equally-if-not-more effective substitutes which are far safer and have banned the drug’s use among humans. It is still permitted for use in equine veterinary medicine to cure breathing disorders in horses, but Homo sapiens is not supposed to take this drug except in the most dire of situations where no other bronchodilator can be found in an emergency. But despite the FDA lack of approval, it doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Controlled Substances Act.

This is a non-steroidal compound that has steroidal properties, making it an attractive proposition for athletes looking to avoid the androgenic and anabolic properties of steroids and their designer derivatives.


Let’s just say right now that, unless that B-sample comes up negative, there’s a high possibility we won’t see Alberto Contador racing a bicycle for the next two years. After hearing about Contador’s test results and the drug in question, I decided to dig around and see how prevalent the use of clenbuterol might really be, especially with the DEA sounding especially bothered by athletes’ seemingly widespread use of the stuff. And what did I find? After just over an hour of searching around through old WADA reviews and news clippings, these fourteen cases are the only ones for which I could confirm all the relevant information:

Djamolidine Abdoujaparov UZB Cycling 1997 Tour de France/Stage 2 (July 6) Retired
Xiong Guoming CHN Swimming out of competition test in 1999 (March 8 ) 3-year suspension
Wang Wei CHN Swimming out of competition test in 1999 (March 8 ) 3-year suspension
Mariano Puerta ARG Tennis 2003 ATP Viña del Mar (February 12) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION 9-month susp. + $5600 fine
Zhou Jie CHN Swimming out of competition test in 2005 (Sept 6) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION 2-year suspension
Karol Beck SVK Tennis 2005 Davis Cup semi v. Argentina (Sept 25) 2-year suspension
Anzhelika Gavrilova KAZ Speed skating positive test before 2006 Olympics (Jan 4) 1-year suspension
Mitchil Mann AUS Weightlifting 2 positive samples in 2006 (Oct 30, Nov 3) 2-year suspension
Ouyang Kunpeng CHN Swimming tested positive before 2008 Olympics (July 1) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION lifetime ban
Jessica Hardy USA Swimming 2008 U.S. Olympic trials (July 4) *TAINTED NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENT/ADVOCARE voluntary Olympic withdrawal/1-year suspension
Reni Maitua AUS Rugby positive test by ASADA (May 20/2009) 2-year suspension
Tong Wen CHN Judo stripped of 2009 world title (May 10/2010) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION 2-year suspension
Li Fuyu CHN Cycling In-competition test at 2010 Dwars Door Vlaanderen (March 24) 2-year suspension
Callum Priestley GBR Hurdles tested positive February 2010 (Sept 5) *ARGUED FOOD CONTAMINATION 2-year suspension

So what does this say about Contador’s chances in getting a two-year suspension overturned and his life back to normal? Two things:

  1. Unless he’s fully cooperative with the authorities poking around, and unless he has some compelling evidence in his corner, it is highly unlikely that he’s going to get less than two years. That is the normal suspension set in this situation; only the cases of Hardy (after proving which supplement was tainted) and Puerta (who was sanctioned not under WADA code but the ATP list) received less than two years.
  2. Proving food contamination is quite difficult. Only Hardy has ever succeeded in definitively pinpointing just what it is that triggered the positive test. While the drug is often administered to livestock — sometimes with detrimental effect, as Spaniards can attest after clenbuterol-tainted veal and calf’s liver caused 135 people to be hospitalized in 1990 in their nation — there is no way to determine whether a specific animal slaughtered and consumed months before was the culprit. So unless there’s a specific food item Contador suspects and can prove, this will be a useless argument

With all that said, what is likely in store for Contador? Before we hear anything spoken from his camp, it’s fair to assume that the odds aren’t looking good for the Spaniard. Unless he can prove beyond any doubt what was tainted, where he consumed it and how it came into his possession, this looks like another slam-dunk conviction for the boys at WADA as well as the UCI with its steadfast commitment to stand amongst the leaders of the pack on anti-doping matters. Nobody has ever yet been able to prove any contamination at the animal source, it will come down to the defense to present the offending article for analysis.

The likelihood of that actually occurring is slim… and even then, the case of Hardy is instructive. The swimmer, upon learning that she had tested positive for clenbuterol after qualifying for the U.S. national team headed to the Beijing Olympics, withdrew herself from the competition. She then was able to work with her defense to prove that it was her dietary supplements from a sponsor which had been the culprit.

She received a one-year suspension for all her troubles.

At the very least he’s going to feel the same fate as Alessandro Petacchi, the Italian who sat for a year a couple years back for the presence in his system of another bronchodilator, salbutamol. The sprinter had a therapeutic use exemption for chronic asthma, and salbutamol is nothing near as potent in its half-life as clenbuterol. And he, too, received a year despite his logical medical reasoning for having the drug in his system.

So we’ve likely seen the last of the Spaniard for two years, and right after signing a new deal to become the Saxo Bank leader to replace the departing Andy Schleck — the very same rider who will retroactively claim the 2010 Tour de France as his first career grand-tour victory.

Zach is a writer and editor who covers a wide array of sports both traditional and non-traditional. Formerly the managing editor of Informative Sports before joining Sports Nickel, Zach has been covering events international and domestic for various publications since 2006. Find him @zbigalke on Twitter.

Zach Bigalke has written 289 posts for SportsNickel.com

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  1. Matt Strobl Matt says:

    Punishment aside, I think this would be a major blow to cycling in general. Another domino falling…

  2. Marcos Marcos says:

    I agree with Matt, this is a huge blow, death sentence if you will.

