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.
CLENBUTEROL: WHAT IS IT?
[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.
PRECEDENT IN CLENBUTEROL CASES
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:
|ATHLETE||NATION||SPORT||EVENT/DATE OF POSITIVE||RESULT OF POSITIVE|
|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:
- 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.
- 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.