  3. Zach Bigalke Zach Bigalke says:

    I don't think the sport of cycling would dry up altogether. For fans in the States, possibly, it would become harder (if you don't know where to look on the internet) to watch big races that U.S. networks refuse to cover… but then it's already been so hard for so long that the niche sport would still hold on to its niche audience. But if they've been able to survive everything doping-related, from Tom Simpson's death to Michel Pollentier's crude early prototype for the Whizzinator to L'Affaire Festina and, less than a decade later, Operacion Puerto

    The sport has persevered for over a century in which drug scandals have always been the topic du jour. We've been seeing reporters get down stories much like Contador's from countless other riders. Two things to note, though:

    1. The UCI has said that this looked like trace amounts of the drug (some reports have said it could be many multiples of ten below the red-flag limit).

    2. Because Contador is so young, he could easily serve a two-year suspension if it comes to that and still be in the prime of his racing career.

  4. Oso says:

    At first I was searching the net to see if it was even possible to be contaminated with "Clen" from eating steak.

    I'm glad I saw your article mid way through my search. You definitely have a concise picture of the situation at hand.

    You really have to wonder about athletes who have a readily available excuse for a failed test. It makes me wonder how long they've been preparing for just such an occasion.

  5. John M Dwyer says:

    I believe there has always been 'cheating' of various kinds in all sports (amateur and professional if there is a difference). And I'm not sure it was less prevalent in 'olden times.' Further, I do not believe it is in any way restricted to sports. I suspect that it was as common in the Greek academies as in the Olympic games of old.

    Any area of human activity which stresses performance and rewards it with prestige and money will have those who try to take advantage of the rules, other participants, and the public. It may even reflect on our concept of what is right if sufficient participants in an activity disobey the rules.

    One thing that suggests that those who 'cheat' know that they are the ones out of bounds is their attitude. Rather than protest in the open against rules they thinks are inappropriate, they do things to cover up their unruly behavior. This is as true of college students in class and business people in boardrooms as of atheletes on the field.

    That major segments of a group feel it is okay to disobey the rules as long as they don't get caught doesn't make disobeying the rules legitimate, of course. But rather than whine about all the illicit activity that is occurring, are there some suggestions about what can be done in a constructive manner to address the problem?

  6. Sherm says:

    Hey Zach-

    The amount found isn’t below any red flag limit, as you state. It is below the minumum amount that doping test methods are required to be able to find.

    Doping agencies and tests can look for as minute a trace as they like if the substance is banned, like clenbuterol is. Other substances have limits on the amounts that are allowed in the athlete’s body. Not clenbuterol. It is prohibited in any amount.

  7. Zach Bigalke Zach Bigalke says:


    Thank you for helping to clarify the situation. You are entirely correct in asserting that the number to which statements like "400x under the limit" really refers to the minimum calibration settings for the test to be valid in the eyes of WADA and the UCI. Since you bring up the topic, let's take a look at it in a little further detail, shall we?

    The red-flag limit in the case of clenbuterol, a drug which the body does not produce naturally within itself, is any amount detected in the bloodstream. There is no therapeutic-use exemption granted for this drug, either; it is a banned-for-human-use drug in Europe, where cycling is based, as well as in the United States and many other nations.

    The arguments that Contador will hope to raise are twofold:

    1. As opposed to previous cases that have involved clenbuterol and a defense centering around tainted meat sources, Contador's levels are the first to fall under that calibration minimum standard. Remember, the machines must be at least that precise; there is no rule that says they cannot be MORE precise. Nonetheless, Contador's clenbuterol levels could reasonably be argued as having originated in cattle. High enough clenbuterol concentration in livestock — technically illegal yet still prevalent within commercial feeds and even the water supply by this point — can lead to illness in those who consume the flesh.

    And this has happened before, including the aforementioned 1990 outbreak in Spain that put over a hundred people into the hospital that year. How many other people would've tested positive for clenbuterol concentrations at Contador's level in their system in that region during that ultimately minor crisis? Hell, a young Contador might've tested positive for the substance at that time.

    (The holes which can be poked, though are also myriad. His only teammate to be tested that day, Alexander Vinokourov, "conveniently" happened not to have had any of the steaks that had been smuggled over the Pyrenees that rest day. So we'll never know whether any of his teammates were also riding with clenbuterol in their systems. And there's also the possibility that it got into his system another way altogether — from him taking the drug; or taking the drug during training and then withdrawing blood before the clenbuterol had cleared his system for later transfusion on that now-fateful rest day.)

    2. With our food increasingly being manipulated in new and strange ways, it is becoming harder and harder to avoid the introduction of many chemicals we would otherwise never think to put into our bodies. Contador would by no means be the only cyclist, much less human being, to be "guilty" of finding things in their system they'd never expected to find. With the prevalence of monoculture agribusiness dependent on chemical-laden solutions to grow our crops and raise our animals for meat, we're finding more and more cases of contamination in our food supply.

    The sheer lack of any meaningful, performance-enhancement levels of clenbuterol in his system makes this a very real possibility. But even when athletes have been able to provide the supplement or food product in question, and it has unwittingly come up contaminated, suspensions have still been slapped on as a warning for better vigilance in the future.

    The ultimate lesson we should take away from the early sections of this still-unfolding saga? Whether your a cyclist, a fan or somebody who couldn't give a damn, CAVEAT EMPTOR… know your suppliers, know your source for EVERYTHING, and only go where you can trust what you're getting.

  8. Samantha Turner says:

    If clenbutarol really burns fat and promotes lean muscle mass, it sounds like something many of us non-athletes should be taking, especially with the traditional over-eating holidays not many months away! Think of it — instead of preparing for a hard race day, you are preparing for a hard eating day.

  9. Nice job, man. It's definitely my world!

  10. Education is also very useful for the entire community. As education makes people educated and literate. Educated and literate people play an important role in the betterment of the community.

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